Yosemite National Park
All of the non-travel of 2020 creating rough draft itineraries for a time in the unknown and distant future where travel would be safe again – it is now very rewarding to be on the other side. Being able to browse the rough draft itineraries and select one to execute – makes it feel like that down time, despite not traveling, served a purpose.
I wanted to take full advantage of our America the Beautiful Pass that we purchased in Hawaii – while I predicted that 2020 would be the year of National Parks, I think 2021 is going to be no different. I looked for a park that had a good shoulder season for good weather and (hopefully) lower crowds and the park that best fit the bill was Yosemite National Park. After all the times we visited San Francisco, it is hard to believe we never made the trek to this National Park.
I took a look at the rough draft itinerary and realized I was going to have to make a few adjustments. While the park is technically open all year round, there are areas that close for the wintertime and generally do not open until late spring. Since our visit was late April, I knew there was a chance that the popular Glacier Point and the surrounding trails would not be open but maybe we would get lucky. Even still, there are plenty of trails around the Valley that are accessible any time of year. Also note that due to COVID the bus system in the park is not operational so a car is going to be essential.
Springtime in Yosemite is arguably one of the best times to visit the park.
PROS – great weather, shoulder season, low crowds, waterfalls are in full swing, does not require a reservation (currently required Memorial Day to Labor Day)
CONS – not everything is open – plan on staying in the Yosemite Valley area trails
We flew into SFO Wednesday night and due to the late arrival and even later jet lag, we grabbed a room at the Mildwood Hotel across the street from the airport – brought us back to our storm chasing days. In all honesty, the room was great but the people the budget hotel attracted were not so great. After a quick stop at Trader Joe’s for trail food (see what we like to pack on trails here!), we did the best we could to sleep through a very interesting clientele activity through the night.
We used the advantage of our jet lag to get an early start Thursday morning driving to Yosemite leaving at 4AM. When planning the trip, I really thought the park would be closer – and perhaps that is why we never made the journey on our trips to San Francisco – but we made the four hour drive to the park entrance, arriving around 730A.
Quick Tip : Download the NPS app – it is free and provides a ton of information about every National Park – including the ability to download that info such as offline park maps – to your phone. It was a big help while out on trail all day and navigating which were closed. Also, do not forget to take photos of the trail map before you start along your way – it is always good to have a double check to make sure you are heading in the direction you intend.
As we approached the park entrance, we anxiously awaited our first views of the iconic players – Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan. With one turn like a flash we got a glimpse of Half Dome as it disappeared just as fast. There were waterfalls popping up everywhere – with the snow melting rapidly now, any avenue for the water downward becomes a waterfall. Once we emerged from the trees we were in awe! It was hard to identify a singular place to pull off and stare as we wanted to look at everything. The colossal mountains towered over the Valley floor and certainly needed no help in making us feel quite small in the world.
After a long morning ride, I promised Kevin some coffee and since nothing was open on our ride into the park, we made a stop at the Starbucks located at Yosemite Lodge in the park. After his caffeine fix, we had no issues finding parking along the road outside of the Yosemite Falls bus stop. The original plan was to tackle some of the easier trails on the Valley floor and then head to the trails down Glacier Road. However, Glacier Road was still not open so we moved up the Upper Yosemite Trail to today.
Lower Yosemite Falls trail is a great intro to the park. A relaxing walkway over streams and under giant trees leads visitors to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. At this time of morning, we had the place to ourselves as we gazed at the gushing water crashing into the rocks below. We were even lucky enough to spot a waterfall rainbow! This is a very popular area because of how easily accessible it is with no effort for this great view.
As we walked back towards the main road, it was then the full view of Yosemite Falls was in the picture – it was enormous! I am not sure why I did not think it was visible but wow from a distance it is incredible.
Since I was not planning on tackling Upper Yosemite Falls today, we started on the trail a bit later than I would have liked going into a 6.8 mile trail but we decided to see how we felt as we made the journey and not make any promises.
Read about our hike up to Upper Yosemite Falls here!
