A QUICK TRAVEL GUIDE TO YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK IN CALIFORNIA, USA
Covering an astonishing 761,000 acres, Yosemite National Park is a wilderness playground for lovers of adventure and nature. Attracting 3.5 million visitors a year, Yosemite is the second oldest national park in the U.S, and is open all year round for adventurers to hit the trails and discover waterfalls, mountains, meadows, creeks, wildlife, and bears. Uh huh! And lucky for me I recently I found myself living the dream, spending two days blissfully exploring Yosemite; a destination that has long been on my bucket list. So if you’re thinking about getting all Cheryl Strayed, below is my quick travel guide to Yosemite National Park to get you well and truly inspired to book your trip.
HOW TO GET THERE In a nutshell, the only way to get to Yosemite is by car. If you’ve got mates based in LA or San Francisco with a car, organise a trip with them, or borrow their car. There is also the option to hire a car, of course. However if you’re time poor like me, consider getting someone to help you get there stress free, like I did with Viator.
Going to Yosemite with a tour group has many benefits – I didn’t have to worry about driving from San Francisco, or stress about driving on the other side of the road. I had a knowledgeable, seasoned (and very fun) guide who knew everything there was to know about the park. Ask any question, and he knew the answer. On the first day we went to all the best viewing spots including the Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoia’s, Taft Point, Glacier Point, Tunnel View and Yosemite Valley. On the second day, we went on a long and steep guided hike up to Vernal Falls and back down the John Muir Trail.
WHAT TO DO Because I went on a tour with Viator, I am mostly going to talk to about what I did on the tour. In saying that though, I’m also going to make some other suggestions if you have more time.
Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoia’s Visiting the giant sequoia’s at Mariposa Grove in Yosemite is one of the highlights of visiting the national park and has always been everyone’s first point of call when arriving at Yosemite. However, humans have had a huge impacted on the grove so on the 6th June this year, the Mariposa Grove was closed for a major restoration project. It’s expected to be closed until spring 2017. This obviously left many people devastated; however our guide took us to another lesser know, but equally beautiful spot to enjoy giant sequoia’s – the Nelder Grove in the Sierra National Forest. But shhh, don’t go telling too many people.
Taft Point To get a panoramic view of the park, head to Taft Point west of Glacier Point. It offers spectacular views of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls and El Capitan. My best tip? Get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds. There is ample parking at the entrance to the trail and you’ll be hiking for about 30 minutes or so before you reach the panoramic, knee wobbling views at Taft Point. Make sure you spend at least an hour exploring the cliff tops, you’ll need it.
Tunnel Place Arguably the best (and easiest to get to) spot to watch sunset in Yosemite Valley is from Tunnel View. Get there at least an hour before sunset to enjoy the show; it will be the best sunset you see in your entire life – hopefully it won’t rain though!
Glacier Point This viewpoint in Yosemite is a well-oiled machine geared to the visitor. I’ve heard nightmare stories of people having to wait up to two hours to get into the car park at Glacier Point during peak season, but if you’re with a tour group you won’t have to wait! When you first arrive, spend time exploring the front section where you’ll be awarded with panoramic views of Half Dome and if you see a group of enthusiasts tinkering with astro gear, say hello! From here follow the crowds around to Glacier Point and watch the (crazy) daredevils climb over the railing and sit on the rock edge for a one-in-a-million photos.
Yosemite Valley This the main town of Yosemite where there are limited places to stay, restaurants, information centres, meadows and the entrance to many of the major hiking trails. Accommodation bookings open six months ahead of time and always book out quickly, so if you plan on visiting the park you really, really want to stay in the park. So book your accommodation first before you book your flights to avoid disappointment.
Mist Trail This trail is one of the most popular short hikes in Yosemite – so in peak season, get ready for crowds. There are also plenty of spots to go swimming, but the park authorities ask you not do due to the unwavering current which has swept many people to their deaths each year. So read the signs and follow the instruction - they're there for a reason! You can avoid the crowds by hiking up to Vernal Falls, then over and above the falls up to where it meets the path to hike even higher to Nevada Falls, and back down the John Muir trail.
