by Lee Foster
“As I looked, a peculiar sensation seemed to fill my whole being,” wrote the militiaman. “And I found my eyes in tears with emotion.”
Such were the sentiments of the first white man to see Yosemite, a mountain retreat of awesome and exquisite beauty in east central California. The year was 1851. Our observer was not a poet, but a rough militiaman, and the simple eloquence of his recorded thoughts testifies to the universal experience of Yosemite. So many travelers, when first encountering Yosemite Valley, an eight-mile funnel with a flat base and 3,000-foot granite walls, feel the same subdued grandeur about the place, a sense of nature’s cathedral, and a spare and ennobling aura.
Today there are many ways to experience the best of Yosemite. You can circle the valley in the park service tram, walk the non-strenuous trails leading out of the valley, or rent a bicycle to explore the valley floor. But that is only a start. Join a guided horseback ride, hike the high country in summer, cross-country and alpine ski in winter, take classes with the Yosemite Mountaineering School, rock climb the granite faces (with an experienced guide), and attend ranger walks or talks. Yosemite Valley, which 90 percent of the visitors never get beyond, is only a miniscule part of Yosemite National Park. The valley is seven of the total 1,170 square miles of the park. Make an effort to get out of the valley to Wawona to see the big trees, the sequoias, or to the high country to see Tuolumne Meadows. There are 263 miles of primary roads and about 840 miles of trail to entice you beyond Yosemite Valley.
Accommodations are just as varied. You can bask in the first-class resort comforts at the Ahwahnee Hotel, take a rustic cabin at Yosemite Lodge, reside in a canvas cabin at Curry Village, stay at a drive-in campground, or pitch your tent and roll out your sleeping bag under the stars at a walk-in campground. You can even arrange a walking tour of the high country with lodging and meals awaiting you every 10 miles or so. Whatever your preference, it is necessary to make reservations in advance for the popular summer months.
A consumer should also consider the lodging options outside Yosemite. It is sometimes difficult, in the modern context, for a national park to offer the amenities that some travelers seek. The consumer wanting kitchenettes, fireplaces, in-room spa tubs, private balconies, and patios with river views should be advised to look outside the park. One provider, among many, with properties outside the park is Yosemite Resorts (www.yosemiteresorts.us). Pristine park appreciators, who do not want such amenities, seeing them as impinging on the purity of the park experience, will want to reside within the park, at campgrounds, if possible.
Entrance fees to Yosemite are $20 per car (valid for seven days).
Getting to Yosemite
From San Francisco, the drive is about four hours east on Interstate 580, then through Modesto on Highway 132 or directly east on Highway 120.
From Los Angeles, the main gateway to Yosemite is Merced, a town in the Central Valley of California on Highway 99. From Merced you take Highway 140 east into Yosemite Valley. This highway is open all year. Madera, farther south on Highway 99, also offers access on Highway 41.
Train and bus connections can also be made from Merced into the park. Fresno, a larger city near Merced, has a commuter airport and several regularly scheduled carriers. From Fresno, Highway 41 proceeds to the southern entrance of the park, 36 miles from Yosemite Valley. The southern entrance is famous for the Wawona area, where giant sequoia trees are the main attraction.
Once in Yosemite you don’t need a car because the well-organized shuttle buses take you about. Much effort now focuses on reducing the automobile impact in Yosemite. Tours can take you to distant areas of the park.
The history of major interest in Yosemite is not the mere human time frame but the geological story. Over eons the forces of glacial activity have scraped away at the granite rock, exposing the faces such as El Capitan and Half Dome, which stun the imagination with their size. The rushing Merced River has carried rock fragment and silt from higher mountain areas to the floor of the valley. Prior to the glacial periods Yosemite was a sea, with extensive sedimentary deposits. Gradually, geological forces of uplift thrust the sea bed to its present elevation.
Miwok and Mono Lake Paiute Native Americans established villages along the Merced River that runs through Yosemite Valley. The Native Americans called the Valley “Ahwahnee,” which apparently meant “gaping mouth.” They gathered acorns and seeds, fished for trout, and hunted deer. Except for a period of years around 1800 when a disease known as “the fatal black sickness” forced them out of the area, the Native Americans lived peacefully within the Yosemite Valley. Not until much later, after the Gold Rush, did the white man stumble upon the area.
