Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Yosemite National Park

There is something about the end of summer that just makes you want to go camping one final time before it gets too cold to enjoy the outdoors. (As a Georgia girl "Winter Camping" is not my cup of tea.) So for the Labor Day holiday four of us set out to fight the crowds at Yosemite and enjoy every thing Mother Nature has to offer.

Yosemite is a California must see. Seriously, you should not miss this place. I would recommend a spring visit if you can swing it. In Spring the waterfalls and wildflowers are at their peak and the temperature swings are less harsh. You will need a long weekend to not feel rushed on your visit - it's a six hour drive from Edwards and there are so many different things to see.

Park lodging can be tricky. First,its crowded. We literally made our reservations a year in advance. When we arrived at the park all the lodging and reservation camp grounds were booked. Second, its expensive. I love the National Parks but the lodging costs are getting ridiculous. They went up nearly 20% between the time we made the reservation and arriving at the park and then you'll be charged almost $40 in taxes. Despite my issues with the prices of staying inside the park, there are plenty of options.

The four of us stayed in a Heated & Insulated Tent Cabin in Curry Village. Curry Village has a great location, is right on the bus line and had plenty of parking. The tents in Curry Village are up on platforms and each have a bear locker outside the tent. The locker was plenty big to fit our cooler and all the food for the weekend. We sprung for the heated tent which also has solid walls on the inside. The largest advantage to the walls, other then the heat, seems to be that the whole camp can't see what your doing inside the tent. The tents all had electricity and the bathrooms and showers were centrally located and relatively clean. There are also cabins available at Curry Village.

The largest disadvantage to Curry Village is that you cannot cook there - you have to move to other picnic grounds. We solved this problem by cooking our large meal at lunch at a picnic ground elsewhere in the park (and there are plenty) and having breakfast and dinner at our cabin be quick meals like cereal and sandwiches. There are several food options at Curry Village but we found them to be expensive and crowded. We had several people comment when passing our cabin at meal time how good our food looked - so we were glad to have packed most of our food.

The tent cabins were a good option for us because they offered 3 beds (1 double and 2 twins) - so it fit four adults very comfortably. It also meant we could leave the camping gear behind and only take one car. We did pack sleeping bags - and were glad to have them. If you have room and would prefer camping we liked the look of Housekeeping Camp. We also hiked through several hike-in, no reservations campgrounds that looked empty despite the park being slammed.

There are really two ways to get to Yosemite from Edwards. We left Thursday evening and drove North to Bakersfield on the 58, where we stopped for dinner at Chick-fil-A (told you I was a Georgia Girl.) From Bakersfield we hopped on the 99 to Fresno where we spent the night in a Marriott. We were up bright and early the next day to push into Yosemite. Its about a 2 hour drive from Fresno into the south entrance of Yosemite.

Coming in from South entrance your first stop should be the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Try to arrive early to avoid the crowds. You can see Sequoias right from the parking lot, but the best trees are seen by following the path up to the nature center. The walk is about 3 miles round trip and is uphill on the front end. There is also a tram that runs up to the nature center, but it misses out on most of the trees, so you should really walk if your able.

Next make a quick stop at the Wawona Visitors Center & historic Wawona Hotel. The visitors center has some interpretive displays and also your NPS Passport Stamp. Wawona also has the last gas station you are going to see for a while - so fill up.

You also need to hit Glacier Point before you head down into the Yosemite Valley. Glacier Point is an overlook that provides an amazing view of the valley. There is a short path to follow and several interpretive displays that explain how the valley was shaped by glaciers. Its almost like looking at a moving map of the valley - you can see half-dome, all the waterfalls, the hotels and the layout of the park. Even if you stop at Glacier point make sure you also take the turnout after the tunnel for another amazing view - this time of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. The drive plus all the little hikes will take most of your day. We spent the rest of our day getting checked into and walking around Curry Village.

One of the best things we did was make a dinner reservation at the Ahwahnee hotel.(You can make the reservation through opentable.) The Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room has high ceilings and big picture windows looking out over a giant lawn. The food was excellent and was a nice break from the camping food. (You should note that there is a dress code for the restaurant and we did see them turn away a woman in shorts.) Arrive early and spend some time exploring the hotel and the grounds.

The park also offers some great evening activities on a range of topics. One night we watched a documentary on Ansel Adams in the outdoor amphitheater at the Yosemite lodge. (Did you know that Ansel was an accomplished pianist and dear friends with Georgia O'Keeffe?) Our favorite evening activity was, by far, a Stargazing tour. You have to buy tickets - but at $5/person they are intended to keep the crowd manageable. The stars in Yosemite were as good as I've seen on the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Our guide weaved the educational information about our night sky into stories of the constellations. Make sure you bring a blanket to lie down on - your sure to see a few shooting stars as well.

Fall is not the best time to see Yosemite's waterfalls, but that is what Bethany and I wanted to do so we set out the next morning to hike to Vernal Fall. Vernal Fall flows all year - but peaks in late May. At our visit in early September it was really more of three separate falls - but it enabled us to get much closer then we otherwise would have. The hike to the top of the falls is about 3 miles round trip. It is steep basically the whole way up and ends in over 600 stairs but is well worth it. Bring lots of water and snacks and push up the hill to enjoy the waterfall. We spent nearly an hour sitting at the base of the falls. On your way back down stop in at the Nature Center (and ask for the NPS passport stamp) and see an exhibit on the rock falls that are frequent in Yosemite.

We also did the short hike to Bridalveil Fall. This .5 mile round trip trial is paved and leads from the parking area to the base of the falls. The falls were actually more impressive from the parking lot then from the top of the path. Neither upper or lower Yosemite Falls were flowing while we were there so we didn't bother with the trails while we were there.

Mirror Lake was also dry while we were there - instead of hiking to it the ladies took a trail ride on the Mirror Lake path. The 2hr ride was quite fun, despite being on Mules instead of horses. Also due to a rock fall on the trail you can no longer get all the way around Mirror Lake - instead you double back. I would recommend taking the half-day ride instead of the 2 hour ride. Meanwhile, the boys hiked Inspiration Point - which they said inspired them to keep on hiking!

Make sure you bring your binoculars and spend some time looking for climbers headed up El. Capitan - other people pulled off on the side of the road will help you find them - and they don't move very quickly so they are easy to track. You can also look up at night and see their lights on the mountain.

Due to traffic in the Valley we headed up to a less visited grove of Sequoias - the Merced Groves near Crane Flat. There were far fewer people here. You have to hike two to three miles at about a 500 foot elevation gain to see the trees. I complained allot on the walk down about how bad the walk back up was going to be and then hardly noticed the walk back up because we were engaged in conversation.

Again stuck in traffic in the Valley we parked at the chapel and followed a path behind the building to the rock face for some fun, and close to the ground, rock climbing. We each took a turn pretending to be rock climbers. At least once while you are in Yosemite you should walk right up to the rock walls and take a second to realize how small you are. It will take your breath away.

On Monday we headed out of the Valley through the East gate making a quick stop at Tuolumne Meadows. We also all hopped out of the car at Tenaya Lake to dip our feet into the frigid water. The Visitors center had their fire going, due to the increase in elevation the temperature had dropped enough for us to need jackets. (Again make sure to hit the visitors center for your NPS passport stamp.)If we make it back to Yosemite we will certainly spend more time in this area of the park. The Soda Springs hike, to a sparkling water spring, looked beautiful, albeit quit packed. There are several other hikes in this area that peaked my interest. November through as late as June Tuolumne Meadows is only accessible by cross-country skis or snowshoes.

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