Trip – Grand Canyon Rafting & Yosemite

Images of California

Map of land and river routes

Day by day trip plan

Everything you need to bring

Introduction

In June 2018, my son Alex and I set out on the epic western adventure he had finally convinced me to experience with him. We rafted through Grand Canyon for a week, and drove through Death Valley to Yosemite, where we spent five memorable days highlighted by our climb of Half Dome. We’ll focus mainly on the Yosemite aspects of this trip, since the background about our Grand Canyon excursions were already covered extensively here. But we’ve still included the entire two week itinerary above to give you the full picture.

Note that there was a key difference from our 2019 itinerary. In 2019, we spent the entire two weeks in or around Grand Canyon, flying into Phoenix and initially driving to Page, AZ. for a three day visit. In 2018, to allow time to combine Yosemite with Grand Canyon, we flew into Las Vegas for a night and then immediately began the rafting trip. Also, any leg of the journey, such as the week of Grand Canyon rafting or Yosemite Valley hiking, can make for an awesome outing just by itself. This trip went pretty much exactly as planned, but as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it doesn’t always work out that way. My hope is that sharing our experiences and resources will help you in some way with your future plans.

Yosemite Valley

Source: Gary Hart Photography garyhartphotography.com

What to Know

Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.

Ansel Adams

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Yosemite – The Experience
Merced River in Yosemite Valley, with Cathedral Rocks in the distance

It was autumn 2016 when Alex finally convinced me join him on a two-week father and son Western U.S. adventure. But out of all the possibilities, where should we go? His idea of a good time was to embark on a grueling road trip, driving thousands of miles from east to west and back, just as he had done in college. “Forget that,” I said. Then, after a few weeks of searching for ideas, I remembered what my Aunt Pat had done thirty years earlier. At the age of 65, this intrepid soul had rafted through the Grand Canyon. Her feat quickly became a tale of legend, often recounted around the table at family gatherings.

I had a head-slap moment when I realized that we, as the next two generations, could keep her tradition alive. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic. But it did seem like a perfect fit for our needs: a wild, but guided, adventure in one of the most extreme places on earth, one that would help us build our own nascent legends. Within a few hours, I came upon the Western River Expeditions website and, as they say, the rest was kismet. By December 2016, I had reserved our spots on a seven-day, 188 mile rafting trip in June 2018, eighteen months hence. Booking such a trip this far in advance is common practice given the strict control the National Park Service holds over river runner capacity through the canyon.

Aunt Pat

Except for one more word about Aunt Pat, I won’t say much more about rafting through the Grand Canyon (our river trips were comprehensively addressed here). She had long ago relocated to the west coast, and in September of 2017, just nine months before our big trip, I had the opportunity to visit with her. By this time, Aunt Pat was well into her nineties, and when I asked her about her adventure, she was crystal clear about the details. It turns out that her trip, again at age 65, lasted ten days on a small raft as part of an academic research project. I was almost reluctant to tell her that we would be on a big motorized rig for seven days, though she loved hearing about our plans. Thanks to Aunt Pat’s inspiration, we had the experience of a lifetime on the river, and I still have it in my mind that someday I might try to approximate her journey by taking an extended trip through the canyon on the iconic five-person dories.

View of Liberty Cap, Mt. Broderick & Half Dome descending the Muir Trail a mile past Nevada Fall

With the plan settled to be in the canyon on week one, we were at a loss for what to do during week two. One day, I received an email from Alex saying “take a look at this,” accompanied by some information about a place called Half Dome. I read the material, and then accessed the Yosemite National Park website and found this ten-minute NPS video about Half Dome. Almost immediately, Half Dome became our Great White Whale. So much so, that eventually I had to remind Alex not to overlook the incredible experience awaiting us in Grand Canyon. Still, to this day, hiking Half Dome is our single most exceptional wilderness moment, and the single hardest thing I have ever done.

Yosemite Overview

All the national parks are incredible, but what is it that makes Yosemite unique? Mainly, its iconic granite rock formations. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification for a natural wonderland of 1,200 square miles with astounding diversity, including towering waterfalls, deep canyons, glacial valleys, high altitude meadows, and giant sequoias. But it’s Yosemite’s world-famous rock walls and domes where modern rock climbing practice and technology were developed. El Capitan, at 3,200 feet, the largest granite monolith in the world, was the center of the climbing universe for decades. In 2017, all of this progress culminated in one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time, Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan.

