We recently took an autumn family trip to Yosemite just for 1 day. We highly recommend spending more time in the park. But not all of us have it, or some of us just don’t take the time (because we’re anxious to head south for warmth and sunshine <smirk>).
Yosemite is a beauty to behold. Colliding tectonic plates on the surface and enormous forces deep within the earth uplifted granite, forming the Sierra Nevada mountains: a mountain chain 400 miles long and between 60 & 80 miles wide. Where once there was a V-shaped canyon with the ancient Merced River channel, now you see the U-shaped Yosemite Valley. Between 1 & 2 million years ago a glacier transformed this into what you see today.
It was Abraham Lincoln who took time during the Civil War to sign an act in 1864 setting aside the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove as land to “be held for public use, resort and recreation”…the basis for the later concept of state and national park systems.
If you are limited to only one day at Yosemite (park entry is $30USD per auto…America the Beautiful pass accepted), then here is a list of Must-See highlights according to The Park.
Those with asterisk* are those that were pointed out to us as Highly Recommended if you have little ones, or somebody who really doesn’t like to walk long distances or has mobility issues.
Double asterisk** were “extras” that our family did.
Listed in order of approach from South Entrance
Visitor Centre in Oakhurst: right on Hwy 41. We stopped in here the day before our recent adventure into Yosemite to get oriented, organized & armed with maps. From here its still another 30 mins drive to the park entrance, and another hour to the valley floor (Tunnel View). Its highly recommended to be IN the valley by 9am!!
Mariposa Grove: Want a good view of Giant Sequoias that are several hundred years old? Mariposa Grove is the largest grove in Yosemite.
Glacier Point: open seasonally you can make your way up to this grand vista via Glacier Point Road to get a bird’s eye view of the Yosemite Valley with its massive granite peaks and beautiful waterfalls.
*Tunnel View: The Wawona Tunnel was carefully engineered to provide a dramatic view for motorists. As soon as you burst out through the tunnel you can park immediately on the right and take in the view of Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, Clouds Rest and El Capitan. No walking necessary.
*Bridalveil Fall: This is an easy 1/4 mile walk to the base of the waterfall. Signs warn that the rocks are slippery even when dry. YUP. But some people still ramble over the rocks to get closer to the falls and feel its spray (i.e. my hubby & kids)
*Yosemite Chapel: This is the oldest building still in use in the valley. It dates back to 1879 and is right off of the parking lot. Spectacular view of Yosemite Falls from here.
*Sentinel Bridge: From the chapel we drove across the bridge and parked, then walked back onto the bridge to take pictures of Half Dome over the Merced River (early Spanish explorers named if for Our Lady of Mercy).
There’s a legend about a husband and wife caught in an argument; Tokoyee became so angry that he began to beat his wife, Tissiak. Obviously enraged, she hurled her basket of acorns at him. As they stood facing each other they were turned to stone; punishment for their wickedness. Forever forced to stare at each other across the valley. The acorn basket (Basket Dome) lies upturned beside Tokoyee (North Dome) who faces Tissiak (Half Dome) stained with her tears.
Side note: There are more granite domes here at Yosemite than in any other place in the world. Massive granite domes form when large curved layers of rock exfoliate or slab off. Don’t be fooled by the name, Half Dome. It used to be much larger, but there never was another half to it!!
At this point we went to one of the parking lots in Yosemite to park our van (skoolie was parked outside of the park at the Chukchansi Gold Casino just south of Coarsegold. Free, unlimited parking & safe place to leave the skoolie unattended).
*Valley Visitor Centre: You can get your questions answered here, check the park’s weather forecast and trail conditions. We confirmed there was enough water at Mirror Lake to make the walk worth it.
**Theatre: every half-hour there is a film shown. There are 2 different ones: one on the hour, one shown on the half-hour.
**Ansel Adams Art Gallery: Everette has always enjoyed Ansel Adams black & white photography so I made sure we popped in over there, hoping it would inspire some of the teen girls with their photography, too.
From here, now that the van was parked, we jumped on the Shuttle Bus that took us throughout the valley floor so we could see the Yosemite Falls and Mirror Lake. Using the shuttle bus helps with congestion and pollution in the park. Its highly recommended to take advantage of the shuttle bus. Also remember to stay on hiking trails. When people walk in the meadows or off trail, they compact the soil and may cause damage to plants. Raised pathways in the Valley meadows has helped return the meadows to a lush and healthy state. We all play a part.
*Yosemite Falls (Lower): This is an easy 1 mile round trip walk (paved trail) from Shuttle Stop #6. Many people climb the rocks to get a closer look and feel (i.e. to get wet). The lower falls are 320 ft (98m). The middle cascades are 675 ft (205m) and the Upper falls are 1,430 ft (435m) with a total height of 2,425 ft (740m) making it the tallest waterfall in the USA, and the 5th tallest waterfall in the world.
There’s also longer, more strenuous walks/hikes with gains of 1,000 ft (Upper Yosemite Fall Trail to Columbia Rock) and 2,700 ft (Top of Upper Yosemite Fall). Usually the falls are dry by August. The pattern of snowmelt and autumn quiet is affected by variations in annual precipitation and temperatures. The waterfall flows again once there is significant rainfall in autumn and the snow pack starts to build higher up. Thankfully it was already flowing when we were there in late November.
Yosemite Valley Loop Trail: Wander through the valley enjoying your views of Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls from various angles. Depending on the time of year you’ll meander through lush meadow, wildflowers, possibly even spot deer or coyote.
*Mirror Lake: A seasonal lake that may be dry in late summer and into the fall until the area has a good rain. We were in luck.
This isn’t actually a lake but just a widening in the river. Its a 2 mile round trip that took us about an hour+ a rest to enjoy the view at the base of Half Dome. The walk is easy if you stay on the paved road. We took the alternative trail through the forest and along the river which is more challenging but even our non-hiker did fine, for the most part.
Vernal Fall: This was recommended to us by the lady at the pay station, so I’m not sure if she was suggesting just the walk to the Footbridge (1.4 mi roundtrip of moderate difficulty, 400 ft gain) or to the top of Vernal Fall (3 miles roundtrip with strenuous 1,000 ft gain). But we never did this one, so No Comment!
There are more Day Hikes to be had in Yosemite Valley but for those more serious hikers. They take a bigger time commitment that might be perfect for those who actually camp in the park and can spend several days exploring.
The summer of 2017 was a year of many devastating forest fires around North America. The area of Yosemite was affected by these but with the help of mild weather conditions it was well managed, allowing it to burn underbrush that needed to be burned. Evidence of these natural events could be see from the highway as we drove into the park from the south.
One of the highlights for our family was meeting up with Druin, his wife, and others from their Rangers Corp based out of Chico, CA. Our family loves reading aloud Ranger’s Apprentice and Anders has dressed up as an Apprentice for Halloween the past couple of years. So when we saw them wandering in Yosemite we just had to enquire about them. One just never knows who or what you’ll discover with serendipitous travels!!
I hope this overview will help you and your family enjoy at least a day in Yosemite, no matter what time of the year. This was our second autumn family trip to Yosemite. We’re hoping next year we can hit the park in late spring/early summer where we’ll get an entirely different feel for the park during different seasons.
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