The Essential Yosemite


The winter night I took my 8-year-old daughter owling in the woods through hip deep snow, acting out one of her favorite books, Owl Moon.  The first time Susan and I made it to the top of Nevada Falls together and again the first time we did it after she survived cancer.  A perfect dogwood in bloom in a shaft of sunlight against a dark forest. The blue of the sky at 10,000 feet.  The voice of the wind in the high country in it’s different moods through the trees, in the meadow or across the expanse of bare granite above the tree line. The granite in the valley, in the high country, changing color constantly, wet, dry or dusted with snow, from dawn through the middle of the day through sunset and later under a full moon.  Waking at dawn at a high country lake tinged with mist, stirring up the fire for a cup of coffee and sitting as the sunrise warms me. The granite and the water, the granite and the water, the granite and the water.  There are a lifetime of new visions.

For us, visiting Yosemite is a life-long adventure which has evolved over 40 years, from our mid- twenties to our seventies.  Our fortune is that we live about 3 ½ hours from the park.  We have come here at least twice a year for 15 years and countless more times since the 70’s.

This is a love letter to Yosemite and as with all long term relationhships you have to acknowledge the bad and the good.  

I’ve included a lot here, but it’s too big a task to ever really finish, so I am going to post what I have, list other things and add more stories from time to time.

Hey!  What happened to the names?

I’ll make a long story short but look at this site if you want to hear the whole gruesome tale.

A few years ago the concessionaire, Deleware North Corporation (boooo!), lost out on the periodic bidding for that position.   The concessionaire actually owns the improvements and buildings during their tenure.  In the dead of night, they secretly applied for and may have secured the rights to many of the place names in the park.  As part of their exit, they demanded $51 million from the Park Service for the names and other intellectual property.  Of course, the Park Service disagrees and the issues in litigation but, to avoid a claim, the Park Service simply changed the names.  They had counter-offered $3.1 million without agreeing that they were required to, but Deleware North (boooo!) declined.  With the name change, it’s arguable if the old names now have no value at all, so there DNC!

For translation:

The Awhanee = The Majestic (a pretty stupid choice)
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls = Yosemite Valley Lodge (better)
Curry Village = Half Dome Village (the Curry Company was the historic operator of the facilities before the Feds thought that the private sector would do a better job, which they do not)
Wawona Hotel = Big Trees Lodge (meh)
Badger Pass Ski Area = Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area (I guess)
Yosemite National Park = Yosemite (they’ve even tried to take the name of the park)

I can’t help it but I often use the old names which in a decade will be forgotten by all but the olds.


The lodging isn’t so important.  Yosemite is about granite, water, trees and magical blue sky.  Arise early and get out in it.


Here is the site for all accommodations. – They are all fine in their own way

Each of these  has it’s pros and cons and, as I have mentioned in other posts, we are not campers.

We don’t avoid the Majestic Hotel just because it is between $475 and almost $600/night and meals can run $100/day/person, though that is certainly reason enough to stay away.   It’s just too fancy.  That’s not what we come to Yosemite for.  The Yosemite Lodge is about $250/night, which is manageable for us, but, of course, we only need one room and stay for a couple of nights.  A weeks stay with two rooms for a family is a lot.  If that’s a stretch, a heated tent cabin is $140, with a hike to the bathhouse.  In the winter, early spring and late fall it’s quite cold.   It’s all a matter of perspective.  In my youth, I would go snow camping.  Tent cabins are much more comfortable in the summer. I have fond memories of trent cabin stays, both as a kid and young parent.  Those are the choices in the park, nothing perfect.  Weekdays are always easierto secure a room than weekends or holidays.  Book early, even if you aren’t sure.  There is free cancelation up to a week before you arrive. That’s also your best chance to pick up a last minute room.

Make the choice and get on with Yosemite.  Park your car and, aside from trips to the far reaches of the park, don’t get in it again.  Walk or take one of the shuttle busses or both.  You can’t see it all, so relax and just enjoy what you do see.  It takes a lifetime to see it everything in every light and season.


