YOSEMITE VALLEY — Yosemite is my Capistrano.
But unlike the famous swallows that show up at San Juan Capistrano in Orange County like clockwork every St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) after journeying from Goya, Argentina, I don’t stick around until it’s time to head south. Instead I visit my Capistrano almost exclusively for one day jaunts heading back as many as eight times a year.
I was back on a recent Saturday for trip No. 73. That counts bicycling through the high country eschewing the parking lot politely referred to as Yosemite Valley via Highway 120 (Tioga Road) and trips that don’t involve hiking as much as wandering the valley and/or driving around to give visitors a whirlwind day tour to show why 4.1 million people made their way last year to the 1,169 square miles (that’s 24 more square miles than Rhode Island) that includes the Sierra cathedral carved by ice in a series of glacier periods punctuated by global warming. For the record, the peak year for park visits still stands at 5.2 million in 2016.
I toss the numbers out to urge anyone in the Northern San Joaquin Valley within easy driving distance of Yosemite with even an inkling of wanting to get their first exposure to a world class treasure to do so in the coming weeks. Not that there is a bad time to visit Yosemite or a perfect time of year since it is stunning 365 days out of 365 days, but the crowds in the iconic valley where everyone seems to head aren’t yet granite wall to granite wall nor has gridlock taken over to such a point it makes you yearn to be moving at a snail’s pace on the 120 bypass at 4 o’clock on a weekday afternoon headed east.
More importantly — for those drawn to the valley — the waterfalls are all running strong including the seasonal ones, the meadows are at their lushest, the Merced River is roaring, the dogwoods are starting to bloom, and the weather is almost perfect if you decide to go for a little hike up to the rim to soak in views you’ll remember for a lifetime.
To be honest, once Tioga Road is clear of snow I treat Yosemite Valley like I’m a jilted lover. There are just way too many suitors vying for a glimpse of her beauty between May and late September. Well over 95 percent of the people who make their way to Yosemite from every continent save Antarctica makes a beeline for the valley and are content to venture no farther away than the stunning redwood groves or to head up Glacier Point via car or bus.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Yosemite Valley. But I’d much rather hike the trails along Tioga Road — the moniker for Highway 120 through the park — and hike out of Tuolumne Meadows including to my two favorite spots on earth to take a nap lying on a granite slab along pristine water along the shores of either Lower Cathedral Lake or Upper Cathedral Lake with its inspiring view of the aptly named Cathedral Peak.
It’s also in the high country where I can make a quick day trip to my go to 13,000 plus summit — Dana Peak with its commanding view of Mono Lake and the Long Valley Caldera with Glass Mountain in the distance. I’ve hiked Mt. Dana four times so far and am eager to return.
And if the truth be told my go to place for a quick day trip to hike to points 10,000 feet and higher is Sonora Pass. It’s quicker to get there and it’s virtually devoid of people compared to anywhere in Yosemite. It reminds me of my true love — the eastern Sierra with its steep rise, countless peaks to hike under and seemingly endless lakes. Between Mono County and Inyo County (home to Death Valley) I’ve spent just over two thirds of a year hiking and bicycling during vacations.
Now let’s move on to the main event.
By all means go to Yosemite Valley now to take in the waterfalls with all of their grandeur include North America’s tallest — Yosemite Falls dropping 2,425 feet.
But if you want to get in a view of a lifetime under your own power without worrying about heat, now is the time.
The following is a quick recap of my favorite vantage points to soak in the valley. Three of them are more doable from Tioga Road when it opens for the year. You will notice that Half Dome is dead last on my list which may seem ironic given Half Dome is without a doubt the most iconic image for Yosemite National Park.
CLOUD’S REST: I’ll be honest. You probably think I’m nuts liking this hike for the first 6.8 miles of the 14.5 mile round trip that starts from Tioga Road. After you clear the testing grounds for Deet in mosquito heaven just west of Tenaya Lake you will enjoy endless forest scenery that is pretty but not stunning by Yosemite standards. But what awaits you is worth every mosquito that managed to find the one centimeter of your skin not covered with clothes or repellant when you pass through a half mile of marshy area near the hike’s start.
Your reward is crossing a narrow “spine” of 200 yards consisting of granite outcroppings and boulders along a ridge that isn’t wider than four feet in spots. For sheer heart stopping joy there are extreme drops to both the left and the right.
You’re at 9,926 feet and the floor of Tenaya Canyon at the eastern edge of Yosemite Valley is 5,000 plus feet below. If it is any comfort, they say the drop off on the high country side is more severe but slightly shorter. All I know is that crossing it the first time when a gust of wind came up I quickly got down to my knees as a precaution.
If you think I’m kidding Google “Cloud Rest spine video” and enjoy.
The top of Cloud’s Rest is relatively flat and about the size of a football field with a 360-degree panoramic view. Somewhat to the south is Half Dome. With your naked eye you can make out the “ants” working their way up the cables. Bring binoculars and you can actually make out the people.
There are people who actually stay the night on top of Cloud’s Rest so they can take in the spectacular sunrise over the Sierra Crest. I’ve been told the experience will make you appreciate why John Muir referred to the Sierra as the Range of Light.
There is one drawback to camping atop Cloud’s Rest. If you need to go to the bathroom you need to find a place in the woods by going across the spine. I’m not about to do that trip in the dark even with a headlamp.
Cloud’s Rest is aptly named as it looms 1,000 feet higher than Half Dome.
