Yosemite National Park, California
Although Yosemite wasn’t America’s first national park, it’s probably its most famous now. The excellent hiking around an enormous granite landscape complete with stunning waterfalls (including America’s largest) all a relatively short drive from California’s big cities make the park a great vacation spot.
To bag a campsite in the Yosemite Valley during summer you have to be online months before and book practically the minute the sites go on sale. There is a ‘first come first served’ camp in the valley (Camp 4) which did have space the morning we arrived but we had already booked in for two nights at Crane Flat campsite around 30 minutes drive up the steep valley road.
(We only got this site as bad winter storms had buggered the camp up so they opened late and made everyone book again from July 1st. Very luckily we dropped on and got our spot! The advance booking scenario was completely different to what we had experienced in Olympic and to be honest the campsites were nowhere near as nice, everybody was well and truly packed in to maximise revenue.)
We didn’t bother checking in to Crane Flat that first morning on the way past, instead we headed straight into the valley to get parked up and figure out a plan for the next few days before the crowds arrived. Parking in the main car park is free and was easy enough but if we’d arrived after 10am then we might have struggled to get a spot.
To save traffic in the valley, the park runs a free shuttle bus service which stops off at the main trail heads and view points. It's a good idea but we found it didn’t run frequently enough (every 30 minutes until 10am, then every 20 minutes after) for the sheer number of people arriving into the park. The visitor centre didn’t open until 9am either so that also left us a bit stuck (as we didn’t really have a plan for the first day!)
Yosemite falls hike
We chose to hike first to the famous Yosemite falls which can be reached on foot from the visitor centre. The waterfall is split into upper and lower, with the upper being the highest waterfall in the US (and, I think, the 5th highest in the world). We decided to walk to the lower, reached by a nice flat path and then hike half of the upper trail to a view point (not the whole way to the top…)
The lower falls, being easily accessible, were heaving. The full selfie stick crowd was out in force, clambering all over the rocks off the trail so we didn’t hang around for long and made our way to the upper falls trail.
The complete Yosemite falls hike is a 7.2 mile round trip, 2700ft elevation gain hike, with a lookout at Columbia rock about a third of the way up. With the temperature at a cool 35 degrees we decided that viewpoint about 2/3rds of the way up was our target.
The first parts of the trail were fairly easy, mainly rocky stepped switchbacks up the mountain. The only problem was the heat. It was unbearable! After a few stops, taking shade wherever we could, we had a chat and decided to continue until our water was low and then to turn back if we couldn’t find a refill. (You can’t drink the water in Yosemite’s streams or rivers as it contains a bug but George has a ‘Lifestraw’ bottle with a built in filter. An excellent, practical birthday present from me!)
After reaching the Columbia rock lookout point we soldiered on and found a small stream to drink from. After some more hot hiking, we eventually reached the viewpoint of upper Yosemite falls. Just a little bit further we found an even better view and got some shade. We sat for about 45 minutes watching the waterfall in all its glory with the famous ‘half dome’ rock in the background.
Perhaps a good trait (or bad?) of George and I is that we can both be stubborn and don’t like giving up at things… so after a bit of deliberation we made the decision to hike the extra distance to the top of the upper falls and complete the trail. I don’t think either of us would have been happy knowing we went so far but not to the end to see the whole view.
The trail turned a bit looser but still the main issue was the heat and after perhaps another 1hr 15 minutes of hard, sweaty graft we reached the very top. We were stood over the valley watching the raging river fall dramatically off the sheer granite cliff face. And there were rainbows! Well and truly worth the extra effort.
After a brief rest, we made the journey back down the same trail and eventually reached the bottom 7 hours after we had set off. Both totally knackered we decided that was more than enough for our first day. We drove out of the valley to Crane Flat where we quickly set up camp and went to bed.
Day 18 - Vernal and Nevada falls hike, Bridalveil falls and Tunnel View.
After making our way back down into the valley at the crack of dawn on Day 2, we tried to catch the free shuttle to a hike I’d read was the best in the park (I’d also been recommended the hike by my fellow Mitchell brother). The Vernal and Nevada Falls hike goes via the Mist Trail. Unfortunately the first bus was too full to get on so instead of hanging around for half an hour for the next one we walked the 2 miles to the trailhead (what's an extra 2 miles!)
This trail makes its way up past two huge waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada and can be done via either the mist trail or the John Muir trail, both which reach the very top of Nevada. To reach the top of Vernal you hike up passed the falls where the spray literally soaks you to the bone - hence its called the mist trail! The whole hike is a scheduled 7 mile, 5-6 hour round trip with a 1900ft elevation gain.
