Photo by Sandy Follett
With a tight schedule and only three days of vacation available, you want to spend them seeing something new with the family, without spending too much. Or maybe you’re visiting the United States for the first time and have so much to see that three days is all you allotted for Yosemite.
Or you have a family full of screaming, crazed, ill-mannered kids and the thought of being with them constantly for more than three days makes you contemplate suicide.
Here’s a whirlwind itinerary that will allow you to catch most of Yosemite’s most accessible highlights in little time and on little money. I just hope that you enjoy driving—and bring along games for the kids for those long drives, or at least some diversions.
A. Find Campsite
Arrive early any day except Saturday (the best day to arrive is Sunday), preferably by 7 AM. Many campers like to get an early start when they head home, and even on Sundays the few available spots fill up quickly. You want to arrive before everyone else, find out who is packing to leave, decide which site you want and go to the “pay post” (near the pay phone shortly after you enter the campground) and fill out the pay envelope before anyone can beat you to it. When you find that perfect site and see that the people are packing, don’t stand around watching them pack, tapping your toe impatiently. The last time someone did this while I was preparing to leave I made sure that it took me a couple hours longer than was necessary. And the people you’re waiting for may not be as nice as I am. Besides, once you pay for the site and clip your receipt to the number post for the campsite, it’s yours and no one can take it away from you, so go for a walk and explore the campground. There’s plenty to keep you occupied while waiting for the slowpokes.
Be sure to top off your gas tank before entering the park. Gas stations are few and very far between in Yosemite. Gas is also far more expensive, so try to refuel outside the park if you can.
Most of the “hikes” listed below are wheelchair accessible (and those with handicapped placards can park nearer a couple attractions, like Mirror Lake and Happy Isles, and shorten the distance they have to walk or roll, as the case may be; however, you have to get a special placard at the park entry station when you arrive), and there are wheelchair accessible campsites all over the valley, in Wawona and also in Hodgdon Meadow.
By far the best place to camp for this itinerary is Bridalveil Creek Campground, which is central to almost everything, and simultaneously fairly far from everything. At an elevation of over 7,000 feet be prepared for thin air and very cold nights (often sub-freezing, even in mid-summer). It never gets hot here (it does in the Valley and Wawona; it can also get smoggier in the valley than Los Angeles, so asthmatics, bring your inhalers!), it is quieter and more wilderness-oriented at Bridalveil Creek and it’s the prettiest campground in the park. Try to get a space on the outside of the loop; these are less exposed and more spacious than the ones inside the loops. A-Loop places you by the meadow and its brook; B-Loop places you among granite boulders (some of these spots are very private) and C-Loop places you near Bridalveil Creek. Only A-Loop allows pets. Keep in mind that if you keep an exotic pet that happens to be indigenous to the Sierra Nevada Mountains (like a squirrel, raccoon, marmot, weasel—including ferrets—a coyote or, God forbid, a wild cat like a bobcat or puma), a ranger may come by, think that you caught the animal and demand that you release it, so use your head.
Once you have your spot, set up your tent, unload your camping gear and be sure to place all food, anything with any kind of scent (including toothpaste and soap) and any valuables in the bear box. And be sure to bring a padlock so you can secure the bear box while you’re away. The bears are probably smarter than most crooks, but they haven’t figured out how to pick a Master lock any more than your average burglar has.
Bridalveil Creek Campground is about equidistant from both Yosemite Valley and Wawona, but as this is your first day—and you’re probably tired from being up so early and driving for hours—you should visit the easiest of these locations first, and that is Wawona. If you’re a golfer, bring your clubs, because Wawona has what I believe is the only golf course (nine holes only) in any American national park. While playing, try not to nail any deer that come out to graze on the green grass. There may be a handicap involved, but even if there isn’t it’s never wise to piss off an animal sporting a head full of long, sharp daggers.
The Pioneer History Center is a great place to blow a few hours at a leisurely pace. Here, they have recreated a pioneer town, complete with all the amenities including a blacksmith, a stage coach and a jailhouse (but, for some reason, they didn’t recreate any brothels, so this village’s authenticity is questionable but it’s still entertaining… to a degree). You will find a covered bridge—a rarity in California—and several costumed docents to tell you about life in the 19th Century, including a Buffalo Soldier to detail the importance of this all black brigade in the early management of our national parks.
While in Wawona, you can refuel if necessary, do laundry if needed (unlikely, as you just arrived in the park), do some grocery shopping and tour gift shops selling cheap souvenirs that all say “Yosemite.”
Take a short drive and shorter walk up to Chilnualna Falls for a nice photo op that few visitors enjoy. You can continue hiking up the creek if you like, but you’re probably in no shape to hike far and by now the kids are screaming, so head back into town for lunch at the Wawona Dining Room next door to the Wawona Hotel.
Once satiated, take the incredibly windy and pot hole-infested road to Mariposa Grove, the most popular, most famous and largest of Yosemite’s groves of giant sequoias. These are the largest living things on the planet—perhaps the largest that have ever lived on Earth—yet the fire-resistant bark is surprisingly soft to touch, and you are allowed to touch them. You will find many “goose pen trees,” trees hollowed out but not killed by fires, some of which can contain a large family during a rainstorm without anyone getting wet, though someone may have to stand in raccoon poo as animals often take refuge within the trees, too. Enjoy the trees, take many pictures, but don’t try to tell them even the best joke you’ve heard. Many of them are over 3,000 years old and have heard them all before, and if displeased with your quip they may drop a 500 pound branch called a “widow-maker” on you.
Head back to your campground no later than mid afternoon. It’s less than an hour’s drive, but if you stop at your campsite, don’t stay there for too long, because there are three more easy-to-see things on today’s itinerary that you may want to revisit during your stay, as they are relatively close to your campground.
C. Glacier Point Road
Head for the Sentinel Dome parking lot and scamper up the dome, from which you will have commanding views of Yosemite Valley. You will also see the remnants of the Sentinel Tree, a Jeffry Pine that was believed to be the oldest thing on Earth before it died a couple decades ago at possibly over 4,000 years in age. Now all that is left of what was once perhaps the most photographed tree in the world is a weathered log, but the view has not been affected by the death of this at once small but grand tree.
Continuing up Glacier Point Road, Washburn Point is your next stop, made noticeable by a tiny parking lot off to your right. From here, you’ll have an excellent view of Little Yosemite Valley, including the profile of Half Dome as well as both Nevada and Vernal falls.
At the end of the road is the large parking lot for Glacier Point. The walk up to the point itself will be possibly the longest one of the day, uphill all the way, but at least it’s paved. And if you get there well before sunset, you will have the most amazing view of the valley available in the park, at least from an overhead perspective. If you spit over the side at the right place, you may eventually moisten someone in Camp Curry, 3,000 feet below. From the point, you will see all of Yosemite’s most famous prominences: Half Dome (the classic angle), El Capitan, North and Basket Domes and below them the Royal Arches, as well as the park’s most famous feature, Yosemite Falls. The point is located atop the northeastern corner of the same plateau supporting Bridalveil Creek, affording visitors a nearly 270 degree vantage of both Big and Little Yosemite valleys, their fantastic rock formations and many of the waterfalls. On certain nights you can attend a Star Party, where people bring out large reflector telescopes and let visitors explore our galaxy once Yosemite is too dark to see. But on this first day in the park, I recommend that you head back to your campsite well in advance of sunset. Preparing dinner on a camp stove in the dark can be tricky.