Another noteworthy feature of the park is that its most famous geological formations reside in Yosemite Valley, a seven mile-long glacial trough that comprises less than 1% of the total area of the park. The Valley is also where the hotel and restaurant facilities are, meaning that the vast majority of Yosemite’s visitor’s spend their time there. We’ll address the crowds and logistics more in National Park Considerations below, but like most of the parks, getting on the trail into the backcountry is the best way to leave the hordes behind.

Yosemite Valley – View From Wowona Tunnel

Yosemite Landscape

Leaving the crowds behind was certainly our intent, but going all the way to the top of Half Dome was our main objective on this trip. Through our prior research, we knew that we were only getting a taste of Yosemite’s wonders. There is so much more we could have explored had we been able to stay longer. A great resource to consult for the park’s diverse terrain and layout, history, hiking trails, amenities, and more is James Kaiser’s compact, but comprehensive, Yosemite, the Complete Guide. It covers all the sections of the park and makes me want to go back and experience them all some day. This excellent Yosemite National Park Map from the NPS will give you a good perspective on the park’s layout (select Brochure Map view from Park Tiles, enable full screen view, and then enlarge the map). The NPS Descriptions for all Yosemite Trails is also an essential resource. Generally, there are six distinguishable regions in Yosemite, which I’ve described as follows.

Yosemite Valley

The entirety of Yosemite National Park is a hiker’s paradise, but even within the much smaller confines of Yosemite Valley there are several world-renowned day hikes. One of them, as I’ve pointed out, is the trek to the top of Half Dome. Along with Grand Canyon’s Rim-to-Rim hike, Half Dome is consistently recognized as one of the world’s top ten or twenty day hikes. There are several important points to consider when planning a Half Dome outing, and I’ve broken that out into the Half Dome Hike Logistics section below. While all Half Dome hikes have certain aspects in common, everyone’s particular experience is unique. Be sure to check out the story of our day on Half Dome here.

Two other awesome Valley hikes we had considered were Upper Yosemite Fall and Four Mile Trail. The former is a 2,700 foot climb over a seven mile round trip route to the top of the tallest waterfall in North America. At almost 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile, it’s very strenuous but well worth it for the tremendous views of the Valley. The Four Mile Trail is somewhat of a misnomer, as the round trip covers almost ten miles. The turnaround is at Glacier point, 3,200 feet above the Valley floor. Alex and I elected to forego these hikes having just exhausted ourselves on Half Dome with only a few days remaining in the park. I should also mention that the initial segment of the Half Dome hike, to the top of Nevada Fall following the Mist Trail, is a five-mile, 2,000 foot beauty, and a fantastic outing in its own right. For a map and descriptions of all Yosemite Valley hiking, organized by level of difficulty, consult this informative NPS document.

While we didn’t do any further hiking in Yosemite after our day on Half Dome, we still were able to avail ourselves of the Valley’s legendary sights. We devoted a day to riding the shuttle around the Valley, and stopping at Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and of course, Degnan’s Deli. Being up close and personal with El Cap, in particular, was quite a thrill. When we got off the shuttle, it looked like it was a few hundred yards away and we could walk right up to the base. But it’s so enormous that, after walking much longer than we expected, we realized it was playing tricks with our perception. So we stopped about a half mile away and just gawked the awe-inspiring sight. Looking very carefully, I noticed small specks more than halfway (~2,000 feet) up on the huge wall, which were rock climbers on their way to the top. Yikes. I’m all for adventure, but I’m happy to let others go for the gusto when it comes to summiting a vertical surface of granite over a half mile in height.

Glacier Point Road

Even though we didn’t hike up to Glacier Point via the Four Mile Trail, we got there the easy way by way of a YNP guided bus tour. The route covers 16 miles, but the ride proceeds at a relaxing pace, as the bus has to do the hard work of climbing the 3,200 feet. That wasn’t a problem for us because it was the day after our Half Dome hike and we were all about being laid back. The national park guide was knowledgable and passionate about the park. Seeing virtually our entire route to the top of Half Dome spread out before us from Glacier Point was unforgettable. This delightful tour ended up the perfect counterpoint to our epic struggle against gravity the day before. If you have more time in Yosemite than we did, there are several other stunning Valley overlooks and hikes along the Glacier Point Road corridor, including Washburn Point, Taft Point, and Sentinel Dome.