Then there’s the food. News flash!  We arrived at the Yosemite Lodge in late March 2018 to find that the awful old cafeteria had been replaced with the newly opened Base Camp Eatery. There are three separate sections.  Build-your-own entrée with a variety of meat, rice/potato, and vegetable options. A far cry from the dismal cafeteria food.  There is a burger hot sandwich station with touch screen ordering.  And a pizza/salad section.  Many things are cooked to order.  On our first try, it was quite good.  The staff was enthusiastic and professional with a manager hovering over the whole scene.  It was the first week and they were working out the kinks, but it holds great promise.  Not sure how well it is working out though.  We returned in November.  Here’s my TripAdvisor review.

Added to that, is a large Starbucks which is opened from early to late and clearly set up to deal with the mid-summer crowds.  It feels a little sad that I am enthusiastic about a Starbucks, but that’s how far they had fallen.

There is also the Mountain Room restaurant which is fine, not special, and a little pricey.   But you’re not here for the food either.  We ran into people staying at the Majestic who were eating at the lodge and quite happy.

I’m afraid that Half Dome Village still has the old cafeteria which is only open April – Sept, making a winter stay there a challenge.

 Yosemite Valley hikes

No matter how crowded it is, go up any trail for 20-minutes and you quickly shed many tourists.   Hike up for an hour and almost everybody disappears.  Dress in layers and take plenty of water.

Lower Yosemite Falls – 1 to 1.5 miles round trip, almost flat.  The trail to Lower Yosemite is full of tourists.  But if that is the most hike you can do, I’m glad such an amazing place is available.  If you just arrived, late in the day, why not take the short stroll.  We almost never miss it.

Keep going on the trail after you stop to enjoy the falls, and a little further on there is a right turn to the site of John Muir’s cabin, now gone.  Not so many people go here.  When the falls are running full, the area is a maze of rushing creeks that have escaped the main river.  Sit and enjoy the falls and the magical color of the river and imagine what it must have been like in Muir’s day.

Valley Loop Trail – Short hikes to over 10 miles.  Almost flat to 300 feet.  It seems like the big climbs are alwasy calling to hikers but there are so many trails meandering around the valley.  One can easily hike 5 to 10 miles in a day.  The good news is that you aren’t often too far from a shuttle stop if your legs or feet give out.  If your hiking experience is at sea level, remember even in the valley you are at 4,000 feet.  Pace yourself, it does make a difference.

One loop:  From the Lodge, to the Village, to the Majestic Lodge, to Mirror Lake, to Happy Isles, to Half Dome Village and home.  about 5 miles, 200 feet, mostly the trail to Mirror Lake.

One cool afternoon, stopping along this loop past Mirror Lake, we took a break, sunning on a slab of granite under the looming south wall of Half Dome.

As we sat quietly on the near deserted trail, we heard a click click click of small rocks falling from the rock wall.  At first we wondered at the rare event only to hear another and another and another.  We have learned that the rock walls are in constrant motion, triggered mostly when the hot sun expands the stone loosened by the winter ice.  It’s aways in motion, but like many things, you have to stop and listen.

East Valley Circuit to  El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls – You can take short hikes to  walk over 10 miles and hitch a ride on a bus if you get tired.  It’s almost flat.  This is a much less traveled circuit.  Leave from Yosemite Lodge and either walk through meadows along the Merced River or on a path, more directly following the south road.  Both eventually lead to the bottom of El Capatian.  Stand in the meadow by the road and watch the climbers.  Then take the trail across the river and continue about 2 miles to Bridalveil falls.  You can return by the same route or follow the trail along the south road though the trails along the river are less well marked.


Nevada Falls trail, Vernal Falls, Illouiet Falls – 7.5 miles round trip (from Happy Isles) and 2,000 foot climb.  So much for the easy hikes.

