You can't avoid being impressed by Yosemite Valley. On the valley floor, you might get caught up in the everyday world of buses and campgrounds, but then a patch of light will catch your eye, way up at the top of your field of vision where all you expect to see is blue sky. And it will suddenly impress you again: That's solid rock up there, catching the light straight above you. Just to see the granite cliffs, you have to tip your head back, so the wonder of it keeps surprising you whenever your attention settles back to the earth. This is one of the world's unique places, where you can stand at the foot of a waterfall that's nearly a half-mile high. Unfortunately, being unique, it's also terribly popular and fills with people in the summer. Sometimes seeing the cliffs up above is a special relief because it takes your eyes away from the uncomfortable crowd you're standing in.
What most people haven't discovered, or don't care to know, is that Yosemite Valley is only a small part of Yosemite National Park. If you dislike crowds, as we do, spend just a day in the valley to see the sights, then head out to the other 1,169 square miles of the park. In the Wawona area, the Hetch Hetchy valley, or the high country of the Tuolumne Meadows, you can hike all day and see only a few other people. One memorable day we hiked a couple of miles to a mountain lake and found we had it to ourselves, surrounded by rock and water and sky. These were some of the most beautiful and spiritually refreshing places I'd ever visited. I had the feeling we'd left the city behind in Yosemite Valley, and now we were visiting the real national park. No one should miss Yosemite Valley, but the park is big enough to do much more, and to do it without being in a crowd.
As you enter Yosemite Valley, the mountains seem to open like a curtain onto one of the world's main attractions. It's not something you can be prepared for. The granite walls of the valley soar up to 3,000 feet, more than a half-mile, where the sun treats their bold shapes differently than the shadows in the ordinary world below. Waterfalls tumble from the top, disintegrating into showers of mist and spray during the long free fall. As you stand below in the sun, the water cools your cheek.
There's a lot for a family to do in Yosemite Valley, including fun stuff like floating down the Merced in a little raft, biking the paved trails to hiking trail heads and other sites, seeing the museums, and hiking to the spectacular waterfalls. But it's not a wilderness experience, or even, much of the time, a natural experience. The valley is a city, or at least a town. It has thousands of visitors and the workers to serve them, stores, health facilities, churches, and everything else a town has, all squeezed into the 7- by 1-mile valley floor.
Yosemite Village is a busy pedestrian mall served by frequent and often-crowded buses. On the short trail to Lower Yosemite Falls one summer day, I was so surrounded by people I felt claustrophobic, unable to get far enough away not to smell others' perfume and cologne. While the trail has been rebuilt and the parking is being removed, the people will still be there. Steeper trails are less crowded once you get beyond a level that weeds out hikers in poor physical shape, including the wonderful Mist Trail and John Muir Trail to Nevada Falls from Happy Isles, with its unfolding series of waterfalls, and the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, from Camp 4. But the steepness that weeds out couch potatoes also eliminates most kids younger than about age 10. (Consider instead the trails on Glacier Point Rd., in the next section.)
While the Mist Trail can be grueling for inexperienced youngsters if you try to drag them to the top of Nevada Fall (a steep, 7-mile round-trip), it's a great hike to let older kids test their endurance. They won't get bored, either, watching as the Merced River crashes out of the high country. On a hot summer day, the spray is especially cooling, and you can stop by the riverbank to splash along the way. A good turn-around point, and a noteworthy goal that will pump up a younger hiker's self-esteem, is the 3-mile roundtrip to the top of Vernal Fall.
For many families, the solution is to take advantage of the fun here and accept all the other people. Just plan to find your solitude elsewhere. The families I saw floating and splashing in Merced River had the right idea. They were using Yosemite Valley as the world's most beautiful playground, knowing that playgrounds are crowded. The maps contained in the park newspaper, Yosemite Today, are handy for understanding the layout of the valley, the walking and bike paths, and the order of the bus stops. It also has schedules of activities and other changing information. Our valley map is useful, too, but it may not be as up-to-date.
This is a mind-blowing overlook directly above Yosemite Valley's Curry Village. Standing at the railing, you are at the top of a 3,200-foot vertical cliff, able to see almost straight down. It's a short, paved walk from the large parking lots to the overlooks. From different spots you can see in different directions across much of the park. Rangers wander through the crowd to answer questions and offer talks, which you can find out about in Yosemite Today. A snack stand is open 10am to 4pm during the summer, but go earlier than that to avoid the crowds.
After you get a load of the view, use Glacier Point Road to get off into high country, away from most other people, on some terrific family hikes. The road is 16 miles long, splitting from the Wawona Road south of Yosemite Valley, and is closed beyond the Badger Pass Ski Area during the winter. From the point itself, two paths lead down to the valley. Hiking both ways would be well beyond most families' abilities, but you can take a shuttle bus one-way. The Four-Mile Trail takes you right down into the valley, a walk that should take 3 hours or less.