The first white men arrived in 1851, as mentioned. They were militiamen of the ragtag Mariposa Battalion, a group of miner-soldiers who attempted to establish order in the gold region. The first group included the militiaman whose thoughts approximated those of so many later visitors, nature lovers rather than soldiers. The Mariposa Battalion entered the Valley in pursuit of Ahwahneechee Native Americans who had retreated here after stealing mining supplies. It could be said that the Battalion made a discovery in the realm of nature as astonishing as the discovery of gold in 1848.
The rapidity with which the area was fenced, farmed, and logged by settlers alarmed the public, especially because the giant sequoias might be cut down. Public pressure on the California legislature created the Yosemite Grant, in 1864. This was historically important as one of the first efforts in the United States to spare an area from commercial development and keep it as a public property. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that gave Yosemite to California as a public trust. Yosemite was not the first national park, an honor that fell to Yellowstone, but it was the first federally mandated park. Yosemite became a national park in 1890.
The greatest advocate for Yosemite was a Scotsman who came to California via Wisconsin and devoted himself to writing persuasive articles and books about conserving California’s Sierra Nevada, which means Snowy Mountains in Spanish. He was John Muir, the founding father of the U.S. environmental movement and of the Sierra Club, which he started in 1892. Wilderness forests throughout the country were in danger at the time. Muir’s ability to coin a phrase is well-known. To him Yosemite was a “vast celestial city, not clothed with light but wholly composed of it.”
Muir’s writings combined an exuberant feeling for nature, a thorough competence as a botanist, and an apostolic fervor about preserving the rapidly disappearing wilderness. On a famous 1903 campout in Yosemite Park with Theodore Roosevelt, he reinforced and nurtured the president’s own conservation ethic. As president, Roosevelt set aside 5 national parks, 23 national monuments, and 148 million acres as national forests.
“Wilderness is a necessity,” Muir wrote. “Mountain parks and forest reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
Prior to coming to Yosemite, try to read Muir’s book, The Yosemite. The book goes in and out of print, but your local library, bookstore, or Amazon can probably provide a copy.
Yosemite’s Main Attractions
Start at the Visitor Center, with its excellent selection of guidebooks and maps, plus a ranger to suggest outings. Behind the Visitor Center is a re-creation of a Miwok-Paiute Native American village, approximating how the Native Americans lived in the valley, harvesting the black oak acorns for food, hunting deer, and living in bark structures. During summer, various living history programs on Native American life are conducted, sometimes by actual Miwok descendants.
Here are some of my favorite outings for Yosemite visitors:
Drive or take the tram around the valley to get a view of all the different falls. Yosemite Falls is the most obvious and dominant. Upper Yosemite drops 1,430 feet in one abrupt fall, and Lower Yosemite Falls descends another 320 feet. Adding the intermediate cascades, Yosemite Falls plunges a total of 2,425 feet, making it one of the world’s highest waterfalls. Other falls to see are Vernal, with a 317-foot drop, Illilouette at 370 feet, Bridalveil at 620 feet, and Ribbon at 1,612 feet. Each fall has its own characteristics and personality, with Bridalveil, for example, a subtle diaphanous counterpoint to the pounding force of Yosemite Falls or the thundering power of Vernal Falls. See the falls both during the day and at night when there is a full moon. The month is also important. Falls are at their greatest force May-July and then decline until the autumn rains bring them renewed runoff.
Walk up to Mirror Lake. The hike is lovely and the setting, an alpine lake quickly silting in due to natural succession, illustrates the geologic forces at work today. You can also take the tram up to Mirror Lake, but no cars are allowed. This transportation change is part of the park service effort to reduce automobiles in the park. The tram system continues to expand and roads in the park have been made into a one-way loop. The Master Plan, adopted in 1980 to guide the development of the park, calls for fewer cars and the removal of as many man-made structures as possible. However, this is a slow process.