This is one of our favorite hikes, hard but not impossible.  Take the bus to Happy Isles.  You could walk, but by the end of the day you will be glad to have saved some steps.  I won’t repeat the details in the link above.  Even in our 50’s we almost always took the somewhat longer and less steep trail to Nevada Falls and skip the Vernal Falls.  The steep rocky swithcbacks can be hard going up and down and the “mist” trail can be like a hurricane when the river is runing full.  Just how many waterfalls do you need in a day.  Make sure you leave time for the hike plus an hour or more to relax at the top in the sun.  Here is a family wegsite, Earth Trekkers, that does a good job of describing the details of this hike.


video of the river at the top of Nevada Falls

If you still have some energy you can continue your day hike to Little Yosemtie Valley a half mile and another 200 feet beyond Nevada Falls.  The Merced river meanders through this beautiful glacial valley.  This is the jumping off point for the Half Dome hike and camping requires a wilderness permit.

Half DomeThe ascent of Half Dome is quite a production these days, requiring a permit granted through a lottery.   From the valley it’s 16 miles round trip with a 4,800 foot elevation gain.  The last 400 vertical feet are made by climbing between two steel cables, which are only up from spring, when the snow allows, to no later than mid-November. This hike/climb is well beyond me these days, even with an oernight stop at Little Yosemite Valley.  I’ll admit to never doing the hike but did have some frineds in the early days who would leave in the dark and, drive up from the Bay Area, do the ascent and drive back that night.  For more enlightening advice read The Hazards of Half Dome.

Upper Yosemite Falls – 6.0 miles round trip and 2,000 feet climb.  This leaves from just beyond the back-packers campsites, behind Yosemite Lodge.  The first mile rises 1,000 feet which tough.  I always pause on the trail as I break out of the forest, at tree top level, for the first panoramic view of the valley and a unique prespective. The rest of the trail is only another 1,000 feet over almost 2 miles.


Glacier Point & 4 mile trail The views are spectacular but can be pretty crowded in the summer.  You can hike up, a 3.200 foot rise, a 7 of 10 hike or take the bus up and hike down, a 4 of 10 hike.  Of course you can simply drive or bus each way.

Snow Creek Trail –  Dubbed one of the park’s more sadistic trails and not on most “tourist” maps.

Pool on the granite cliff over the Awaniee  – More than twenty years ago we were directed to a pool in a crevasse on the granite wall, just above the treeline, somewhere above the Awanhee Hotel.  It was noted as the only nude beach in Yosemite, and it was.  It’s hard to find and when I ask staff, they just shrug.  It’s for those who know .  But if you get back from the granite wall and find where the informal falls spill from the top and trace that down to a place where the sheergranite face steps out near the tree line, you might find it.  At the base, look for where the water spills out of the pool and rock scramble up.  I’ve not been up in years.  It is for the young.

Yosemite IndianCaves – These aren’t really caves just piles of huge boulders.  Great for kids to explore but unmarked and a little hard to find 

Or if you are worn out or the weather is bad and you don’t want to hike:

Afternoon in the Awainee Lodge (Majestic) Grand Hall – As I said earlier, we don’t stay at the Awahnee, but it is a georgous place and we have found a way to enjoy it.

On afternoons, after several days of heavy hiking or when the weather is bad, we spend the afternoon in the beautiful lounge.  We take our computers, curl up in big chairs, collect a drink and a snack and sit and read or write for hours.  It’s pretty quiet, most people are outdoors though on a rainy afternoon, it’s harder to stake out a place.

Ansel Adams Gallery  – Ansel Adams was the master of photography of Yosemite.

Before you go to Yosemite, look at his photos on-line or get one of his many books.  I grew up with a big format Ansel Adams book on our coffee table.  Those photos are etched in my mind.  Visit the Ansel Adams Gallery in the Village.   Sometimes you will pass the site of his most famous shots.  Your photos will be better and you may even develop an obsession.  From time to time you will see people standing in the water behind a tripod trying to get the right shot.

Ranger programs, campfires and guided tours – The Park Service offers a wide variety of events from the simple evening campfire at the lodge to ranger walks, junior ranger programs and even live theater.

Summer in Yosemite.

