“It didn’t look this far on the map” I said as satnav sprung to life and told us it was a two and a half hour journey to the Yosemite Valley Visitors Centre.
Lucky for us, the Tioga Pass was open that links the 397 to the West of Yosemite with the main roads into the park on the East Side. This was a gamble for us, as a few weeks after our visit, the pass was closed due to snow.
If you are staying near Mammoth Lakes, or anywhere you need to take this road to get to Yosemite, make sure you are aware of this. If it’s closed, the only alternative takes around 5 or 6 hours, depending on how bad the snow is in other areas.
Check before you travel on the National Parks Service website. They also have historic closing dates, so you can see how likely the road is to be open. If in doubt, stay somewhere closer so we won’t be disappointed.
Although two and a half hours seems like a long time in a car, made longer by the caravans and motorhomes who insist on travelling at 20mph, it was a very scenic drive. If you are travelling during the summer, expect long delays, especially as you reach the main roads into the valley. Try and get there early to avoid some of the traffic.
We had to make a quick stop at Mono Lake Visitor’s Centre to purchase our vehicle pass (around $20) and after that we were on our way.
The valley is a truly beautiful place, surrounded by majestic chunks of granite rising like giants out of the ground. The most famous of these are El Captian, the world’s largest single upright block of stone, and the Half Dome and it’s unmistakable silhouette. If you’re wanting to do the Half Dome hike, it’s 17 miles in total and you need to prebook your permit. They limit the amount of people who can do this trek each day.
As well as the amazing views, there’s also a few place to eat and buy some souvenirs. It’s also a great place to stock up on some last minute supplies before a hike. There’s plenty of water fountains and toilets on most of the walks, with signs reminding you how much water you should be taking and how far the next water point is.
If you’re legs are hurting too much after all that hiking, there’s also a bus that travels from the car parks to the different trial heads. So rest your legs and jump on that to see some different views from the other side of the valley.
Hike to Vernal Falls
We’d started off with the intention of walking to Vernal Falls and then onto Nevada, which is 6.5 miles in total. What they don’t mention in the guide books is it’s about 3 miles hiking up, 3 miles hiking down and half a mile battling squirrels and loose shale.
In our minds, the hike should have taken around 2 to 3 hours, with a lunch stop at the top. In reality, we did around 4 miles in that time and were absolutely knackered. Plus you have to stop every few seconds to take a photo of that “WOW” view. Plus even in October, there were lots of other people all doing the same route.
I think the worst part of the hike up to Vernal was the initial first stretch between the valley floor and the first bridge. It’s pretty much one huge slope that just keeps increasing in gradient. At least you can stop and take photos as an excuse to catch your breath. Push past this bit and the next section is mostly steps.
Plus, you get this amazing view as you round the corner near the bridge.
I think the phrase “photos don’t do it justice” was first uttered about this place. The colours, depth and textures just can’t be replicated on camera. I found myself, for the second time this trip, wishing I was good at painting.
Tearing ourselves away from the view, we suddenly became aware of the distant sound of a thundering waterfall. In October, the water level was fairly low, but it was still an impressive sight. If you’re heading here in late Spring, you’re definitely in for a treat, if not bit wet by the time you reach the top.
The next hurdle is the steps up to the top of the waterfall. These are narrow in places and steep. It didn’t help either that some people were coming back down as we were trying to make our way up. It was tough going, but I promise you the pain is worth it.
One of the great things about this route is most of the way to the top, the path is shaded, making it ideal for the warmer months.
We made it
Looking back down the valley and at how high we were, you can’t help but thinking “I can’t believe we’ve just walked that!” It was definitely time for a sandwich and a chocolate biscuit or two.
There are signs all over the park saying “Do not feed the squirrels!” This is easier said then done though because as soon as they hear a rustle of crisps or get a sniff of a sandwich, they’re there trying to get into your bag or climbing on top of you.
One of them even took a lot of interest in my camera, and I though we might lose it to a furry mob. He let us get away though, as ran off to annoy a German couple sat opposite us, who’d just crinkled their biscuit packet.
After our rest, it was time to continue back down to the valley. We followed the path, but instead of going down, it kept winding up higher and higher.
It was a gorgeous view from the top. It gave us an aerial view over Vernal, and to the distant Nevada Falls. It also gave us a great view of the Half Dome, and you could just about make out these tiny dots of people hiking up the almost sheer face.
The path, thankfully, started to descend. Although it was quite tough going walking down. The trail was covered in loose slate which just moved underfoot, meaning a lot of sliding, terrifying when there’s a large drop off the end. We did make it down safely, if not slowly, with a lot of swearing and cursing.
After reaching the valley floor, we just had time for a quick look around the shop before it was time for our 2.5 hour drive back (and a hot bath).
Yosemite in a day?
Yes, you can do Yosemite in a day and if you’re really pushed for time it is still worth going to get a feel of the place. However, there is so much to see and many paths to explore that if you have more time, it is definitely worth spending an extra day or two here.
For something different, you could try horse riding around the valley, rafting the river or going to Yosemite Mountaineering School and learn how to rock climb.
Some other hikes at Yosemite
- Mirror Lake trail is around 2 miles and is an ideal walk with children as the ground is pretty flat
- Half Dome is one for the more experienced hikers and is 17 miles in total. Don’t forget to book your permit in advance.
Sentinel Dome is ideal for people who want to get the jaw dropping views you get from the Half Dome but without the permit. From the top, you can see the Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and the Clark Range in the east.
The Mist trail is the one we attempted, but it continues up to Nevada Falls after Vernal.
For some more inspiration, visit Yosemite Hikes website, who have lots more information about the various hikes and the pros and cons of each.