Escape: Reconnecting With Yosemite


This past year, when my husband, Mike, suggested we take a trip to Yosemite with our daughters, Anna and Melissa, now 15 and 12, I realized it had been almost 20 years since I’d visited the park. I spent many happy vacations there as a kid—camping with my family and backpacking numerous times with a youth group in junior high school. I had ridden horses from Yosemite Valley Stable, hiked the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall, cached dehydrated food between trees in bear-busy Little Yosemite Valley, fine-dined at The Ahwahnee Hotel, photographed bears and coyotes at Glacier Point. The last time I’d been to the park, I’d gone with Mike during the fall, when the summer crowds had gone back to school and work, and the trees were lit up like fire. I remember wishing the waterfalls were running stronger, but loving the sense of having the whole splendid place to ourselves.

We planned a two-night excursion over spring break, when the falls would be roaring and the crowds at lower levels than during the summer. The weather promised to be chilly but sunny, and I set off with the family, eager to reacquaint myself with Yosemite.

Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite

Unwilling to tackle the springtime camping adventures my parents endured, which once had my dad scraping snow away from our tent flaps, we made reservations at the 290-room Tenaya Lodge just outside the south entrance to Yosemite. I liked the idea of staying on that side of the valley because it enabled us to skip crossing either of the Priest Grades leading into the park from the Groveland/Highway 120 side—the old one so steep, narrow and unguardrailed that it’s like a goat path; the new one, safer but lengthier. From Sacramento, a boring, cow-stinky drive down Highway 99 brought us to Merced and Highway 140, and we stopped in at the Rancho San Miguel market for a Mexican lunch in Merced—best carnitas tacos I’ve had in a while, and we also picked up a carton of ultra-fresh pico de gallo and a bag of fresh-made tortilla chips.

Ultimately, by staying on the south side of the park, our driving time was probably longer, but cruising along highways 140, 49 and 41, we watched the flat landscape give way to rolling hills, then climb between pine-freckled slopes into dense forest. Tenaya Lodge, in Fish Camp, is about the only establishment there besides a small general store, but it was all we needed. Our room was plenty spacious for the four of us, especially since these travel-writing vacations have taught our girls how to share a bed without too much fuss. With down bedding, enough pillows and big chairs, we could each take a spot and read after our long days exploring the park—for me, having forgotten my all-important book bag at home, that meant cracking into the book the front desk staff kindly let me borrow. Anna and Melissa swam in the indoor pool, the pizzeria served a decent veggie pizza, Mike watched the History Channel (his favorite way to wind down), and the lobby area had some beautiful, Yosemite-set art and photography on display. We also could snag morning carbs and coffee from the lobby cafe, and one night we had steaks and burgers at the on-site (and popular) Jackalope’s Bar & Grill. If I’d wanted some pampering, I could have slipped off to Tenaya’s full-service spa, Ascent, for a massage, a facial or a yoga class.

On the Way to Yosemite Valley

One nitpick to know about Tenaya Lodge: The brochures boast that it’s just a mile or so from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, and this is true. Less than two miles from the lodge, you pay your $20, good-for-a-week entrance fee and pick up your park map, but it’s another 30 or so miles—windy, carsick miles—to Yosemite Valley. So, in order to get to the falls, the village, the views of Half Dome and El Capitan, you’re in the car for almost an hour. One way to start off: At the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias just inside the park entrance, gape in awe at the huge trees, either on your own or with an audio-accompanied tram tour that runs May through October, weather permitting.

Our first day in the park, after being in the car for four hours already to drive from home, we stopped in Wawona to explore the historic hotel and wander along the paths that run over the creek and through the meadows around the nine-hole golf course. If you’re here when the Pioneer History Center is open, check out the blacksmith shop, jail and covered bridge. Watch for deer in the meadows and imagine what life was like back when Native Americans roamed these lands.
Farther into the park, just before reaching the valley, we entered the famous Wawona Tunnel. Carved into the mountain, its walls eerily lit from above, the long stone tunnel opens to the glorious view of Yosemite Valley in all its granite and forested grandeur—El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the center, Bridalveil Fall on the right, a floor of trees, and a lookout parking lot often filled with tourists speaking a variety of languages and snapping photos.

Yosemite Valley

On the trip with my family this past spring, we intended to do the touristy stuff: some short hikes to get closer to the falls, walk or shuttle among attractions on the valley floor, meander through the museums in Yosemite Village and grab a bite to eat at one of the valley restaurants. Luckily, on our only full day in the park, we got an early start, because within an hour of entering the valley, as we were hiking up to the lookout point of Bridalveil Fall, clouds that had been boiling up began to spit rain. We already had enjoyed a lengthy walk through Cook’s and Sentinel meadows, where even though we stayed on the trail, we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of deer. The meadows, overshadowed by El Capitan, skirt the shores of the Merced River, which bisects the valley floor.

Once the drizzle began, the girls and I tied up our expanding hair and Mike, wearing shorts, mentioned the errant weather report and complained that he’d left his “foulies” at the hotel. With the waterfall spray, the little jaunt to Bridalveil Fall would have gotten us wet even on a sunny day, so by the time we got back to the car, we decided a little rain wouldn’t deter us. We headed to Curry Village next.

