Last September, Mr. Buzz and I spent half of our California vacation exploring the bountiful natural wonders of three National Parks, including Yosemite.
After deciding it was too early to reschedule our pandemic-cancelled June 2020 Ireland trip, hubby suggested California. That March, he had snagged two nights in September at the Ahwahnee Hotel, the crown jewel of national park lodges. We built our entire vacation around those nights. First, we worked backwards, booking other park lodging in Kings Canyon and Sequoia.
Due to the continued uncertainty of pandemic conditions in 2021, we only booked the lodges and other accommodations that were fully cancellable. Several months later — and fully vaccinated —we felt confident enough to book direct flights. Then hubby filled in the rest of our stays at B&B’s and hotels in Monterey, Big Sur, Paso Robes and San Francisco.
It was wonderful to be outdoors, without a mask, enjoying all the mountain fresh air! After having the park closures of Sequoia and Kings Canyon right on our heels, we were relieved to arrive safely in Yosemite with the scent of smoke and fires behind us.
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Yosemite Wawona Hotel
Our first stop inside the park was lunch at the Victorian-era Wawona Hotel. Establish in 1856, it is one of California’s original mountain resort hotels. We were disappointed to find — because of COVID restrictions — that Wawona’s famous dining room was closed. They were only offering take-out selections, which we were able to enjoy sitting on the long front porch of the main building.
Situated 27 miles from Yosemite Valley, the National Historic Landmark is near the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias and the Pioneer History Center.
Arch Rock Park Entrance
There are five entrances into Yosemite, and the road to each offers unique sights to see along the way. Four are located on the western side of the park, while the fifth, Tioga Pass, is on the more remote, eastern side. After leaving Kings Canyon early in the morning, we traveled through Fresno for breakfast. Then north on Highway 41, entering Yosemite at the Arch Rock Entrance. Parts of the over three-hour drive are quite scenic, but also mountainous with a lot of sharp curves.
That entrance is situated about 10-15 miles from the charming town of Mariposa. About two decades ago, when the boys were adolescents, we stayed there at the family-friendly Narrow Gauge Inn. It overlooked the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. The historic narrow gauge railroad offers train rides, gold panning, and more. We had a fun early evening ride through the woods that was interrupted by a “robbers” on horseback! Afterwards was a wonderful barbeque dinner and campfire under the trees.
It’s one of my favorite memories from our first Yosemite vacation, many years ago.
Another outstanding experience on that trip was visiting the nearby Mariposa Grove. Home to several hundred mature sequoia trees — including the 1,800 year-old Grizzly Giant — it’s the largest grove in Yosemite. Located in the southernmost section of the park, there are several trails, including an easy loop walk. Visitors must park two miles away, but there normally is a free shuttle to the grove.
Last year, because of COVID and staffing issues, the shuttle tram was not running. Unfortunately, that meant a four- mile roundtrip hike — just to get to and from the car! Although I was very disappointed to skip it, we had just spent three days amongst sequoias in the Kings Canyon and Sequoia parks.
General Sherman in Sequoia National Park is the world’s largest tree by volume.
Good news for visitors in 2022 is that the free shuttle from the parking lot is back in operation!
However, like last year, there is still a reservation system in place to enter, or even drive through, Yosemite. It’s designed to help manage congestion and provide a quality visitor experience. If you are already booked for accommodations or camping inside the park, there is no problem getting an entrance pass. Note that a reservation is required, even if you have a lifetime senior park pass.
Travel Alert: Be sure to visit the official Yosemite National Park website very early in your planning. Then, continue to check back periodically and within two weeks before you arrive. Because the park is also making critical infrastructure repairs, you’ll find some roads, accommodations, trails and attractions may be closed. There is also information and daily updates on fire and flood conditions which can impact access.
Glacier Point Overlook
One of the reasons we didn’t want to waste time and energy hiking from the parking lot, was in order to take the “detour” drive to Glacier Point. It’s an hour from Wawona to the overlook, and another hour to the valley floor — and our hotel. Driving to Glacier Point on the way into the valley, saved two additional hours on the road, backtracking on another day.
From the Glacier Point parking area, a short paved, wheelchair-accessible trail takes you to an exhilarating overlook.
