To celebrate Aron’s birthday this year, we decided to jump in the car and drive into Yosemite Valley for a brief escape. The 3-1/2 hour drive passed quickly, and though we arrived too late Friday evening to see our surroundings, we woke up in what is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth. Even if you can only spend a day or two, it’s worth making an effort to visit. Thankfully, we’re close by.
Plenty of people (and guidebooks) can tell you far more about visiting the National Park than can I—especially about the acres to explore outside of the valley floor. The entire park is over 1,170 square miles. But here are a few notes (and a whole lot of photos) from our weekend, in case you’re lucky enough to be headed this way.
Fall is a wonderful time to visit. I’ve been in the spring, summer, and fall (one day I’ll make it there in winter!) and fall just might be my favorite. You do miss out on the incredible rush of full waterfalls that one finds in spring and early summer, but you also miss out on the bulk of the crowds. Peak season in the summer is my least favorite time to be on the valley floor (though I still wouldn’t be the one to deter you if that’s the only time you can make it). In my experience with the fall, you’re likely to still have warm days and cool nights, open roads and dry trails, and—if you hit it right—changing leaves all around.
We stayed inside the park at Yosemite Lodge. In the past, we’ve often stayed in the tent cabins at Curry Village (which is a really comfortable alternative to camping that still feels a bit back-to-nature), but I decided that until Hudson is excited about (i.e. will remember) sleeping in a tent, I’d be happier not having to pack sleeping bags and such and having the comfort of a hotel room. And, being pregnant, I knew I actually would have to get out of the tent at night to trek to the bathrooms this time. Eh, pass. Still, I can recommend both the lodge and the tent cabins as great alternatives to camping—if that’s not your thing.
You can, of course, camp, or you can look up your dates on the park website to see which lodging options are available for what prices. The Awahnee (expensive), the lodge, and Curry Village are all on the valley floor.
I think Hudson might have been content to play directly behind the lodge the entire time. Toddler-sized boulders, a healthy supply of sticks, and piles of leaves, all at the ready. The views are pretty amazing no matter where you are (and the lodge sits across from dry-in-fall Yosemite Falls) so it wouldn’t have been the worst thing, but we had other plans.
After a decent (but average) breakfast at the Lodge cafeteria, we drove across the valley to the Happy Isles trailhead parking, just past Curry Village. The nature center at Happy Isles is a great stop to explore with kids, and it’s also the start of the High Sierra Loop trail: you could go all the way to Mount Whitney if you were up for a major trek! Most day-hikers stop at the footbridge for Vernal Falls—where you’ll get wet from the spray of the falls in the spring—but if you go even just half-a-mile further you can get an incredible up-close look at Nevada falls, which is running even this late in the season.
It’s a popular route—it’s well-paved and generally marked “easy” in all the guidebooks, but it has just enough elevation climb and rewarding scenery to give one that sense of real payoff for his or her efforts. If you start out early enough, you can miss out on most of the crowds, making it my pick for “if you only do one trail from the valley floor…”
Hudson is big into saying “self” about everything these days (as in “I can do it myself, mommy”), but we eventually lured him into a backpack carrier with the promise of a cup of Cheerios he could hold onto. It was the only way we could have made the progress we did!
Still, we took our time, affording plenty of breaks along the way for toddler antics.
Once you reach the footbridge, it’s not much further (just a pretty steep climb) to reach Nevada Falls. On previous visits, we’ve continued up the to top of the falls (to Emerald Lake), but this is where we turned around. I thought it was the perfect day hike with kids (as long as they walk themselves or you’re comfortable carrying them up hills); and what a gorgeous sight those fall are at the top!
Hudson went downhill almost entirely by himself, which was basically made possible thanks to Aron’s willingness to essentially run the whole way and make a game of it.
Again, it’s a popular route; and as we came down, we saw the path was growing crowded. If you can start out by 9am even, you’ll be rewarded. We started out around 9:30 and spent about four hours on the trail (that you could easily loop in one or two). I thought to myself, as we hurried off with growling stomachs to lunch at the Curry Village pizza patio, that I would have thought the whole trip was worthwhile just for that morning.
After a break back at the lodge for Hudson’s nap and some reading on the balcony, we set off to enjoy the views and explore some more of the footpaths around the valley floor. The redwoods around the base of Yosemite falls and the grasses in the Cook’s meadow were especially nice as the afternoon sun dipped lower.
We also drove further down the road to El Cap meadow. At one point, the stunning face of El Capitan dominated our view of the road ahead. It’s so hard for me to believe that people climb this!
But sure enough, we walked out to join onlookers (some with relatives and friends bunking down for the night on the face of El Cap while we spoke) and crane our necks to pick out specks on the granite wall. And there they were! Spotting those climbers is one of the few ways one can grasp the rock’s size.
It’s hard to choose where to be and where to spend that golden hour of pre-sunset light. Many people choose Sentinel Bridge; the photographers line up to catch those moments of the day when Half Dome glows with pink and purple light. (It reminded me a little of the scene on Manhattanhenge!)
That night, we had a really delicious dinner (Aron raved about his rainbow trout) at the Mountain Room back at the lodge. And then we crossed over into the Mountain Room Lounge next door to roast marshmallows and make s’mores! Not many people know this, but if you ask at the bar they’ll give you the roasting sticks. You just have to have the goods (and be able to find a spot around the fire—which is seasonal). And all of the stores around the valley floor sell pre-packaged s’mores kits with marshmallows, Hershey bars, and graham crackers.
On Sunday, we drove over to the park’s grand Awahnee hotel for Sunday brunch and to enjoy the gorgeous grounds. The Awahnee is amazing: it was built in the 1920s and, while it looks like an enormous log cabin, its entire facade is actually concrete, poured into rough-hewn wooden forms and stained to look like redwood to protect it from fire. Everywhere you look is another beautiful view of the valley, and the inside of the hotel is filled with layers of textiles and murals and Native American motifs. There are huge fire places burning in the cooler seasons and historical markers giving you context at every turn. (Though I’ve never found the one that talks about how the interior was the model for the interior of Kubrick’s The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Something that always sticks out to me!)
When we arrived, the grounds were overrun with mule deer. We were so excited to show Hudson, but he was far more interested in the rocks he could fit in his pockets. Funny how micro a toddler’s focus often is. While we tended to be looking up, at huge mountain faces, he was nearly always looking down—at rocks, and acorns, and fallen leaves.
It’s quite expensive to stay at the hotel, but breakfast or the extensive Sunday brunch is a really nice way to enjoy it. More on that in another post.
Next time, we decided, we would like to bring our bikes along. The bike paths within the park would be a great way to get around the valley floor. They do rent bikes (and bike trailers) at the Lodge and at Curry Village, but the hourly rate adds up fast.
There was a lot still to see; we stopped in briefly at the visitor center at Yosemite Village to read more about the park’s history and its geologic formation, but we just scratched the surface. Still, even a day or day-and-a-half visit is enough to see why so many people fall in love with Yosemite.