Half Dome – view from Glacier Point

One other thing that made the day after Half Dome even better was starting it off with the breakfast buffet in the grand dining room of the Ahwahnee Hotel (formerly known as the Majestic). Having breakfast at this exemplar of national park luxury, while we were staying in the humble cabin tents of Half Dome Village, made us feel like Jack in the film Titanic, moving up from stowage to hobnob with Rose and her rich folk on the top deck. It was also our celebration for having completed our bucket list hike.

Wowona

As James Kaiser points out, Wowona, at the southern tip of Yosemite, is fairly unremarkable compared to the rest of the park. Why did we make sure to stop there early on the morning of our departure? To see its most remarkable feature, Maricopa Grove, the largest and most accessible of the three groves of ancient sequoia giants in Yosemite. Mariposa is home to roughly 500 mature specimens, and it was our extreme good fortune to be there just three weeks after the grove had reopened upon being refurbished with boardwalks to protect these incredible organisms. We were also there early enough to have the place almost to ourselves.

Many of the trees are over 300 feet tall, and like so much else in Yosemite, it’s hard to believe what you are seeing. One famous specimen, Grizzly Giant, only tops out at 209 feet. But it’s almost 3,000 years old and, at 34,000 cubic feet, so massive that it is estimated to be the 26th largest sequoia in the world. Sadly, just a few weeks after we returned home, the news came that Ferguson Wildfire was burning out of control right near this priceless grove. We watched with great concern as the park had to close, and almost 100,000 acres of nearby forest were destroyed before the fire was finally contained. As we have all seen in the few years since, western wildfires, especially in California, have only gotten worse. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, extreme drought, fires of escalating intensity, and other effects of climate change will have to be taken into account for any plans to visit the southwest, and in a larger sense, for policies to insure the overall sustainability of the region.

After a fabulous few hours walking the Mariposa Grove boardwalks, we exited Yosemite on our way to San Francisco for our flight home. An important travel note is that many people would exit Yosemite through the Wowona Tunnel and take Big Oak Flat Road to Route 120 west for the drive to San Francisco. Our route, which is shown in the Day 14 map under the Maps tile at the top, follows our exit to the south, via Route 41 to pickup Route 49 west at Oakhurst. The the early visit to Mariposa Grove on the way out of the park worked well for us and is something you may want to consider.

Tioga Road

As I noted, we didn’t have time to experience the Tioga Road, Tuolumne Meadows, or Hetch Hetchy areas of Yosemite directly, although they are now on an ever expanding bucket list of future possibilities. I’ll briefly mention these regions here in the hope that you will have more time in Yosemite than we did, and can include them in your itinerary.

Tioga road is a 47 mile route that bisects the park’s midsection from west to east. As the NPS states, Tioga Road is a “… scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tioga Pass [rising up to almost 10,000 feet] through forests and past meadows, lakes, and granite domes. Many turnouts offer broad and beautiful vistas. The Tioga Road is open approximately late May or June through October or November.” With more time, this drive would have been our next activity. We also would have taken the opportunity for some incredible hiking in the area. According to James Kaiser, “Along the way to Tuolumne Meadows, Tioga Road offers access to some of the finest hiking and backpacking in the park, including Clouds Rest, 10 Lakes, and two popular High Sierra Camps (May Lake and Sunrise).” “Although often ignored by first-time visitors [like us], these hikes are among the finest in the park.”

Another less discussed feature of this general vicinity is Tenaya Canyon, which runs between Olmsted Point and Clouds Rest. I’ll mention it here, mainly because it fascinates me and is worthy of a note of caution. “Tenaya Canyon is a dramatic and dangerous canyon … that runs from the outlet of Tenaya Lake 10 miles down to Yosemite Valley, carrying water in Tenaya Creek through a series of spectacular cascades and pools and thence into a deep canyon below Clouds Rest, a giant granite mountain adjacent to Half Dome.” “The canyon has no foot trail and is notoriously difficult to navigate, particularly in spring and summer when water levels are high.” “Some park rangers have reportedly referred to Tenaya Canyon as the Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite.” Queue the spooky music.

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows is the place I would go if I were going to spend an extended amount of time far away from the crowds in the bosom of nature. This region of Yosemite conjures up images of Henry David Thoreau and an abiding, immanent peace and quiet. Again, quoting James Kaiser’s Yosemite, the Complete Guide: “Living at an elevation of 8,600 feet, Tuolumne Meadows is the gateway to Yosemite’s High Sierra – a stunning wilderness of flowery meadows, snow-capped peaks, and miles of sparkling granite. Hiking trail radiate out from Tuolumne (pronounced Too-All-Uh-Me) in all directions, offering hikers and rock climbers access to Yosemite’s alpine wonderland. Whether you’re looking for an easy stroll, a moderate day hike, or a strenuous week-long backpack, Tuolumne Meadows has it all. Tuolumne is also the Sierra Nevada’s largest subalpine meadow, making it a great place to just kick back and relax.” There are basic services in the area, including Tuolumne and White Wolf camp grounds and Tuolumne Lodge, a cluster of 69 tent cabins with a dining facility. White Wolf Lodge also offers similar accommodations.

