Your sense of scale changes depending where you stand in the Yosemite Valley. At the base of El Capitan your neck and back arch up to see an almost infinite slab of granite wall stretching to the sky. Hiking along the calming clarity of the Merced river, even with thousands of visitors nearby, you find the tranquil intimacy of a small mountain stream.
If you think of the National Parks as a brand, then Yosemite would be in the “premium class.” It’s #4 in the top five most popular national parks (Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park). Yosemite’s magnificent granite walled canyons, alpine meadows and ancient redwood forests are remarkably accessible by highway. However, this easy access is a double edged sword with the trade-off being lots of visitors and lots of cars.
But, do not let the crush of humanity dissuade you from putting Yosemite on your must see list. For as overpopulated the Yosemite valley may seem at times, just a few hundred yards from a parking lot, campground or hotel you can find solitude, inspiration and amazement.
When you think about your Yosemite travel plans it’s helpful to understand that the park is roughly divided into three car friendly areas. The north part is the Tuolumne Meadows region where State 120 crosses the crest of the Sierras. Here there are wide alpine meadows, small streams, lakes, and granite domed mountaintops that are the hallmark of the park’s unique topography.
Heading south into the center of the park is the crown jewel, the Yosemite Valley. It’s a one way in/one way out road and spaced out in the narrow valley are the in-park hotels, food and service areas, and campgrounds. From the valley floor trailheads take you to easy or challenging hiking destinations. Lace up your hiking boots and take plenty of water for the 2,500 foot climb to the top of Yosemite Falls (figure a full morning). The next day a stout loop hike around the John Muir trail up to Vernal Fall below Half Dome will be a memory you’ll never forget.
Finally, plan to visit the south part of the park for a much more leisurely stroll through the Mariposa Grove redwoods. These planetary giants are over 2,000 years old and will invoke a sense of awe and wonder for even the most seasoned world traveler.
Typical of many of the National Parks the year round lodging and campground facilities are perfectly adequate, but not particularly up-to-date and, for what they are, rather expensive. What most of the camping and lodging facilities lack in charm and intimacy, they make up for in proximity. Many RVers and tent campers will prefer to chose private camping facilities outside the park all of which are an hour or less away. This is an especially good strategy for larger motorhomes with tow cars.
While the majority of visitors see Yosemite in “drive by” mode, the deepest experiences reward the traveler who choses to set out with a daypack, water bottle, and trail snacks to walk in the footsteps of ancient indians and latter day explorers who knew then what we still know now, that Yosemite is a very, very special place.