The ultimate auto tour of Yosemite is through spectacular Yosemite Valley itself. Open year round, visitors to the park can access the valley through the Big Flat Oak, Arch Rock, or South Entrances to the park.
The best way to take the drive is through the South Entrance, up State Highway 41 from Fresno. Your first stop should be Mariposa Grove, another grove of Giant Sequoia trees. At Mariposa you can find the Grizzly Giant, the oldest and largest Sequoia in Yosemite.
Further north you will come to the Wawona Region of the park. This historic region is home to the Wawona Hotel, built in the late 1890's. If you stop at the hotel you can walk across the covered bridge or take a historic stagecoach ride to the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. A variety of historic buildings from the nineteenth century, many of them moved from Yosemite Valley, are waiting to be explored. During the summer months volunteers in period dress make the area come alive and children are sure to be enraptured with the wild west experience.
At Chinquapin the road forks so be sure to continue northbound toward the Yosemite Valley and not east toward Glacier Point. As the road continues you will enter the 1-1/2 mile long Wawona Tunnel and will be rewarded with the most spectacular view in Yosemite you can reach by car. At the end of the tunnel it is a requirement to stop at the Wawona Tunnel Viewpoint, even if you find the noise and crowds bothersome. The view from this vista rivals that of the Grand Canyon. The entire Yosemite Valley can be seen with El Capitan to your left, Half Dome and Clouds Rest front and center, and Sentinel Rock and Dome to your right. To the far right, Bridalveil Falls can be seen. If you find the crowd is just too much for you take the mile hike westward up to Inspiration Point, or continue for another 2-1/2 miles to Old Inspiration Point. Safely away from the crowds and noise, both places offer incredible views of the valley below.
Drive another 1-1/2 miles and you can get an up close look at Bridalveil Falls. Here the winds entering into the valley whip the water dropping 620 feet into a light mist. There is a 1/2 mile long handicapped accessible trail that will allow an ever closer view of the cascade.
A stop at Yosemite Falls Trailhead offers a good view of the falls of the same name. Yosemite Falls is actually a composite of three separate plunges. The upper falls drop 1,430 feet, the middle falls drop 675 feet, and the lower falls drop another 320 feet. By the end of the summer the falls can stop running completely. However during the spring, especially after a winter with heavy snowfall, they can be out right incredible. During the floods of 1997 massive logs shot out over the top and crashed 2,425 feet below. The impact of the water was so great that nearby builds vibrated from the force.
If you are in good condition you can take the excruciating climb up Four Mile Trail to 7,214 feet Glacier Point. The trail is an endless series of switchbacks that climbs almost 3,300 feet in vertical change, going between Sentinel Rock and Moran Point.
A little further down the road you can visit the Yosemite Chapel, the oldest building in the park still in use today. Moderately damaged in the floods of 1997, the small chapel has been home to an average of 350 weddings a year. Take a look at some of the surrounding scenery and think about them being in your wedding album! Your next stop is the Curry Village Day Use Area.
From the Curry Village Day Use Area you can move by foot to a number of attractions. Near by are the remains of the 1996 Happy Isles Rock Fall. On July 10, 1996 a 400 feet wide slab of granite suddenly and unexpectedly fell 1,800 feet with such impact it knocked trees down over a 10-acre area. One climber was killed and several were very seriously injured. The area is stable now and visitors can explore the rocky remains. The Nature Center at Happy Isles is an ideal place to bring your family. Younger children will have fun completing the Junior Ranger Program and exploring the many easy hikes in the area.
From the Nature Center at Happy Isles you can take the most popular trek in Yosemite on the Mist Trail. The trail climbs along side the Merced River to Vernal Falls. The first 3/4 of a mile is up a steep paved slope ending at a bridge over the Merced River. During the summer there are toilets available here. If you have the energy you can take the upper section of the trail almost straight up along steps carved into the granite through countless switchbacks to Clark Point and beyond for a total of 1,000 feet of elevation change. If you are well equipped and have the time, consider hiking further on the John Muir Trail out to Nevada Falls, another 1,000 feet in elevation gain. You can then cross the Merced River again and return on a giant loop of a hike back over Emerald Pool, located just above Vernal Falls.
Find out more about Yosemite National Park NOW!