Hike to Nevada Falls. Part of the pleasure of this walk is the ever-changing vistas presented of such familiar landmarks as Yosemite Falls or Half Dome. In this walk you begin to appreciate how more ambitious walks in the high country can open up engaging views and perspectives. Here you see the two rock formations of Yosemite that surpass all others in their dimensions. El Capitan rises 3,593 feet above the valley floor, one of the world’s largest rocks. At the east end of the valley looms Half Dome, rising 8,842 feet above sea level.
Each season brings its special rewards to a Yosemite visitor. Indeed, there are connoisseurs of Yosemite who spend a lifetime making trips here at different times of the year. Spring is a time of green foliage, wildflowers, and the roar of waterfalls. In summer the sun is highest, lighting the far reaches of the canyons and stimulating plant growth. Summer also brings the largest portion of the nearly 4 million annual visitors, straining the carrying capacity of the valley. In autumn, you will encounter herds of deer passing through the valley to their winter foraging grounds at lower elevations. The oak tree leaves turn gold and the sumac attains a bright red. In winter the white mantle of the valley and the heavy snowpack at the upper elevations lend a crystalline aspect to the region.
As a further move to reduce the need for your auto, the concessionaire and park service have organized an increasing number of paid and gratis tours through parts of the park. You can take free trams through Yosemite Valley at any time, with a tram passing the main checkpoints every 10 minutes. You can also take a paid, guided tram tour of the valley with a naturalist. Other tours take you by bus to Glacier Point, the magnificent overlook; to Wawona to see the Big Trees, the sequoias; and to the high country of Tuolumne Meadows. An extensive number of free hikes, led by naturalists and rangers, occur daily on the floor of the valley. Information on what’s available is published in the free Yosemite Guide, available everywhere in the park. Artist trips, photography outings, bicycle rentals (for the 12 paved miles of bike trails in the valley), rock climbing (with a knowledgeable guide), horseback riding, and rafting on the Merced River are just some of the summer activities. Ranger- or naturalist-led programs occur nightly at the lodgings and at the campgrounds in the valley.
If you are camping in Yosemite Valley, it’s important not to tempt the bears with carelessly exposed food. At night be sure that all food is securely covered, stored in a solid container, and placed in a steel bear-proof locker, if you are so directed. Failure to properly manage your food can lead to citations and fines. Careless campers and earlier garbage disposal practices have conditioned bears, with their superb sense of smell, to seek human food.
Nearby Trips from Yosemite Valley
Three nearby excursions can enhance your initial Yosemite experience. The excursions take you out of Yosemite Valley, but keep you within Yosemite National Park.
To see the entire valley from a vista, drive or take the bus to the view turnoff on the road to Glacier Point and Wawona. This turnoff, just before the Wawona Tunnel, presents one of the most famous lookouts in the park, rivaling the view from Glacier Point. From this elevated position, you enjoy a sweeping panorama of all the major landforms in the valley. You acquire an excellent perspective here on the glacial geological forces that scoured out the upper part of the valley, peeling off the granite layers from the mountains as if they were the layers of an onion, and deposited a moraine of rocky debris at the western end. Three successive waves of glaciers slid across the granite face of Yosemite, polishing Half Dome and El Capitan to their present smoothness, with the most recent glacier retreating only 10,000 years ago.
The drive all the way to Glacier Point is possible only June-October because of snow. A view from Glacier Point is well worth the 30-mile drive, however, because you can look straight down, more than 3,200 feet, to the valley floor below, and see a sizable panorama of High Sierra real estate. Looking across the Valley, Glacier Point gives you your best close-up of the massive granite thumb known as Half Dome. From this height, looking down, the full drop of Yosemite Falls also becomes apparent. A mile walk at Glacier Point can take you to the Sentinel Dome overlook. Because of the elevation, pace yourself and take the walk slowly.
In summer, various hikes take place from Badger Pass. In winter, the Badger Pass Ski area opens for families, beginners, and intermediate skiers. There is a Ski Tots Playhouse for young children. The large meadow called Summit Meadow, above Badger Pass, is an excellent cross-country ski area, with long ski hikes possible through the woods, ending with spectacular overlooks of Yosemite Valley. If you have the will and the skills, this is also a favorite backpacking ski camping region. Crane Flat is another cross-country ski area in Yosemite.