To top it all off, to the north is the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. In this case, the association with the big guy in Arizona is not so far fetched. Traversing this canyon requires several days of wilderness backpacking and, like its larger cousin, features elevation changes approaching 5,000 feet. This is one of the best places in Yosemite to be away from the hordes and off the grid. When we were in the Valley, we would see people on the shuttle with huge backpacks stuffed to the gills with provisions and gear. They looked looked they were on their way to going over yonder for a very long time. They also looked mighty happy. At the time, I wondered where they could be going. Now I know.

Hetch Hetchy

This region features an eight mile-long reservoir, which is a 40 mile drive from Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy wouldn’t be at the top of most people’s Yosemite itinerary, but it does have quite a history. The O’Shaughnessy Dam, behind which the reservoir sits, was completed in 1938 to provide a reliable water supply to San Francisco and the Bay area. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson sign the Raker act, authorizing the dam to be built after a protracted battle between the authorities, and John Muir and the Sierra Club. Legend has it that Hetch Hetchy Valley was every bit the equal of Yosemite Valley in staggering natural splendor, and it’s flooding represented an incalculable societal loss. More recently, in the 1980s, a proposal was raised to remove the dam and restore the valley, with no success. The book, Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite treats this engrossing story in much more detail.

Half Dome Hike Logistics

Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) is a large complex of tent cabins, each of which has two basic beds, a safe, a bear locker right outside to safely store anything with an odor, and close proximity to a nearby communal shower. It’s essentially a step up from an actual tent. But, as we discovered, it’s just the ticket for anyone planning to climb Half Dome in one day. With sunset at about 8:00 PM in late June, we needed to leave plenty of time to avoid having to contend with finding our way back in the dark, even with headlamps. It was also important for us to beat the crowds that tend to build up on the trail by late morning, and especially on the cables to reach the summit by early afternoon. Staying at a proper hotel in the Valley would have required us to take the first shuttle at 7:00 AM to the trail head at Happy Isles (stop 16). Most sources say it takes 10 to 14 hours to complete the trek, so we believed a much earlier start was essential.

Staying at Half Dome Village and setting out from our cabin at about 5:00 AM for the mile walk to the trail head did, indeed, work out well. It took us 15 hours to complete the hike (primarily due to our time on the summit), which meant that we were staggering back to the Village, literally, just as the sun was going down. We also had a good head start on most of the day’s hikers, which helped us in getting up and down the cables without too much congestion. Finally, the weather was our friend that day. Perfect, between 70°F and 80°F the entire time. I’m sure that helped us immensely. It often doesn’t work out that way, especially if rain or thunderstorms are in the area when you are on the cables. Also, it’s very important to be aware that a permit is required to access the sub-dome and cables sections in order to reach Half Dome’s summit. A permit lottery before the season is held, usually in March, and there is an allotment of permits disbursed by a daily lottery during hiking season. I really don’t need to say any more about what’s involved in climbing Half Dome because all the essentials are right here in this indispensable guide: Half Dome: Your guide to Yosemite’s most demanding day hike.

I do have some some final thoughts about Half Dome Village. In addition to the close proximity to the trail head, we really enjoyed the nearby Village Grille, a “seasonal counter-serve joint in Yosemite featuring burgers, sandwiches & shakes, plus a patio.” It was really the only game in town if we wanted to dine nearby. Still, it was great eating outside under the shadow of Half Dome, and all the food just tasted better there. Also, next door was the Mountain Shop, a wilderness outfitter, where we could talk to people who really knew what they were doing, ask a lot of naive questions, and gawk at all the cool outdoor gear. However, four nights in Half Dome Village were a bit much. It would have been nice to spend the last two nights in more comfortable lodging closer to the heart of the Valley, where most of our post-hike activities were. If had to do it over, that would be my plan.