The crowds in the valley, once kids are out of school, especially the weekends, are truely problematic. Every room, tent cabin and campsite may be booked and there a million people within 2 hours of Yosemite, putting it in range of a day trip.   The magic of the valley can be erased, by all the visitors and, yes, even traffic jams, especially for those of us who know what it’s like when there are fewer people.  On top of that, forest fires seem to me more common each year, and smoke, that obscures the sights and even makes breathing a challenge, deminishes the joy of the visit.

On our last summer visit to Yosemite Valley,  we left our lodge just outside the North entry gate beyond Groveland at 6:30 a.m.  We were in the Valley by 7:30 parked in the lot at Curry Village, now Half Dome Village, and headed out to hike to the top of Nevada Falls.  Even at our glacial pace, we were at the top before noon.  The broad granite at the top of the falls was relatively unpopulated, but by the time we had rested, lunched and sunned, and taken a few photos to prove we had done it, there was a pretty steady flow of arrivals.  Heading down the trail, we encountered a steady flow coming up.  We got back to the car before 4:00, foot tired but happy; then had to endured an almost 90-minute traffic jam, the kind where you’re not moving at all and turn off the motor.   We managed an excellent hike that day, but by the time we broke free of the traffic, some of the special glow had worn off.

However, they just completed a major reworking of the road system and day use parking in the valley so it should ease the problem somewhat.

Of course, if this is likely your only visit to Yosemite, go to the valley.  It simply can’t be missed.

Now for the good news:

You don’t have to go to the valley in the summer.   Summertime is for Tuolumne Meadows, which can be crowded enough on a weekend afternoon.  Instead, we stay at one of several places on Highway 120 beyond Groveland but not yet in the park. Yosemite Riverside Inn is our favorite.  It’s on the Middle fork of the Tuolumne river and at the end of each day, we drag the plastic chairs from the bank into the middle of the river and sit with our feet chilling and enjoy a glass of wine.  The rooms are basic but reasonably priced.  We go for the river.  Other places include:

We were planning to meet Susan’s son Jordan was coming up from Los Angeles to meet us for dinner at the Iron Door, the most famous bar and restaurant in town.  He was running late and couldn’t reach us by phone. Under most circumstances it might not have been a real problem, but Jordan knew that not hearing from him, Susan would immediately go to dark places.  With few bars on his phone, he got through to the Iron Door.   He told them that if a couple in their late 50’s, who looked like a tall Kenny Rogers with a short woman came into the bar to let them know that Jordan was fine and just running late.  You might think, this can’t possibly work and yet as we walked in the door, the bartender, without hesitation, called out that Jordan was fine and just running late.  Would you have made that leap?

Here is a typical summer itinerary

Leave Oakland arriving at the Riverside Inn by midday, even if we can’t check in.  Then head up the road about 30 minutes to the trail head for Carlon Falls.

This is a easy to moderate hour long hike to one of the most beautiful small waterfalls in the park.  This fall can be roaring or mild depending on the time of year and snowmelt.  The pool at the bottom of the falls is swimable and even in the summer it isn’t too crowded.    We return to our room in the late afternoon and sit on chairs in the river and have a glass of wine.  There is a restaurant in Buck Meadow 15 minutes away, then home to bed early.

Other hikes outside the park on Highway 120.

  • Preston Falls/Early Intake – Hot hike in the summer but a great stop at the narrows for jumping into deep pools or keep going to the falls.

The next morning we rise early and head into the Park, with Tuolumne Meadows our destination, 90-minutes away.  This may seem like a long trip but it’s 60-minutes from Yosemite Valley too.  Tuolumne Meadows has different faces in different seasons.  When the road first opens, it can still be covered in snow.  As the snow disappears, the meadow grasses are still brown from being covered all winter and the meadow is soggy.  Later the green grass returns and a riot of wildflowers.  Every phase is beautiful.

