I’ve decided to start where my love of nature and lust for photography began. My family and I taught “family backpacking” to city slickers and insecure nature seekers taking them out into the wild for three or four days at a time. Over the years I have explored the park from corner to corner inside and out finding the best places Yosemite has to offer. Many of these places are along the outside borders to the East of Yosemite National Park.
Here’s my TAKE on the perfect Yosemite trip...
The best months to visit are late April to early October. The drive from San Francisco to Yosemite's valley floor is approximately three hours and, if you can, take your time to stop for a night in either small town of Sonora or Mariposa. These are classic all American foothill towns birthed during the California Gold Rush of the late 1840’s and 50’s. For the American history buff there is no better pit stop.
From either Mariposa or Sonora you’re going to head quickly into the mountains and I guarantee the drive will impress you at every turn. The most eye opening route into the Park's entrance is from Mariposa. Winding up along the Merced River to another small town El Portal then straight into the Valley's floor. It’s hard to beat the first moment you see Half Dome and all the waterfalls the Valley showcases. I can only begin to imagine what it was like for naturalist John Muir to discover this heavenly oasis.
The Valley is the “heart” of Yosemite. It’s truly monumental. So, by nature this area will be the most crowded. Imagine the Valley is like Times Square in Manhattan and the Park itself is the size of Rhode Island. This should not persuade you from steering clear of the Valley but only make you more inquisitive to take full advantage of what the Valley has all to offer.
FOR THE NOVICE HIKER
GLACIER POINT (1 mile)
LOWER MARIPOSA GROVE (2.2 miles)
LOWER YOSEMITE FALLS (.5 mile)
SENTINEL & COOK'S MEADOW LOOP (2.25 miles)
MIRROR LAKE (2.4 miles)
THE MIST TRAIL (3 miles)
FORESTA FALLS (2 miles)
FOR THE ADVANCED HIKER
CLIMB HALF DOME (14 miles)
NEVADA FALLS (7 miles)
VERNAL FALLS (3 miles)
UPPER YOSEMITE FALLS (7.2 miles)
PANORAMA TRAIL (8.5 miles)
LODGING IN YOSEMITE VALLEY
HALF DOME VILLAGE (rustic wood + canvas tent cabins)
THE MAJESTIC YOSEMITE HOTEL (formerly known as The Ahwahnee Hotel) is a AAA Four-Diamond hotel known for it’s Art Deco and Native American motifs. Designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood in the late 1920’s the hotel was constructed with 5,000 tons of rough-cut granite, 1,000 tons of steel, and 30,000 tons of timber. It is genuinely a presidential lodge situated right in the Valley floor. In 1901 the conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, one of which is Yosemite National Park. Walking through The Majestic you’re transported to another time with opulent corridors and rooms proving the old world presidential era was powerful and inspiring. For movie buffs watch The Shining before you stay here and you’ll recognize the duplicate interior’s great halls where Jack Nicholson lost his mind one lonely cold winter. You’ll change your voice down an octave or two saying “REDRUM” as you walk the halls to get to your room.
BIG TREES LODGE (formerly known as Wawona Hotel) is one of the oldest mountain resort hotels in California with a classic Victorian design. With sweeping verandas guests can enjoy the comforts of this sweet gem while exploring the Valley. Built in 1876 by the Washburn Brothers architects the Big Trees Lodge is a convenient location to Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
HALF DOME VILLAGE (formerly known as Camp Curry) is fun if you go there without any high end expectations. It’s a tented camp settlement opened by David Curry and Jenny Foster in 1899 and sits right in the heart of the Valley. Reserve a classic wood framed canvas tent with bunk style sleeping arrangements. It’s great for families who want a lodging experience that falls between car camping and staying at a hotel. It’s not for everyone but it’s cheap and easy. When Curry and Foster first opened Camp Curry they advertised “a good bed and a clean napkin with every meal” for $2.00 a day.
