There are six words when uttered by anyone who has lived in the Northern San Joaquin Valley for at least a year that never cease to amaze me — “I have never been to Yosemite.”
I find it unfathomable that someone within 150 minutes travel time of arguably one of the world’s most incredible and accessible natural wonders have never taken the opportunity to check it out.
I’m sure that the 3 million plus annual visitors to Yosemite— many who came from Europe and Asia — would probably think the same thing.
I’ll be the first to admit even in the year I racked up 10 trips to Yosemite that I avoided Yosemite Valley — the place where perhaps 95 percent of the visitors are drawn for obvious reasons — like the plague between May and October except when I want to hike out of the valley to the rim. That’s when 75 percent of the annual visitors descend on Yosemite.
Although the national park has 747,956 square miles, almost every one of those visitors’ heads to the main attractions within the walls of the six square miles that make up Yosemite Valley. There is a reason why Yosemite’s official site often warns visitors this time of year expect two-to-three-hour delays in traffic once you reach Yosemite’s boundaries as well as enter the valley on weekends or afternoons on week days.
Now that you’ve heard my reservations for going this time of year, ignore them. The reason is because of the record snowfall that has created a unique summer opportunity in Yosemite Valley.
The waterfalls are running like it is still early spring.
In the past five years, only two would continue flowing over the rim to the valley this time of year — the falls known as Yosemite and Bridal Veil — and they weren’t exactly robust. Today they’re roaring strong.
The Glacier Point Road — that leads to what would literally be breathtaking views of Half Dome if you had to hike there up the Four Mile Trail — opened today (July 1) while working around road work.
Hours are limited through July 4 between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. It closes again July 5-7 and reopens July 8 with the same hours. Then starting every day on July 15, it is open with 30-minute delays.
The path to the high country via Tioga Road (Highway 120) as of July 1 still hasn’t been opened for the season.
All of that said, this is arguably the best summer in decades for newbies to Yosemite due to the snowpacks that has given the valley a spring-like feel when it comes to waterfalls minus the seriously cold weather at time.
This is arguably the best time to take a day trip as the weather is warm and the days longer.
What you’re about to read is basically a one-day whirlwind tour of the top draws of Yosemite that can be done with mostly flat walking and driving or catching the free trams.
The only suggestion — a walk at least part ways up the Mist Trail to see Vernal Fall from a footbridge across the Merced River or climb the stone steps to the top where you are likely to see a rainbow along the way or going all the way to Nevada Fall — is included even though it requires a bit of exertion.
The reason is even after 14 trips up it primarily to show Yosemite newbies its beauty, it never loses its charm. It helps of course that I fell in love while being sprayed with mist from the crashing water over Vernal Fall and a rainbow was arching across the Merced.
Before you go make sure you wear comfortable clothes and shoes meant for walking, a change of clothes (or at least socks) if you decide you want to get wet walking near a waterfall, and water that you can carry.
You’re better off packing a lunch and bringing in your own ice chest of drinks. If you have a backpack, bring it along especially if you end up taking the tram or heading off to take more of a hike as you will need to carry extra water, snacks and such.
There are a few concessions but between the crowds and the price means bringing your own makes sense. Also make sure you have a full tank of gas as there is none available in the valley although you can gas up at Crane Flat if you enter the park on Highway 120.
The quickest way from Manteca is Highway 120 as it takes you directly to the park. From Turlock it is going to be Highway 140 out of Merced.
Itinerary for whirlwind one day Yosemite visit
The entrance fee is $35 for a seven-day pass. If you have an inkling you may need to go to the bathroom in the next four to six hours, I’d advise using the ones right after you get past the pay stations. The rangers will provide a map that you can use to reference stops that I’m suggesting.
After you emerge from the second of three tunnels as you head to the valley via the Highway 120 entrance you will be tempted to pull over to get a picture of the first dramatic granite views. After going through Yosemite, the view from this point will look mundane but it is still worth the stop.
The first stop once you are in the valley is Bridal Veil Falls. It may take a while to find a parking space in the lot or along the road leading up to the world-famous Tunnel View but it’s worth the wait. It is about a quarter mile hike to the falls.