Before we left the park for the day, we decided to walk to Lower Yosemite Falls one last time as a way to get back to our car. The crowd was certainly different from our morning visit – very crowded! I can only image how crazy this place is during peak season and non-COVID times – I completely understand why they are implementing the reservation system again this summer.
The walkway through the Valley floor is very tranquil – even if you are here for the intense hikes, make sure to spend some time exploring. If nothing else, it gives you a big appreciation for the vastness of the valley and just how high it is to summit these peaks.
On our way out of the park, we continued to gawk at the intensity around us. Later in the trip, Kevin turned to me and said “we are among beasts” – these enormous rocks full of life surrounding everything.
I recalled a photo I saw of a water feature in the foreground and pretty much everything else in the park in the background but I had no idea where this location was in the park. As we were about to make the final turn to exit the park, I spied a small parking lot by the river. I had Kevin turn off and by golly – it was the photo! I mean, this is an unbelievable view!
I could not believe we found this by accident but I was so happy we did – just an epic view of the entire park – all our new friends. After a required photo shoot, we packed back into the car and headed to our next destination, Mariposa.
Choosing a place to stay near Yosemite is kind of tricky. There are also multiple entrances into the park so that leads to multiple options. Most places within 30 min of the park entrance or less are quite expensive or require you to camp out.There is lodging in the park itself but you are paying a steep premium for the convenience. After some research, I settled on the town of Mariposa which is about an hour from the park. This downtown is quaint with all the essentials including restaurants, coffee shops, even a wine tasting room. There are also plenty of affordable and nice Airbnbs in this town. We opted for an Airbnb about ten minutes north of the town and for good reason – it is on a vineyard!
But first, we made a stop in town to get Kevin a coffee at Pony Espresso Coffee House and Roaster (of which he definitely recommends) and Pioneer Market for the rest of the food we needed on this trip. We picked up a rotisserie chicken (which would be enough for two nights of dinner – perfect!), some veggies and potatoes, bagged caesar salad with all the fixings, and freshly made sandwiches for the next two days of hiking lunches – all for under $30 – not bad for two lunches and two dinners! Pro Tip: Always check what appliances and kitchen items are at your Airbnb to make sure you are purchasing the right kinds of food. Our Airbnb had a full grill and some portable appliances, but not a full stove or oven.
But that did not matter because this Airbnb is gorgeous! It is a garage loft space on Papillon Cellars property – a working vineyard! The hosts are the nicest people and the space is incredibly appointed and comfortable. There is even a walking trail through the vineyard! And an outdoor deck perfect for sunset – wish I bought items for s’mores – there is a firepit too! There was nothing like a long day of hiking to come back to this amazing spot and relax for the evening. Cannot recommend this spot enough if you are visiting Yosemite.
After a very long day, we unpacked, made our dinner, and turned in for bed – we had a big hiking day ahead of us!
We expected the park to gain a few extra visitors for a Friday and I had a stop I wanted to make before our hike this morning. We got an early start leaving our Airbnb around 530A. While it is an hour drive, it is incredibly scenic through the mountain range and down along the river. One thing of note on this direction to the Arch Entrance – there is a one way bridge requires some patience. It never added more than a few minutes to the drive but something to keep in mind, especially during peak season since this construction project looks like it is going to take awhile.
Our first stop was Tunnel View – a stunning viewpoint of the entire park with zero effort, which makes this a highly desirable location for all travelers. I was disappointed that the sun had already gone above the mountain peaks – it was impossible to see anything! I took a few pictures not expecting much but when I checked them out in the car as our eyes adjusted from the direct sunlight, we were both stunned at the results.
It was about a 15 minute drive to the polar opposite side of the park where our trailhead was located. The Happy Isles bus stop is home to the very popular and very challenging Mist and Muir trails. When we arrived, the parking lot was closed off so we found street parking without a problem. At this time 715A, there were only about ten other cars parked along the road – good sign!
Read about the Mist and Muir trails, including stops at Vernal and Nevada Falls, here!
