The drive through Yosemite Valley then turns back around after passing three campgrounds, park headquarters, the Valley Visitor Center, Yosemite Museum and Indian Village, and the Ansel Adams Art Gallery. Other features in this area include a medical clinic, auto repair service, fuel, store, restaurants, the Yosemite Lodge and the Wilderness Center.
In this region you can see Half Dome, rising 4,000 feet overhead and to the north. The missing, "half," of Half Dome was carved away by glaciers, leaving the somewhat unusual but spectacular rock formation.
If you take the eight mile long paved bikeway from the Ahwahnee you can hike out to the Royal Arches. The arches were formed when rocks fragmented and fell off the cliff face, leaving the outer layers of the dome behind and forming arches. They are spectacular to see and rather easy to get to. You can also use Ahwahnee as a jumping off point to hike out to Lower Yosemite Falls, but driving over to the Valley Visitors Center will shave close to a mile off of the trek.
To the west and north of you is El Capitan, pictured. El Capitan is one of the best climbs you can make in rock climbing circles. Some climbers complete the 3,593 vertical feet climb in just one day! Many others will spend a day or two camped out on the side of the cliff, setting up camps on platforms they mount temporarily. Be sure to bring binoculars if you want to look for people climbing this extreme rock face. You can get an excellent view of El Capitan by driving further west and away from the main village. After passing El Capitan there is one more stop at Valley View before the road passes through another tunnel and heads back out of the park.
To list backcountry hikes in Yosemite would be impossible with over 840 miles of trails the sky is the limit. Whether you want easier treks through Alpine Valleys or extreme climbs at over 12,000 feet through treacherous mountain passes, or journey down the Pacific Crest Trail all the way to Canada or Mexico, it is all available in the park.
The backcountry of the park is divided into four key regions, Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, Hetch Hetchy, and Wawona and Glacier Point.
Yosemite Valley offers steep climbs up granite faces to the top of El Capitan, Half Dome and other points on the rim of the valley. These trails represent some of the most strenuous climbs in the park but have the benefit of being open year round. Some have winter routes but if you want to snowshoe or winter camp, they offer the best access to the winter backcountry.
Tuolumne Meadows offers an alpine experience and provides the most access to any of the backcountry trails in the park. Destinations are endless, even if your plans are to head out of the country down the Pacific Crest Trail. Trails explore a number of lakes, meadows and canyons and allow access to the very remote northern reaches of the park, which have no form of improvements what so ever. From Tuolumne you may decide to bring your ice axe and attempt a climb up Mount Dana or Mount Lyell, which remain snow covered throughout the year and provide some of the best views not only of the park, but also quite possibly of the entire Sierra range. In the winter the closed Tioga road is used for cross country skiing.
Hetch Hetchy is one of the warmest regions in the park and in the summer things can almost get a little hot. The large reservoir is scenic in itself and there are a number of hikes you can take that lead back to Tuolumne Meadows or into the northwest corner of the park, also completely undeveloped with exception to the hiking trails.
Although Wawona Point isn't a backcountry area in the summer, when the snow flies the rules change. Cross country skiers and people who want to snow shoe can get a wilderness permit and camp under the Giant Sequoia trees. If you want to downhill ski, you can visit the Badger Pass Ski Area, or cross country ski northward along the road that leads to Glacier Point. From Glacier Point you can access a number of day hikes and get excellent views of the Yosemite Valley. It is also the much easier way to take the Four Mile Trail into the valley itself, versus climbing up from the valley floor.
If you want to explore the backcountry in Yosemite for an overnight trip or longer, you will need a backcountry permit. Permits are free and can be obtained in advance. The park isn't without risks. Rock falls are possible in the summer months and avalanches in the winter. Black bears are generally fearless of humans and as recently as 1998 were a massive problem at the park. Bear country protocol should be followed to the letter when visiting Yosemite, even if it is just for a day trip.
It is also equally impossible to index all of the camping and lodging facilities in Yosemite. Yosemite offers 13 campgrounds within its boundaries, and nine more just outside of the boundaries in the Sierra, Stanislaus, and Toiyabe National Forests. Four of the campgrounds are open year round with the remaining ten open from May to October. Upper Pines, Lower Pines and Northern Pines campgrounds in the Yosemite Valley require advanced reservations. Half of the campsites at Tuolumne Meadow require reservations and at Crane Flat on the opposite side of the park. All other campgrounds are on a first come, first served basis.
The campgrounds can be crowded, especially in the summer months, so bring some patience along with you. Bears are a constant problem and you have to be extremely careful. Not only are they artful at raiding improperly secured campsites, in 1998 Yosemite's bears caused $600,000 in property damage by breaking into vehicles. Make sure that every morsel of food is out of your car and stored in the provided bear lockers. If there is even a half eaten animal cracker sitting under you child's car seat, the bears are going to find it. They have even been brazen enough to break into recreational vehicles!
No matter what you are looking for Yosemite National Park can offer it. Quiet hikes through mountain meadows, the distant roar of the fifth largest waterfall in the world, and the largest in the United States, deep valleys carved by glaciers, or mighty mountains that once were the final obstacle to settlers heading west. Even when it gets colder the activity doesn't stop. Winter camping, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, and alpine downhill skiing can all be found at Yosemite. The subject of artists and photographers, Yosemite is a wonder to see, no matter what season it is.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Yosemite National Park
Location: Eastern Central California,
Nearest Major Air Service: San Jose, California, Reno, Nevada
Fees & Permits: $20 for park access, $10 per person on bus, bicycle, or walking in. Wilderness permits are free. Skiing at Badger Pass or taking the stage coach ride at Wawona have fees attached.
Why Visit: Just the drive through Yosemite Valley is reason enough. Excellent trail system allows you to explore the deepest reaches of one of the oldest parks in the country. Four seasons of adventure including plenty of snowshoeing, cross country skiing and alpine skiing adventure. Rock climbing paradise with world famous El Capitan as the centerpiece.
When To Visit: May and June, September to October, and January to March.
Essential Gear: Depends on a wide variety of activity. Sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, lip balm, camera, binoculars, light jacket, drinking water, and sunglasses. Other gear is strongly recommended. Specialized gear for winter activity is required.
You Should Know: Because it is so close to the metro San Francisco area, Yosemite can be extremely crowded. On certain days and weekends park access can be restricted or closed off. A shuttle service in the park has helped easy congestion. Make your reservations in the park as far in advance as possible. Bears are a very serious problem. Obey all park instructions on dealing with them because a fed bear is a dead bear. Although July and August are ideal times to visit, we don't recommend it do to the crowding problem.
More Information: Yosemite National Park, PO BOX 577, Yosemite National Park, California 95389, (209) 372-0200.