From there I would go straight to the dirt parking lot at Curry Village.
You can access the tram from here or walk a little over a half mile to Mirror Lake. It’s called Mirror Lake for obvious reasons. You are also below Half Dome. This is the way to head up Snow Creek Trail to the southern rim but if you stay in the valley the walk to the lakes and the surrounding meadows is fairly flat.
Walk back to the valley loop road and catch a tram to Yosemite Falls. Hiking to the lower falls is a treat. Heading to the top takes an effort but it is worth it, especially being able to hold your smartphone over the granite edge — there is railing — and snapping video as Yosemite Creek plunges from 6,936 feet down to the valley 3,000 feet below.
You can take the tram back to Curry Village.
Once there you can do two things. Try the Mist Trail hike that starts about a half mile away or get in the car and drive toward the western end of the valley to near El Capitan.
This is a perfect stop for a picnic lunch. You can head toward the Merced River and find a spot suitable to enjoy both the water and searching the granite walls of El Capitan for climbers. Be sure not to enter areas that are cordoned off due to fragile eco-systems or restoration efforts. The imposing El Capitan is a vertical gain of 3,000 feet from base to top. It is the world’s eighth largest monolithic (single) rock.
From there, get in the car and head back as if you’re going to Bridal Veil Falls. Instead head up to the Tunnel View. Parking is a challenge but it’s worth seeing the view that Kodak in its heyday said was one of the most photographed in the world. Doing this later in the day puts the sun in the right place.
From there continue onto Glacier Point Road.
You will run into snow along the way with many of the trails accessed from here still covered in snow, especially as you work your way from roadways. Don’t even think about trying to hike them unless you know what you’re doing.
Once you reach Glacier Point you will be treated to views of the glacier-carved valley from 3,100 feet up and a stunning view of Half Dome.
While the views from North Dome are probably the absolute best and similar lofty vistas from Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls are in the same league as Glacier Point, it is the only one you can reach without seven to 16 miles of hiking with lots of elevation gain.
On the way out near Crane Flat there are two smaller groves of giant sequoias if you are so inclined to see and have the time. The Merced and Tuolumne groves — depending upon the one you choose — involves between two to three miles round trip hiking and gain in elevation of less than 500 feet.
Hetch Hetchy is an option as well
You could also say no to the crowds at Yosemite Valley and head instead to Hetch Hetchy Valley for a 2.5-to-four-hour roundtrip hike to Wapama Falls that covers 5.5 miles round trip.
Your turn off Highway 120 is before reaching the Yosemite Valley entrance station. The road takes you past the Evergreen Resort and San Francisco’s Camp Mather. You will go through a Yosemite entrance. Day users this time of year have to be out by 9 p.m.
You drive to the edge of O’Shaughnessy Dam and walk across the dam face and connect with a trail that has a total elevation gain of 200 feet to reach Wapama Falls.
The fall once plunged 1,800 feet to the Tuolumne River. But even with Hetch Hetchy Reservoir covering the last 400 feet, it is still impressive.
There are a series of short bridges that takes the trail across the waterfalls. They were a little dicey still due to the heavy run-off so last month on a trip there I only crossed the first one. Another guy braved the second bridge but turned back as the space between the next bridge was a heavy downward spray making it treacherous — and stupid — to try and navigate the slippery rock trail especially without benefit of railing.
I have been to Hetch Hetchy spring, summer, winter, and fall and it never disappoints.
How impressive is it? My first trip there was in March of 2016. I’ve been back five times and plan a sixth trip in August to show it to some friends.
There are essentially no crowds plus plenty of places to be lazy along the trail on granite outcroppings overlooking the reservoir.
As an added bonus, this year you can probably make a trip to Tuolumne Meadows once Tioga Road is reopened and see conditions and flowers that resemble early spring in July or the first few weeks of August. The sub-alpine meadow is at 8,619 feet. The only meadows I’ve been to that are more stunning are above 10,000 feet in the eastern Sierra requiring a half day of hiking to reach.
Take my word, if you haven’t been to Yosemite you need to go before you die.
That way you can make sure you caught a glimpse of heaven on earth to use as a comparison.