On a recent trip to California, my husband and I took a couple of days to explore the vast, unspoiled wilderness that is Yosemite. The famous granite profiles of Half Dome, El Capitan, and their neighboring rock formations were breathtaking, enigmatic, unforgiving, and unforgettable. It is no surprise that over four million people visit this park every year. From hiking and backpacking to fishing, rock climbing, photography, horseback riding, stargazing, camping and environmental research, activities abound.
Our drive from San Francisco brought us across wide open farmlands, through a freak hail storm, and into the remote foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The roadways narrowed and climbed higher. Tunnel View was our first scenic lookout point along the entrance road, a welcome sight after a long day in the car. We found our cabin at Half Dome Village and parked for the night.
The free shuttle was a convenient way to check out the valley tourist stops: the visitor center, the museum, the Majestic Yosemite hotel, the Ansel Adams gallery, and the meadow Chapel, among many others. The camping and dining amenities managed to feel both rustic and modern at the same time: Teddy Roosevelt meets Instagram. Elite professional climbers and their gear were everywhere, waiting for the all-clear to resume their ascents after the hail storm. At the same time there were international tourists with their young children, deciphering map translations on their cell phones and waiting for food.
While many of the park’s celebrated landmarks are accessible by car, we were determined to experience them for ourselves on foot. With just one day of hiking and almost 1,200 square miles of available park to cover, there was simply no way to see everything. We were sorely tempted to enter the lottery for a Half Dome hiking permit, but with the icy overnight conditions and limited available permits, we decided instead to take the Four Mile Trail hike to the top of Glacier Point, which would put us on the Panorama Trail around the rim of the valley, and then link to the John Muir / Mist Trail to return.
We set out well before sunrise, hoping to reach Glacier Point before the crowds. At that early hour, it felt as though the valley was entirely untouched by human influence: low patches of mist swirling along the valley floor, the quiet chirping of birds, the invigorating coolness of the breeze through towering pines, and a couple of bears foraging for breakfast. Bears! Pure force of will called to mind the rangers’ advice: make lots of noise, and do not run. Bear spray is not permitted in the park, even for delicious-smelling hikers who are carrying an entire day’s supply of peanut butter and granola. We climbed switchback after switchback along the trail, and watched the reflected light of the rising sun as it washed over the face of El Capitan across the valley from us. By the time we reached the top at Glacier Point, the sun was up and the mist had cleared, giving us a fantastic view of the Merced River as it meandered through the valley floor. Half Dome loomed impossibly large at the center of the vista, a marvel of geological forces.
We continued on the Panorama Trail, where we saw evidence of wildfires that had passed through the valley. Alpine fields that had completely burned were green with new growth, and older trees showed prominent scars where they had survived the ravages of fire. It felt good to stretch our legs on the gradual descent that led us to waterfall country: Illilouette Falls, Nevada Falls, and eventually Vernal Falls. By the size of the boulders littered along the riverbeds, we got a sense of just how much water flowed through these falls during springtime, and how low the water supply actually was when we saw it in late September of that year. After seventeen miles of strenuous hiking, we were glad to reach the bottom of the Mist Trail and camp out for the night.
Our final sightseeing stop on our way out of the park was the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. This grove features some of the oldest and largest trees in the world. According to the National Park Service’s records, the iconic Grizzly Giant is the 25th largest tree by volume, and is a mere 1,800 years old — a youngster compared to the oldest documented sequoia at over 3,200 years old. What the numbers do not prepare visitors for is the sheer scale of these trees. They do not fit into single photo frames. The only way to experience their true grandeur is to hike to their hidden groves and to imagine the centuries of world history that have carried on around them as they grew quietly from seedlings into forest titans.
With a little bit of planning, basic gear, and a good sense of adventure, the incredible outdoor experiences of Yosemite can be yours, too.
If you go
• $30 for a 7-day park pass, standard non-commercial vehicle
• Free admission on April 15-16 and April 22-23 (National Park Weekends)
• Specific hiking passes and wilderness permits are additional
• Fresno Yosemite International
• Merced Airport
• Modesto City County Airport
• San Francisco International
• Oakland International
• San Jose International
Where to stay
Yosemite offers 13 campgrounds and highly recommends making reservations to ensure an open spot. Listings are available through
• The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
• Yosemite Valley Lodge
• Big Trees Lodge
• Half Dome Village
• Housekeeping Camp
• Glacier Point Ski Hut
• Tuolumne Meadows
• High Sierra Camps
Places to see, from the National Park Service
• El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, the Three Brothers, Sentinel Rock, and Glacier Point.
• The many waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Falls, Ribbon Fall, Horsetail Fall, Bridalveil Fall, Nevada Fall, Vernal Fall, Illilouette Fall.
• Tunnel View, El Capitan Meadow, Valley View, Sentinel Meadow, Yosemite Chapel, Sentinel Bridge.
Things to do, from the National Park Service
• Art, photography, sightseeing by car, biking, birdwatching, fishing, horseback riding, picnicking, rock climbing, star gazing, volunteering, water activities, winter sports
• Always call ahead for weather closures and reservation information.
• Wear appropriate shoes and clothing, bring enough food and water, flashlight, a cell phone, and map.
• Respect the wildness of the animals and the environment.