YOSEMITE LODGE AT THE FALLS is a perfectly acceptable place to stay while in the Valley if The Majestic and Big Trees Lodge are not available. It's nothing fancy but a perfect spot to rest your sore hiking muscles. Typical wood cabin style interiors with clean bed linens and bathrooms. Ask for a room with a porch view of Yosemite Falls.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN THE VALLEY
THE MAJESTIC DINING ROOM is known as the crown jewel of Yosemite dining. The room’s 34-foot-high beamed ceiling with large pine trestles and granite pillars emulate the giant pine trees that stand just outside the hotel. There’s nothing better than rewarding yourself with a hot chocolate or their famous hot fudge sundae after a long hike. The restaurant hosts many gourmet food and wine events during the fall and winter each year so be sure to reserve a table in advance.
After exploring the Valley it’s time to go into the high country. As a child I would spend the entire summer living out of a tent in Toulumne Meadows campground and every day my family and I would explore new trails and destinations. Yosemite’s Park Rangers offer guided hikes for the novice explorer and a permit will secure advanced backpackers to almost unlimited destinations.
As you drive up from the Valley on highway 120 towards Tioga Pass you will notice the crowds quickly fade away. Your destination will be Toulumne Meadows. A meadow like no other. You will see domes and above tree line snowcapped granite mountains. There are hundreds of great day hikes and backpacking trips starting from Toulumne.
BEST TUOLUMNE MEADOWS CAMPGROUND
TUOLUMNE CAMPGROUND (need reservations)
LODGING IN TUOLUMNE MEADOWS
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS LODGE
TIOGA PASS RESORT (extra high altitude)
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS LODGE is one of seven high sierra camps (car accessible) known for their tented camp style lodging and classic dining hall. It’s very simple and just a step up from car camping with 69 tents available. This is a great place to stay if you’re still nervous about camping in an actual tent. The lodge is situated at an elevation of 8,755 feet along the Tuolumne River. It’s a great place to acclimate yourself from high altitude sickness before venturing out into the high sierras on a backpack trip.
TIOGA PASS RESORT was first built in 1914 and is located at 9,641 feet just outside the Park’s east entrance. You’ll find charming rustic accommodations with a delicious cafe and general store.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN TUOLUMNE MEADOWS
For a quick rewarding hot meal head over to TOULUMNE MEADOWS GRILL. Hot soups and perfectly grilled cheese sandwiches taste so much better at high altitude. The general store attached is a great place to find extra camping supplies, groceries, and Yosemite brand clothing.
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS LODGE'S central dining tent serves family-style breakfast and dinner with views of the Tuolumne River. Everything tastes better at high altitude and the setting is rustically romantic. You’ll sit at large round tables sometimes with other guests from all around the world.
TPR CAFE is located at the Tioga Pass Resort featuring classic comfort food. TPR’s made to order breakfasts prepare you for the tough hike ahead. Sit at the counter and order their breakfast burrito with a cup of joe. Never hesitate to order a piece of their world famous homemade pies.
The ultimate high sierra experience the Park offers are the life changing and most sought after High Sierra Camp guided tours. These are five or seven day guided treks between seven camps stationed around the high sierra.
You can test your chances in their lottery pick system or try back packing on your own basing near a high sierra camp to delight in their food, cooked by incredible chefs from around the world. The perfect mix of high and low. The tours come with a hefty price tag but will guarantee to open your eyes to the beauty that surrounds and you certainly won't miss any mobile device. Let the mules carry your food ahead and each camp comes with your own wood framed canvas tent, bed linens, wood burning stove, and all your meals prepared by high altitude loving chefs.