Yosemite Dangers

Good reading now that we survived

You might think that I would begin by expounding on all the ways people can fall off cliffs, ledges, and walls. That, indeed, could be a grim byproduct of taking on the vertical, slick granite surfaces in Yosemite. We confronted that stomach-turning possibility on the Half Dome cables, as I have described. Off the Wall, Death in Yosemite, an awesome exploration of the park’s dangers, history, and search and rescue operations, presents an exhaustively researched catalogue of all the ways people have met their demise beginning in the mid-1800s. The book’s chapters are actually organized by means of death, such as: snow, park construction, falls while hiking and climbing walls, lightening (e.g., on Half Dome), drowning, getting lost, and BASE jumping – from fixed objects: “buildings, antennae (referring to radio masts), spans, and earth (cliffs).” All very intriguing stuff.

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But the very first chapter was about a category I wouldn’t have expected, and, which turned out to be the most fascinating to me: being swept over waterfalls. It was similar to Chapter One in the book Over the Edge, Death in the Grand Canyon, which was about people falling off the rim to their doom. I think the common allure in both of these inaugural chapters was the seemingly innocuous circumstances. These people weren’t even in the wilderness, per se, and couldn’t imagine they were in danger. One moment they were wading in the shallow, apparently calm water of the Merced River, or standing a supposedly safe distance from the abyss on the solid ground of the South Rim. In next moment they were gone, claimed by the suddenly violent and indifferent forces of nature.

Over the edge at Vernal Fall – 300 feet to the bottom
Merced River going over Nevada Fall

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The awesome force of moving water is a deceptive but implacable thing. The power of a river’s whitewater would be obvious to anyone. But standing in shallow water below your knees? How risky could that be? Take a look at 36 second video below. In the first few frames, we see some folks standing in the placid water of the Merced River right near the bank. There are a few rocks and a bit of whitewater about 25 feet downstream. But not to worry. The river isn’t particularly wide and, even if they slipped and couldn’t regain their footing right away, they should still have enough time to extricate themselves with a modicum of effort. Right? Watch the camera follow the river for just another 50 yards. In the blink of an eye, the river becomes a roiling demon. We can easily see that a person may very well find him or herself being carried helplessly over the edge of Nevada Fall for a catastrophic 600-foot plunge to the bottom. Game over.

Watch the seemingly placid Merced river quickly become an angry torrent going over Nevada Fall

With several variations, this scenario essentially plays out the same way in most of the waterfall stories. A person feels safe in relatively shallow water, but trips on a submerged rock, and to his or her dismay, finds that just a foot or two of water pushing against the entire body, not only the lower legs, becomes a deadly force. A year later, at the Patio above Deer Creek Falls in the Grand Canyon, I was standing in the evidently benign eight inch deep water of Deer Creek as it rushed past my ankles to quickly flow into a narrow 100 foot deep chasm and then become a 150 foot waterfall. Standing there, I remembered the waterfall stories from Yosemite. A severe case of the heebie-jeebies immediately came over me and I got the heck out of the creek.

The Drive through Death Valley

Like so many other points on our journeys, Death Valley deserves a much fuller experience. We knew that driving from Las Vegas to Yosemite by way of Death Valley would be a lot more interesting than going by way of San Francisco. I always wanted to be on Route 190 in the iconic photo, where the road disappears to a distant point on the horizon of the pancake-flat, scorched land, approaching a row of mountains that never seem to get any closer. This drive, and reading about this national park, simply whetted my appetite to spend more time there someday. Death Valley is the largest national park by area in lower 48 states, and has some incredible hiking. Being that it holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth (“134°F … at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913”), the best time for an extended visit is certainly not in June, when we drove through.

Route 190 – don’t get a flat tire here

Our brief time in Death Valley did provide some memorable moments, though. We elected to stay at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, in the north-central part of the park, to linger for a night and get a better sense of the place. On our drive there from Las Vegas, we did manage to stop at a couple of the more famous landmarks. One was Zabriskie Point, a lookout with spectacular vistas of the park. There is also quite a bit of history here, particularly with regard to Borax, discovered nearby in 1881. Why is this important? Borax is one of those essential substances we don’t think about much, but it is used in an amazing array of industries, such as: agriculture, nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals, and more. It also helps to make the area around Zabriskie Point look otherworldly.

