Now that summer is winding down and the kids are getting ready to go back to school, now is the time to head to Yosemite National Park—a treasure by all standards.
A little history lesson: First populated by the Miwok, gold seekers began to make their way west, only to be flabbergasted by the steep cliffs jutted up from the earth, with veils of waterfalls spraying the valley below. News reached naturalist John Muir, who, like most visitors, became smitten with the region; he then wrote a passionate letter to then President Roosevelt—a move that coupled with a hiking trip with the head honcho himself, earned Yosemite its protected status. Today, the park surely experiences wear and tear from the thousands who visit each summer, turning this peaceful oasis into a sort of Disneyland; however, the chance to experience the shock of beauty does not pale regardless of how long you must wait for a park shuttle.
Where to stay: Check into Curry Village—a massive community of cabins and rustic canvas tent cabins with beds. More summer camp than hotel, summer evenings include ranger shows, pizza and beer nights, and stargazing, as well as the occasional bear sighting.
To feel like a dignitary, check into the stone Ahwahnee Hotel—a mountain palace favored by presidents. Though rooms are decorated in Native American motifs atop comfy beds, you’ll likely spend your downtime in the lofty lounge, or in the bar sipping wine.
The Best of Itinerary: In the morning, hop onto the Yosemite Shuttle, which, though it may seem easier to drive to destinations, in summer, the park fills with cars and tour buses, and it can take away precious hiking time by trying to secure parking. Also, the shuttle gains access to roads that cars cannot enter, making the hikes shorter (so you can fit more sightseeing in).
Take a short—though rewarding—walk to Lower Yosemite Falls (the fifth highest waterfall in the world). It is possible to trek up to the Upper Falls, though this is a very strenuous hike (if you plan to do this, check with the visitor center in advance for details and scratch the rest of the day’s itinerary).
After you explore the dramatic falls, the shuttle takes you to the Visitor Center in the village. Here you can gain information about wildlife and trails fits for your abilities. Grab deli sandwiches at Dengan’s Deli before getting back on the shuttle for your big hike of the day.
Get off the shuttle at Happy Isles, which, in summer, is an interpretive nature center favored by families. Follow the crowds up to the Vernal Falls hike. To access the footbridge, the trail is 1.6 miles of a very steep climb. The rewards of viewing the spewing waterfall, as well as the misty shower you receive upon arrival, draw thousands. If you have more energy, continue for another 1.6 miles to the top where a cold alpine pool awaits.
By this point you’ll likely want to rest those dogs. Pop into the Yosemite Lodge’s Bar for a cocktail with unsurpassed views of the Yosemite Falls. Follow up with dinner (reservations are required in summer) at the Mountain Room Restaurant, which honors local produce and serves imaginative mountain cuisine—think pistachio crusted trout or mole smothered steak.
After a fitful sleep hugged by granite peaks, wake to the joy of knowing you will eat a brunch served to presidents and kings at the Ahwahnee Hotel. The classic all you can eat buffet—complete with ice sculptures, heaps of shellfish, and any type of griddle fare or omelet you can imagine—comes at a whopping cost, but sitting with a view of the valley as you sip mimosas is one of those memorable Yosemite moments.
Jump in the car and head over to Bridalveil Falls to take an easy twenty-minute stroll up to this spectacular waterfall. Right near the falls, connect to CA-41 south toward Wawona until you reach the popular Mariposa sequoia grove. Parking can be tricky during high season, but an easy 1.6-mile walk through these giant trees make up for the annoyance of waiting for a parking spot. This is where John Muir took Ralph Waldo Emerson hiking and has inspired its share of poetry.
This itinerary has been excerpted from Backroads and Byways of Northern California.
For more in depth coverage of Yosemite and its surrounding region, purchase a copy of Northern California: An Explorer’s Guide.