Beyond the Valley
Yosemite National Park
For most of us, our first visit to Yosemite was via Highway 120 to the incomparable valley. We were awed by Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. We looked up to El Capitan, the largest exposed granite monolith in the world, and considered the climb up the giant Half Dome. If we had a little extra money, we were privileged to lodge at the magnificent Ahwahnee. It’s not surprising that 95 percent of the 4 million visitors to a park of over 1,200 square miles of wilderness stay in the one-by-eight mile valley.
There is another way, however, to enjoy Yosemite. Entering from the south on Highway 41 is a good alternative. The entrance is less spectacular but still beautiful. There is less traffic, fewer crowds, and the accommodations are less expensive.
Improvements on Highway 152 have made this a faster and safer trip. You can drive from our mountains to the park entrance in a little over four hours.
On a summer weekend, we had little or no wait for meals at the historic Victorian-style Wawona Hotel. (See www.yosemitepark.com/wawona-hotel.aspx). The Wawona is less expensive than the Ahwahnee, but families can enjoy the comforts of vacation home rentals for even less at the nearby The Redwoods in Yosemite. These completely furnished private homes are appropriately “woodsy,” practical, and comfortable. (For information, visit www.RedwoodsInYosemite.) Camping is available along the south fork of the Merced River.
The major attraction in southern Yosemite is the Mariposa Grove, the park’s largest stand of giant sequoias, including the Grizzly Giant, a tree almost three thousand years old, and 96 feet around at the base. The trees are awesome, even bigger and fatter, but not as tall as our coast redwoods.
It was a short wait and an easy twenty-minute ride from the hotel to the Mariposa Grove. (Driving from the valley takes 1 ½ hours.) From the entrance, you can ride a truck-pulled tram or walk six miles up through the grove. Brochures are printed in fifty languages, and the tram provides translations via earphones.
Another must-see location is Glacier Point, an overlook with a commanding view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls. A short, paved, wheelchair-accessible trail takes you to an exhilarating view 3,214 feet down to Yosemite Valley. You can walk 4.8 miles down to the valley, and then pay for a shuttle to take you back to Glacier Point, or walk back up to a 3,200-foot altitude. By car, it’s a thirty-mile trip (one-hour drive) from the valley or Wawona.
Be sure to visit Bridalveil Fall (yes, that’s singular, not falls). A twenty-minute stroll to the fall viewpoint is only half a mile over relatively flat ground. The wind moves the falling water from side to side creating streamers of water and a fine veil of mist. Children love walking on the rocks and in the shallow water near the base of the fall.
If you like your falls (and crowds) smaller, drive a short half-mile through The Redwoods in Yosemite development on Chilnuaina Road to the end of the road. A trail of less than a mile takes you to the lower falls. It’s not far, but you climb a few rocks to get to the base of the falls. It’s well worth the short walk.
If you are ambitious, drive the same road to Larke Street, turn left, and drive it to the end. A trail at Loop Road takes you to the upper falls. It is a more strenuous hike, so it was one I avoided.
The area around the Wawona hotel has many attractions. The Pioneer History Center features a horse-drawn stage and historic farm wagons, a covered bridge, log cabins, and old farm equipment. The Wawona information station at Hill’s Studio offers information about park activities, wilderness permits, trail information, books, bear canister rentals, and maps. The South Fork of the Merced River runs through the area, providing a good place to get wet and cool off.
A few miles outside the south gate on Highway 41, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad runs a one-hour, four-mile excursion during the day, and a moonlight special on Wednesday and Saturday nights. The ride is not particularly scenic, but children and railroad buffs will enjoy riding behind the narrow gauge steam engine. (For information, visit www.yosemitesteamtrains.com.)
Go beyond Yosemite Valley. Enjoy smaller crowds, more nature, and more fun. And all for less money. Visit Southern Yosemite.