YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Thanks to COVID-19 restrictions now is the perfect time to head to Yosemite National Park.
That’s because the gradual reopening that started in the past couple of weeks is limiting access to only 1,700 vehicles — half the normal traffic this time of year. That means less congestion and more enjoyment.
You’ll need to go online to Recreation.gov to secure a reservation date and a seven-day pass for $30. Your best bet is to try for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday date when demand appears to be lightest.
And if you are among those who have lived in the Northern San Joaquin Valley for at least a year and can utter the words — “I have never been to Yosemite” — this is an ideal time to go.
I find it unfathomable that someone within 150 minutes travel time of arguably one of the world’s most incredible and accessible natural wonders have never taken the opportunity to check it out. I’m sure that the 4.5 million visitors to Yosemite in 2019 — many who came from Europe and Asia — would probably think the same thing.
I’ll be the first to admit even in years that I have racked up a dozen trips to Yosemite that I avoid Yosemite Valley — the place where perhaps 95 percent of the visitors are drawn for obvious reasons — like the plague between May and October except when I want to hike out of the valley to the rim. That’s when 75 percent of the annual visitors descend on Yosemite. Although the national park has 747,956 square miles, almost every one of those visitors heads to the main attractions within the walls of the six square miles that make up Yosemite Valley. There is a reason why Yosemite’s official site warns visitors this time of year expect two to three hour delays in traffic once you reach Yosemite’s boundaries as well as enter the valley on weekends or afternoons on weekdays.
Now that you’ve heard my reservations for going this time of year, ignore them. That’s because the pandemic has not only put a lid on daily visitors that is half what you can usually expect but that travel is still on the rebound. That is likely to make weekend visits more pleasant by mid-week visits even less crowded.
The waterfalls are past their peaks but still running fairly strong, the park’s largest stand of sequoias — the Mariposa Grove — has been renovated and the path to my beloved high country via Tioga Road is open although reservations are now needed to drive the road if you are heading onto Mono Lake.
What you’re about to read is basically a one day whirlwind tour of the top draws of Yosemite that can be done with mostly flat walking and driving or catching the free trams. The only suggestion — a walk at least partway up the Mist Trail to see Vernal Fall from a footbridge across the Merced River or climb the stone steps to the top where you are likely to see a rainbow along the way or going all the way to Nevada Fall — is included even though it requires a bit of exertion. The reason is even after 14 trips up it, primarily to show Yosemite newbies its beauty it never loses its charm. It helps of course that I fell in love while being sprayed with mist from the crashing water over Vernal Fall and a rainbow was arching across the Merced.
Before you go make sure you wear comfortable clothes and shoes meant for walking, a change of clothes (or at least socks) if you decide you want to get wet walking near a waterfall, and water that you can carry. You’re better off packing a lunch and bringing in your own ice chest of drinks. If you have a backpack bring it along especially if you end up taking the tram or heading off to take more of a hike you will need to be carry extra water, snacks and such. There are a few concessions but between the crowds and the price bringing your own makes sense. Also make sure you have a full tank of gas as there is none available in the valley although you can gas up at Crane Flat if you enter the park on Highway 120.
You can go Highway 120 as it takes you directly to the park or access Yosemite along Highway 140 out of Merced.
Itinerary for whirlwind one day Yosemite visit
The entrance fee is $30 for a seven-day pass. If you have an inkling you may need to go the bathroom in the next four to six hours, I’d advise using the ones right after you get past the pay stations. The rangers will provide a map that you can use to reference stops that I’m suggesting.
After you emerge from the second of three tunnels as you head to the valley you will be tempted to pull over to get a picture of the first dramatic granite views. After going through Yosemite the view from this point will look mundane but it is still worth the stop.
The first stop once you are in the valley is Bridalveil Falls. It may take a while to find a parking space in the lot or along the road leading up to the world famous Tunnel View but it’s worth the wait. It is about a quarter mile hike to the falls.