The Sequoiadendron giganteum, the Big Tree, can be seen at three groves in Yosemite. The most prominent grove lies 35 miles south of the valley along Highway 41 at Wawona. Wawona means “big tree” in the original Native American language. The giant sequoias are the inland species of redwoods, the most massive living entities on the earth. They are worth a half-day trip to Wawona to see. The largest example of the inland redwood, called the General Sherman Tree, is farther south along the mountains in Sequoia National Park. At the Wawona area cluster of trees, called the Mariposa Grove, the Grizzly Giant is the oldest tree, at an estimated age of 2,800 years. It has a base diameter of 30.7 feet. Nearby, the Massachusetts Tree, broken into chunks, shows the wood of the sequoia. The 232-foot-tall California Tree is a tunnel tree, but cars are no longer allowed to drive in the grove. The Wawona Tunnel Tree fell over in 1968-1969 during winter storms.
Ironically, one truth that the park service has learned in recent decades is the need for fires around the big trees. Fires clear out the undergrowth, allowing young sequoias, stimulated to germinate by the heat of fire, to grow in the newly available sunlight and in the mineral-rich ash soil. The park service now manages “controlled burns” here.
The venerable Wawona Hotel, with its weekend barbecues, and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, describing the life of early homesteaders in 10 restored cabins, are other resources at Wawona.
Yosemite’s high country is noted for its rocky alpine wilderness. Access is via Highway 120, the Tioga Pass Road, which is closed in winter (November-May). While the valley floor is often crowded with visitors during peak summer months, the high country is less frequented. Wilderness permits are necessary for overnight camping in this area. The high country acquaints you with the source of the Merced River, which flows through the valley, and also shows you an entirely independent watershed, that of the Tuolumne River, which lies to the north. Both rivers flow to the west from their snowy sources in the high country.
San Francisco water needs caused the damming on the Tuolumne River early in this century to create the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. To reach Hetch Hetchy, an eight-mile-long body of water, take the 38-mile drive from Big Oak Flat, passing attractive forests of sugar pines. The Tuolumne Gorge was thought by observers, such as John Muir, to equal Yosemite Valley in beauty, but San Francisco water interests succeeded in arranging for the dam, despite a last-minute plea by Muir to President Woodrow Wilson. You can view the Tuolumne Gorge and such phenomena as Waterwheel Falls, but hiking is required.
In the high country, the main attraction, if an observer is limited to a single pleasure, is the silky lawns of Tuolumne Meadows, one of the largest subalpine meadows in the Sierra. Tuolumne Meadows is an 8,500-foot-high plateau. The drive there is 56 miles from Yosemite Valley over winding roads, but well worth it for the views, lakes, forests, granite domes, and canyons. A park ranger at the station in Tuolumne Meadows can help guide you to the hikes, horseback riding, and camping in the area. Tent-cabin lodging is available at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and at White Wolf Lodge in the high country. Backpacking trips, trail riding excursions, and walking trips are possible. The walking trips, led by naturalists, are special because they make a circular route through the High Sierra, locating you on successive evenings at different primitive lodgings, spaced roughly 10 miles apart. The lodging provides you with shelter and meals, but reservations are required. Backpacking trips can also start from here and traverse sections of the John Muir Trail, which extends to Mt. Whitney, 210 miles to the south. The John Muir Trail forms part of the serpentine Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,500-mile-long route from Canada to Mexico.
The season is short in the high country, from June through October, with fields of wildflowers an enticement. At Tioga Pass, the road crosses the crest of the Sierra at 9,945 feet, the highest automobile pass in California. From the pass you see a divide with two worlds. Looking west, the moist rain-filled world of meadows and forests stretches before you. Looking east, you see the parched face of the high granite deserts. The spines of the high mountains halt the eastward movement of rain-filled clouds rolling in from the Pacific.
Yosemite: If You Go
For lodging and other information, contact Yosemite Reservations, (801) 559-4884. Their website is www.yosemitepark.com. As the park concessionaire, they manage park information and reservations.
Campsites in the park are managed by www.recreation.gov, (877) 444-6777.
The Park Service official website is www.nps.gov/yose.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page