When we returned to the car from the lookout, we were gobsmacked at the temperature reading of 119°F – at 7:16 in the evening, no less. The bottom of Grand Canyon in June was almost as hot, but those extra several degrees in Death Valley were something else. A few miles down the road, we passed a sign for Furnace Creek. Naturally, there was no creek, but it indicated we were 190 feet below sea level. How cool is that? (Not very, in Death Valley.) The lowest point on land in North America, 282 feet below sea level, was at Badwater Basin, just 18 miles away. We were tempted to go there. But with the specter of our car breaking down in this desiccated, charred, no-mans-land, with nightfall coming, we elected to keep pushing to the hotel. Getting a good night’s sleep for the long drive to Yosemite the next day was a wise choice. If you follow our route, be sure to stop at the Steampunk Diner for lunch in Tehachapi, CA. For so many years, I’ve listened to the song Willin’ by Little Feat, with its captivating, alliterative hook: “I’ve been to Tuscan to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah …”.  When I saw the sign for Tehachapi, I just had to stop there.

Seasons of Yosemite

Like Grand Canyon and other national parks with complex landscapes, Yosemite exhibits significant seasonal weather changes. There is also a great deal of climatic variation given the range of elevation within the park, from 2,000 to 13,000 feet. There are two main regions that are representative of most of the climate variability people will experience: Yosemite Valley/Wowona, and Tuolumne Meadows (the High Sierra). The NPS average temperature and precipitation charts for each region show these contrasts below.

The following are links to helpful NPS vignettes about the Yosemite experience in each season. For instance, it’s good to know that Yosemite Valley and Wowona are open year round, while Tioga Road is closed from November through mid-spring in the higher elevations due to the impassable ten-foot snow pack.

Summer

Fall

Winter

Spring

National Park Considerations

Yosemite became the third national park in 1890 (after Yellowstone and Sequoia) but it was the first public wilderness to be protected by the federal government, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant in 1864 (nine fun facts about YNP). This history makes it one of the most venerated of all the parks. Today, the best place to start for any information having to do with Yosemite is the National Park Service’s (NPS) website for the park. This site offers key information (much of which I’ve highlighted in the sections above) to help you plan your trip, including: park history, a catalogue of trails, Merced River rafting outings, backcountry permit process, maps, services, and much more. My goal is not to repeat what’s in this comprehensive resource, but to augment it with some observations and tips from our visit to YNP. Note that much of this conversation applies to most of the national parks. (See more information about definitions and designations for national parks and other protected sites.)

Crowds, Lodging & Activities

In 2019, Yosemite was the fifth most visited national park, with 4.4 million people (I’ve discounted the 2020 statistics due to Covid). Seventy five percent of the total visited the park in the six months between May and October, and the vast majority stayed within the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley. This is similar to the Grand Canyon situation, where 90% of its visitors remain in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. If you want some space and solitude, the solution is the same. Go where the crowds aren’t, away from the Valley or on less popular, but equally spectacular hikes (see the resources above for suggestions).

Lodging in the park is managed by Yosemite Hospitality, and covers a wide range of options, from basic tent cabins (such as Half Dome Village, which I have described) to the luxurious “featured” rooms-with-a-view at the Ahwahnee. Wherever you decide to stay, book as early as possible and plan on leaving your car there for the duration. When we arrived at Half Dome Village on a late Tuesday afternoon, we circled the lot for a half hour before finally snagging a space. That was actually pretty good. As we found out, getting around the Valley is best done by way of the shuttle. But they can be jam packed at times. One of the shuttle drivers told us that when Aramark took over as the main concessionaire for the park in 2016, they cut the number of vehicles from ten to six, leading to more overcrowding. Your best option is to get a shuttle on the early side, and try to avoid weekends when demand is at its peak.

If you do venture out to the hinterlands, including points along Tioga Road or Tuolumne Meadows, there are public transportation alternatives as well (be aware that some of these services will not be operating in 2021.) For longer stays, consider the lodging options that are available in these regions. Similarly, to experience many of the parks iconic landmarks, leave the car behind and take a guided bus tour. As I mentioned, we took the tour to Glacier Point and had a great time. Again, book as early as possible.

Beginning in 2021, for general access to the park, Yosemite is instituting an entry reservation system. This is a development we should expect other national parks to adopt (like Glacier is doing) as another means to control extreme demand, overuse, and exposure of park employees to the remaining effects of the Covid pandemic. Tickets for park entry can be purchased at recreation.gov.

Permits & Reservations

In the Half Dome Hike Logistics section above, I mentioned the requirement to have an NPS permit to get to the summit. There are also a host of other situations where a permit is needed in Yosemite. For most people, permit requirements will pertain to multi-day trips into the backcountry, with the summiting of Half Dome on a day hike being the exception. When going into the wilderness, it’s also very important to become familiar with and observe Leave no Trace Principles. Make sure to leave the wilderness as you found it.

