Yosemite National Park was on my bucket list, and my June visit was even more thrilling than I could have imagined. It’s where bold granite peaks pierce the sky, towering over the park’s famous and often tourist-packed Yosemite Valley; where alpine lakes reflect treed panoramas, and where gentle meadows extend far to the base of mountain ranges.
“What makes Yosemite so special is there are so many different features all in one place,” says John DeGrazio with YExplore Yosemite Adventures (www.yexplore.com), a tour operator specializing in hikes, backpacking trips and tours within the park. “You have giant granite cliffs, rounded domes and 2,000 foot waterfalls all in Yosemite Valley. There are 200-foot trees and different wildlife. And when you explore the high country, you realize there’s so much more.”
The best time to view the waterfalls is in the spring, when melting snow swells streams, leading to the dramatic spectacle of the park’s several waterfalls spewing torrents of water down steep slopes. I visited in mid June, just a day after drenching rains shrouded mountaintop views and added even more runoff to the already pulsing tributaries and rivers. In Yosemite Valley, the most popular waterfalls are the Yosemite Falls with both the upper and lower falls – North America’s highest, with water spewing down more than 2,400 feet. Others within the valley include Bridalveil Fall, also dropping from dramatic heights and reached by a short hike from the valley’s main thoroughfare. On the other side of the road, the thin stream of appropriately named Ribbon Fall needles down a high peak adjacent to one of the park’s most popular towering granite monoliths, El Capitán.
Outside the valley, several spots throughout the park’s enormous and varied high-country terrain of 1,170 square miles offer splendid views – viewpoints from where you can see key features including the glacier-sheered granite Half Dome, the park’s most popular landmark.
Half Dome juts up a mile from the Valley floor, and can be seen from the popular Tunnel View lookout which also includes the 4,500-foot-high El Capitán, Bridalveil Fall and the so-called Cathedral Rocks.
Olmsted Point near alpine Tenaya Lake offers yet another view, while Glacier Point looks down upon these rock formations from the south. “What makes Glacier Point unique is that you’re seeing many of the features of Yosemite Valley from 3,000 feet above the valley, and you really get a full appreciation of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall,” explains DeGrazio. “And all the while you’re looking at all of Yosemite National Park like you’re looking at a map.”
These are just some of the highlights of Yosemite. What I found particularly astounding – reflecting the sheer size of the park – is that much of it is only accessible to experienced hikers and backpackers. There are short hikes of a mile or two, moderate half-day hikes, while reaching the top of Half Dome for example is a full-day hike – a 16-mile round trip taking up to 12 hours and ascending almost a mile high at the same time.
“It’s a combination of endurance and elevation gain not like many other hikes available. A lot of marathoners do this hike and they sometimes say it’s harder than a marathon,” says DeGrazio. “You have the chance of looking down from the highest peak in Yosemite Valley. It gives people a feeling of being on top of the world, and for many many people, this is a bucket list accomplish.”
A drive through scenic Tuolumne Meadows at the park’s east end along winding Tioga Road leads to the steep turns of the nearly 10,000-foot-high Tioga Pass, which is closed in winter. At the foot of the pass is the small town of Lee Vining skirting salty Mono Lake with its crusty and contorted tufa rock formations shooting up from the lakebed. Another place of interest nearby is the mid to late 19th century gold-mining ghost town within Bodie State Historic Park, where many dilapidated old wooden houses, churches and saloons are in a state of preserved decay.
To the south along U.S. Route 395 is the quaint and upscale ski town of Mammoth Lakes with its trendy restaurants and many hotels – especially in and around Mammoth Lakes’ retail “Village” area – serving as a good choice for a home base for travel to Yosemite during summer months. A gondola ride or mechanical Snowcat adventure up Mammoth Mountain offers truly great views of the surrounding snow-capped High Sierras. It’s also a quick drive to nearby Devil’s Postpile National Monument, made up of basalt columns naturally strung together in the shapes of pentagons and hexagons.