The best part of Tuolumne Meadow in any season is actually Lyle Canyon, which starts about a 30 minute walk from the Tuolumne Meadow Lodge and flanks the Tuolumne River sloping very gently for 10 miles.  To get there you leave the backpackers parking lot, hike past the lodge parking lot, cross a creek, then over a low ridge dropping down into the canyon where the trail crosses a pair of rustic  bridges over the Tuolmne River.  From here you have miles of choices.  You can stop here and enjoy the view or continue aother 30 minutes up the trail rejoinging the river and passing through a long series, of forest and then meadows for the next 10 miles.  Pick your spot for a secluded dip, lunch and a nap.

Tuolumne Meadows Facilitues

  • Tuolumne Meadows Lodge – This is as posh as it gets in the high country.  Tent cabins with group toilets and showers.  Breakfast and dinner in the lodge, also a tent.  In the trees and granite and by an arm of the Tuloumne River.

  • The store
  • Camping

Tuolumne Meadows day hikes

This is one of our favorite hikes in the high country.  It can be as easy as 1.5 flat miles to 24 miles round trip and it connects to many other parts of the high country.  Hike in for a couple of hours, find a flat slab of granite by the river in the sun away from the trail, picnic, swim and air dry in the sun and hike back.

  • Dog Lake
  • Lambert Dome
  • Tenaya Lake
  • Tioga Pass

High Country Backpacking

  • High Sierra Camps – Read my post “Escape from Vogelsang” for all the details and a  good fugitive story.
  • Cathedrial Lakes/Peak – easiest, most crowded, bears – Hixson Lake, rock scramble up the cascade from Tenaya Lake
  • Harding Lake – a little harder, less crowded
  • Ten Lake – harder yet, less crowded
  • At the end of the trip, a quart of milk and a bag of cookies sitting outside the store overlooking the meadow

Not Summer in Yosemite

Most of us think of  Yosemite in the summer and to  be fair that is the only time many people can get away, especially with kids.

Spring and Fall all the hiking without the crowds

Fall colors, spring dogwoods

It’s cooler and far fewer people and you can stay in the valley, In the spring, reservations are still relatively easy to get through mid-April and the falls can be roaring.  In the fall it is also less crowded and you can still hike to the high country sometimes until late November if the snow is late.

And then there’s winter

Deep winter in the snow is a quite place with hikes through the valley in high boots, showshoes or cross country skiis.  Not a time for hiking up.  But often, in most of the winter through the early spring, the valley is cold and largely snow free and you can hike up many of the trails quite a way until stopped by snow.

We visited in late March 2018.  It had been a drought winter until March and  then a series of late storms.  This was a time of water.  the walls of the valley spout dozens of unnamed waterfalls, some would be monuments in other places. Others sweeping down gray granite faces ending up as unexpected torrents crossing trails that pass along the cliffs.  But all ending up in the swollen Merced River

Yosemite, Vernal, Nevada and Llilouette falls all in full flow.  Bridalevale falls, not its summer self with a light aire mist blown by the afternoon breeze, awide and pounding to the valley floor.

We averaged about 8 miles hiking a day, mostly in the valley but went about 3/4 of the way up the Nevada Falls trail until stopped by snow.  At every turn familiar and new vistas.  Even after all these years we are speachless.

You don’t have to make a big deal of a trip to Yosemite – Day trip from Oakland

Memorial Day weekend I had an unquenchable need to be in the high mountains.  Trying to go to Yosemite on Memorial Day weekend, even with a reservation, is an extremely bad idea.  I left home at 6:00, hit the park entrance at 9:00, had only a 30-minute wait and was at Tuolumne Meadows by 10:00.  I took off alone, heading for Lyle Canyon, almost the only person on the trail.  It was cool with broken clouds, perfect for hiking.  I was completely ehthusiastic anticipating a 4-hour hike.

At times, when you really want something to be true, you choose to ignore obvious evidence to the contrary.  As I walked, my subconscious absorbed the sound or jets overhead as they pass to and from San Fransicso.  Often, in the high country wilderness, that’s the only sound that reminds you of the civilization that you’ve escaped.  I’m not sure if it is annoying or reassuring.  Slowly, I had to finally accept that distant jet sound was thunder, getting louder and more persistent.  I eventually stopped, an hour out.  It wasn’t yet raining and if I turned around now, at most, I would walk for an hour in the rain.  If I kept going, every step put me further from my warm dry car.  Disappointed, I turned around.  About half way back, it started hailing as I was crossing a swollen stream on a big log.  My disappointment faded.  It started raining pretty hard by the time I reached my car, wet but not soaked.   If I had carried on I would have faced at least two hours in the rain.  Abnormally good sense on my part.

