Yosemite National Park has always been one of those places that I’ve really wanted to visit for as long as I can remember hearing of it, but in reality I actually had no idea what to expect because I’d never researched it. So while I knew we were going to be in for some beautiful views on our visit to one of America’s favourite national parks, I have to be honest with you: I wasn’t entirely sure what those views would be.
Coming up to our trip, I finally started looking into Yosemite. I think at one point Ash had to lift my jaw from the floor, because holy bananas if that place doesn’t crack out some ridiculous natural architecture.
I couldn’t wait to see it in real life!
I had pencilled in a couple of days to spend in the park, but thanks to our cock-up in San Francisco, we were going to arrive in Yosemite a day later than we had planned, and that was going to leave us tight on time in the national park.
Our plan had been to leave San Francisco in the evening and stop somewhere half way so that we could arrive in the morning and book a camping spot at Yosemite’s walk-in camp site, Camp 4. Instead, we set off some time in the afternoon (after a lunch stop at Mike Dirnt from Green Day’s café in Emeryville just outside San Francisco. It was one of the roughest areas I’ve ever seen, but the café itself was really good.) and I thought maybe we’d get to Yosemite for sunset.
But then, driving to Yosemite, we were caught in the worst traffic we had experienced so far on our trip, and ended up resigning ourselves to the fact we weren’t even going to get there that night. It was going to leave us tight for the rest of the trip, though I was thankful that I’d actually factored in an extra day between San Francisco and LA.
As it happens, a day was perfect for an introduction to the incredible Yosemite.
(Which is lucky because instead of being sensible and having a rest day, I added another bucket list stop to our itinerary on the spare day instead – can anyone guess where?!)
We arrived in Yosemite bright and early – if this trip was teaching me anything, it’s that I can do bright and early, especially when sleeping in a car at a petrol station. Who said travel was glamorous anyway?!
The drive there was pretty and fun, consisting of steep, winding mountain roads in the morning light. Every so often, the vista views would disappear into forests, masking our presence. I hadn’t quite understood how the drive was going to take us so long, but this definitely explained it. By the time we arrived in Yosemite, it was already 9am – and, I realised with horror, it was the weekend.
The park, therefore, was pretty busy once we got into the valley and every time we passed a vague view, the side of the road was suddenly packed for half a mile. We pretty much wandered aimlessly along the road towards the visitor centre in Yosemite Village to plan our day from there, and I stopped once or twice to get some photos that would be totally blown out of the water by every other photo I took that day.
Although Yosemite isn’t the sort of place you need a visitor centre for (unless you’re into geology, which in a place like this is pretty fascinating!), it’s a good starting point to get your bearings and it’s also where you can do the short hike to the Lower Yosemite Falls, which I was eager to see.
So that was the first thing on our agenda, and we set off on the easy trail through the forest to the falls. Except, I’d sort of forgotten it was autumn. We had been to Shannon Falls in British Columbia not two weeks before, and although it was nowhere near as raging as it had been in May, there was still a sizeable amount of water rushing down the rocks. So I had no reason to think it would be different here.
So, um, spot the waterfall!
There was actually a SLIGHT trickle, just to taunt us that there was once something spectacular right in front of us. Cheers, nature.
You can see where the upper falls are supposed to be in this photo; look for the dark water mark towards the left! That one was completely dry.
Undeterred by our bad luck with the waterfalls, we emerged from the forest and I spotted this lone tree. See – I think spring would be the absolute best time to visit Yosemite, but nothing quite beats colourful trees in a setting like this.
This is one of my favourite photos from the entire day, although I had no idea just how epic our views were about to get.
We headed to the nearby Half Dome Village, but we were surprised to find pretty much nothing there. There was a (full) campsite and a handful of closed restaurants, and a couple of shops (open), all in one tiny complex. We decided to stop here for a little picnic lunch with the squirrels bounding around us and Half Dome looming above us.
I mean, is this the most picturesque car park or what?!
Over lunch, we planned our route up to the famous Tunnel View, and decided we’d do the full route all the way around to Glacier Point. From the map, it was impossible to tell how long this drive would take, so we figured we would just see what happens.
But we hadn’t even left the valley when we stumbled across this incredible view. The brakes slammed on and I pulled into a virtually empty layby. An endless stream of cars were trailing by, and hardly any stopped.
Absolutely. Unreal. I know I go on about natural beauty a lot, but really, this was turning out quickly to be one of the highlights of our trip.
We continued on to Tunnel View, which was crowded and we had to park up a short way down the road, but it soon became pretty clear why it’s one of the most popular stops in Yosemite.
Helloooooo! We took an absolutely terrible selfie, and thankfully got someone else to take a photo of us, which will definitely be getting framed.
Along with a photo of us at Glenfinnan in Scotland, overlooking the stunning Loch Shiel, I think this is my favourite photo of us ever.