For a longer and even more interesting hike, with three incredible waterfalls, take the Panorama Trail and John Muir Trail via Nevada Falls, a downhill hike of 8.5 miles. These are busy trails. At mile 13.2 of the Glacier Point Road, some great short hikes may be less crowded (still, get there early) and offer little ones the chance to climb one of Yosemite's granite domes. Sentinel Dome is 1.1 miles from the trail head, an easy climb with incredible views. At 8,122 feet it is the highest viewpoint into the valley other than Half Dome. Taft Point, 1.1 miles the other way from the trail head, has weird and scary cracks as well as cliff-overhang views. The hike itself isn't threatening, but hold hands near the end. You can link both into a 4.5-mile loop by using a 2.3-mile section of the Pohono Trail from Sentinel Dome to the midpoint of the Taft Point Trail. (From the Sentinel Dome end, it is confusing: Follow the sign to Glacier Point, turning left or west at the T).
About 500 giant sequoias grow in Mariposa Grove, the park's largest, near the south entrance. These huge, ancient trees are among the world's greatest natural wonders. You can't help but be impressed by the 2,700-year-old Grizzly Giant, with its immense base, or the amazing length of the fallen monarch. The grove's most famous tree, the Wawona Tunnel Tree, with a 30-foot vehicle tunnel cut in 1881, died of the wound, falling in 1969, but there are other trees you can walk under, including the bizarre Clothespin Tree, with its natural tunnel.
The grove covers a large area, and the big trees are separated more widely than at the groves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. This more sparse character, combined with the land's steepness, forces visitors to decide how to see the Mariposa Grove. The popular way is to ride an open-air tram pulled by a tractor over a road up to the Upper Grove area, site of the thickest stands of trees and the Wawona Tunnel Tree. There it stops for a look at the tiny, dark Galen Clark Museum and a chance to get out and hike back down, skipping the last half of the tour. The tram usually leaves every 20 minutes in the summer for a 1-hour ride (call tel. 209/375-1621 for departure times) and costs $16 for adults, $10 for children 5 to 12, free for children under 5. It's appealing to get a ride up the hill, but the forest seemed diminished by the corny narration and the crowded cart. A guy sitting next to me said, "That tree don't look so big," an impossible reaction for someone walking through this grove. Instead, I recommend picking up the 50[ce] guide brochure and hiking up the hill as far as you can; a 2.5-mile round-trip, with little elevation gain, will take you to the Fallen Monarch, Grizzly Giant, California Tunnel Tree (still standing), and the Clothespin Tree. The museum is 2.1 miles from the trail head, one-way, and the top of the grove is 3 miles.
Parking is a problem at the grove. The lots at the trail head fill quickly (again, starting early helps). When they do, you have to take a shuttle, which stops at the park's south entrance, where the small lot fills fast, and at the Wawona Store. That's inconvenient, since Wawona is several slow miles away and you have to wait for the bus both ways. The solution is to plan plenty of time for your visit; half a day would be reasonable.
Two other, smaller groups of sequoias, Tuolumne and Merced groves, are along Big Oak Flat Road, north of Yosemite Valley. Tuolumne has 25 trees and Merced even fewer. You have to walk into both groves, so they're more peaceful than Mariposa Grove. To get to Tuolumne Grove, you park near Crane Flat and walk 1 mile on an old road that meets a half-mile nature trail. Merced Grove, a little farther north, is 1.5 miles off the road; if you make the hike, you might have it to yourself.
The Hetch Hetchy area at the north of the park is an easy and little-used way into the wilderness. This canyon on the Tuolumne River is most famous for the conservation fight over the O'Shaughnessy Dam, which was approved by Congress in 1913 over the objections of John Muir and still gathers drinking water for San Francisco. But even with the reservoir, the valley remains a grand area with good hiking and great views. As with Yosemite Valley, and on a similar scale, river erosion started digging Hetch Hetchy and glaciation followed to straighten out the valley, deepen it, and widen it. Unlike in Yosemite Valley, however, glaciers here continued to come right to the top of the canyon during each ice age, grinding the sides to the end of the last glacial period, 10,000 years ago. The result is that Hetch Hetchy's walls are relatively smooth, without the cracks and spires that give Yosemite some of its character. It's a good place to find glacier tracks such as polish and chatter marks.
The roads coming here are narrow, winding, and scenic. Exit the main part of the park at Big Oak Flats and drive 7.5 miles north through a thick, dark forest on Evergreen Road, then reenter the Hetch Hetchy entrance and take Hetch Hetchy Road 9 miles to the dam. The views into Poopenaut Valley are dizzying, and remote trails climb and descend from the road. The best family hike leads across the dam, through a tunnel, and 2.5 miles to Wapama Falls, which tumbles 1,000 feet down the canyon walls. It's an easy, mostly level trail though rocky, arid terrain under 4,000 feet, and can be warm. Many other trails lead from here for steeper hikes or backpacking expeditions. The campground at the dam is for backpackers with permits only. Other than the bathroom and pay phone, there are no services.
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