YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Imagine going to sleep to the sound of water gushing over a nearby waterfall.
Envision being able to take a short night hike through pine trees and a pristine meadow under the stars without encountering hundreds of other people.
You can do that and enjoy relative solitude without backpacking miles away from the road.
It definitely doesn’t sound like the Yosemite National Park experience most people have.
That’s because camping in Yosemite Valley during the summer has the feel at times of pitching tents along the Golden State Freeway in Los Angeles with crowds more like Woodstock than a Sierra retreat.
Even the famous tent cabins of Curry Village give you more of an urban sleeping experience.
To get a more tranquil experience without wilderness camping in the remote backcountry of Yosemite or congregating in established campgrounds ringing the valley, you can do so by just heading up to Tuolumne Meadows.
As drives go, it is just a half hour longer than the 2½ hour drive from Turlock or Manteca to reach Yosemite Valley.
The drive from Crane Flat over Tioga Road (Highway 120) is less congested and decidedly more stunning than the roads you have to take to reach Yosemite Valley once you pass the entrance stations.
And if pitching a tent isn’t your thing, there are two options awaiting for tent cabins — one at Tuolumne Meadows and arguably the coolest tent cabin location available in Yosemite, or the Sierra for that matter, at Glen Aulin.
It is one of seven High Sierra Camps offered in Yosemite National Park typically starting in June or/and July through mid-September although The Tuolumne Meadows Lodge is likely to open sometime in May. It usually stays open until mid-September.
The camps are so popular — as are pack trips in the Tuolumne Meadows area — that a lottery is conducted once a year for available spaces. It is sometimes possible to get last-minute reservations if you call after the lottery has been completed or during the summer.
The camps consist of tent cabins similar to those at Curry Village on the floor of Yosemite Valley. There are 69 tent cabins that accommodate four people each with beds, bed lines, towels, lanterns for lighting, and such. There is no electricity.
The High Sierra Camps also include meals.
At the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge you can essentially drive almost right to the tent cabins. The others — Glen Aulin, May Lake, Sunrise, Merced, White Wolf, and Vogelsang — require hiking to reach them.
There are limited communal dining option plans available for non-tent cabin guests who opt to bring their own tents when they backpack into the various camps.
If you like waterfalls, Glen Aulin is ideal. It is a 13-mile round trip hike along the Tuolumne River to reach the campsite that is two stone’s throw of the 80-foot high White Cascade Falls and its stunning pool. Easy day hikes can take you to other falls such as California Fall, LeConte Fall, and the whimsical Waterwheel Falls named for how the rocks spray the water.
Enjoying the falls at night or the early evening is a unique experience given half of the free world isn’t roaming around or camped nearby as they are in Yosemite Valley this time of year. There are eight cabins at Glen Aulin. Showers are not available as they are at Tuolumne Meadows.
Even if you don’t want to stay at Glen Aulin, the hike is well worth it with stunning views of the Tuolumne River as it flows toward the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
There is a 600-foot net gain in elevation to reach Glen Aulin at 7,800 feet. The attitude may make it strenuous for some but most of the gain is near the camp where the trail gets a bit tricky and is easily navigated by simply slowing down a bit.
The other High Sierra Camps are in equally impressive locations with access to numerous other stunning locations by hiking trails. The best example is May Lake that has an easy hike to reach the pristine body of water beneath Mt. Hoffmann. The hike to Mt. Hoffmann at 10,855 feet is a bit strenuous but after some easy rock scrambling once you reach the perch of the summit you are rewarded with one of the best views in Yosemite National Park.
Tuolumne Meadows offers numerous basically flat hikes in and around the summer camp.
You are also close by the easiest 13,000 foot plus Sierra peak to access in terms of distance from a paved road — Mt. Dana. It is a 5.8-mile round trip gaining just over 3,000 feet to the 16,061-foot summit that gives you an incredible view of the high country as well as prehistoric Mono Lake. The trailhead is near the east entrance station on Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120). The trail, while not maintained, is one of the easiest to follow even without numerous cairns.
You can also hike to passes, plateaus, additional peaks, and other remote lakes in the Tuolumne Meadows area.
There is a general store that opens for the summer season in a big tent as well as gas at Tuolumne Meadows. A great side trip is less than 40 minutes to Lee Vining where you will find Mono Lake and its unique tufa towers – massive limestone creations jutting out of the water – just off Highway 120 as it makes its way east to its terminus with Highway 6 in Benton.