El Capitan, Ribbon Falls, and meadow from Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California
El Capitan, Ribbon Falls, and meadow from Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California
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By Lee Foster

Yosemite Valley is a joy to visit any time of the year. Each season has its special pleasures. You could return to Yosemite Valley time and again over a lifetime and never exhaust its beauty. Late spring, around mid-May, is an especially auspicious time for a visit.

By late spring the waterfalls will be at their peak, dependent on the snow melt. There will be anticipation about the exact opening day for the snow-blocked Glacier Point Road and the Highway 120 High Country road across the top of Yosemite. These dates will vary every year. By mid-May the wildflowers, such as blue lupines, will begin to show themselves. Summer in the high-altitude mountains is the actual “spring wildflower” season for many species.

May is also a less congested travel time before the surging crowds of summer, when children are on school vacations. It’s always wise to have lodging reservation for Yosemite year around, but May is still a “drop in” time when you just might find an empty and unclaimed room if you don’t like to plan ahead.

How should you spend your time? First, take a trip around the small valley in your car or on a park service tram to see the sights. On the tram you can get on and off at choice locations. The views will change during the day, so you might want to go in the morning and again in the afternoon. Hiking trails begin at the various tram stops, such as to Yosemite Falls and to Bridal Veil Falls. You can walk through the meadows and up the trails. When you get out and walk, the full pageant of the valley becomes apparent. Yosemite Valley is actually quite compact, only seven of the total 1,170 square miles of the park.

There are also more specialized ways to get around. Bikes can be rented and horseback rides are possible. The Merced River that runs through the park can be rafted as it plunges westward after leaving the park.

Beloved and immense granite landforms in the valley are a main attraction. The two most famous are El Capitan and Half Dome. Pausing in front of them is an ennobling experience. Seeing them from different angles and in changing light is a pleasant quest. The first white man who saw Yosemite Valley recorded thoughts that are repeated every day by the modern traveler. In 1851 a militia man from the Mariposa Battalion reported, “As I looked, a peculiar sensation seemed to fill my whole being. And I found my eyes in tears with emotion.”

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 of 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 Central Valley, west of the park. 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.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that gave Yosemite to California as a public trust. Conservationist John Muir helped solidify public support for Yosemite, especially in his book The Yosemite. He described Yosemite as “a vast celestial city, not clothed with light but wholly composed of it.”

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When the roads are open as the snow melts, three side trips are worth considering.

Close to the valley, drive your car or ride the Park Service vehicle up to Glacier Point to enjoy a stunning bird’s eye view of the valley and its grand features. Midway up to Glacier Point, pause at Tunnel View to savor a classic perspective on the valley.

The drive over the High Country route along Highway 120 is an especially revealing immersion in spring. Succulent Tuolumne Meadows awakens as small pools of ice melt, gradually evaporating and percolating into fissures in the granite, stimulating the lush grassy domains so pleasing to a summer hiker. Yosemite’s bears appreciate the herbs that become one of their main food components of spring.

Wawona is a special area in the southern part of the park. Stop by the historic Wawona Hotel for a meal or lodging and pause nearby to see some of the inland sequoia trees, a species that is the most massive living thing on earth. The General Sherman tree in Sequoia Kings Canyon Park takes the superlative prize. The Wawona road was a main route into Yosemite in the early part of the park history.

The drive to Yosemite is about four hours from San Francisco. Google Maps takes you highway 580 to highway 205 to highway 120. Highway 120 is the road that goes into Yosemite Valley or, at a turn off, across the High Country and on to lovely Mono Lake and some other Eastern Sierra adventures, such as around Mammoth.

If the “off” season of spring appeals to you, consider returning in October for the parallel quiet time of fewer travelers and gorgeous nature display. Then the aspens will be showing their color and the herds of deer in Yosemite Valley will be wandering their way west to lower elevations, hoping to avoid the winter snow and ice.

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El Capitan, Ribbon Falls, and meadow from Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California
El Capitan, Ribbon Falls, and meadow from Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Valley in Late Spring: If You Go

For lodging and other information, contact Yosemite Reservations, 801-559-4884, http://www.yosemitepark.com.

The Park Service official website is http://www.nps.gov/yose.

For more detail, see my https://www.fostertravel.com/californias-yosemite-national-park/.

(This article will appear in one of Lee Foster’s new books for Spring 2016, which will be The 100 Top San Francisco/Bay Area Travel Attractions and The 100 Top Northern California Travel Attractions (Beyond the San Francisco/Bay Area). These projects will appear as printed books, ebooks, websites, articles, photos, and videos.)

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