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Nothing can prepare you for the jaw dropping moment when you drive in to Yosemite Valley for the very first time. I found myself on repeat with ‘wow, wow, wow’ as the sheer scale of the huge granite cliffs that loomed above us came in to view. Contrast that with the lush, greener than green meadows, the giant Sequoia forests and then… there are the waterfalls – oh my, breathtaking is the only word.
The Yosemite Valley floor forms a mere 5% of the overall size of the park but is where most people will start (and more often than not end) their visit – beyond is 1168 square miles of pure, untamed wilderness. The Valley is accessible by car and coach. You can quite literally just drive through it and there are plenty of viewpoints and detours that make the trip worthwhile – beyond the Valley floor don’t miss both Tunnel View and Glacier Point. To truly appreciate the beauty and epic scale of the place though you need to head out, and inevitably up, on foot.
If you are not staying in the Valley at one of the hotels, lodges or campsites, Yosemite Village is the day trippers base camp – there is ample parking and you are encouraged to leave your car and take the free shuttle buses to the various sightseeing points and trailheads. There are also lots of other amenities, information, loos etc including a really good Deli where you can pick up freshly made sandwiches for your picnic. If you are not sure of the best options, make your first stop the Visitor Centre, where you can pick up loads of useful information and get advice on all the options for different levels of fitness. There’s also a really useful 3D map on which rangers will point out and recommend hiking routes – its good to see what you will be up against before setting out. This is not a walk in the park!
On our first day in Yosemite we opted to tackle the Mist Trail which takes in Vernal and Nevada Falls. With the waterfalls in full flow, to get up close to two of them, seemed a good idea. Its a 5.4 mile round trip with 2000 feet elevation – it took us 5 hours in total, with lots of stops along the way to catch breath and take video/photos. It was very tough going in parts but was, in all honesty, the most thrilling hike I have ever done. So worth the effort.
The following day with, I confess, somewhat stiff limbs, we hired bikes to cycle out to Mirror Lake. Cycling is another great option to explore the Valley Floor. There is a 12 mile network of flat cycle paths and it’s a lovely way to cover plenty of ground whilst escaping the confines of a car and enjoying the fresh air, scenery and smells of the pine forests. The bikes they rent out are ‘beach bikes’, i.e. no gears and reverse pedal braking system.
We also took a guided van tour with Ken Boche from Yosemite Close Up Tours. The first part of the tour explored the Valley floor and even though we’d seen parts of it already, I have to say touring with a knowledgeable guide makes a world of difference – we’d missed so much. Most fascinating of all though was Ken’s insight in to the world of climbing – at a stop at El Capitan he casually threw in to the conversation that’s he’d climbed it numerous times in his 50 year climbing career. His first hand insight in to the trials and triumphs of climbing were fascinating and we felt privileged to be in his company. From there we then took the scenic drive from the Valley past Tunnel View and on up (and up) through the forests towards Glacier Point. More excitement en route with an unscheduled stop prompted by a ‘bear jam’. Less than 5% of visitors actually get to see a bear in the wild but a sudden flurry of cars pulled in off the road indicated we were about to get lucky. And there, sure enough, quite a way off but clearly visible was a ‘blond’ black bear, scavenging for termites in a rotten tree trunk. Such a thrill.
Back on track we finally arrived up at Glacier Point in time to watch the sunset. Dominating the view, the Half Dome, another of Ken’s climbing conquests and one he had first climbed almost 50 years to the day – what a guy! From Glacier Point, the view is unsurpassed and you really can appreciate the scale of the park and the awesomeness of it all. For us it was the perfect end to a very special two days.
Cathy flew to Oakland/San Francisco with Norwegian.com. Return fares for 2018 start from around c£360. Yosemite is around 3 hours drive from San Francisco. Her trip was organized by visitcalifornia.com in partnership with Yosemite National Park. See the latter for accommodation options in Yosemite/Mariposa. Entry to Yosemite National Park costs $30 for one car for up to 7 days. If you plan on visiting multiple US National Parks you might also want to consider the fantastic value America the Beautiful annual pass