Murphy’s Law

As your trip approaches, make sure to check the YNP Alerts Page for the latest conditions that could involve any number of problems, such as: road closures, infrastructure breakdowns, fires, and more recently, disease outbreaks. In just the few years since we visited Yosemite, we confronted several adverse situations that, in some cases, adversely affected our plans. I relate these possible curve balls here only to illustrate that a plan executed to perfection in a National Park is often an anomaly.

Wildfires – According to CBS News “since 2000, the West has experienced one of its driest 20-year periods in history due to a combination of a dry natural cycle and the changing climate.” The most severe, and in some cases unprecedented, fires in recent years have been in California. One consequence at Yosemite, as I mentioned earlier, is the threat to the 3,000 year-old Sequoias and other irreplaceable treasures. This risk exists not only in Yosemite, but in other parks, such as relatively nearby Sequoia and Joshua Tree. Clearly, this is a larger problem than the National Park Service can address. It’s one for all of us as inhabitants of the planet. There will be a piece coming about this issue in the Viewpoints section sometime soon.

Road & Entrance Closures – Road closures in Yosemite are routine to the extent that they are related to winter snow, especially at higher elevations. However, National Park infrastructure must be refurbished periodically, and it’s a good bet that we’ll be seeing more construction projects in the parks. Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, for instance, are repairing and upgrading significant stretches of roadway beginning in 2021. These projects will impact peoples’ plans, and cause navigation issues and delays. It’s also likely that a massive, federal infrastructure program would allocate funds and resources to the repair of long neglected national park facilities. All to the greater good, but when it comes to your trip, be flexible and be sure to check the national park alerts page for updates.

The Covid-19 Pandemic and Black Swan Events – Although it’s understood that a global pandemic is an exceedingly rare event, I wanted to say a few words about it anyway. In our story, The Western Road Trip That Went South, I talk about the obstacles Covid introduced and how it changed our plans. As I mentioned, Grand Canyon National Park, as well as all the national parks, had to close and change the way they operated to keep their staff and visitors as safe as possible. Covid-19 is receding as of this writing (March 2021) and three effective vaccines are being distributed now to quicken its demise. But with masks still required on federal lands (national parks), there is likely to be some residual impact for some time to come.

That said, black swan events, in general, do not seem to be as infrequent as they once were. The effects of climate change (mega-drought, monster wildfires), unforeseen problems from deteriorating infrastructure, the needs of interested parties that live around the area (who can influence the park’s operations), the increasing scarcity of water in the West, and the ever increasing numbers of people taxing the park’s facilities and ecosystems, can all induce breakdowns that call for changed or cancelled plans. As I mentioned, these issues call for a fundamental rethinking of how we treat our parks and the earth.

Preparing Your Mind & Body

This will be short and sweet, as I don’t presume to know what’s best for you. I’m not going to get specific on how to workout or tell you “if you don’t eat your meat you can’t have any pudding.” But as a novice who became more experienced and knowledgeable, I do want to share some thoughts about what I’ve learned. This is really just advanced common. sense.

Mind

It can be daunting to take on a very difficult hike like Half Dome for the first time. Hopefully, the experiences I recounted about our hike, as well as some of the logistical considerations, will help you in approaching your journey with your eyes open, fully prepared, and eagerly awaiting the adventure of a lifetime. On these types of hikes, be ready for an encounter with extremes: altitude, adverse weather, elevation change, fear of heights, and the disconcerting wildness of the place.

Adopting the right mindset is understandably challenging when you haven’t done this before. As you have gathered by now, this is not vacation to kick back or to be entertained. It’s an experience of immersion and learning, as much about yourself as about the wilderness. Consuming high quality information ahead of time will help you to not only set your expectations, but also point you to the more subtle but awesome sights to watch out for that would otherwise escape your attention.

As I mentioned above, the book Off the Wall, Death in the Yosemite is an authoritative and comprehensive reference on all things Yosemite. It does recount in lurid and gripping detail all the ways in which people have died in the park, but more importantly, for our purposes here, it advises us how to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. It also engenders a solemn respect by containing a rich and often brutal history of the early expeditions to the region, as well as insightful commentary about the issues facing Yosemite today.

Also know that, although this trip is an undertaking best approached with purposeful preparation and planning, the spontaneity and sense of discovery will not be lost. No amount of research will substitute for the experience of being there.

