Ah Yosemite… land of Muir… serene, epic and life changing Yosemite. I have no idea how many people have written about this place, hundreds? Thousands? Certainly thousands to millions of articles. So what’s left to say? Well everyone’s version of Yosemite is different, it’s the culmination of your actives, experiences and perspective. I’ve read a few stories from hikers and travelers who have walked the Yosemite hills and valleys and each one offers new inspiration. So here at Unearthed World we thought it time we give you our perspective!
Yosemite changed me for sure. It certainly kickstarted my love of the national parks, but it might be the very reason I moved to the United States from Britain. I just wanted to go back, over and over. Whenever someone asks me for advice on a Yosemite trip I get a little nervous because I want to ensure their first experience is as amazing as mine, but in truth I should relax, its hard not to fall in love with it.
So let’s get to it, you’re going to go, thats decided, but what do you need to consider in planning the most epic camping and hiking trip of your life?
- Best Drives
- Backcountry & Day Hikes
- Avoiding Crowds
- What to Take With You
1. Campsites are the first thing to turn your attention to as they sell out months in advance. The national parks service still have a very clunky website (bless them) and it allows you to go on around six months ahead and book up, however as the clock strikes midnight on that thrilling day, the tent spaces get bought faster than cheap tv’s on black Friday. You have to act fast and plan ahead. That being said, if you’re willing to either drive a little each day or venture into the backcountry, you’ll not face these issues. So lets look at option A; sites within the park valley.
There are 4 main camp areas in the valley:
- North Pines,
- Upper Pines,
- Camp 4
These are the grounds that are so quickly booked up. I have usually avoided them like the plague because they are so dense and full. I prefer a quieter camping experience. The upside to setting up here is that you’ll get within a quick walk of many of the most popular day hikes. The upper pines camp, which is on the far east of the valley, is essentially bordering the trailheads for walks to Half Dome, North Dome, the John Miur trail and Vernal Falls, all extremely popular attractions.
Once you move slightly further west and out of the valley you’ll find an array of campgrounds which don’t book up so quickly and offer a quieter more relaxed night in the tent. The price for this however, is you’ll need to make a trip of between 30 minutes to an hour (depending on traffic) to reach the valley floor, if thats your intention. Many of these campgrounds sit by their own wonderful park highlights, though often under appreciated and thus less visited. These include:
- Tamarack Flat
- Crane Flat
- Porcupine Flat
- Crane Creek
These sites offer a calmer less crowded feel, and they give access to their own hikes. A few years ago we hiked up from the valley and onto the northern high ground, afterward I realized just how amazing a hike from Porcupine Flat down toward the valley would have been. You don’t have to suffer the horrific climb from the valley floor like you do if you begin from the pines grounds.
2. The Best Drives in and around Yosemite are pretty definitive. The first, being by far the most iconic is the road down into the valley. If you come from the north, Big Oak Flat turns into Northside Dr. This meanders down the mountainside with sheer drops to your right for most of the way. Periodically there will be lookout points which are truly stunning. From the south you will take Wawona Rd, which eventually merges with the former. This stretch however includes a lookout called Tunnel View, a popular vista point. The drive is so memorable not only for its great view points but also for the exhilaration you get surfing down the mountain wth the windows down and Yosemite air in your face.
The other stand out drive is Tioga Rd (the 120) which spans the park, west to east entrance. The road can take you on a two or three hour weave through some of the most beautiful scenery you’re ever likely to lay eyes on. Views of Half Dome spring up, the highland meadows appear before your yes, springs and lakes dot the way and you pass Polly Dome, Tuolumne Peak and Mt Dana on route. Its stunning, and a must for anyone with a day to spare.
3. The Best Day Hikes could be debated for days between the parks four million annual visitors, but I’ll aim at the hikes most agreed on and most obvious, particularly for first time visitors.
- Glacier Point was one of the first ever hikes I took in the park, back in 2008, I saw a sign for a five miler and thought ‘sure!’. Make no mistake, this is a good five miles. It’s uphill all the way with few level sections, but man is it worth every step. The views of the valley are just crazy as you make your way up, and Half Dome sits opposite once you reach the summit. We got up after a few hours and found a store at the top, plus plenty of tourists, which we then learnt had made their way up via a shuttle on the other side of the slopes. Despite the heavy mid day crowds at the very top, enough gold exists on route to be worth the annoyance.
- Vernal and Nevada Falls (see photo below) is potentially the single best quick hike in the park. It’s easy and the pay off is huge. Particularly when water is flowing hard in springtime. The first waterfall you hit comes with almost no effort, but go a little further (up some rather steep steps) and you’ll reach the second, far more worthwhile view.
- Half Dome sounds obvious, but I’m listing it. You can’t really come all this way and not head up to this iconic rock can you? This is one of the most iconic natural images in the world. Start at north pines and follow the John Muir trail. Simple! Not quite, the dome is only open May to October, but if you make the trek, which is often better as an overnighter, the 360-degree views, and thrill of looking down the sheer 2000ft north face will stick in your memory forever.
- Cathedral Lakes is the hike to do if you venture into the Tuolumne region (which you should!). The hike will take you to a crater like arena, housing a beautiful lake within. It’s serene, still and magnificent. Cathedral Peak stands proudly next to the lake and the views will invite you to go off walking and exploring all day.
To Avoid Crowd you just need to do one or both of the following; go outside of peak season or walk more than twenty minutes from the main road. Like most national parks in the states, Yosemite suffers from driving tour syndrome. Millions flock to its wilderness, only to drive through it and see next to nothing. If you don those boots and get moving, you’ll find yourself surrounded by woodland and hardly anyone to ruin it. We’ve walked for hours and not seen a soul once we’ve gotten just an hour from the road. The further you walk, the less people you see and the more amazing gems you come across.
Peak season is the summer and while it has wonderful weather, the streams and falls are at their peak in spring, when fresh meltwater cascades down the granite cliffs. Weather is ideal for hiking and camping and numbers are way down. Some unique highlights exist out of season, such as horsetail falls, a fascinating light illusion which draws photographers from around the world for a few days every February.
Take With You good camping gear. A camping trip is easily ruined by not having what you need. A good sleeping pad, a decent lightweight tent, a backpack or daypack if you’re planning only on day hikes. Waterproofs, cooking gear and some comfy sleeping bags. See our camping guide articles for more on this. Plan on taking plenty of water, we usually carry 2 liters each, especially in summer when it’s dry and super hot.
Hiking gear is something to really research before you delve in, as getting the right clothing and in particular footwear will denote either a splendid or horrific experience in the hills. Comfortable, preferably waterproof walking boots, and breathable clothing is my advice.
Now get out there and experience it. Its no doubt up there with the best national parks, and perhaps the most uniquely stunning locations on planet Earth, so don’t rush it, spend a good week exploring and you will be rewarded with memories you’ll cherish forever.