So here I was, my hike cut short, with some time on my hands.  I drove up towards Tioga Pass, and in just a few miles and a thousand feet up I left the rain behind but also regressed from spring to winter.  There was snow on the ground and the lake right at the pass was still frozen over.

I pulled off at a beautiful secnic turnout to visit Virginia and Robert.  My parents always told me that they wanted to be scattered in the high-country in Yosemite, which I am quite certain is illegal.   This was the place where they would often park their big RV for lunch looking over the high meadow.  Surviving my father by six years, she saved his ashes on her dresser along with a 15-year old photo of the view from that turn out.  The last summer, Susan and I and my daughter Mandy and her husband Ben and their border collie Tui headed up to Yosemite.  It was really quite easy to find the spot, though the trees in the foreground had grown quite large.  Our plan was to toast them both with their favorite lunch; whiskey sours and sardines on soda crackers.  We found a secluded place downstream and as we were just about the commence, a young man appeared telling us that every time he passed he took a nude dip in this place.  We paused our ritual for his riutal.  He moved on and we were ready.

A bit of advice for novice scatterers.  The by-porduct of creamation is white dust and bone fragments and there is quite a bit of it.   Mountain stream beds and dark gray.  I waded into the stream, next to a big rock, and started to pour the remains into the water.  My vision was that it would be swept into the current and blend invisibly into the universe.  It actully sunk immediately to the bottom, a four foot long bright white patch.  Hmmm, I thought.  I walked back to the shore and it was clearly visible.  Was this good, an enduring memorial?  I thought not, so I spent the next 20 minutes picking up rocks costructing an underwater cairn to cover the remains.  Finished, I waded back to our memorial group and we all raised our whiskey sour to Virginia and Robert.

Semi-controlled Burn

We were driving back from a beautiful day of hiking above Tuolumne Meadows, heading back to our place near Buck Meadows when we hit a long line of stopped cars.  We soon learned that what was supposed to be a controlled burn ahead had become more like a forest fire.  We sat for more than an hour wandering around our car with the others in the queue.  We took to singing Broadway show tunes and with some of our road mates joined in on.  Finally, just after dark we began to move and proceeded through what felt more like an active forest fire with flames right down to the road and huge pines aflaim from top to bottom, a semi-controlled burn.

Evergreen Lodge Hot Tub

On one off-season evening, staying at the Evergreen Lodge, after a long day of hiking, we grabbed our bottle of wine and went seeking the hot tub. It was next to the pool with an view of the sunset over the forest valley.  It was cold and we were the only ones there.  One would think that by now I would show more adult judgment and not linger in the hot tub too long.

I clearly didn’t show such judgment and as I rose to exit the tub my head started spinning.  I rememeber saying, “This isn’t good,”  before sliging down into one of the deck chairs, out cold.  At least I didn’t pitch head first into the pool.  And I mean out cold.  Susan couldn’t rouse me and frantically yelled for help thinking I had died.  But we were quite alone.  After ten minutes just as I was beginning to come to, the staff emergency crew finally arrived.    Three of them, with very official looking backpacks emblazoned with red crosses. This sort of emergency response clearly wasn’t their strong suit, a little bit like the Three Stooges meet the Red Cross.   I was OK, just groggy, and was waiting for the scolding from Larry, Moe and Curly.  There were numerous signs warning of and disclaimaing responsibilty for mixing alchohol with hot tubs.  Instead of a talking to, they mused, “Yeah, that really seems like a good idea at the time, we’ve all done it.”  Then reminiscing about the times in deepest winter then they toboganed down the snow covered roofs of the cabins to only minor injuries.  I am no longer allowed in hot tubs.

These are some of our stories of Yosemite.  Go out and make your own.




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