Yosemite National Park, CA
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Yosemite National Park, CA

Spectacular scenery and stunning sunsets.

Crown Jewel of the Sierras

If you're thinking of visiting Yosemite next summer, think again. That's when more than 1.5 million visitors descend on this popular national park. Imagine how much more enjoyable this national treasure might be in fall or spring -- without all those people!

You could hike a quarter of a mile to the base of Bridalveil Fall without first jockeying for a parking spot. Or enjoy the majestic beauty of Mirror Lake, Happy Isles, or Vernal Fall Bridge without hitting pedestrian traffic jams.

For many families, fall, winter, and spring are when Yosemite -- east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada Mountains -- is at its best. In contrast to July and August, October and November are delightfully deserted. January and February are even better times to appreciate the park's breathtaking valley, towering granite domes, and giant sequoias.

Down in the Valley

Copyright Keith S.
Services Corp.

Whatever the time of year, your first stop should be Yosemite Valley, a mile-wide, 7-mile-long spot of superlative beauty. From here, you can see the park's most famous landmarks: Yosemite Falls (the tallest in North America), Bridalveil Fall, the granite cliffs of El Capitan (3,593 feet high), Half Dome, Royal Arches, and Sentinel Rock; the meandering Merced River, and grand meadows.

A couple of don't-miss sites in the valley include a moderate 1.4-mile hike up John Muir Trail to Vernal Fall Bridge and the stunning valley view from the Hwy 41 tunnel turnoff.

Roads Less Taken

Sunrise High Sierra Camp, copyright
Keith S. Walklet/Yosemite Consession
Services Corp.

Those who limit their stay to Yosemite Valley are missing some of the best parts of this Rhode Island-size park, all easily accessible by car:

  • Glacier Point
    This towering promontory overlooks Yosemite Valley from 3,214 feet up, a truly exhilarating view. The Badger Pass Ski Area, on the road to Glacier Point, offers downhill and cross-country skiing.
  • Mariposa Grove
    Located near the park's south entrance, this is the largest stand of giant sequoias in Yosemite and home of the Grizzly Giant, one of the largest of these trees in the world. Nearby Wawona and its Pioneer Yosemite History Center are a history buff's delights.
  • Tioga Pass
    At 9,945 feet on the park's eastern edge, it's the highest motor vehicle pass in California. Just west is Tuolumne Meadows, the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada. (Note: Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows close November 1 through mid-May.)
  • Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
    Visitors to this reservoir in the little-visited northwest area can easily cross O'Shaughnessy Dam on foot (3,814 feet across) and hike one mile beyond to the junction with Rancheria Fall Trail, enjoying views of the reservoir and two waterfalls tumbling into its waters.

Natural by Nature

Whatever the season, Yosemite offers plenty of outdoor activities for children of all ages. Here are our favorites:

  • Hiking
    Many easy trails start in Yosemite Valley. The 1-mile hike to Mirror Lake is a quick introduction to the forest, ending at the base of Half Dome. The 7-mile round-trip journey to the top of Nevada Fall offers more challenge. Kids 10 years and older are regularly spotted on this trail.
  • Cross-country skiing
    Badger Pass, Crane Flat, and Mariposa all have marked winter trails.
  • Ice skating
    The Curry Village Skating Rink is open from mid-November through early March.
  • Bicycling
    More than 12 miles of paved, flat bikeways wind through Yosemite Valley.
  • River rafting
    Children of all ages can drift down the cool, lazy Merced River in the summer.
  • Horseback riding
    Two-hour and half-day rides depart from stables in Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows and Wawona spring through fall, weather permitting.
  • Junior Rangers
    During the summer, kids 8 to 12 can join a park ranger in search of adventure and unusual places. A self-guided program is available year-round at the Valley Visitor Center.

Off-Season Scoop

Ice Skating at Curry
Ice Rink

Legend has it that conservationist John Muir shouted for joy when he first saw Yosemite. And many come here today seeking the same epiphany. But when summer arrives, Yosemite turns into a human parking lot. And instead of joyful shouts, most folks are fighting for parking space.