HIGH SIERRA CAMPS
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS LODGE (base camp and car accessible)
FOR THE NOVICE HIKERS
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS SODA SPRINGS / PARSONS LODGE (1.5 miles)
LEMBERT DOME (2.8 miles)
TENAYA LAKE LOOP (2.5 miles)
POTHOLE DOME (1.8 miles)
DOG LAKE (3 miles)
ELIZABETH LAKE (4.8 miles)
GAYLOR LAKE (2 miles)
MAY LAKE (2.5 miles)
FOR THE ADVANCED HIKERS
LYELL CANYON VIA JOHN MUIR TRAIL (8 miles)
CATHEDRAL LAKES (7 miles)
GLEN AULIN (11 miles)
VOGELSANG (13.8 miles)
MOUNT HOFFMAN (6 miles)
CLOUDS REST (6.2 miles)
HARDEN GARDENS (4 miles)
THE GRAND CANYON OF YOSEMITE (47 miles roundtrip)
From Toulumne Meadows I recommend going to the east side of Yosemite. You’ll keep driving East on Highway 120 going over Tioga Pass through the Park’s exit at an elevation of 9,943 feet. Just past the Park’s exit you’ll come upon a little gem on your left called Tioga Pass Resort (TPR). You can enjoy a delicious high altitude breakfast in their perfectly campy cafe.
After breakfast take a quick drive to Saddlebag Lake and purchase water taxi tickets at the Resort’s main lodge and a boat will drop you right off at the trailhead to 20 Lakes Basin. This is high sierra hiking at its best. Above tree line glacial lakes and enormous granite peaks surround you with breathtaking landscapes. Take your time hiking the loop and follow the map given to you by the lodge. The water taxi will meet you at a specified time for the return trip. The full loop is approximately 8.3 miles at high elevation so give yourself plenty of time.
After camping in the High Sierras there's nothing more rewarding then coming “back down” to civilization. Head to Lee Vining, a small town just on the edge of Mono Lake. Grab a meal at the quaint all american diner Nicely’s then grab a soft serve ice cream at the Mono Cone. Then head over to South Tufa Towers at Mono Lake and explore the highly condensed salt water lake. It’s like being on the moon. This area is considered a high desert surrounded by volcanic craters and otherworldly scenes.
A must-do hike that only locals know about take a quick drive up through Lundy Canyon until the road comes to an end. You’ll drive through aspen groves and Lundy Canyon campgrounds on a rough dirt road and will end at the Lundy Canyon trailhead. From here you’ll start your hike up the river canyon noticing gigantic bonsai style pine trees sprouting out of cracks in the rock cliffs and delightful wildflowers everywhere. The trail meanders along the river soon arriving to an enormous beaver damn inhabited by a beaver colony. You will learn that this beaver pond, once forested with aspen groves and cleared by beavers, will someday become a meadow. Keep hiking up the trail finding yourself alongside one roaring cascade after the other. The farther you go the higher the cascades become. It’s a strenuous climb up and going down can sometimes be harder on the knees but truly one of the more rewarding hikes. Roundtrip it is approximately 6 miles and can be shortened by simply turning around.
If you feel you deserve a fancy, but casually dressed, dinner i recommend reserving yourself an outside table just before sunset at the Mono Inn with breathtaking views of Mono Lake.
To continue your camping and hiking adventures head to Crag’s or Honeymoon Flat campground. This is a special, not so known about, car camp spot just southwest of Bridgeport. The sites are beautiful with frequent black bear visits to make your sleepless nights more interesting. Not to worry though, black bears don’t want you but only your food. There is a campground host that will give you the full rundown of do's and don'ts.
Bridgeport is truly an all American town priding itself on their 4th of July parade and festivities such as watermelon and pie eating contests. Grab a non-guilt free bite at the Jolly Kone or ante up at the Bridgeport Inn for a sit down dinner.
Travertine Hot Springs is a secret spot among the east side locals. Without any signs or map showing you how to get there you’ll have to brave asking for directions. The best person to ask would be whoever is working the counter at the Bridgeport general store and they’ll be more than happy to direct you. It’s a natural hot spring great for healing a hiker’s sore muscles.
Bodie ghost town is a must-see while in the area. Founded in 1859 by William S. Bodey when he discovered "gold in d'em der hills". 10,000 prospectors populated this town in 1880 and now only their ghosts inhabit this immaculate historical treasure.
Once you've had enough camping and hiking i recommend spending a few days in Mammoth Lakes to unwind and spoil yourself with spa treatments and chilling poolside as you slowly come back to reality.
Story and photographs by Noe DeWitt