My experiences with Curry Village had involved a soda machine stocked with Bireley’s orange back in the mid-’70s—enticing to my friends and me when we descended with our backpacks and blisters from Cathedral Lakes—and the tent cabins where I stayed with my parents and sister on several occasions. I remembered that the cabins, with mattressed cots, felt luxurious after countless vacations spent teetering on the edge of an air mattress, and that the mosquito eaters still got inside no matter how careful we were to close the flaps. I didn’t remember Curry Village’s restaurants (pizza, tacos, a cafeteria), ice cream stand, coffee spot, camp store and swimming pool. Aside from camping, this is the best accommodations deal in Yosemite, and all the amenities make it an ideal home base for families, so you’d be wise to make reservations early. Also, don’t expect all of summer’s services to be in force if you visit during spring or fall. For example, we found no lunch options open during the spring break day we were there, despite plenty of hungry folks milling around in the downpour. In the fall, most of the staff has gone back to college, so offerings tend to be sparse this time of year as well. But you still can get a bag of trail mix and a Go Climb a Rock shirt at the Curry Village store. Besides, the valley is perhaps most gorgeous in these shoulder seasons when colors are vibrant.

We ended up having a creekside lunch beside the Yosemite Village store, where we bought bread, turkey, miniature jars of mayo and mustard, a package of plastic knives, a bag of chips and some sodas. We sat in the car, parked in the health clinic parking lot, and built sandwiches while we watched the swollen creek tumble over boulders in front of our dribbling windshield. Afterward, we walked in therain to the museums in Yosemite Village.

The Ansel Adams Gallery takes some guff for being called a gallery when it’s really a gift shop, but who cares when you can admire the works of Ansel Adams and other Yosemite photographers? Books, posters, postcards, jewelry, camera equipment—it all captivated us as we huddled in the damp store. Then we wandered a bit farther through the village to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and the Yosemite Museum to learn how the valley was formed (think glaciers) and how the area’s native people lived. We skipped the Yosemite Cemetery, even though it’s the resting place for Native Americans and many important Yosemite bigwigs, opting instead to take a wet, one-mile walk to Lower Yosemite Fall. It sometimes can be dry by this time of year, but when we were there, it was tumbling fast.

After our hike, we rested our aching feet at the Yosemite Lodge Food Court and wrapped our rain-numb fingers around cups of coffee and hot cocoa. Then we hiked back through the drizzle to our car—still parked at the medical clinic—amused by all the friendly tourists we passed along the way. People said hello in Japanese and German accents, cheerful inside their plastic ponchos. It was clear that people don’t come all the way to Yosemite to stay indoors just because the weather turns a little wet.

Because we were there in the spring, several spots were off limits to us, including Mirror Lake and Glacier Point. But in the fall, these are essential parts of a Yosemite visit. The foliage along the trail to Mirror Lake makes the hike worth the two-mile trek, even if the lake has dwindled to almost nothing. The trailhead is at Happy Isles, home of the Happy Isles Nature Center, with interpretive exhibits and short trails leading visitors into four Yosemite environments: forest, fen, river and talus. The road to Glacier Point opens as soon as snow levels allow—it’s open now, so take the 30-minute drive up and treat yourself to the best view of the Yosemite Valley. Watch for bears and coyotes while you’re there. They’re often in plain sight.
Our last stop for the day was the lovely Ahwahnee Hotel, where I’ve dined twice in my life, both times when my parents were paying the bill. The building itself is remarkable, a combination of several design styles—Arts & Crafts, Native American and Middle Eastern—and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Walk along its stone floors and gaze out through floor-to-ceiling windows at the valley’s granite walls. From the massive walk-in-size fireplaces in the Great Room to the brilliant art in the Mural Room, everything about The Ahwahnee looms large and bellows “Yosemite.” Dress up and come for dinner—next month, the Vintners’ Holidays celebrations give you a handy excuse—or simply relax by the fireplace with a glass of wine. While we were there, we admired the views, then purchased some fancy chocolate from the Sweet Shop and headed out of the park, catching snow flurries at the summit on our way back to Fish Camp.

On the Way Home

After two days in the park, I felt like we had barely skimmed the surface, and Mike and I are vowing to bring our daughters back for a lengthier visit and deeper hikes. We headed home the third day, stopping in the town of Mariposa for a bit of souvenir shopping, a little Gold Rush history and some lunch. We moseyed through the Arts Park and ducked into a Miwok teepee at the History Center, then checked our e-mail while we waited for our gigantic burgers at the Happy Burger Diner. Word to the wise: Go for the seasoned curly fries. You could get them with gravy, or loaded with Monterey Jack and cheddar, bacon bits, sour cream and chives, but that could be too much. And though this might sound boring, the California State Mining and Mineral Museum most definitely is not, especially if you’ve got a kid who’s learning about the Gold Rush.

Yosemite National Park has experienced at least 16 deaths this season, thanks in part to high-flowing water. Keep in mind that cliffs, waterfalls and weather are unforgiving, and that what’s beautiful may also be deadly. Practice good common sense and err on the side of caution.

From Sacramento, you’ve got three choices for accessing Yosemite National Park, specifically, Yosemite Valley:
Via Highway 120/Groveland: 170 miles, 3 hours, 25 minutes
Via Highway 140/Mariposa/El Portal: 200 miles, 3 hours, 40 minutes
Via Highways 140 and 41/Mariposa/Fish Camp: 228 miles, 4 hours, 25 minutes