Yosemite forever changed Muir. Soaring granite monoliths, icy streams that tumble like feathers over cliffs, stately groves of sequoias, and wildlife around every bend. Muir championed Yosemite not just for its natural beauty, but its ecological significance, too—a template for dozens of national parks that followed.
May is typically the best month to see the valley’s 20-plus waterfalls, when snowmelt runoff peaks. By fall, some of the cataracts are reduced to a trickle. Yosemite Falls’ lower portion is known for its moonbow—a lunar rainbow—under cloudless full moons in April, May, and June. The foot of the falls is a 15-minute stroll from the parking lot; the view from the top is a six- to eight-hour, 3.6-mile climb with more than a half-mile increase in elevation.
You could return every year and never experience all of Yosemite.
Six days younger than Sequoia. The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were first set aside in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln as protected state reserves. The grove was incorporated into the park in 1906.
3.7 million in 2013
The third-busiest after Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon; July is the most crowded month, January the least.
1,169 square miles, or about 1½ times the size of Orange County; 95 percent is designated wilderness.
$20 for a seven-day vehicle permit.
Fill ’er up in the flatlands: Expect to pay 75 cents to $1 a gallon more at the park’s three gas stations, only one of which (Wawona) is open year-round. The valley floor gets crowded; use the free shuttle buses.
Hot Tip No. 1
Some of the most spectacluar views on the valley floor are at dawn and dusk on the Sentinel Bridge. Rising morning mists and twilight’s first stars add to the setting.
Hot Tip No. 2
The turnout at Tunnel View on Wawona Road offers spectacular views, but you can avoid the mob. Park in the upper parking lot and procede up the trailhead toward Inspiration Point. A few yards up the steep path will give you the same grandiouse view of El Cap, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Cathedral Rocks.
The Miwoks, who lived outside the valley, referred to the Paiute, who lived in the valley, as “yehemite,” which translates as “some among them are killers.”
The only year-round casual-dining option is Degnan’s Deli, a stop on the free shuttle route, which serves a variety of good deli sandwiches ($7 to $8), salads, vegetarian, and gourmet foods. Relive your youth with an ice cream Drumstick.
A menu of American classics awaits at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls’ Mountain Room. Trout almondine ($25), a glass of vino, and a slice of mud pie ($9) are the perfect end to a day on the trail. The adjoining lounge has a full bar and serves lighter fare, while an assortment of hot and cold meals can be found in the food court. You don’t have to be a guest at the historical Ahwahnee Hotel to enjoy the sumptuous Sunday brunch, served 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in its dining room ($45; kids $15). If you can only afford one splurge, this is it.
$5 to $20
1,445 sites at 13 campgrounds, seven of which take reservations at recreation.gov.
Curry Village (seasonal; $39 to $168), with 485 cabins and tent-cabins, 18 stoneman rooms, a pool and restaurant, is the family favorite. More substantial lodging can be found at the updated 245-room Yosemite Lodge at the Falls ($99 to $208). For deluxe accommodations, try the 123-room Ahwahnee Hotel ($399 to $1,106), or book a room 40 miles south of the valley at the landmark Wawona Hotel (seasonal; $99 to $217), a collection of shake-roof Victorian-era buildings amid ancient trees.
Harder than booking a room at one of Mariposa’s half-dozen bargain motels about 48 miles east of the park is getting a table at the upscale Savoury’s Restaurant for Friday or Saturday dinner ($15 to $26). But, it’s worth the wait. Next morning, grab a booth at the Sugar Pine Cafe. for breakfast ($5 to $13) and treat yourself to homemade biscuits with honey. South of the park, at Fish Camp, is the Tenaya Lodge, a large resort with several dining options, but if an overpriced ho-hum burger ($15) and inattentive service at Jackalope’s Bar & Grill is any indication, keep driving.
Looking for solitude in the forest? Visit the remote Merced Grove of about 20 sequoias. Take one of the walking sticks left by other hikers at the signpost in the 10-space parking lot. It’s an easy 1½-mile stroll down an old carriage road to the titans—but it’s uphill all the way back, a 600-foot elevation gain.
Hikers on the way to the top of 317-foot Vernal Fall must share the steep, slippery, narrow trail with those on the way down. Says one who decided it safer to take the longer, upriver return via Nevada Fall: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life besides childbirth.”
Arch Rock, Hetch Hetchy, Mirror Lake, Mariposa Grove, Tunnel View, the valley and the falls.
California wolverine, Pacific fisher, Sierra Nevada big horn sheep, Yosemite toad.
Bears, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, rodents carrying the hantavirus.
The Wawona Tunnel Tree, hollowed in 1881 for visitors to drive through, toppled under a record snowload in 1969. Rangers say the tunnel in its base may have shaved 1,000 years off the tree’s lifespan.
Merced River at 2,105 feet, to 13,114-foot Mount Lyell.
29 to 48 in January, to 57 to 89 degrees in July.
A trace in June through August, to 6 to 7 inches in January and February.
Those boulders as big as gas stations all come from above. In 1996, a 162,000-ton granite slab broke loose from Glacier Point and plummeted onto the Happy Isles area, creating a blast of air that knocked over 500 trees, killing one man and injuring four other people. More recent slides have slammed into Curry Village.
More Falling Rock
Route 140 out of Mariposa traces the Merced River, the canyon walls narrowing as you head east. Near the park, you’ll have to dodge the 2006 Ferguson Landslide that buried the highway over four solid days of slides—and it’s still moving. You’ll be routed across the river to the old railroad bed and back on one-lane bridges by what one local describes as “the only traffic lights in Mariposa County.” You may wait 15 minutes for a green.
In 1900, about 5,000 tourists paid $75 for a two-day trek from Merced to the park by rail and-stagecoach. Today more than 1 million visitors a year make that same trip by auto in five hours.
Ahwahnee Hotel, 1 Ahwahnee Drive, Yosemite National Park 95389, 801-559-4884, yosemitepark.com/the-ahwahnee.aspx
Curry Village, 9010 Curry Village Drive, Yosemite National Park 95389, 801-559-4884, yosemitepark.com/curry-village.aspx
Degnan’s Deli, 9015 Village Drive, Yosemite National Park 95389, 09-372-8454,
Jackalope Bar & Grill, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, 1122 Route 41, Fish Camp 93623, 559-683-6555, tenayalodge.com
Mountain Room Restaurant & Lounge, 209-372-1403, yosemitepark.com/mountain-room-restaurant.aspx
Savoury’s Restaurant, 5034 Route 140, Mariposa, 209-966-7677, savouryrestaurant.com
Sugar Pine Cafe, 5038 Route 140, Mariposa, 209-742-7793, sugarpinecafe.com
Wawona Dining Room, 801-559-4935,
Wawona Hotel, 8308 Wawona Road, Yosemite National Park 95389, 801-559-4884, yosemitepark.com/wawona-hotel.aspx
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, 9006 Yosemite Lodge Drive, Yosemite National Park 95389, 801-559-4884, yosemitepark.com/yosemite-lodge.aspx
Yosemite National Park, nps.gov/yose/
Photographs by Gary Crabbe
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.