Yosemite is among the most popular national parks in the US. It gets a ton of visitors and consequently has a lot of infrastructure. Although the park is huge, most of the famous sights are clustered in Yosemite Valley. This density and infrastructure makes Yosemite a good choice for urbanites heading to experience a national park with the least fuss. There is a mix of accommodation on offer, good transport, and all types of trails for every hiking skill. We were there in late September of 2018 and this is a critical look at our time in the park.
Impression of Yosemite as a National Park
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Accommodation in the park is varied and although you need to reserve far ahead of time, it does exist. We stayed in one campground in the valley and one out on the edge of the park. The lodge is a complex including hotel rooms, a food court, a store, and other amenites. I was impressed by the food options at the lodge and at the general store. A shuttle bus runs a loop route between parking options and many of the trailheads. It was a great thing to have, though with the loop being nearly an hour we did move the car occasionally to get to different parts of the valley.
We went in September and while it was still busy, we didn’t have any issues getting parking. Trails were busy, but not packed. We heard stories that high summer saw it very very crowded and I can imagine that. Daytime temperatures in September were pleasant to quite warm with nighttime temperatures being quite chilly, but doable with a fluffy blanket.
I liked the park well, but it wasn’t my favorite of all of the parks we saw on the trip. Even still it is well worth a visit. If you are nearby and can get a reservation for accommodation, Yosemite won’t disappoint as a place to visit.
Getting to Yosemite
We picked our van up in Oakland and stopped once for supplies and lunch. It took us 5 hours to get to the Valley from Oakland arriving around 8pm, by which point it was pitch dark. Camping areas go to bed early and wake early with the sun. The main store was still open, which was good because we got lost trying to find our campsite. Yosemite is high in the Sierra Nevada mountains and so the roads are steep and curvy in places. Nothing a modern car can’t handle, but be aware of it, especially in the dark. Having the offline Google maps on my tablet was very helpful to knowing where we were until we got to the valley.
Most national park campgrounds seem to be staffed only until mid afternoon. So arriving after that means finding your campsite on your own. The park entrance hut as well is not staffed super late, so we missed getting the info brochure, which was a shame.
Yosemite Campground Reviews
Campgrounds in Yosemite are run by the national park service. Reservations for them are opened months in advance (info) and fill up fast. There are a handful of first-come-first-serve campgrounds as well, but you risk not getting a spot and being in the valley already. There are a number of campgrounds across the entire park, but only a handful in the valley itself. Those in the valley of course fill up faster, as they are closer to the trails and infrastructure. We didn’t realize that thing in September would fill so fast, so we ended up with one night in Upper Pines in the valley itself and two nights out in Crane Flat.
A Note on Bear Boxes
My last camping experiences were twenty years ago in the Appalachian mountains of my youth. At this time and place there was the concept of “be aware of the bears,” but it was not a big deal. Bears are a big deal in the wooded parks in the west. The restrictions take the form of a large metal box at each campsite and rules to store all food and anything with a scent in these boxes. The location of the box on the campsite can make a big difference to how much walking you are doing.
Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite Valley
Upper Pines Campground is right in Yosemite Valley itself. It is the largest of the of a cluster of campgrounds near the eastern edge of the valley and very close to the trailhead for Mirror Lake and Vernal Falls. This was the first campground of our trip, so I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect based on my memories from childhood.
The campground is wooded with tall pine trees. We got a nice level spot about 50 yards to the bathroom building. The site was dark enough at night that I was happy to have my lantern and headlamp. Bathrooms have flush-toilets and sinks, but no soap due to bears. The water fill station was good.
Showers are at the Half Dome Basecamp lodge. 5$ got us a towel and entrance to the bath, which was only a short walk from the large shuttle parking lot. The showers had good hot water and dispensers of showergel and shampoo. Each stall had a curtain on the outside and a second curtain separating a small dressing area from the shower itself. The small staging area was big enough to towel off and although it had no seat, there was a hook to hang things.
The biggest advantage of this campground is its proximity to the rest of the park. The Mirror Lake trail and Happy Isle area is a short stroll over the river and up the hill. One of the shuttle stops is nearby as well, so if you didn’t feel like driving you could still get around the park.
The disadvantage of this campground is the competitiveness to get a reservation. Otherwise if you can get a spot, it seems really ideal to be in the valley.
Crane Flat Campground
Since we could only get one night in the valley itself, we ended up with 2 nights at Crane Flat Campground. This is a campground about a 37 minute drive from the valley along Highway 120 to the west. The campground is wooded with the tall pines like Upper Pines, but slight more sparsely.
Our spot was level, but dusty and had several big dips in it, so we were unable to drive so far into it. This meant the bear box was quite a walk from our parking spot and dirt got everywhere. Although we did get a nice level parking spot, I saw some in our loop that were fairly steep. Most of the tent areas looked good though. We were closer to the bathroom, which was pretty similar to the one at Upper Pines. Again no soap, but also no power, which meant a headlamp for evening and nighttime bathroom visits was a must.
Everyone who we talked to about Crane Flat mentioned how nice an area it is. Umm.. it was a wooded campsite. Perfectly fine for what it was, but it didn’t feel much different than in the valley. There are some hiking trails out that far that are supposed to have some nice views, but we didn’t do them. There is a general store nearby, but not in the campground. We didn’t go over there as we were in the main park every day.