NORTH DOME: This is another hike to the valley’s rim from the high country. Just like with Cloud’s Rest you can access it from the valley floor but those routes pile on the miles. This is also the only hike to the rim that you start at a higher elevation — 8,100 feet than you end up at — 7,450 feet.
I’m a frequent hiker to North Dome as it is the most doable route for most people that want to go to Yosemite with me that want to enjoy soaking in a stunning view and getting there on their own power. I’ve been there six times and never tire of it even though most of the hike on the way is nice but it is comparatively run-of-the-mill scenery for the Sierra.
The pluses for me is it feels as if you can reach out and touch the face of Half Dome plus it is the best view of Cloud’s Rest including from Half Dome. The trail is also lightly traveled which is a big plus for me. There are plenty of places to lounge around at the top to take in Glacier Point across the way and the valley far below. The round-trip is 8.8 miles with the Indian Rock Arch with a gigantic 15-foot wide hole as a 0.6 mile side trip.
To be honest the best view of Half Dome and my favorite hike out of the valley is the 9.4-mile round trip Snow Creek Trail heading up Tenaya Canyon that is accessed after passing Mirror Lake. It’s much less traveled by far than any other trial out of the valley. It is also considered the most strenuous of the hikes. The steep and narrow trail takes you to a junction by Snow Creek as the turnaround point for a 2,700-foot gain. Since you don’t really get a view of the valley from the trail it didn’t make the list.
YOSEMITE FALLS OUTLOOK/YOSEMITE POINT: This is the most popular route to the rim for most visitors and offers four distinct turnaround points where you feel that the trip is worth it.
Of course the best is to head toward the Yosemite Falls overlook. You haven’t lived until you can look up and see water slipping over a granite rock cropping at 6,526 feet and then following it as it plunges 2,425 feet to the valley floor. It is a 7.2-mile road trip hike from the valley floor at 3,962 feet to reach the overlook. My last trip, there were no less than a dozen seasonal waterfalls gently making their way across the hiking path.
Yosemite Point is beyond the overlook. Even if you only get as far as the bridge crossing Yosemite Creek to savor the raw power of the water rushing to disappear over the edge to plunge downward in a bid to join up with the Merced River far below, adding a little distance to the hike is well worth it. Yosemite Point, though, makes your venture an 8.8-mile round trip. The views from 6,939 feet are worth it. You can also high tail it from there to North Dome.
If you can just make it only to Columbia Rock, you can be rewarded with views from 1,000 feet up with a two-mile round trip hike. Go a half mile higher and you can see — and hear — Yosemite Falls. Keep in mind the farther up you go this time of year you can run into “rain” from falling water being carried by the wind.
THE POHONO TRAIL: This trail traverses the south rim and often will have snow along it covering part of the trail well into May. The most popular direction of travel on the 13-mile (one way) trail is Glacier Point toward Tunnel View which explains partly why I start at Tunnel View.
Starting at Tunnel View means somewhat less people but also I get out of the car a lot quicker to start hiking. You can also reach various outlooks from hiking in from Glacier Road.
Starring at Tunnel View and going to a turnaround point just over 5 miles on the trail lets you take in three great vista points — Crocker, Stanford, and Dewey points. Taft Point is closer to access from Glacier Point. If you’re looking for a minimal heart pounding experience and want to still hike to see a view of the valley you can take fairly moderate hikes from Glacier Point Road to Dewey Point or Tad Point.
GLACIER POINT VIA FOUR MILE TRAIL: First of all, this is more than four miles one way. The round trip from the valley floor is 9.6 miles and results in a net elevation gain of 3,200 feet. Yes, you can drive to Glacier Point but that takes all of the fun out of it.
Besides, once the road opens (it is still covered with snow) people flock to it as if they were flies. It is why the park service has a staging area from the Badger Ski Area parking lot to let vehicles journey up when there is parking space freed up. It turns the normal 45-minute plus, 30-mile mile drive from the Yosemite Valley floor to Glacier Point into a 90-minute to two hour ordeal at times.
EL CAPITAN: This is another hike you can take from the valley floor if you are a mileage junkie or head in from Tioga Road for a 10.3-mile round trip that takes you from 5,782 feet to 7,730. The hike there is pleasant and lightly traveled. My last time up I was the only one atop El Capitan the entire 30 minutes I was there. That said, it arguably has the worst view of the valley,
HALF DOME: Yes the views of the valley are much superior here compared to El Capitan and it’s the hike that everyone seems to talk about but keep in mind a few things. This is not a solitude kind of place. And because everyone wants to do it — assuming you secure a permit from the lottery once the cables are up — you get people who have no business doing the 14-mile round trip hike with a 4,800-foot gain. Besides being the last place you want to be during an all-too-common mid-afternoon thunderstorm, being on the cables when someone panics is not a fun time nor is it when you see people who try it do the hike wearing tennis shoes lugging only a small bottle or two of water.
The cost to access Yosemite Valley is $35 for a seven-day vehicle pass or $70 for a season pass. An all National Park system pass for a year is $70 while a lifetime senior pass (those 62 and older) is $80. A 62 years or age or older person can get a Yosemite season pass for $20.
Before you start complaining about the price, if there are four of you and you just stay a day that’s $8.50 a person. That’s almost the price of a large soft drink at Disneyland and what surrounds you there certainly does not date back to three glacial periods ago.