I started to wish we’d brought our picnic to this spot instead, but it had been nice spending it in a fairly solitary place rather than among crowds of car-loads and bus-loads of people.
So we moved on, edging higher and higher above the valley, but around the back so we didn’t really know what we were in for. We got a view of a “different” side of Yosemite as we wound up the mountain road.
To continue along to Glacier Point, you have to turn off along an even steeper, windier and dramatic road. At some points it was much narrower, but we immediately noticed one thing: it was a lot quieter.
That is, until we got to Taft Point, and my heart sank because that was on my we-ought-to-do-this-if-we-can list (one down from must-do, or was I just saying to make myself feel better if we didn’t do it?). I was surprised because it’s a hike, and I thought it was quite a long one. Spoiler: it wasn’t.
But there was absolutely nowhere to park, so we decided to carry on until the road didn’t carry on any more. Just before we got to Glacier Point, we spotted this fantastic view with one car in the little layby car park, and pulled in enthusiastically. It was pretty phenomenal, and we almost became very glad we stopped there.
Absolutely stunning, but you don’t quite get the perspective of just how high up we were.
No, but Glacier Point might – if we could get there.
The road had suddenly become very narrow and very winding, and we had to be careful with cars coming the other way because much to Ash’s delight, there was a huge sloping drop on our side of the road (not into the valley, just into the forest, but still enough to plant a permanent look of terror on Ash’s face).
And then suddenly we were stuck in traffic, for the first time since we’d got to Yosemite.
We weren’t even at the car park yet.
And of course, the car park was extremely full. With at least ten cars in front of us by the time we got to the car park entrance, there was no way we were going to get a space. We drove round once. Then again. And another time. Every single time, I stopped at least a couple of times while people were at their parked cars – but they had always just arrived. No one was leaving.
But I didn’t want to write it off yet – and on our fourth attempt, we struck lucky and someone pulled out right in front of us!
And thank God, because:
One of the best views I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
I know photos don’t do it justice, but having been there I can just look at this photo and still imagine just how far up we were. 3000ft up, in fact. The trees were like ants.
It was busy, but nowhere near as busy as Tunnel View, even though I’m pretty sure the car park was about twice the size. It was easy to get away from the crowds, whereas there isn’t as much space at Tunnel View because most of it’s by a road. This one required a (tiny, quarter mile) hike away from the car park.
But there are also lots of hikes you can do up here, some of which take hours, and most of which I want to do one day.
Instead, we just wanted to focus on a tiny part of it – the hike to Taft Point.
So on our return to the main road, we found a spot along the side of the road and I pulled onto the stones and into a slight dip, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t wreck our car. (Luckily it didn’t, but there is really not much parking around Taft Point, so almost everyone has to park along the road.)
Taft Point is a short, 1.5 mile hike. I thought I’d read that it takes a couple of hours, but that must be if you go further along to Sentinel Dome. So for us, a 1.5 mile hike was the perfect way to end the day.
Taft Point is insane. The drop offs into the valley are terrifying, even if you’re not afraid of heights. There’s one little section that has railings for anyone who wants to look over the edge without the fear (or risk) of falling off – Ash made this mistake and had to go and sit down with vertigo!!
The scary thing is, people do fall off, and less than a week after we were there, two bloggers tragically died here. It’s not a place to mess around.
But, it’s also a hugely popular place for wedding photos, and as we made our way back to the car park, we passed a beautiful bride followed by scattered groups of guests, and the groom having his own photoshoot amongst the trees!
What an incredible place for a wedding, I thought.
Because our venture out to Taft Point had taken less than half the time I thought it would, we still had some time in the park. Ordinarily I would have been all over the waterfalls, but considering Bridalveil Falls was the only one we’d even seen with any water, we figured it wouldn’t be worth hiking out to Vernal and Nevada Falls.
So we headed south instead, to the Mariposa Grove, famous for its giant sequoia trees. Ash has been desperate to see these trees forever, and we weren’t making it to Sequoia National Park on this trip, so this seemed like the perfect alternative.
Unfortunately we hadn’t researched it, and it turns out you have to park up at the visitor centre and catch a shuttle out to the grove. Because of the time of year, shuttles ended early and we missed the last one by ten minutes.
That means we have a lot of reasons to go back, as if we needed any. The park was crowded enough in October (though it was a weekend and perfect weather), so I don’t think I’d want to visit in the summer. For me, I think spring would be the perfect time of year to visit, and I’d want to go for a week! It would also be a perfect place to bring kids, hire bikes and generally have a fantastic camping holiday – so it’s not somewhere we feel pressured to come back exclusively by ourselves.
But given that the waterfalls weren’t up to their usual standards so we had slightly less to see in the park, a day was a perfect amount of time to get our bearings of the park and see absolutely loads of the highlights!
This was our first national park of the trip, so we couldn’t wait to see what the others had in store for us!
Have you been to Yosemite? Is it one of your favourite national parks?
Like this post? Pin it to read later!