Yosemite National Park has a reputation that precedes itself. The guidebook authors throw around words like grand, majestic, and noble. Regarding Yosemite, conservationist and naturalist John Muir wrote, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” It is also one of America’s favorite national parks and one of the oldest. The park was officially established on October 1, 1890, though it was originally much smaller than its current size of 747,956 acres. Yosemite also holds a special place in the history of land conservation in the American West. In 1903, John Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip here in an effort to convince the President to increase conservation efforts out west. The trip was a resounding success. During his administration Roosevelt established 5 national parks, 23 national monuments, 55 wildlife preserves, and 150 national forests. That’s quite a legacy to live up to.
We camped at a Thousand Trails park six miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park. The campground was not the most interesting or beautiful place we’ve stayed, but it was perfectly adequate for our needs (and free with our Thousand Trails membership). We honestly didn’t spend much time hanging around camp anyway. Most of our time was spent getting lost in Yosemite, both figuratively and literally.
Driving into Yosemite Valley really is a majestic experience. You drive up and up through the forest, through a few short tunnels, and come around a bend to see the whole of the valley laid out before you. With towering granite cliffs on either side playing tricks with the light and shadow, it is no wonder this place has been a muse for so many photographers and artists.
Down in the valley itself, we stopped for a picnic lunch in front of the tallest waterfall I have ever seen. At 2,425 feet Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America and the fifth tallest in the world. If you’re in better shape than we are you can hike the strenuous 3.6 mile trail to the top. Us, on the other hand, were content to sit on a boulder with our sandwiches, gazing at the falls from across the meadow.
Keep in mind that we were visiting after a very long dry summer. The waterfall was barely a trickle compared to the torrent of water coming over the cliff when the winter snow melts each spring.
The heart of Yosemite is in the valley. From the valley floor you can see Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome. Most visitors never leave the valley, despite the fact that the valley only contains about 1% of the park. There is good reason for this, however. Most of the park (around 94%) is designated as wilderness area and requires a backcountry hiking permit, proper equipment, and a bit of know-how to explore. The average national parks visitor is happier (and safer) enjoying the park from the valley floor.
Something I found very special about Yosemite was that it even after over 100 years it still feels like a place that has secrets. Places you can go that no one else really knows about. This is a feeling we didn’t get at the other national parks we’ve been to. This may be partially because Yosemite is full of difficult terrain, but I think this is also what makes this park so captivating to so many people. You could literally spend years exploring here and only discover a small portion of the park.
Half Dome is most famous among rock climbers, but you can also hike to the top from the backside of the granite monolith.
Around 1,000 hikers make this journey every single day during the busy summer season, despite the fact that the 17-mile round-trip trek is incredibly steep, climbing 4,900 feet to the top.
El Capitan, a bucket-list destination for rock climbers, holds the record for being both the biggest and the tallest piece of exposed granite in the world.
One piece of advice I can give for visiting Yosemite is to bring a good set of binoculars. Watching the brave guys and gals scaling El Capitan is fascinating but you can only see them with binoculars or a decent zoom lens on your camera.
It takes multiple days to climb to the top so the climbers must haul all of their gear with them. At night they sleep in slings suspended from the side of the cliff.
They climb in groups, which makes them easier to spot.
We found a lovely meadow across from the cliff face that made a great place to hang out at the end of the day and watch the climbers. It was also an excellent place to spot some of the local wildlife. We’ve found that the best time and place to spot wildlife is in the early evening near a water source. It seems obvious now, but that was something I had never really thought about until we started touring the national parks.
As easy as it is to get lost in the beauty of Yosemite, it is equally easy to get literally lost while navigating the most confusing national parks road system we have seen to date. On the map, the valley loop looks pretty straight forward. In reality, the loop contains multiple cross-streets, one-way streets, and sections only accessible to pedestrians, bicyclists, and the park shuttles. To make matters worse, the park roads were undergoing off-season construction, which meant closures, detours, and surprise one-way streets that had previously been two-way.