Travel Tip: Resist the urge to park along the road where you’ll see many others. Some may be there to access trailheads along the way. We saw cars lining the road three to four miles down mountain, before the parking lot! Yes, parking frequently fills up at the overlook. But, there is regular turnover, and you can circle around and wait for a space to open.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we visited in September, 2021. Breathtaking isn’t it? Have you see the view in person?
Spectacular Anytime of Year
Glacier Point is an overlook with a commanding view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the park’s high country. It’s normally accessible by car from about late May through October or November. When we visited with our sons previously, it was in the early summer. So, there was still a good volume of water flowing on upper and lower Yosemite Falls, as well Nevada and Vernal Falls. All were easy to see with the naked eye from the overlook.
Unfortunately, the entire area is currently under long-term drought conditions. So by mid -September, the water flow was minimal. However, we were still able to make out the fall locations based on the dark black, wet water stains on the granite. Nevada and Vernal Falls are in the lower right corner of the picture above. Binoculars brought them clearly in view.
Half Dome is a granite dome at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. It is a well-known rock formation in the park, named for its distinct shape. One side is a sheer face, while the other three are smooth and round, making it appear like a dome cut in half.
There are several stone terraces at the Glacier Point that wrap around the overlook. To the left of the Half Dome vista, visitors get another exhilarating view of the Yosemite Valley.
Over 3,000 feet below sits Curry Village, the largest lodging facility in the valley; motel rooms, cabins and canvas tents. It also offers many dining options and activities, including a seasonal swimming pool and ice skating rink.
Travel Tip: With it’s convenient location, Curry Village is one of the most popular lodging options inside Yosemite Park. It sells out quickly. Reservations are open one year and one day in advance.
We could also just make out Yosemite Falls, flowing in a trickle down the massive granite walls on the opposite side of the valley. Two days later we would take the easy hike to the waterfall’s base.
Weaving it’s way across the valley floor, is the Merced River. Far below (circled in yellow) is our final destination of the day, the fabulous Ahwahnee Hotel.
Travel Alert: Be advised, Glacial Point Road and access to the overlook is closed in 2022 for reconstruction! It’s only accessible this season by strenuous hike.
After about an hour, windy drive down towards the valley, is the Wawona Tunnel. On its opposite end, is the Tunnel View overlook. It’s the view of Yosemite that Ansel Adams made famous!
Travel Tip: Tunnel View overlook is very popular, and the parking lot can become full. It is accessible from both directions on one of the highway. However, when coming into the valley, you need to make an immediate left-hand turn — across up-mountain traffic.
From this dramatic vista you can see El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridal Veil Falls, which changes with each season. During the winter, the beautiful granite domes are draped in snow and mist. In the early spring, the falls are at peak flow. When we were visiting in September, however, Bridal Veil was basically dry. Still, Tunnel View was another not-to-be-missed stop in Yosemite.
To the left of the picture is El Capitan. With iconic granite walls rising 3,000 feet, it dominates the west end of Yosemite Valley. Not only is it a beacon for park visitors, but a muse for photographers, and one of the world’s ultimate challenges for climbers.
In the distant center of the photo, you can see Half Dome. Plunging 620 feet, Bridal Veil is visible by the dark brown coloring of the wet granite wall to the right. An easy paved trail (not wheelchair accessible) leads from a parking area to the base of the waterfall — which takes about 20 minutes. When we visited with our boys in early summer, we actually got wet from the spray!
Travel Alert: Unfortunately, Bridal Veil Fall Trail is closed for rehabilitation during the 2022 season.
Yosemite Valley Floor
Late in the afternoon, we reached the great valley floor, surrounded by high granite walls and towering trees. Now, we were looking up at Glacier Point.
First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls. But, within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more in the High Sierra.
The free shuttle system provides convenient access around Yosemite Valley. However, due to 2021 COVID restrictions and not enough staff, the shuttle was not running. This caused us some difficulties in accessing trailheads, without excessively long walks from parking areas. But, staying in the heart of the valley helped offset that somewhat. Happily, the shuttles are back in 2022, but with two new routes.