From there I would go straight to the dirt parking lot at Curry Village. You can access the tram from here or walk a little over a half mile to Mirror Lake. It’s called Mirror Lake for obvious reasons. You are also below Half Dome. This the way to head up Snow Creek Trail to the southern rim but if you stay in the valley the walk to the lakes and the surrounding meadows is fairly flat.
Walk back to the valley loop road and catch a tram to Yosemite Falls. Hiking to the lower falls is a treat. Heading to the top takes an effort but it is worth it, especially being able to hold your smartphone over the granite edge — there is railing — and snapping video as Yosemite Creek plunges from 6,936 feet down to the valley 3,000 feet below.
Try the Mist Trail hike that starts about a half mile away from Curry Village or get in the car and drive toward the western end of the valley to near El Capitan. This is a perfect stop for a picnic lunch. You can head toward the Merced River and find a spot suitable to enjoy both the water and searching the granite walls of El Capitan for climbers. Be sure not to enter areas that are cordoned off due to fragile eco-systems or restoration efforts. The imposing El Captain is a vertical gain of 3,000 feet from base to top. It is the world’s eighth largest monolithic (single) rock.
From there, get in the car and head back as if you’re going to Bridalveil Falls. Instead head up to the Tunnel View. Parking is a challenge but it’s worth seeing the view that Kodak in its heyday said was one of the most photographed in the world. Doing this later in the day puts the sun in the right place.
From there continue onto Glacier Point Road.
Once you reach Glacier Point you will be treated to views of the glacier-carved valley from 3,100 feet up and a stunning view of Half Dome. While the views from North Dome are probably the absolute best and similar lofty vistas from Half Dome (the steps aren’t in place yet), El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls are in the same league as Glacier Point, it is the only one you can reach without seven to 16 miles of hiking with lots of elevation gain.
On the way out near Crane Flat there are two smaller groves of giant sequoias if you are so inclined to see and have the time. The Merced and Tuolumne groves — depending upon the one you choose — involves between two to three miles round trip hiking and gain in elevation of less than 500 feet.
Hetch Hetchy is an option as well
You could also say no to the crowds at Yosemite Valley and head instead to Hetch Hetchy Valley for a 2.5 to four hour roundtrip hike to Wapama Falls that cover 5.5 miles round trip.
You turn off Highway 120 before reaching the Yosemite Valley entrance station. The road takes you past the Evergreen Resort and San Francisco’s Camp Mather. You will go through a Yosemite entrance station. Day users due to the pandemic restrictions can’t enter before 8 a.m. and must be out before the gate closes at 5 p.m.
You drive to the edge of O’Shaughnessy Dam and walk across the dam face and connect with a trail that has a total elevation gain of 200 feet to reach Wapama Falls.
The fall once plunged 1,800 feet to the Tuolumne River. But even with Hetch Hetchy Reservoir covering the last 400 feet it is still impressive.
There are a series of short bridges that takes the trail across the waterfalls. They were a little dicey still due to the heavy run-off so last week on a trip there I only crossed the first one. Another guy braved the second bridge but turned back as the space between the next bridge was a heavy downward spray making it treacherous — and stupid — to try and navigate the slippery rock trail especially without benefit of railing.
I have been to Hetch Hetchy spring, summer, winter, and fall and it never disappoints.
How impressive is it? My first trip there was in March of 2016. I’ve been back five times including last week and plan a sixth trip in July to show it to some friends.
There is essentially no crowds plus plenty of places to be lazy along the trail on granite outcroppings overlooking the reservoir.
As an added bonus, this year you can make a trip to Tuolumne Meadows via Tioga Road and see conditions and flowers that resemble early spring in July or the first few weeks of August. The sub-alpine meadow is at 8,619 feet. The only meadows I’ve been to that are more stunning are above 10,000 feet in the eastern Sierra requiring a half day of hiking to reach.
Take my word, if you haven’t been to Yosemite you need to go before you die.
That way you can make sure you caught a glimpse of heaven on earth to use as a comparison.