To counteract all of the eating I did in San Francisco (evidence here and here), I planned a little excursion into nature while on my recent trip to California. The short drive from the Bay Area to Yosemite is relatively easy, and you can make the trip in about 3-3.5 hours.
If you’re thinking of planning your first trip to the park, you might be feeling a little bit overwhelmed. Yosemite is HUGE, covering 1,169 square miles with 214 miles of paved roads, 20 miles of bike paths and 800 miles of trails. Based on my experience, I’ve put together a few tips for first time visitors.
What to know about visiting Yosemite
1. Start your planning early
The Yosemite Valley Floor (what most people think of when they hear the word Yosemite) is about a 30-minute drive from the park’s entrance. I learned the hard way, that staying just 40 miles from the park means an hour and a half drive to and from all the outdoor activities that you’ll want to be doing.
There are limited accommodations within the park, so booking about a year in advance is ideal, especially if you aren’t looking to rough it by making a campsite reservation. Also if you are a hardcore hiker, you’ll want to enter the preseason lottery for Half Dome permits during the month of March.
2. Keep a close eye on weather conditions
When it’s cold, it’s cold and when it’s hot, it’s hot. If your planning on visiting during a cooler month, keep an eye on whether or not certain roads are open — November through May or June, access to some parts of the park are limited due to snow. In the summertime, temperatures on the Valley Floor can reach into the nineties making it extremely important to pack plenty of water for both short and long hikes. Oh, and even though I visited in July, I brought along a sweatshirt and jacket as temperatures at night can dip down into the forties depending on where you are in the park.
3. Choose hikes or activities that match your fitness level
I researched for weeks the different hikes that Yosemite has to offer and I found that there really are hikes for every fitness level.
The Lower Yosemite Falls
This short “hike” covers just 1-mile, making it great for families with small children. The highlight of this flat, paved “hike” is standing near the base of the huge waterfall — the Lower Falls are the final part of North America’s largest waterfall. For the more experienced hikers, you can opt to do the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail for a more strenuous experience and see the Falls from an entirely different vantage point.
If you don’t like heights, this short hike probably isn’t for you. This is another easy, short hike but is not paved like the Lower Falls. The Taft Point trailhead is about a 30-minute drive from the Valley Floor. I recommend making a pit stop at Tunnel View along the way (pictured below).
At just over two miles round trip, this hike might seem more difficult than expected because of the high altitude — 7,700 feet. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking, just please don’t get too close to the edge. This is the perfect spot to watch the sunset and enjoy an evening picnic, if you can stomach walking back to your car in the dark.
This hike was definitely the hardest one of my trip — I did not attempt Half Dome and I’m convinced I would’ve died of exhaustion if I had tried. The Cathedral Lakes hike stretches about seven to eight miles round trip and the trailhead is about an hour and a half drive from Yosemite’s main entrance, on the Eastern side of the park. The elevation starts at 8,500 feet and man could I feel it, everything just takes more effort when you’re up that high.
4. Use the shuttle system
After a long hike, the last thing you’re going to want to do is walk a few miles back to your car or to find lunch/dinner. Thankfully, there is a free shuttle system that can help you get where you need to go. Most of the stops service the Valley Floor but there are other shuttles that will take you to more remote parts of the park, which can be perfect for those who don’t feel comfortable driving on the windy mountain roads (these longer shuttles typically do have a cost).
5. Treat yourself with pizza and beer
Surprise! Did you think you were getting through a Let’s Share a Dish blog post without a mention of food? There are plenty of food options within the park, so don’t worry about needing to leave to find somewhere to eat. One of my favorite meals during my entire California trip was the pizza and beer I had at Half Dome Village Pizza Deck in Curry Village.
Now, this wasn’t the best pizza I’ve ever had, and it certainly wasn’t the cheapest but when you’re exhausted from hiking all over Yosemite, it feels like the best meal you’ve ever had. Supposedly there are incredible views of Glacier Point at the Pizza Deck, but honestly, I was too distracted by my pizza to notice.
6. DO NOT go off the trail
Okay, this probably seems like a duh but I just want to reiterate the fact that you should ALWAYS stay on the trail — unless a bear is chasing you then, do what you gotta do.
Here’s my cautionary tale. Shortly into my hike, I met a girl named Maria who was also hiking the Cathedral Lakes trail. We hiked the nearly four miles to the Lower Lake and then I convinced Maria that we should check out what the Upper Lake has to offer too (according to my research the Upper Lake is much prettier).
The Upper Lake on the map was about a mile farther into the woods and after about four hours of hiking I was over it. Fifteen minutes into our adventure to find the Upper Lake we could see it through the clearing, but I could tell that to get to the actual lake we’d have to walk at least another mile to get there. So, of course I made the logical suggestion of cutting across the meadow and saving us some distance. BIG mistake.
Soon after we entered the flat, slightly marshy area we were attacked by hundreds of mosquitos and after fleeing, swatting and spraying an entire container of heavy duty bug spray they were still biting us. Eventually they moved on (after about 10 minutes of insanity) but we were left COVERED in bug bites. So please, learn from my stupidity and stay on the trail.
If you’ve visited Yosemite or another great National Park and have tips to share, let us know in the comments!