Travel Tip: Over the past three decades, as visitation has increased from 3.3 million in 1989 to 4.4 million in 2019, the park has made numerous changes to help relieve congestion. As part of the Yosemite Valley Traffic Circulation Pilot, there are new shuttle routes and changes to traffic patterns. In the longer term, Yosemite’s current park reservation system may become permanent during the peak visitation season. Your best bet is to pre-plan trailhead, dinning and attraction locations, park once a day, and then ride the shuttles while in the valley.
As I explained earlier, on our first visit to Yosemite, we stayed just ten miles outside the park. It worked out great for our family, although required additional hours spent driving to and from the motel. One day, we ate Sunday Brunch at the famed Ahwahnee Hotel dining room. Ever since, hubby and I have dreamed of staying there, as my parents had. It was on our bucket list.
As my British-born friend would say, last summer’s stay at Yosemite was “posh!”
Dating from 1927, the Ahwahnee shines as the crown jewel of national park lodges. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. Known for its stunning interior design and architecture, the Ahwahnee was specifically designed to highlight its natural surroundings.
Warm, cozy rooms feature natural wood furnishings. Some have balconies with views of cliffs or waterfalls. Instead, we opted to stay in one of the large cottages in the forested area behind the hotel.
It felt serene, quiet and removed from the hustle and bustle. We even had a screen door to let in the fresh air and scent of the woods!
Granite walls rose vertically from the valley floor, seemingly right up to the cottage. This is the view we were greeted by in the morning. In order to take this picture, I had to sit on the ground and lean way back lol!
We’d return from a day of exploring and hiking, to shower and change in our cottage. Then we’d stroll to the beautiful back lawn of the Ahwahnee for a cocktail. I became particularly enamored of their Basil Gimlet — so refreshing! From the outdoor patio, we’d sip our drinks and watch the sun set behind the high granite walls.
Also at the Ahwahnee are grand sitting rooms, a bar, stone fireplaces, elegant tapestries and stained glass windows. Other amenities include a heated outdoor pool, solarium, sweet shop, gift shop (dedicated to local artisans), afternoon tea service, and free parking.
Travel Tip: Even though it’s extremely expensive to stay at the hotel, it sells it out quickly! Plan to book accommodations there up to a year and one day in advance.
And, the award-winning Ahwahnee restaurant is both magnificent and intimate. Thirty-four foot-high beamed ceiling, floor-to-ceiling windows, chandeliers, linen tablecloths, beautiful china, live piano music, and an imaginative American menu, create a memorable dining experience.
As hotel guests, Mr. Buzz and I were also treated to premier tables; set against a floor-to-celling window.
Travel Trip: The dining room is open to all park visitors for breakfast, lunch or dinner. But, Ahwahnee guests have preference for advanced reservations and available open seating. Do not arrive and expect to be seated without one, particularly during the busy summer season.
One night, our gregarious waiter shared a photo he’d taken. Just 30 minutes earlier, a mountain lion had been prowling just outside the window where we were seated! Because they are shy, solitary creatures, panthers normally elude visitors. Sightings in the park’s developed areas are often one on the prowl for a raccoon or coyote. Later that night, the romantic walk back to our cabin in the dark woods was a lot more nerve-racking than the first!
Although we had planned to dine at the Ahwahnee only one night, we ended up eating dinner there both evenings. That’s because then COVID restrictions severely limited sit-down, indoor dining and hours at other Yosemite Valley restaurants and cafes.
Exploring Yosemite Valley
Staying on the valley floor offers great access to trails, while minimizing time spent driving, waiting in lines at park entrances, and finding parking,
One of the most accessible trails is the 11.5 mile long Yosemite Valley Loop. It’s a fairly level path, with some degree of solitude. While some of the trail passes near roads, much of it takes you through meadows, slopes at the base of the granite cliffs, and along the Merced River. On our first full-day in the valley, a large red fox crossed our path, and we proceeded to stare at each other for several minutes.
You can access the trail from many places, and choose to only complete a half loop, or partial segment as we did. There’s also over12 miles of paved bicycle paths in the valley, with bike rentals available.
Travel Tip: It’s best to plan hikes in advance for distance, estimated time to complete, elevation, degree of difficulty, and trailhead location. To limit having to move the car and locate parking, also check for the closest shuttle stop. A day or two before, I also advise checking on park conditions which may impact accessibility, such as the weather, and fire, flooding, snow or landsides.
