Yosemite National Park is a true California gem. Located in central California on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, it is larger than most people know (it's about the size of Rhode Island!). Its tall waterfalls, granitic rocks, and glacier-carved rolling hills also make it a unique and incredibly beautiful environment. Whether you're into camping, hiking, climbing, rafting, skiing, or nature photography, you won't be disappointed.
Cut by the Merced river, Yosemite Valley is probably the most well-known area of the park. It was the Mariposa Sequoia Grove in this valley that Abraham Lincoln established as the nation's first state park in 1864. Later in 1890, Yosemite became a national park.
Yosemite is one of the most visited parks in the U.S. Because of this, crowds can sometimes hinder one's enjoyment of this breathtaking landscape. But don't fear. For reasons no one is quite sure of, the park has seen 20% fewer visitors in 2006 than 1996. This is good news for first time visitors to this national treasure. Also, if you pay attention to some of the basic tips, you'll have a great chance of coming away with a rewarding and enjoyable Yosemite experience...
What is the Best Time to Visit Yosemite?
First, summer is tourist season... avoid it. If you visit in Mid-May to mid-September, you'll be looking at dense crowds (and denser traffic) especially in Yosemite Valley. Not to mention that it can get uncomfortably hot. If you must visit in summer, avoid weekends and holidays. Also you would need to make your reservations for lodging and camping several months in advance.
So when should you visit? Early May is your best choice for maximum beauty with minimal crowds. Late September is good too, but the waterfalls are not nearly as full. Now if you're the adventurous type, Yosemite is gorgeous in February, and quite empty of tourists. The downside? You need to carry tire chains, and there is always a danger of the roads closing.
Things to Do
Or "El Cap" as it's sometimes called. If you're a rock climber, you already know about this one. This is the largest piece of exposed granite in the world. It's a half-mile high and about one mile wide. If you want to climb it, climb it in spring. In summer, it bakes like an oven.
This is what most people think of when they think of Yosemite. This peak rises 4,737 from the valley floor. The Half Dome Cables Route hike is 8.5 miles from the floor to the top, making it one of the more lengthy and difficult hiking trails. Because of this, the general public tends to avoid this trail, even though the view from the top is incredible. However, despite the difficulty level (or perhaps becasue of it), it does draw plenty of hiking enthusiasts.
I already mentioned this one - it's home to the Giant Sequoias, one of the biggest (though Redwoods tend to be taller) and oldest botanical life forms on Earth. Some of these trees are over 2,500 years old. And the greatest of the them have trunk diameters of over 30 feet!
At 2,425 feet, this is the highest waterfall in North America. Actually it is a series of 3 waterfalls: The Upper Falls, the Cascades, and the Lower Falls. The Lower Falls are easliy accesible, the Upper Falls can be reached with a hike, and the Cascades are pretty much inaccessible.
So named because on occasion the water vaporizes before it reaches bottom, giving it the appearance of a bridal veil. Also, there is a legend that inhaling the mists of Bridalveil Fall would improve one's chances of getting married.
Probably your best photo opportunity at Yosemite. Here you get not only a great view of Half Dome, but of other domes, peaks, pines, firs, and waterfalls as well.
With it's beautiful surroundings, this is a great area for camping, fishing, hiking, and mountain-climbing. Nature walks and evening campfire programs are scheduled seasonally.
Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
With its thousand foot steep walls, lush vegetation and abundant wildlife, this is more of the classic wilderness area of Yosemite. In addition, many vibrant waterfalls are found here. Waterwheel Falls is one of these, named for a circular "wheel" of water that appears when wind and river conditions are just right.
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad
Though it's technically not in the park but just south of it, this historic railroad is sometimes referred to as the Yosemite train. Vintage steam locomotives haul visitors through the majestic Sierra National Forest.
Park admission fee: $20/car. Annual National Park Passes (all U.S. national parks and federal recreation areas can be purchased for $80.
If you're planning on staying overnight in the outdoors, you can pick up a free Wilderness permit at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center.
You can find tour bus information at the Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite village.
A free shuttle is in operation in east part of Yosemite Valley.
If you want to fish anywhere in the park, you'll need a California fishing license.
In winter, Badger Pass offers downhill and cross-country skiing. Snowshoe tours are also available.
Tram tours are offered in the summer. Reservations can be made at Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge, and the Ahwahnee Hotel. Guided horseback tours are also available.
Okay, so there are lots of websites where you can find detailed information on the various hiking trails at Yosemite. This isn't one of them. Instead, I'll just tell you your best bets for seeing some absolutely beautiful scenery...
The most easily recommended hike in Yosemite Valley (especially for first-time visitors) is Artist Point. There, I said it. Now this is only my opinion and I'm sure there are those who will disagree with me, but what I'm basing this on is its relatively easy difficulty (it's only 2 miles), stunning scenery, and lack of large crowds.
Or are you the hardcore adventure hiker? Then you have to go with Half Dome. Just make sure you are prepared, because this one is not for the faint of heart (or the weak of body). Did I mention this a 10-14 hour hike? And yet despite the extreme difficulty, this hike attracts large crowds. Must be because of the amazing views, and stories you'll have to tell (if you survive).