Vernal Falls Trail To get to Vernal Falls, you need to hike along the Mist Trail. A lot of visitors stop at the base of the falls and are quite happy to end their hike. However I highly recommend taking the steep (very steep) ascent up to the top of the falls. But don’t stop there. Walk around and up the mountain even further where you’ll be able to see views of Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls way down below. The views are in one word, epic.
Nevada Falls Trail The Nevada Falls trail is accessible from Mist/Vernal Falls. It’s shut in winter due to ice and snow, so this is a top hiking trail during the warmer months. Although it is challenging, and I found the higher the trails get, the thinner the crowds become – perfect.
John Muir Trail Whether you end up hiking above Vernal Falls or are coming back down from Nevada Falls, my biggest recommendation is to hike back down the historic John Muir trail. It is steep, and there are many switchbacks so if you have weak knees it may be best to go back down the Mist Trail. The choice is yours! Just remember to enjoy the epic views back down to Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Waterfall Trail I didn’t have time to do this hike and I’ve been told it’s one of the toughest trails in Yosemite. So if you do get to spend more than two days in the park, make sure you put this trail high up on your list. And remember to email me photos when you get to the top!
Yosemite Valley Meadows If you're like me and you've never seen a meadow in real life #IRL, then you will be amazed at the beauty of the many, many meadows in the park. In fact, nowhere else in in Yosemite will you find a greater diversity of plants and animals, and some of the more popular meadows in the Valley are Cook's Meadow, Sentinel Meadow, Stonemason Meadow and Leidig Meadow.
Star Gazing It killllllls me that I wasn't able to do some star gazing and astrophotography when I was in Yosemite. As I was staying outside of the park, it wasn't safe or as beautiful to star gaze. So if you do have the luxury of your own car, or you are staying in the park, make sure you do a spot of star gazing. All you need to do is pick a spot, lay down a few blankets and watch the show unfold.
El Capitan Meaning 'The Captain' in Spanish, El Capitan is the tallest and biggest granite rock on earth, and it's a struggle to take a photo of it unless you have a wide lens - yes it's that big! The best way to experience El Capitan is to grab a blanket and a pair of binoculars, and try to spot the daredevil rock climbers from the meadows in Yosemite Valley. Even better, get down to the meadow at sunset and when the sun finally fades you'll hopefully notice one or a few flashes of light on the rock. These are from the rock climbers settling into spend the evening in the crevices on El Capitan. Crazy cool!
WHERE TO STAY It goes without saying that the best place to stay is in Yosemite National Park. As I said earlier, accommodation is competitive. The two most poular spots are the Yosemite Lodge (mid range prices) and The Ahwahnee (high range prices) open six months ahead of time, so you need to get organised. If you book your tour early with Viator, you will be able to stay at Yosemite. My trip was booked fairly last minute but I was able to stay at Cedar Lodge, which is just outside the park and located 45 minutes by car from Yosemite Valley. It’s not fancy, but it’s accommodating and breakfast is included.
If camping is more your jam, and lets face it, its the best way to really truly experience Yosemite, then you're in luck. There are plenty of camping options all over the park. But as with accommodation in the lodges, you need to book early and the camping spots open six months in advance. Obviously during the winter months, you won't need to book so far in advance - but you will in summer!
WHEN TO GO All year round, of course! However if you’re looking for the trails less travelled, I highly recommend spring and autumn - February to May, and September to November.
Viator Two Day Yosemite Tour I would like to say a big thank you to the team at Viator for getting me on the Two Day Yosemite Tour at very short notice. It really was a brilliant way to explore Yosemite if you are travelling through San Francisco, don't want to drive to Yosemite and want a guided experience of the park. For anyone who is looking to head over but doesn’t have a lot of time – definitely jump on the same tour as me with Viator! I highly recommend it. You can find out more details here.