If you only get to visit one national park in your life, make it Yosemite. I have visited over 20 national parks, and while they all are jewels of beauty and inspiration, Yosemite is the most magnificent of them all. Once there, it will be immediately obvious to you why John Muir was moved to write so many breathless wordgasms about this place. I made my first pilgrimage there three years ago and I am certain I will go back at least once more. Let’s take a look at some of the park’s highlights and also some logistics that can help you plan your own Yosemite adventure.
Accommodations: Staying at or near Yosemite can be tricky. Considering it is located in densely populated California, it is no surprise that Yosemite’s trails and campgrounds become choked with hikers and gawkers during the high season, and these hordes need places to stay. Your best bets are to visit during the offseason (which means less people but some of the higher elevation roads and trails may still be under several feet of snow), or else make your campsite/hotel reservations nearly a year in advance.
I did not make a campsite reservation in time, so I was forced to stay in a hotel in nearby Oakhurst, CA. Usually I would have preferred the solitude of my tent, but given the sea of tourists in Yosemite, I didn’t mind staying outside the park. Next time, however, I will be camped within the park’s boundaries somewhere.
If you have money to burn, stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel in the park, it is outrageously gorgeous. But if you’re not Bill Gates, reserve a campsite. There are also other lodges in the park and plenty of hotels in the nearby communities, so you will find something, just don’t wait too long to procure your own space.
Can’t miss sights: You could spend lifetimes soaking in all of the scenic offerings in Yosemite, but the following are my favorites:
To see trees that will cause your head to explode, visit the Mariposa Grove. If you’ve never seen a giant sequoia in person before, be sure you do it before you die; they are incredible. While some moronic scientists claim that a stand of aspen trees in Utah is the largest organism on Earth due to their shared root system, that is a bunch of crap. Giant sequoias are the largest living individuals on the planet, and some of the oldest ones have been around for over 2,000 years.
Well-maintained walking paths wind along through the grove, ushering you past icons of arboreal immensity such as the Grizzly Giant, a sequoia whose largest branch has a diameter larger than that of the trunk of any non-sequoia tree in the area. Uh, yeah, these trees are insane.
Once you have untwisted your brain from attempting to comprehend a sequoia’s dimensions, either drive yourself or take a shuttle bus up a narrow noodle of asphalt to get to Glacier Point, a high elevation overlook that towers 3,200 feet over the Yosemite Valley. You can sit for hours staring at the stark gray Sierra Nevada granite formations, the tumbling silver strings that are Vernal, Nevada, and Yosemite Falls, and the evergreen-carpeted wedge of Yosemite Valley. It never gets old.
If the Tioga Road is clear of snow (it goes up to 10,000 feet), head up to even higher elevations to see Tuolumne Meadows. Here, the gin-clear Tuolumne River curls and loops through an open sub-alpine meadow as granite promontories peek up over the surrounding treetops. Inhale the crisp mountain air deeply as you take a relaxing hike along the gravel paths, or bring your fly fishing gear and find out if any of the wild brown or rainbow trout are in a gullible mood.
Now that you have sampled some of Yosemite’s appetizers, it is time for the main course: the Yosemite Valley. Yes, there will be armies of shot glass-buying tourists and limited parking spots, but trust me, no matter what you have to endure, it will be well worth it.
On your way down to the valley, be sure to stop at Tunnel View, from where the most well-known and awe-inspiring image of Yosemite is taken. El Capitan hulks over the valley off to the left, Half Dome sticks it bald head up in the center distance, and Bridalveil Fall arches over a cliff in the right foreground, all of which create an arresting frame for the soft green swath of pines crowding the valley floor below. You will not be the same after seeing this in person.
Now you can head down to the valley floor. There is a four lane road that provides breathing room for the buzzing traffic and you can pull off almost anywhere to marvel at any one of the countless marvels. There is 3,000 foot high El Capitan with its sheer bare granite walls. Water falls such as Bridalveil, Nevada, Vernal, and Yosemite (upper and lower) plummet from skyward ledges, sending rainbow mists sheeting through the treetops.
Take your time absorbing these scenic singularities, and as you move from place to place there will be new views of them to refresh your amazement. Listen to the Merced River slosh along, or dip a foot in to cool your blood and hence your entire body. Stroll by one of the many fragrant meadows to spot wildflowers or just enjoy the open view of the valley walls. Grab some grub from one of the numerous vendors and have a seat at a picnic table for an unforgettable dining experience. Linger, loiter, imprint the memories so thoroughly in your brain that any pictures you take become needlessly redundant to you.
The next time I go, I plan on exploring the backcountry with backpack and hiking boot as my home and mode of transportation, respectively. There are endless trails and hidden gems of comeliness within Yosemite’s wilds, and once you’ve seen the major mindblowing sights by car, going in on foot (if you can) is the next logical step. In the backcountry there is fast fishing for the ichthyologically inclined, infinite vistas for the shutterbuggish, and rock climbing for the clinically insane. (Just kidding climbers; I don’t have the guts to do what you do.) If you get bored in Yosemite you are beyond hope.
Summary: In my estimation, Yosemite National Park is the finest in America, if not the world. With some thoughtful planning and research you can create a low-stress, high-astonishment vacation that will always be remembered as one of your greatest. One visit to the soul-lightening loveliness of Yosemite will have you too wondering what the hell Yosemite Sam was so angry about. To be in Yosemite is to have a smile on your face—and in your heart.