Yosemite National Park
|Half Dome at dusk in Yosemite National Park, California (Don Smith/Photodisc/Getty) (Kennan Ward)|
In 1851, in an attempt to subdue a group of Indian people, the state-sanctioned Mariposa Battalion entered Yosemite Valley. They became the first group of non-Indians to record their entry into the Valley, but their descriptions of it ensured they would not be the last. One man later wrote, "None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley can even imagine... the awe with which I beheld it. ... As I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion."
Yosemite Valley is today the centerpiece of California's Yosemite National Park. Sprayed by thousand-foot waterfalls and framed by monumental granite spires—including Half Dome, which is to the High Sierra what the swoosh is to Nike—it is the most famous glacially carved landscape in the world. And perhaps the most famously overrun as well; stories are legion of peak-season traffic jams bad enough to provoke road rage and campgrounds so rife with noise, litter, and teeming masses of humans as to seem more like Times Square than the Great Outdoors.
But such follies seem puny and insignificant in the presence of this landscape. Your first glance of Yosemite Valley will rock you way back on your heels, just as it did to those men 150 years ago. And millions of hikers, climbers, and skiers journey to Yosemite Valley every year to bask in that same exalted glow. What is the short-form explanation behind this hold on the human imagination? Yosemite's landscape lays bare a kind of time—real geological time—that is simply much bigger than we are.
And of course there is a lot more to this marquee national park than just the valley. From the peak-ringed and wildflower-studded Tuolumne Meadows to the Mariposa Grove's gargantuan sequoias, from the rushing waters of the Merced River to the huge views from Glacier Point, you'll find cause for wonder in every corner of Yosemite.
Backpack the High Country
At over 8,600 feet in elevation, Tuolumne Meadows offers a break from the heat and crowds of the more popular areas of the park. We guarantee that anyone who walked every mile of Tuolumne trail would simply start over again given the chance, but assuming you're not able to make this a full-time job you'll want to hit a few highlights. One doozy is the 14-mile path to Cloud's Rest—this is undoubtedly among the most beautiful hikes in the world. The trail starts at Tenaya Lake and ends at the tip-top of a granite precipice, surrounded on three sides by wind and nothingness. The valley is seemingly miles below, and you'll feel as though you could reach out and touch Yosemite's most famous rocks, Half-Dome and El Capitan. Others to try: trips to Soda Springs, Parsons Lodge, or Elizabeth Lake are shorter and less strenuous; Dog Lake and Lembert Dome are short on mileage but long on effort.
More on high-country hiking in Yosemite NP
Walk among the Big Trees
Giant sequoias are the largest living things on earth, and are among the oldest; a tree like Yosemite's Grizzly Giant—a 30-foot-thick monster that's 2,700 years old and stands as tall as a 20-story building—has survived major climate vacillations and vast change to the species with which it shares the forest. This tree lives among the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, near the Wawona region of Yosemite, just inside the southern border of the park. A stroll through the hush of this forest primeval can be every bit as awe-inspiring as the cliffs and cascades of Yosemite Valley. Two other comparably mighty but much quieter giant-sequoia forests in the park are the Merced and Tuolumne Groves; both are near Crane Flat.
More on the ecosystem of Yosemite NP
View Spring Waterfalls
Yosemite is famous for its majestic waterfalls, most notably Bridal Veil, Vernal, and Yosemite Falls. The best time to see them is in late spring, when winter snows melt into surging runoff and a raging plunge of mist and rainbows. Bridal Veil is a quick, 1/2-mile, 20-minute jaunt up from the heart of the Yosemite Valley. It's an easy hike, and from the top there are great views of Cathedral Rock and El Capitan as well. Yosemite Falls is also an easy hike, and about the same distance. At the top, you will be able to see both Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls. Vernal Falls is much more difficult to get to, but the spectacular views—rivaling only those at Cloud's Rest—are well worth it. It's a steep, six-mile hike, but much of it is paved. Make sure to take a poncho, as the spray is tremendous and you will definitely get wet. Once you get to the bridge marking the end of the pavement, you can keep going and loop around Nevada Falls, too, using either the John Muir Trail or the Mist Trail.
More on day hikes to waterfalls in Yosemite NP
Climb the Rock Chief
First, the facts: Known universally as "El Cap," El Capitan is the largest chunk of exposed granite on earth. Comprised of two intersecting faces, it's a half-mile high and a mile wide. The rock is famously solid. And its sheer 3,000-foot face is the world's finest big-wall climbing surface—and indisputably the number-one totem of the American climbing community. Warren Harding pioneered the first route to the summit, "The Nose," in 1958; there are now some 80 established routes to the top, many of them multi-pitch monsters that demand extreme aid-climbing skills and require nights bivvied on the rock. Springtime is the best time to climb El Cap; the days are long and the weather is often perfect for weeks at a time. By June, the wall can be an inferno due to high temperatures. By September, the days are too short and the nights can be chilly. Old Camp 4 is the traditional climbers' camp, and no reservations are taken there. But as Yosemite is frequently very crowded, you might want to make advance reservations at another nearby site.
More on climbing Yosemite's El Capitan
Skinny-Ski Crane Flat
Yosemite's backcountry is one of the world's great cross-country skiing destinations, and Crane Flat—a broad meadow with miles of unbroken snow in all directions—is one of its three winter hubs. At about 6,000 feet, it requires better snow cover than the higher-elevation Tuolumne Meadows and Badger Pass areas, but when the weather's right Crane Pass offers an exceptionally diverse array of backcountry trails for all levels of skiers. Among the highlights: Tuolumne Grove, where the frozen silence of winter lends a deeper dignity to a forest of immense giant sequoias; the Crane Flat Meadow Loop, which gives a gentle roller-coaster ride that novice skiers can handle; and Crane Flat Lookout, a fire-lookout station offering up eye-popping views in every direction. Make sure to check with park rangers before you set out—winter in Yosemite is beautiful, but ruthless; the wise skier prepares accordingly.
More on cross-country skiing in Yosemite NP
Published: 23 Oct 2008
The details, dates, and prices mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication.
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Beautiful Descriptions! Thanks for all the info. I've heard of Yosemite National Park all of my life. I'm 54 now and still have never been there. Now, I really want to see it in person!:)
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