Summer Sights: Yosemite National Park

I am ending a month long sojourn back home to California. Whoever says they don’t teach for the summers off is lying. I love living in Maryland, but probably because I have enough time over summer break to fill my cup as a 3rd generation Californian and to indoctrinate my son in our pleasant and leisurely ways.

Take the sunshine for granted, kid. No thunderstorms here.

We mostly sit around with my family, and this summer it felt safe enough to try and visit with friends, but there were a few new adventures as well.

In particular, our trip to Yosemite was spectacular. While some feel the national parks are being ruined and overrun by desperate newcomers, I am so glad to see a more diverse group of people take advantage of these beautiful places. The new reservation systems and other crowd control measures will hopefully help alleviate the pressure on the ecosystem. It is important to travel to these natural areas with the intent to leave as little a footprint as possible. It’s good practice for the rest of our lives.

We actually used to go to Yosemite with another family in the 90s. There are photos of my sisters and I riding horses, rafting, and roasting marshmallows. My father climbed Half Dome, and I thought he was a superhero. I remember those trips fondly but had not been back in decades. In the meantime, the only national parks I’ve visited as an adult are Smoky Mountain in Tennessee and Joshua Tree in Palm Springs. Both times we bought day passes and just drove through enjoying the scenery. It was time for a deeper dive.

Back in January I had some sort of epiphany about this and booked a cabin in Curry Village. It sounded like it had a lot of beds, and I figured someone would go with me and my son even though our summer plans and the future COVID situation were up in the air. Good thing, because come spring everything was sold out.

Tip number one: Plan early even if you have no idea whether you will really go.

Ultimately, I did not take my son at all. He says he hates hiking. I don’t actually think this is true, but he has identified walking in the woods as “mommy’s thing” and refuses to come with me. I hope he’ll come around eventually, but this was going to be too long a trip for all that cajoling so we left him with his grandparents. My sister and my husband proved to be excellent traveling partners. We were all really excited to be there and could make plans around adult schedules, which meant it felt like a getaway even with no oceanfront beach and no spa. (There was, however, a bar.)

Tip number two: Without kids, a trip to a national park can become a vacation.

We drove up from the Los Angeles area in my sisters new KIA hybrid. It was super comfortable and we only filled up on gas once. Because we were staying Curry Village, we figured we could pack light. The website claimed there was a restaurant and grocery story. We decided to trust they existed and that we could just eat on site. The website said they provided towels and linens, but we brought sleeping bags in case it was cold. It said there was a light in the tent, but we packed a few lanterns just in case. We each brought a small backpack with a water system, our clothes, toiletries, and a few snacks, but that was it. At the last minute we threw in some folding chairs. Curry Village provided the right balance of convenience and rustic we were looking for, but the range of accommodations in Yosemite is actually wide. There are some very nice hotels, several tent campgrounds, and plenty of backcountry land for the experts who want to get away from it all.

Tip number three: National parks do have tent camping, but you do not have to tent camp or carry a backpack to enjoy them. If you don’t like camping, you can still go to a national park!

It turned out that we did not need the sleeping bags or the lanterns. The beds were quite comfortable and the linens provided sufficient for the nighttime temperatures. The light was bright, the shared bathrooms were clean, and the bear box outside kept critters away from our chips and toothpaste.

In Curry Village there is a very popular pizza place and a grill, as well as a well stocked grocery store that was not too overpriced. The is even a Peet’s Coffee (and a Starbucks down the road). We usually went to Peet’s for breakfast, got sandwiches for lunch, and then ate at the pizza place or grill for dinner. The other accommodation areas also had their own restaurants so one day we went to the Yosemite Lodge, just to switch it up. It was not really feasible to leave the park to eat, but the park itself had plenty of options. Vegetarians would feel taken care of – the grill served Beyond Meat burgers, pasta, and salads.

Full Service Peet’s Coffee in Curry Village

In terms of available activities, there was mostly hiking. The shuttle was not running. California is in a drought and the rivers were very low. Most of the waterfalls were barely a trickle. Rafting was not offered. The first day we rented bikes and rode to the Mist Trail. We went as far as the bridge below Vernal Falls but did not hike to the top. It was really steep, but sufficiently shaded. Then we got back on our bikes and rode to Mirror Lake, which was also fairly dried up, but a nice option for those looking to splash or sunbathe. We hiked around the big loop through the woods and saw lovely meadows, impressive rock formations, and eventually some slightly rushing waters of Tenaya Creek. After riding back, those chairs turned out to be clutch, and we implemented happy hour.

That night we drove about an hour on very windy roads up to Glacier Point, an area that was undersold by our guidebook in my opinion (I recommend buying a guidebook – there are a lot). The view was spectacular and we arrived there at the end of sunset for a ranger led program on the night stars. The ranger was excellent because it was cloudy and we couldn’t really see the stars he was pointing out with his laser, but we enjoyed ourselves anyways. I wish we had gone up there earlier, and next time I want to try hiking up Four Mile Trail, which starts in the Valley and ends at the top.

The next day we headed north in the park towards the Tioga Road area, hoping to see some lakes. We eventually turned around when we saw fire burning on the side of the road. It might have been a controlled burn but we aren’t the types to take chances. Doubling back, we saw a sign for the Tuolumne Grove of Sequoia Redwood Trees, which turned out to be much more our speed. These giants are truly spectacular. Walking by them (or even through them), it is hard to picture a time before logging when there were hundreds more on the California coast. It is even harder to comprehend seeing such natural excellence and making a decision to cut it down, but that is another conversation. This hike is short, but steep, family friendly, and nicely shaded.

On our last day in the park (I do recommend at least three days), we went to Yosemite Falls, the one attraction in the Valley that seemed truly accessible to all. There is parking nearby and it is a short walk or roll along a wide paved path that slopes gently. There are ample bathrooms. The platform is large and the view is clear.

A pretty dry Yosemite Falls due to the drought this year.

Leaving Yosemite, I felt really grateful for the Indigenous people who cared for the land over generations and the Congressional budget that does now. Yosemite is a great park for those who want to see another side of California. It is a great park for those who are new to national parks. There were families with young children, couples, and intergenerational groups. The diversity of races, ethnicities, ages, and abilities exceeded my expectations. It was easy to feel comfortable even though we were doing something new. Yosemite is truly a place I would recommend for everyone.

My favorite part of my summer vacation? Entering Yosemite Valley from Wawona. You come out of a long tunnel and the valley opens up, light spilling across a gallery of majestic mountains. It is a jaw dropping explosion of splendor well worth the trip.

Tunnel View

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