Photo by Sandy Follett
The second day is spent in Yosemite Valley, where you will see the park’s most famous sites. This is also where you can take a shower and do laundry if you did something silly like slip on loose gravel atop Sentinel Dome and tumble into a patch of mud, or tripped on an exposed root and fell into Bridalveil Creek. It’s about a 45 minute drive to the valley, but you’ll want to stop on the way if you aren’t caked in mud.
Your first stop comes right after the tunnel. The tunnel is a mile long, so it’s hard to miss. Before you even exit the tunnel (it’s a downhill slope; don’t let your speed get too high), turn on your right turn signal. As soon as you sweep around a curve to the right, pull into the parking lot to your right, park and use the crosswalk to traverse the highway. This is Inspiration Point, where most of the photos you’ve seen of Yosemite were shot, and you won’t want to miss your opportunity to take several of your own. Be sure to make this stop both coming to and going from the valley, as the differences in lighting make for dramatically different shots from morning to afternoon. And while you’re there, don’t feed the squirrels, no matter how much they beg. Feeding any wild animals is illegal; it’s also harmful to the animals, as those who become dependent on humans forget how to forage and starve in the winter.
The valley is a short drive away. Upon reaching the valley, you will come to Bridal Veil Falls almost immediately. However, I suggest you put off visiting the falls, as you’re likely to get wet, and that comes in handiest later in the day when it gets hot enough to tempt the world’s biggest prude to give public nudity a try. Instead, continue east through the valley. The road parallels the Merced River and for the next couple miles you will find many places to pull over and take in views of the river and towering El Capitan.
Around mile 4 of your tour of the valley, you’ll come to Sentinel Meadow, offering one of the best available views of Yosemite Falls. Walking on the meadow is a major no-no, so don't get caught doing it. Back in the 1960s, they had to stop having the nightly Firefall display because visitors were trampling the meadow, compacting the dirt and killing the grass. This meadow has been undergoing restoration ever since. Still, the wood rail fence delineating the meadow is picturesque itself and you’ll want it in your pictures. And while you can't walk on the meadow, you can walk through it on the boardwalk.
At some point you will come across a small village to your left called Housekeeping Camp. Here, you can shop, shower and do laundry if you’ve been clumsy or naughty.
Continue on Southside Drive and it will take you to Curry Village, where the road becomes Happy Isles Loop Road. You will see a parking lot to your right; use it. Back in the old days, we could drive all the way to Happy Isles, but for some reason the road was closed to car traffic (with the exception of ranger and other park vehicles, and also those bearing the park's handicapped placard), so it is now a nearly mile long walk—though fairly level and not difficult—from the parking lot to Happy Isles, where there is a nature center beside the raging Merced River. I could be wrong, but I believe it was this nature center and a snack stand beside it that were flattened some years ago when a freight train-sized chunk of Glacier Point broke away and tumbled all the way down into the valley (the entire valley filled with granite dust and I believe a couple people were killed in the incident, and there’s nothing funny about that), so be sure to keep one eye pointed upward and if you hear something rumbling ever closer from that direction, run like hell!
Following the trail farther (about half a mile) brings you to the bridge overlooking the Merced River rushing down from the base of Vernal Fall, as well as a glimpse of the fall itself. This small canyon is considerably cooler than the valley due to the perpetual mist from the waterfall, so it’s a great place to cool down from midday heat. Up to here, this is a fairly easy and level hike; after here, you mount the Mist Trail, carved out of the canyon itself, that takes you at a precipitous angle—up occasionally giant steps carved from the granite—along the moist, slippery slope beside the waterfall up to its top; and from there, you can proceed on to Nevada Falls, or up to the top of Half Dome, if you’re very ambitious (this is one of the most arduous hikes you can take, and treacherous, too). If you have kids, you will most likely want to turn around upon reaching the bridge at the base of Vernal Fall, lest you wind up having to endure their whining (“When are we going to get there?” “Can we go home now?” “Billy’s turning his eyelids inside out again and he called me a ‘dork’!”).
When you turn back onto Happy Isles Loop Road (in the only direction you can go unless you have a park-issued handicapped placard), make the first right you come to (onto South Side Drive again, but a part you haven’t been on until now), cross the bridge and park at North Pines Campground—but only if you and your family can handle about a three mile round trip hike up to Mirror Lake. This is another easy, level hike, but it may take a toll on small kids, especially after walking to and from Happy Isles. You may have to choose between the two—or better yet, go rent bikes in Yosemite Village and pedal your way to both destinations, which is far easier. (Of course, if you have that handicapped placard, you can drive to both destinations; but trust me, it isn’t worth suffering a disabling injury just to get a placard.) Mirror Lake is one of the most photographed bodies of water in Yosemite. Hopefully, the day you go the air will be calm and the lake will have the mirror surface for which it is famous. And for Christ’s sake, keep your kids from throwing rocks into the lake, or they’re liable to enrage photographers who have been waiting hours for the perfect conditions. Though a long hike for a valley attraction, it is well worth it—and while trying to decide whether to make the hike or not, consider this: lakes turn into meadows when they fill with enough silt. Mirror Lake is becoming a meadow and won’t be around for much longer.
