Experienced rock climbers might enjoy climbing El Capitan, which stands more than 3,000 feet over Yosemite Valley. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Yosemite is open to visitors year-round, with no reservations required to enter the park. // © 2016 iStock
The beauty of Yosemite is embedded deep within the American narrative, with accounts almost as old as the country itself. For thousands of years before it became famous, the valley was home to the Ahwahneechee people — “Ahwanee” meaning “large mouth,” an apt description of the valley’s swallowing walls. Only after serving as the backdrop to battles, traveling gold miners and tourists alike did Yosemite enter the national psyche as it endures today: a reserve of nearly untouched nature, splendid and daunting in its scale.
Efforts to preserve the area have persisted ever since, most triumphantly in the case of environmentalist John Muir, a fervent admirer of the land’s natural and recreational value. Muir fought to bring Yosemite under the protection of the U.S. government, resulting in its eventual recognition as a national park in 1890.
Having visited the park this fall, I can account for Yosemite National Park’s transportive powers. With 4 million visitors to the park a year, the congestion and crowded vistas are, at times, flustering. But in the face of a sight such as Tunnel View — with Half Dome, peaking curiously behind rows of verdant hills and trees — it seems that the park is a force unto itself, immune to the distractions of the outside world.
With more than 800 miles of trails and an interminable list of vistas, meadows, waterfalls and rock formations, Yosemite is a somewhat challenging place to visit for time-strapped tourists. While landmarks such as Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls are certainly the most iconic, local companies including Yosemite Family Vacations advocate visiting the lesser-known but equally stunning park treasures.
“The more guests are willing and able to hike, the more unique the locations we can take them to,” said David Furry, owner of Yosemite Family Adventures. “Don't get me wrong; it's amazing to see the base of Yosemite Falls and look up on El Capitan. The goal is to know when the best time to do that is so you won’t be overburdened by all the large crowds.”
With five entrances into the park and about 1,200 square miles to explore, visitors may narrow their itineraries based on their preferred activity of choice, whether that be rock climbing, horseback riding or hiking. There is a wide spectrum of trails, from the mellow dirt paths by Bridalveil Fall to the 10-hour ascent up Half Dome. More strenuous hikes often require a full day’s commitment, and in the case of Half Dome, only 300 permits are available to climbers per day.
Furry notes that the most popular package for Yosemite Family Vacations is indeed designed for a one-day experience, which is the average duration of stay in the park as of 2016. This is a considerable change from the average in the early 1900s, which was two weeks. To maximize short stays, coordinators provide all necessary adventure gear and transport guests from their lodging, from sunrise to sundown.
Though I chose to stay one night in Fresno and the other in Mammoth Lakes — having entered through the southernmost entrance and exited through the easternmost — there are 13 on-site campgrounds for those looking to remain in the park, as well as lodges and The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Because first-come, first-serve campgrounds usually fill up at the start of each day, it is recommended to make reservations, especially in peak season between April and October.
From the southernmost entrance, an economic tour of the area might commence with Tunnel View, followed by a 90-minute shuttle loop of the area with stops at visitor centers, several campgrounds and Half Dome Village. One might then venture to Tuolumne Groves of Giant Sequoias, which is not as crowded as the better-known Mariposa Grove closer to the South Entrance. On this tame, 2.5-mile roundtrip hike, just about a half-hour west on the Tioga Pass (the major road starting from the park’s west side and traveling east), visitors will wind through the deciduous forest, catching shade beneath the ancient giants.
Harmony between subtlety and grandeur is a recurring theme within the park. At some point, my partner and I decided to ignore our map in favor of pausing at all the sites that sparked our curiosity. Following several lush meadows and quiet lakes came the unexpected Olmsted Point, where slabs of granite converge at the base of a massive valley. It was here that I fully surrendered to the park’s majesty, lying on the warm rocks while the sun fell behind us.
“This is a park where you can get lost in the wilderness in the morning, just to find yourself right where you were meant to be in the afternoon, serenaded by beautiful landscape,” Furry said.
Operators such as Insight Vacations, G Adventures, Collette, Globus Family of Brands and Tauck offer itineraries that include visits to the park, often in addition to other destinations along the California coast. A worthy add-on might be Mammoth Lakes, located just outside the eastern side of the park; on the way, visitors can also stop at Mono Lake, made famous by several classic Hollywood films, to experience its hauntingly still waters and jetting rocks.
Despite its well-deserved acclaim, both for its landmarks and park staff, Yosemite’s strongpoint may be the feeling it imparts on its visitors — a quasi-spiritual silencing, connecting even the most amateur adventurers with the park’s earliest supporters. To be sure, there is too much to see in a week, much less a day. But regardless of the vantage point you take, whether from the bottom of a sequoia or at the tip of a waterfall, you are sure to leave feeling just as boundless as the park itself.