We set off with the intention of getting to the very top today, no half hearted starts that then lead into full hikes!
The first part of the hike to Vernal falls is a fairly steep tarmac footpath that leads to a bridge over the river. The easy accessibility of this section meant it was pretty rammed so we pushed on up the mist trail where 400 or so granite steps takes you up directly past Vernal falls. Again, this section was very busy and the constant stop start of numptys trying to take iPhone photos made it slow going. In the end my patience grew thin so I took no prisoners and overtook people as often as I could until I reached a dry section at the top. More polite George (without waterproof shoes) joined me at the top a few minutes later with very wet feet.
The steep trail continued up to Nevada, where a huge plateau either side of the river provided plenty of shade after a very hot hike up the mountain. A viewing platform allowed us to peer over the edge of the falls and over the valley below which was stunning.
Instead of hiking back down the way we came up (and past the crowds breaking their iphones in the mist at Vernal) we chose to walk home down the slightly longer John Muir trail. George was unsure as she likes to walk back the same way (so she knows whats in store) but her doubts quickly vanished as within 10 minutes we were rewarded with an awesome panoramic view of Nevada falls. The John Muir trail was mainly switchbacks the whole way down and didn’t offer much shade so we were glad to reach the bottom a couple of hours later.
After a late lunch we decided to head out in the car to Bridalveil falls where a very short easy path lead you out to another spectacular waterfall, albeit drying up in the summer sun. Again, people ignored the signs to stay of the rocks and were more concerned with selfies so we quickly left and drove up to Tunnel View.
Tunnel View gets its name from the view down the valley that is visible as you drive towards Yosemite through the Wawona tunnel. From the viewpoint the whole of the valley is visible in all its glory, El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Falls on the right with Half Dome sticking up in the distance. We watched the sunset from here. I think it was my favourite view of the whole trip so far.
After sunset, we made our way back to Crane Flat, Tyrone taking his usual huge nightly drink on the way - the greedy bastard.
Day 19 - Valley Meadow, Mirror Lake and Glacier Point.
Today would be our easy day. After packing up the tent we headed down early to try and get some nice light (and avoid the scorching sun) in the huge meadow that fills the bottom of the valley. George made porridge while I went off with my camera, a pretty good deal if you ask me!
After breakfast we caught the shuttle round to the Mirror Lake trailhead, a short mile hike out to a natural lake along the river famed for its still waters that perfectly reflect the massive granite cliffs that surround it. We didn’t fancy walking up the creek to reach the other side so the boots came off and we waded through the thigh deep icy river to make our own shortcut. From the other side we then opted to take the valley loop trail back to the visitor centre (this is an easy 8 mile path that goes around the valley).
I had seen a spectacular view months ago that I really wanted to find. After a bit of research I discovered that the view was at Glacier Point. To get to Glacier Point you have to drive for about an hour, first up out of the valley past Tunnel View and then left onto Glacier Point road where a windy road takes you all the way back along the valley, albeit a lot higher up!
The view from up at the Glacier Point lookout is massive! The full valley is in view from way up high with all of our hikes looking very small in the distance. I wanted to get a particular photo from just up the road but sods law there were traffic cones spoiling the view. Having missed out on the Samuel H Boardman corridor pictures in Oregon there was no way I was going to miss another opportunity so in between passing cars and out of view I moved all the cones - sorry Yosemite rangers!
The initial plan was to watch the sunset at Glacier Point and then drive down to Kings Canyon National Park (just under 3 hours away) and find a free camp (or Walmart car park!) to sleep in. However with the opportunity for a great view of the stars from up high (about 7000ft) we decided to stay, making some carpark hotdogs to pass the time!
With the sky completely black the stars were out in full force, including a clear view of the milky way which made our decision to stay a very, very good one. Just as we were about to leave (again) the moon started to rise over the mountains in the distance, almost like a sunrise casting light over the dramatic scenery. It was surreal.
Just before midnight we decided we had to press on but as soon as we started I was immediately looking for somewhere sneaky to pull over as there was no way I would make the drive to Kings Canyon. After about 1hr 45 minutes in the car we entered a stretch of National Forest (where you’re allowed to wild camp) and found a small dirt road with some pulls offs to pull Tyrone in and get our heads down.
Yosemite had been immense. Despite the crowds and killer heat we both loved it and would definitely recommend it to anyone as a short break away from San Francisco - just maybe go in the Spring or Autumn!