If you can only come in July or August, here's a tip: Go out early. The biggest crush of visitors hit the valley mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Also, try the less trafficked, but nearly as spectacular, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the historic community of Wawona, or the giant sequoias of Crane Flat -- all easily accessible by car.

The Bear Facts

People aside, it's bears you really have to worry about here. A fellow visitor might fight you for the same parking spot, but a hungry bear will turn your car into scrap metal.

Visitors who value their lives and their belongings should heed park officials' advice: Never feed a bear, and never leave food in your car, cabin, or campsite overnight. At Curry Village, the park service broadcasts a video of bears breaking into cars and campsites -- advance warning of what lies ahead for unwary guests.

If you're camping, use plastic, bear-resistant canisters. They can be rented at Curry Village and other areas throughout the park. Or you can buy them in sporting goods stores.


Type of travel: Outdoor, educational, adventure

Best ages: All but infants and toddlers

Ideal trip length: Long weekend

Best time to go: Autumn and late spring -- there's good weather and fewer visitors.

Distance: San Francisco (180 miles); Los Angeles (300 miles)

Weather: Average temperatures in Yosemite Valley range from 90/54 degrees in July and August to 49/26 in January. Higher elevations are cooler and get more snow. Carry a sweater.

Lodging: From a basic tent cabin with nearby bathroom to the Ahwahnee, a National Historic Landmark. Reserve early.

Squirm factor: None

If You Go...

Yosemite National Park:

General park/Concession information Phone: 209-372-0200


Hotel reservations Phone: 559-252-4848 Campgrounds Phone: 800-436-7275

Rental equipment:

Half Dome

  • Biking
    Available spring through fall at Curry Village, 209-372-8319.
  • Fishing
    Season starts the last Saturday in April and continues through mid-Nov. Yosemite Village Sport Shop sells licenses and gear.
  • Rafting
    The Merced River opens end of May through sometime in July, depending on water level. Rafts are available at Curry Village, 209-372-8341.
  • Horseback riding
    Valley Stables, 209-372-8326; Tuolumne Meadows Stables, 209-372-8427; Wawona Stables, 209-375-6502.
  • Winter sports
    Downhill and cross-country rental equipment at Badger Pass Sports Shop, 209-372-8444; Ice-skating rentals at Curry Village Ice Rink, 209-372-8341. Ski Conditions (Badger Pass), 209-372-1000.

Horsetail Falls

Junior Rangers: Pick up a Junior Ranger activity paper at the Valley Visitor Center.

Best activities for kids: Curry Centennial Scavenger Hunt; stop by anytime at the front desk at Curry Village for instructions.

Best activities for adults: Two-hour escorted photography walk, hosted three or four times a week on the valley floor. Sign-up at the tour desks scattered throughout the valley.

Getting around: Although cars are allowed in Yosemite Valley, you're far better off parking in one of the lots and taking the free shuttle bus service, available year-round. Free shuttle bus service is provided throughout Yosemite Valley. In summer, free shuttle buses run from Wawona to the Mariposa Grove, and from Tioga Pass to Tenaya Lake.

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: El Capitan Meadow, a large, less-populated spot framed by the Merced River and the sheer face of El Capitan rock.

Local food: Campfire-toasted marshmallows.

Best souvenirs: Traditional Native American dolls and games at the Indian Cultural Exhibit gift shop. Puppets of endangered species at the Yosemite Association Museum Shop.

Traffic alert: Three high-country roads -- Tioga Road, Glacier Point Road beyond the Badger Pass Ski Area, and the short road to Mariposa Grove -- generally close after the first major snowstorm (around Nov. 1) and reopen by Memorial Day weekend. Road and Weather Information, Phone: 209-372-0200


Side Trips

Gold Country

Before Silicon Valley began minting tycoons, there was Jamestown. No one's getting rich here anymore, but this rustic town located at the heart of Gold Rush Country is still a big draw. Visitors come for its authentic Wild West buildings and to soak up some ore lore. There's also Railtown 1897, a state historical park with steam locomotives you can sometimes ride, and a roundhouse. 60 miles northwest of Yosemite on Hwy 49 Phone: 209-984-3953


Reviewed April 2004.