Body

I know I’m stating the obvious that good fitness makes for a good wilderness experience in Yosemite. I did see many folks on our hike that didn’t look to be in the greatest shape and still seemed to do okay. But I’m more comfortable knowing that I did what I could to enjoy, not to mention hold up well in, the extreme and unfamiliar conditions.

All elements of conditioning are important: cardio, lower and upper body areas, and the core. Whatever you can do to improve knee and quad strength for climbing and trekking, and arm and shoulder strength for gripping (for instance, the cables), is a good thing. You will be doing a lot of all these things on a wilderness trip. The core is also a key area, which includes the back as well as the abdomen. For me, paying attention to the condition of my back became more of a priority after injuring it on the 2020 road trip with Alex. Developing a stretching and strengthening routine for that area has helped me immensely, to the point where I have been able to resume full workouts and have renewed confidence in making it through a trip featuring many days of arduous hiking.

There are other steps you may want or need to take depending on your specific situation. In my case, I know I’m likely to encounter acute knee pain at about the seven mile point of a hike. I use poles to help cushion the impact going downhill, and knee braces for stability and support, and they do get me through to the finish line. But when I get home, it’s sometimes hard just to walk up and down the steps for about a day. When I travel all the way from the east coast for a once-in-a-blue-moon encounter with the western wilderness, I want to avoid this problem becoming a constraint. About a month before each of my trips over the past few years, I’ve gotten trigger point injections in my knees. These are small doses of cortisone in the muscle that are intended to reduce inflammation and remain effective for about eight weeks. I have found them to be beneficial, and my doctor assures me they are safe (at the frequency and dosage we are talking about here). Clearly, it’s a personal choice and before you do anything like this, you should consult your doctor.

Photography Tips for Hiking

Landscape photography is a topic I cover further in the Resources section. I want to say a few words about it here, specifically with regard to a wilderness experience in a place like Yosemite. First, the camera I had intended to use broke at the very end of our Grand Canyon rafting trip. The pictures of Yosemite you see on this site were mostly taken by Alex with his smartphone, which proves that you don’t need high end camera gear to capture some wonderful memories. However, my preference is to use a dedicated camera on these trips to extend the possibilities for capturing great images.

With this experience in mind, for our 2019 river trip I came equipped with an Olympus TG-5 waterproof/shock resistant point-and-shoot. It’s in the same class my first camera (resolution, picture quality, features, price) and performed very well in the harsh conditions. Aside from a phone, this seems to be the go-to still camera for many people on these types of trips. The Grand Canyon pictures you see on this site were taken with these point-and-shoots or our smart phones. I’m quite sure the TG-5 would have also performed very well in the backcountry of Yosemite. And with a little post processing in Photoshop, it would have produced equally good images.

Shortly after the 2019 trip, though, my landscape photography bug really accelerated, and I stepped up to a full frame mirrorless Sony. My intent was to expand the possibilities of expression through pixels, as well as to produce larger high-quality wall prints. Of course, the challenge here is the increasing amount of gear (lenses, tripod, and on and on) you need to carry and manage to do it right. Because of the climate and terrain conditions, things get even more complicated when you’re in a place like Yosemite. There is the obvious risk of bad weather, and the fact that lugging this type of gear up Half Dome would have been tough. I’m sure I would have had to skinny things down to the absolute minimum kit to have any chance of success. However, for serious photographers who want to capture the best images possible in Yosemite, there is a tour tailored for that. Gary Hart, a landscape photography professional and guide, offers excursions to Yosemite and other destinations that cater to the exacting needs of the photography community.

On longer hikes, I’ve learned how to carry my full frame gear and take higher quality images, while not slowing down others in the group. The mantra of virtually all photography professionals I’ve consulted is “always on a tripod.” But since I want good photos and good hiking simultaneously, I have to adjust. I’ve had to learn to take decent handheld photos while on the move, which come close enough to, but don’t reach, professional standards. There will come a time when I venture out to devote most of my attention to capturing images of the highest possible quality in targeted locations. But when I do, it will be on my own where I can go at my own pace, or on a guided workshop, such as with Gary Hart.

Resources

Services

Selecting the right river runners, tour guides, gear rental, or shuttle outfit can make all the difference.

References

Take advantage of others’ experiences & knowledge to become educated about these multifaceted places.

Photography

Learn how to capture great photos while being on the move and being present with the experience of the wilderness.

Contact

Copyright © 2021 Craig Spielman, All Rights Reserved

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