It is a really beautiful drive to Yosemite from Santa Cruz, but it is also a fairly long one, about four hours, so we planned to stay overnight in the park. I researched the available hotels and cabins inside the park, and discovered that there are a lot of choices. I would recommend booking early. In-park accomodations can be booked up a solid a year in advance. Also, do your research by reading reviews because the accommodations range from tent camping to five star resorts.
I ended up booking two rooms at Rush Creek Lodge, a brand new hotel that is situated about twenty miles outside of the park entrance. (*No I am not getting compensated, I just really liked this place).
Rush Creek appealed to us because it would be on our way back to the Bay area and the rates were very reasonable. If you are planning to spend a few days hiking in the park then it may be more advantageous to find lodging within Yosemite.
There are five entrances into the 761,266 acrepark; if you are arriving from the San Francisco Bay area, or any of the points west, you have a choice of four of the five entrances, with the Tioga Pass entrance being the lone eastside portal. We arrived from Route 120 and entered through Big Oak Flat. Because there are different views depending on which entrance you arrive from, a good recommendation would be to plot your itinerary beforehand. I recommend the website, My Yosemite as an excellent resource.
CROSS TIP:Make sure that you do your research carefully. Some of the roads and trails within the park are closed until mid-summer. Occasionally trails or viewpoints are also closed for renovations. Often you are required to have chains for your vehicle deep into May, and during the summer months there can be forest fires raging in the Park.
The National Park Service website curates the most reliable and up-to-date information on all of these issues.
If you’ve approached the park from route 120, one of your first experiences with the splendor to come may be at Half Dome View lookout.
At this must see first stop you will be gazing out over a deep valley with the stalwart crags of Half Dome and El Capitan in the distance. The shimmering flow of Bridalveil Fall can also be seen here.
CROSS TIP: The current fee to enter the park with a car (See the NPS website for other fees) is $35 per vehicle. There is an online payment option, just keep in mind that cellular service can be sporadic in the park.
There are also four FREE days each year for the general public, These days are: January- on Martin Luther King Jr. Day / April-On the first day of National Park Week / September-On National Public Lands Day / November-On Veterans Day
After getting our fill of splendor at the Half Dome view we continued our drive along Big Oak road and stopped at a few of the other turnouts that peppered the scenic drive into the heart of the park. Since we were visiting during the month of April, and because it had been a particularly raining few days, we were treated to spectacular waterfalls along the way.
Driving along Big Oak Flat Rd until it merged with El Portal Rd as it paralleled the gorgeous Merced River, we angled off onto Southside Drive in order to see Bridalveil Fall.
There is a large parking area, restrooms, and picnic areas adjacent to a well signed trailhead leading to the fall.
Because the fall flows year round, this area remains open all year, making it one of the most visited areas of the park. We started a short walk (It isn’t nearly strenuous enough to be called a “hike.”) of about 1.2 miles round trip toward the 620 ft fall. The path is wide, paved, and well maintained. Since we were there on a Monday during the off season we did not experience crowds, however, during the summer months there can be tourist gridlock getting to the end of the trail.
As we approached the viewing area we started to notice people returning annoyed and frazzled, we also noticed they were pretty wet. The reason became quite clear as we got closer to the fall, the icy spray was fierce.
Mike and our son braved the intense wind created by the rumbling fall and forged forward toward the viewing platform while I beat a hasty retreat back down the slick path.
Back in the car, with the heat blasting, we made the short trek to see the famous facade of El Capitan. A mesmerizing mount of granite that can be seen throughout the western side of the park.
We parked in the El Capitan parking lot and after fighting my way through a throng of selfie stick welding tourists as they surged off of their tour bus, I jockeying for position to take my first photo of the imposing Captain. Unsuccessful in getting an unobstructed view through the forest of selfie sticks, I headed inland and set myself up nicely in El Capitan Meadow for an unbelievable view of this archetypal landmark.
The Chief, as it is also known, is a granite rock formation that rises 7573 ft (2308 m) from its base to its highest face. It is a popular climbing formation that is not without its danger, it is reported that over 100 climbing accidents happen there each year.
SIDE NOTE: The waterfall to the west of El Capitan is called Ribbon Fall. It is the longest “single drop” waterfall in North America at 1612 ft (491 m). A single drop means there is no obstruction of the flow on the way toward the base. A free fall of water, rather than a cascade over tiers.
We lingered a few extra moments as we marvelled at this natural wonder. Understanding somewhere within me what captivated the likes of Ansel Adams and John Muir to compel them to spend months, and even years here. I was so completely enchanted with the vinette myself that I did not want to move on from my spot, I sincerely felt as if I would miss out on something if I did not stay, the draw of this magnificent formation was that powerful for me.
There are over 750 miles of hiking trails in Yosemite, we are not hikers, but if you are, a comprehensible guide to the trails can be found on the park’s website. Keep in mind while hiking, going off of trails is illegal and dangerous, smoking is only permitted when stopped, and not at all when fire alerts are in force*, and if you come across horses or mules on your trail, you must move over because they have the right of way!
On this visit we had very limited time, so we were doing a driving tour. It is actually pretty remarkable how many of the landmarks you can see along the Northside and Southside Drives. We continued along Southside drive and spied our next waterfall.
Parking at the Swinging Bridge lot, which includes restrooms and a small picnic area. We walked down the short path, over the Swinging Bridge, past by a wide sandy beach area, (I have read this beach is a very popular spot for swimming in the summer,) and continued along the marked trail toward the wild meadow where we had a clear view of Yosemite Fall.
Yosemite fall is the highest waterfall in Yosemite at 2425 ft (739m) it is also one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, ranking around 20th depending on which research you look at. It is not a single drop fall, rather it has two “leaps.” The first part of the fall is a whopping 1430 foot plunge, this part is known as the Upper Yosemite Fall. Sandwiched between the two impressive plunges is a series of five smaller plunges unitedly known as The Middle Cascades.
The combined total of the Middle Cascades is 675 ft (206 m). Finishing off the journey toward Yosemite Creek and the valley floor is Lower Yosemite Fall. At 320 ft (98 m) it is an impressive plunge in its own right. This is a seasonal fall, it may be completely dried up by the late summer months and is best viewed in the early spring when there is plenty of snow melt.
Back in the car we navigated along Northside drive and stopped at Cook’s Meadow for some more fantastic pictures of Half Dome, North Dome, and the aptly named Sentinel Dome
We had now arrived at the heart of the park, Yosemite Village. In the summer months, when the park is full to capacity, it is highly recommended that you park your vehicle and utilize the park’s free shuttle system. The main bus route starts in the village, however you may embark at any of the numbered nineteen stops.
There are other bus and tour shuttles that go to various spots within the park, if you plan to ride the public transportation it would be prudent to do your research prior to arrival.
We had now been in the park for a few hours and were ready to head back toward our hotel, but it is a little hard to leave when around every turn there is a new sight to see and more pictures to take.
Our time spent in this incredible park left us not wanting to leave and wanting to return immediately. Perhaps one day we will stay a few days, strap on some backpacks, and head into the solitude of trees. So for now we reluctantly say farewell, but we will see you again soon Yosemite.