So I’m going to start a new series with tips and tricks–and hopefully the occasional funny story–of visiting a place in a short period of time. Loosely based off of NYT’s 36 hours series. I know a lot of us, including me now, have very little time to visit certain places due to vacation-day limits and since I only had 1-2 days to show the sights to my tourists this summer, I feel like I have a grasp on how to maximize a visit.
Once you have that Yosemite Park map in your hands, you realize how big the park actually is. Yosemite Valley is actually just a tiny rectangular area in a sea of nature! How are you supposed to visit all that? There’s absolutely no time!
Well, actually, most of the action is concentrated in Yosemite Valley. That’s where you’ll find all the shuttles to the trails, as well as El Capitan, the well-known vertical rock formation that now graces most Macs.
During the day, be sure to stop at any scenic outlook that captures your attention (you’ll be able to as long as you’re driving slowly, which you should be doing anyways because of the wildlife), and take lots of photos! While hiking, make sure to look up every once in a while; this place easily takes your breath away.
Here, I assume you’re arriving late afternoon your first day and it’s summer and the conditions couldn’t be more perfect! That’s what you should always assume, right? This day’s going to be an easy day, with a hike just long enough to warm you up for bigger ones tomorrow. You’ll get your first sights of Yosemite National Park and get hyped for the next day.
If you have enough time throughout the day, I strongly recommend Tunnel View; it’s one of the most beautiful overlooks near Yosemite Valley.
Swing by Tenaya Lake
Tenaya Lake is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in Yosemite. Created by the same glacier that created Half Dome, you’re in the presence of something amazing. Make sure to pull out into one of their tiny-ass parking lots and walk to shore.
This is a great place for an afternoon snack–or lunch, if you’re lucky to have arrived so early. Start slowing your pace down and get into vacation-exploration mode. You’re here to take in all the details, not to speed off to check another visit off the list!
I’ve had some passengers take a mid-afternoon swim in the lake, but personally, I wouldn’t do it because the temperature in Yosemite National Park is always a bit lower than the surrounding areas. The water in this lake has never been warm enough, even in the dead of summer.
Hike down to see some sequoias
Sequoias are a big deal. Sequoias are those giant trees that you can walk and drive a buggy through–though now you can only walk through them because they’re a protected species. Although not as big as the California redwoods in the Pacific Northwest, these are the best you can get in this part of California. Yosemite offers plenty of sites to see these giant pieces of vegetation. The biggest and most-visited one being Mariposa Grove, and subsequently, Tuolumne and Merced Grove. I’ve had the most experience with Tuolumne Grove since, as of July 2015, Mariposa Grove has been closed for restoration. At Tuolumne Grove, there’s a 1-2 hour hike down to the grove where you’ll see at least 5 sequoias in different positions. Yeah, I know, it’s like Bodies: The Exhibition, sequoia style. Don’t let the easy way down fool you; the climb back up is a lot more strenuous than you think it is! But not so much that you can’t do it; I’ve had 60+ year-olds hike all up and down this thing. As always, make sure you bring enough water.
Set up camp and prep for an early night
After all this traveling, you must be tired and ready to set up camp. Personally, I like the campground lifestyle, so I usually book a campsite just outside of the park. However, if you know in advance when you’re going to be in the park, an in-park campsite would be possible and more convenient. Even more so if it’s in Yosemite Valley, since that’s where you’re going to spend most of the next day.
This day is going to be a long day, but at least you’ll sleep like a baby tonight! Ideally, you get to the trailhead early to avoid the hoards of people that start in the afternoon. They will make hiking up and down very difficult as many of these trails are narrow.
Hike Vernal/Nevada Falls
Didn’t think you could escape visiting a national park without a hike, did you? The best everyman hike is Vernal or Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail. It gives you gorgeous views of not 1, but 2 waterfalls! And blankets you in a hug made of mist on the way up. To access the trailhead, get on one of the free valley shuttles and go to Happy Isles (shuttle stop #16). And it is indeed happy. For the Vernal Falls hike, it’s a 2.4 mi, 3-hr round trip; for the Nevada Falls hike, which builds on top of Vernal Falls, it’s 5.4 mi, 6-hr round trip. The key is that the most difficult part of the hike is Vernal Falls. After crossing the bridge, which is about 0.8 miles and a 400-ft elevation gain into the trail, you’re going to reach the bottom of a giant staircase.
tip: it’s best to head up on the staircase and then come down on the John Muir Trail (not a staircase, but some switchbacks that make it much easier on the knees).
Chill in Curry Village/Visitor Center
Congratulations on finishing your hike! Treat yourself to some ice cream, beer, or pizza in Curry Village. This place has everything you could possibly want to relax afterwards.
If you want to learn more about Yosemite, head to the visitor center, which has a small exhibit of how the valley came to be. Next door, there’s the Ansel Adams photo gallery.
Head up to Glacier Point for sunset
[insert Glacier Point photo]
Finally, there’s Glacier Point. This spot offers the best view of Half Dome without actually hiking it yourself. And at sunset? Man, the sun paints the giant rock pink and orange, which is a breathtaking sight in itself.
If you’re leaving from the valley, plan for an hour’s drive up to this point. It’s not actually that far away, but the winding mountain path takes a while to get through. It’s probably best to bring a packed dinner or eat before heading up. Also, if you’re wary of driving on a mountain path at night, don’t do this.
I can’t tell you how it felt to have 14 snoozing, unaware passengers in the back of the van while I tried navigating the pitch black roads after a long day. It was terrifying.
By the time you return to your campsite or place of lodging, you’ll be exhausted yet energized from all you experienced today! Sleep well so you can head back home to recover.
Have fun in Yosemite National Park!
linking up with Travel Tuesday!