The park was considerably more crowded now than it was this morning and all day yesterday – the weekend crowd is here. Kevin wanted a much earned coffee so we made our way back to the Yosemite Lodge’s Starbucks. One nice thing about this area as well is there are nice bathrooms as well as a water bottle refilling station in the front desk area so definitely take advantage.
On our way out of the park, we stopped off at El Capitan Meadows to enjoy the view. We had watched Alex Honnold’s Free Solo movie before but standing in front of it gave us such a new appreciation for just what he had accomplished free climbing this giant. This would be a great picnic spot for those that do not feel the need to climb.
We made the drive back to Mariposa and our Airbnb. This time, we spotted white water rafters in the river! I did recall seeing that as an activity so this confirms you can indeed part take in some white water rafting activities near El Portal. This is dependent on the season as well as once the waterfalls dry up in the summer, so does the intensity of the river.
Back at the Airbnb, we made the rest of our dinner and enjoyed the sunset on our balcony while watching Free Solo. Another amazing day on this Yosemite trip!
Our last day! And also Saturday which meant I expected big crowds in the park. Our lovely Airbnb host offered us the ability to check out late and we happily accepted – the ability to leave our bags and rinse off before making the long journey back to SFO was a welcomed surprise and treat.
We got another early start, arriving at the park at 620A and I wanted to see if we could sneak in another view at Tunnel View without the sun (even though it made for an incredible photo!). As we pulled up to the lot, the area was jam packed with people – it was 630A! I jumped out and snapped a few photos while Kevin did a lap around the lot with a car. Another set of awesome photos.
The trail today was 4 Mile Trail which easy enough is four plus miles up to Glacier Point. Since Glacier Point was closed, we were still looking forward to this trail and hopeful of the views that were to come.
Read about our hike of the 4 Mile Trail here!
Not surprising, the car parking area was not only full but over packed at the 4 Mile Trailhead. Before leaving the park, I wanted to make sure we had one final lunch with a view. Kevin suggested going back to Yosemite Valley View and what a great idea it was! This spot is so awesome – I wonder if since it is so out of the way on the way out that people do not make it here as we had no issues parking and having this place all to ourselves for a relaxing last lunch. Trick with trail food is to bring something you are excited to eat – keeps the motivation going especially during long trails. If interested, check out this post on what trail food and other items we pack on long trails – here!
We made the final drive out of the park, the hour ride back to the Airbnb, washed up, packed everything up and headed back west towards SFO. The drive was fairly uneventful with some traffic as we got towards the city. Before making the final stop at the budget hotel, we decided to detour to Palo Alto for dinner and more importantly, dessert.
We used to visit Palo Alto when my brother lived in Mountain View for a short time before he moved to San Francisco itself. This college town is full of amazing spots to eat so it became impossible to make a decision. The roads were closed to allow for ample outdoor dining space so even using that to narrow the choices down was no help since everyone had it. We rounded a corner and found The Wine Room – wine and cheese actually sounded like the perfect thing after three days of wilderness.
To round out the day, we stopped at Salt & Straw – the main reason for our detour. This ice cream is the absolute best and if you are ever visiting the west coast make sure to find one. I think we got it every day on our trips to Portland and San Diego.
After this fun way to end the trip, we stopped at the budget hotel for a few hours of rest before making our way to SFO for our early morning flight.
Wow, what an awesome trip! While it can be annoying to get out to Yosemite if your airport is SFO, there are definitely ways to make stops along the way to break it up. But it was most certainly worth it. And having the Airbnb we had really elevated the entire experience. Even though we only had one portion of the park available, Yosemite was incredible. What a photogenic park where hard work pays off for epic views or for those that would rather relax also have the chance for views from the valley floor as well. Springtime is really ideal for crowds as well as those waterfalls – I can’t imagine doing these tougher trails and not having the waterfalls as your prize. In terms of COVID measures, the park states that masks have to be worn, social distancing is not an option and that was certainly not an issue. Everyone was respectful of the COVID rules so we had no issues there. We are looking forward to a return trip where we can tackle the rest of the park!