What's so fabulous about Yosemite? It’s got dozens of incomparable meadows and more than a hundred lakes, plus waterfalls as tall as a 200-story building, trees the size of rocket ships, gorgeous mountains, 800 miles of trails and even a few beaches. It’s bigger than a handful of European countries and nearly the size of Rhode Island.
We have been wanting to spend time in Yosemite for a long time, but because you need to reserve a camping spot a very long time in advance and because there wasn’t cell signal in the Valley and that we could not be there during the week when we need to work, we never made it. We found out there is good signal in the Valley where the campgrounds are located, but the download was pretty bad… but it was on a busy Sunday afternoon, so it might be just fine during the week when there is less usage. So we only came in for a day to get a feel of Yosemite. I don’t know how I thought I could get a *feel* for such a special place in one day among a huge crowd of people (I don’t do well in crowds. At all.).
I believe that to really get a feel for Yosemite, you need to hike deep into it, to explore its wilder corners, to see half-dome from the top, to fall asleep and wake up on its ground. Walking in the Valley and hiking up to the very crowded Lower Fall didn’t provide this experience, and I knew it wouldn’t, but that’s all we could do this year.
I remember feeling a bit like that the first time I went to the Grand Canyon (after months of exploring Utah’s hidden slot canyons and less busy National Parks – at the time). It felt impersonal, it didn’t touch me until I walked down into the canyon before sunrise and could start feeling its immensity as the sun rose. It was the same thing for Zion. The first time we went there, we rode the shuttle, hiked a few shorter trails (the girls were little) and even if I could see its beauty, I didn’t fall in love with it until the next time we went and hiked all the way up to Observation Point very early in the morning without the crowd. And the third time, when I hiked the Narrows, again early in the morning.
We didn’t bring our climbing gear because it didn’t make sense to for only a day, but it was so impressive to watch climbers on these beautiful tall granite walls. Again, I expected to be moved by the fact that rock climbing really began here in the Valley in the 60’s with all the now iconic climbers living at Camp 4. I expected that I would feel something special walking through Camp 4, looking at El Cap and Half Dome, but I didn’t really. I mean, they are beautiful and impressive, but as a climber (a very occasional one), I guess I expected to feel something more… and maybe I would if I had climbed there. Just scrolling through my Instagram feed as we waited in line for over 30 minutes to get out of the park, I could see that many amazing *famous* climbers that I follow were there and climbing boulders and walls as we droved and walked past some of them…
If your schedule allows it, visit the valley on weekdays and spend your weekends exploring other parts of Yosemite. You can drive or take free shuttle buses to much of the valley, but most enjoyable way to get around in the Valley is probably by bikes. If you didn’t bring your own bike, you can rent one at Curry Village, near the east end of Yosemite Valley and look funny wandering around the valley on these big cruiser bikes.
There are four non-camping options in Yosemite Valley: the $500-a-night Ahwahnee Hotel, the Yosemite Lodge, the cabins and tent cabins at Curry Village, and the quirky tent/house hybrids at the Housekeeping Camp. Good luck getting into any of them in the summer without a reservation well in advance, though. Same thing for the campgrounds… The Upper Pines, Lower Pines and North Pines campgrounds contain 379 campsites between them. There is also the famous Camp 4, a tent-only group campground mostly used by climbers, where the rock climbing in America began.
Traffic can get severely backed up on summer weekends, particularly in the eastern end of the valley. Once traffic gets heavy, the park service will reserve lanes for official park vehicles (ambulances, shuttle buses, and the like), and though you can see why they'd want to do that, it does tend to compound traffic issues. Try to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm to avoid getting stuck in traffic, and once you're in the valley, find a parking spot ASAP and then either walk or take the free shuttle buses to get around in the valley.
Most people enter the park through the West (near Fresno), but the drive from Mono Lake (East) through the Tioga Pass is beautiful. Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows are gorgeous and there are more hikes along the Tioga Road than in any other part of Yosemite, namely the very famous Cathedral Lake hike. The thing is, most hikes are either very long or very short in Yosemite (and the very short ones are very crowded and not that exciting in my opinion).
Because it was formed by glaciation, the valley walls are sheer and high, leading to world-famous cliffs: El Capitan, a mountain-climbing mecca, rises more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) virtually straight up from the Yosemite Valley floor, and Half Dome looms 4,800 feet (1,600) meters above.