Stranger yet were the inconsistencies between the park map and the park signs. An area called Curry Village was clearly labeled on the map, yet we never saw a single sign for it and could never actually find it. And the historic park hotel seemed to be going through an identity crisis. On the park map (and in every one of my guidebooks) it was called the Ahwahnee, yet all of the park signs called it the Historic Grand Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
Whatever you choose to call it, the historic hotel really was grand and majestic. In fact, it is probably my favorite of all the historic national park hotels we’ve toured. It is also somewhere I will probably never stay. Rooms start at $500 a night. Ouch! Since opening in 1927, the hotel has hosted Queen Elizabeth II, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the Shah of Iran, Steve Jobs, and many other lesser known individuals to whom $500 is a drop in the bucket. However, the vast majority of the hotel is open to the public and absolutely worth a visit. We took advantage of free wifi in the lounge, had a lovely picnic on the patio, and enjoyed a drink from the bar.
Another interesting find we made while trying to navigate the park was the U.S. District Court located right in Yosemite Village! During peak season the park houses around 800 people who work at the park. When you include the 20,000 people who visit each weekend during the summer, Yosemite starts to look like a pretty good-sized town. Due to its isolated location, the park finds it necessary to provide some basic services to the full-time residents and visitors. This includes a fire department, police, medical center, grocery store and, apparently, a courthouse. This was the first time we had come across a courthouse in a national park and it was totally unexpected.
The retired park ranger managing security at the front door seemed a bit surprised to see me (I doubt they get many willing visitors), but mostly he just seemed perplexed by my enthusiasm about finding a courthouse inside the park. I explained that I am actually a lawyer and previously worked for judges at both the federal and county courthouses in Portland. This seemed to appease his curiosity. He was very friendly and welcoming, telling me a little about the Judge and even allowing me to peek inside the courtroom. The Judge is not here full-time. He also has chambers and hears matters at the court in Fresno. Many of the cases they hear at this courthouse involve minor violations within the park. After all, the national parks are entirely federal land so if you find yourself in trouble here you will have to answer to the federal judge.
I know, I’m a bit of a dork, but I just love courthouses.
Although we spent most of our time touring the park, we also made a trip to the nearby town of Groveland. Per usual, we managed to camp somewhere with absolutely no cell reception or wifi. We honestly didn’t expect California to be the most disconnected state in our western loop. However, it’s given me a great excuse to find local coffee shops. In Groveland I found Dori’s Tea Cottage, an adorable shop that actually serves a proper high tea! Very surprising for the middle of nowhere.
While I spent a few hours writing and enjoying a large pot of apricot green tea, Brandon managed to track down a car wash in this one-horse town. He desperately needed to wash the mud off the Jeep after a spontaneous trip down a muddy old logging road.
Groveland is also home to the Iron Door Saloon, which claims to be the oldest bar in California.
And that’s it! That’s literally the entire town. Not really, there was actually one more strip of shops down the street. Kidding aside, Groveland was actually a cute small town, just exceptionally isolated. I did, however, find a decent taco truck stopped at the local gas station, which is more than you can say for some of the tiny towns we’ve visited.
You’ve probably noticed a trend in our posts recently. We camp somewhere really remote, with no cell reception or wifi, and then spend a good bit of time hanging out at some local coffee house/bar/restaurant just for the wifi. Well, this isn’t actually intentional or ideal. Writing this blog has made me very dependent on cell service (which we use to create wifi for the laptop through a hotspot). I actually prefer writing at home in the RV, but that just hasn’t been possible recently due to our lack of cell service. The result is that the blogs are taking longer to get posted because I am stuck writing at coffee shops.
I am currently looking for solutions to this problem, some efficient way to draft blogs offline for quick and easy upload when I actually have service. So far I have tried keeping a web browser open and continuing to work offline even though I had no way of saving my work. This resulted in a lost draft (a painful experience). I have also tried using a program called Blogo which resulted in another lost draft (even more painful the second time). My current solution is to draft my work in a Word document and then transfer it to the website later. This is clunky but at least Word consistently saves my work.
If any of you have experience with blogging or any sort of website management I would love to hear your ideas. How can I efficiently draft photo-heavy content offline in a way that is easy to transfer to the website later? If you have a suggestion or idea please comment below or shoot me an email at Alpha1ontherun@gmail.com!
We hope you are enjoying our meanderings through California. From here we are heading back towards the coast to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Pinnacles National Park!