Advantages of the campground was that it wasn’t as busy, so getting a spot wasn’t a problem. It was perfectly fine as a campground. The disadvantage was the extra driving to and from the park, both in time and mileage.
Food Options in the Valley
As an urbanite new to camping, one of my worries was food. This was our first park, so I didn’t know what to expect in terms of food options. We could only bring so much in out van. Turns out I had very little to worry about.
The main store near the visitors center had a full grocery store. It wasn’t as big as a mega store in a city, but every type of food was there with some options. I noticed a few gluten free options in the mix and almond milk in the fridge. Certainly a lot of it was candy, chips, and meat, but I didn’t feel like we would have starved if we needed to supply from there. The smaller store at the Halfdome Village had a much smaller selection, but still reasonable options.
The Yosemite Valley Lodge was the real surprise for me. It is a hotel near the Yosemite Falls trail with a shuttle stop and several parking lots. It also has a food court called the Base Camp Eatery including a Starbucks. Ok, if you’ve come all the way into the National Parks maybe the last thing you want to see is a chain coffee place, but it was nice on one day to just feel at home. The food court offerings looked decent with the standard pizza, burgers, but also a made to order wok counter. We didn’t need it this early in the trip, but at some point you can only eat so many sandwiches and it would have been greatly appreciated later in our trip. Also the lodge had some nice normal bathrooms with soap.
Prices are higher across the board for food than you might see in a store in the city, but then again everything needs to be brought up specifically, so it is understandable. And yet the Starbucks prices looked the same as down in a city.
Hiking trail thoughts
We went in to this park thinking we could do more than we were actually capable of. This was our first park and a life of couch and computer sitting doesn’t really prepare you so well for mountainous hikes.
To the eastern edge of the valley beyond the Pines campgrounds cluster is the trailhead area for Mirror Lake and Vernal Falls. There are several bus stops, one for the Mirror Lake trail and one for Happy Isles, Vernal Falls, and beyond. The Happy Isles (#16) has a bathroom.
Mirror Lake is supposed to be a nice level walk up a long valley to a lake the reflects the mountains above, hence the name. However in September after a warm summer, we were told that the lake was dry. No water meant no reflection, so we decided to skip that and try the Vernal Falls trail.
The Vernal Falls trail starts along the river near an area called the Happy Isles, which are a series of islands in the middle of the river. It then angles upward. The trail is paved, but is quite steep in places. According the signs, the overlook bridge is .7 miles of walking, but up 400 feet. We didn’t make it and turned back before then. The views of the valley even as far as we got were amazing.
Yosemite Valley Lodge Trailhead
On the north side of the valley, near the lodge, is a trail to Yosemite Falls. Cross the street from the lodge carefully toward the falls. There are several ways around the bathroom building toward the Falls, but all go to the same overlook. Check the map as some branches are even wheelchair approved while others have some steps.
The walk to the lower Yosemite Falls view is probably one of the easiest trails in the valley. It is a short walk and the bridge gives a great view of the Yosemite Falls, which is one of the tallest in the US. We however were there in September, when it was completely dry. The view up the wall was still amazing, watching tiny figures climb where there should be water.
Tunnel View Overlook and Bridal Veil Falls
Tunnel View Overlook is probably the most well known of these overlooks. It isn’t on the leg of highway we used from Crane Flat, but up on a paralell road higher up the mountain. There are decent signs toward it and Bridal Falls, but it was easier to find with the offline map. There are two small parking lots on either side of the road just before the namesake tunnel through the mountain. An overlook with railing looks down the valley framing Half Dome nicely.
Because of the nice view and easy parking, it was definitely a popular stop. Even in September when there wasn’t a ton of people in the park, this parking lot was crowded. There were tour buses and their passengers crowding the overlook. They don’t usually get a lot of time there, so some patience should let you get a good view eventually.
Bridal Veil Falls is a short drive down the road from Tunnel View and worth a stop. There is a reasonably sized parking lot and a vault toilet building. The hike is short and not steep. The high drop of Bridal Veil Falls along with a stiff breeze is what gives the falls its name, as the water spreads out to a waving veil as it falls. The falls were not as full in September as they would have been in other seasons, so the effect wasn’t as strong. It too was busy, but not packed.
Turnouts and Overlooks on Highway 120
Further west toward Crane Flat are a handful of overlook/pullouts with some good views down the valley. They aren’t named as far as I could tell, but the best one seemed to be B3. It has a view down the valley, similar to Tunnel View, but with fewer people. The views are from further out, so also not the classic views, but still neat.
On the way out of the Valley you are directed on a one-way road westward with several stopping places. Although some of them are labeled as trailheads, we found one that had great views of El Capitan from a nice pebbly beach on the river.
Don’t be stupid when you hike
There are other hikes in the valley, but most run toward more strenuous and Half Dome Peak requires a specific permit. This list above was what we experienced and we didn’t try those trails. Even still..
- Be very aware of your hiking ability.
- Don’t do stupid things (like leaning over the edge of a trail, or climbing where you shouldn’t).
- Bring plenty of water too. Even during not such a hot day, I still drank a liter of water in an afternoon and probably should have done more.
Hiking is fun and you’d rather be around to do it again later.