Continuing on to Northside Drive, you will encounter Ahwahnee Meadow—and this one you can walk in—presenting great views of North Dome, Royal Arches, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Stopping for more photos is a must. Right down the street from this meadow is Village Drive. Here, you will find a grocery store, gift shop, a mediocre restaurant and sports equipment rentals, including bicycle rentals. Because the valley is so level for the most part, bikes are a great way to get around. There are far more mountain bike paths than vehicle roads, and everyone in the family will find it an easy ride.
At the end of Village Drive, turn right onto Ahwahnee Drive and take it to the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite’s only 5-star accommodations. I’m not suggesting that you stay there, unless you want to pay over $500/night, but it’s a gorgeous stone-mortared building with excellent surrounding scenery. You can also stop by the bar in the lobby for a nice cocktail, or take in an overpriced but delicious lunch in the restaurant.
The trail to Lower Yosemite Fall is less than half a mile from Yosemite Village, and an easy walk from the village itself (and an easier bike ride). The trail is uphill, but only slightly and short, and an easy hike for anyone. From the observation area you can only see the Lower Fall, which is far less dramatic than the Upper Fall; still, it’s still a worthwhile and easy hike, and if there’s a breeze the mist from the falls may cool you down. On the trail leading to and from the observation area, you will have an excellent view of both Upper and Lower Yosemite falls, but you have to get higher and/or farther away to see the Middle Fall, which is a cascade.
If, like me, you prefer picnics to tiny but elegantly presented portions of escargot served with baby asparagus sprouts, the road parallels the Merced River at places and there are some very nice locations for riverside picnics… or at least there were. The Parks Service left strategically-placed boulders where cars used to be able to turn out of traffic, but if you look you’ll still find a few places to pull over and park, if some other visitor hasn’t beaten you to it. You may be tempted to go for a swim in the river. And while this is absolutely permissible, it is not recommended unless you have a very high tolerance for cold water. Even in hot weather, the Merced is icy.
Continuing west on Northside Road, you will come to El Capitan Meadow with the best up-close view of El Capitan that you can have without a hike. Park on the left side of the road (like Southside Road, Northside Road is a one-way street). Just beyond this meadow there is a turnout on the right side where you can get a good view of Ribbon Falls (to the left of El Capitan), but only if you visit the park in spring, as it goes dry most summers.
About half a mile farther along, the road again parallels the Merced River, and there are plenty of places on the left side to pull over. This is a popular fishing location, but I’ll tell you from experience that the German brown trout in the Merced (all over the park, actually) are notoriously wily fish, smarter than your average college student and very hard to catch. Still, it’s a good place for relaxing down time and to soak up the scenery.
Finally, it’s time for Bridalveil Falls. It’s an easy hike, with only a small uphill section near the end, where it widens into a paved observation area. Hopefully this will be the hottest part of the day, as Bridalveil Falls takes its name from how the nearly constant wind through the valley fans it out into a wide, veil-like spray; and from the observation area you can enjoy the resultant cool mist, maybe even more that you hoped for. The more adventurous can climb over the wall and scale the enormous tumbled boulders at the base of the fall, right up to where the spray is heaviest. This is not a trek for the timid; those rocks are always wet, some covered with a fine patina of slippery moss, making the occasional boulder—especially the motor home-sized slabs—extremely treacherous. Sliding off of one of those can lead to serious injuries. On the other hand, if you accept the hazards there are many small, crystal clear pools that invite swimmers who don’t mind turning blue in water that’s just a little above freezing, or at least that’s how it feels. It's always been a popular place for young adults to meet... at least it was for me.
Time to head back to the campground. On the way, don’t forget to make another stop at Inspiration Point. The afternoon light—especially if it’s after 5 PM—makes for some great photos.
If you get back well before sunset and want to explore some more, go out into the meadow near A-Loop. There is a jumble of boulders overhanging the brook where you can see the quick and smart brown trout hunting for dinner, and at sunset (and also sunrise, if you’re an early riser—though it’s cold and the grass is covered with dew) you are apt to see deer, coyotes and possibly even a bear browsing the meadow.