Later, we worked our way to the Mist Trail, which climbs to both the Vernal and Nevada Falls.
Yosemite’s signature hike, it offers enjoyable scenery along the river, unique views of the valley, and up-close encounters with one or two large waterfalls. Almost entirely uphill, the first paved mile of the trail is busiest. Considered a moderate hike, it leads to the Vernal Fall Footbridge.
Low water flow, debris and foliage, however, impeded our view of the falls. Although disappointed, we could hear the water coming from above and flowing through the boulders beneath us.
It’s another half mile beyond the bridge, and climb to the top of Vernal for jaw-dropping views down the length of the 317-foot waterfall. I had already struggled with the distance, heat and incline just to the bridge. There was no way I’d be able to continue up a steep granite stairway of over 600 steps! Unfortunately, my nearly two years of not going to the gym showed.
But, I remember slippery footing and a good amount of waterfall spray when we did it with the boys two decades ago. If you are there when there is significant flow, it’s definitely worth it. Just allow plenty of time. You can turn around at any point to return the way you came.
At the top of Vernal Fall, hikers can continue uphill on the Mist Trail to the top of 94-foot Nevada Fall. But, it’s another 1.5 miles of steep, rocky switchbacks and a strenuous climb. The closest I ever came was viewing Nevada Fall from Glacier Point.
We checked out of the Ahwahnee, drove to the nearby Yosemite Village and enjoyed a cooked-to-order breakfast at Degan’s Kitchen & Loft (opens at 7 AM). There’s numerous places to eat and services available in the Village, including the Village Grill Deck where we ate lunch outdoors the day before.
We also picked up waters, snacks and souvenir t-shirts at the Village Store. Even with the limited hours and indoor, sit-down dining from then COVID restrictions, the setting, food and service was great.
Visiting Yosemite Falls
On the way out of the park, we planned one last morning hike to see Yosemite Falls. But, the upper trail was beyond my abilities.
One of the park’s oldest historic trails, the Yosemite Falls Trail leads to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall, which rises 2,425 feet above the valley floor. Those who make the one-mile, 1,000 foot climb (via dozens of switchbacks) to Columbia Rock, are rewarded with spectacular views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock.
From there, it’s another half mile to get a stunning view of Upper Yosemite Fall. Steep and rocky, the upper half of the trail is an arduous climb. And, I doubt it’s worth it if the water isn’t running?
However, for most of us mere mortals, there’s a much easier option to appreciate the waterfalls!
Lower Yosemite Fall is the final 320-foot drop. Deafening in spring and early summer, you can expect to get sprayed with water when standing on the footbridge near its base. The paved loop trail, is a short, easy walk that provides great views of both the upper and lower falls.
It also offers different vantage points of Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Creek. Along the way are many exhibits about the natural and cultural history of the area.
Travel Tip: If walking from the Visitor Center, follow the bicycle path to the Lower Yosemite Fall shuttle stop and begin the trail. Consider walking the loop in a clockwise direction for best views of Yosemite Falls. This eastern portion of the loop trail is even wheelchair accessible.
Advantages of Off Season
In September, the water flow was just a trickle to wet and darken the granite rock. We knew the falls in Yosemite would be nearly dry in autumn. However, I still highly recommend a Yosemite vacation after Labor Day, when there’s far less crowds to contend with. The park’s landscape and vistas are spectacular any time of year! We talked with a number of Californians who visit Yosemite several times a year, enjoying the different seasons, including when there’s snow.
Have you visited Yosemite? What time of year was it? Where did you stay? What hikes did you take?
After the easy hike, we headed out of the park via the Big Oak Flat Entrance, for a four-hour drive to San Francisco. The first hour or two of the drive is pretty scenic. We wanted to cross the bridge into the city and get to our hotel in Fisherman’s Warf before rush hour.
Someday, we’d like to return to Yosemite for a third visit — maybe with grandkids! It’s such a massive park, we still haven’t seen some of it’s more distant, remote areas like Hetch Hetchy reservoir, or the Sierra Nevada high county in Tuolumne Meadows.
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