Yosemite National Park: Planning

Yosemite is an amazing National Park, but is one that I didn’t appreciate as much until recently.  The first time we visited was over a decade ago, pre-kids, and we only did some of the easy afternoon valley floor hikes.  Big mistake!  If you love shoulder-to-shoulder hiking on pavement, you might have fun, but this wasn’t what I envisioned.  This time around, we planned a bit better and had a wonderful time.

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Getting There

Yosemite is roughly 4 hours east of the Bay Area, making a weekend trip feasible for us. It’s also roughly 6 hours north of Los Angeles. The park website has some more specifics for how to arrive. Note that weekend traffic can impact driving times quite a bit.

Activities

When we were considering going, we bought a Yosemite guide book for our Kindle, which had some helpful suggestions. With two full days in Yosemite, we decided to spend 1 day in the Yosemite Valley and the other exploring the sights on Tioga Road.

General Observations

  • The headline sights are in the Yosemite Valley.
  • The Yosemite Valley is very crowded from late morning to mid-afternoon.  Early or late is much better.
  • Tioga Road is much less crowded, but still has places of interest.

Day in the Yosemite Valley

We spent our first day (Saturday) in the Yosemite Valley.

  • Arrived at the park gate around 8:00am.
  • Stopped in a few pullouts to take quick pictures.
  • Found parking.
  • Hiked the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls, Clark Point, and then looped back around to the starting point via the John Muir Trail.
  • Had a picnic by the stream between the Lower Pines and the North Pines Campground.
  • Took a shuttle to the Visitor’s Center, visited the museums, and watched the movie.
  • Hiked to the Lower Yosemite Fall.
  • Took the shuttle back to the car.
  • We thought of driving to Glacier Point, but it was past 4pm by this point, and we were getting tired.
  • Saw a bear on the drive out of the park to the cabin.

Day on Tioga Road

Our second day (Sunday) was spent on Tioga Road.

  • Made a stop at Olmsted Point and scrambled around on the rocks.
  • Took a swim break and had a picnic at a small beach on Tenaya Lake.
  • Stopped at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor’s Center.
  • Hiked to Soda Springs and Parson’s Lodge, stopping for a swim break at the stream.
  • Drove to the Tioga Pass entrance, wandered a bit, and decided the elevation was too high and we were too tired for a hike.
  • Stopped at the Tenaya Lake main beach for a swim break.

Accommodations

Good news – we planned this trip the week before, in the first weekend of August, so it’s totally possible to enjoy Yosemite on short notice!

But that also meant that there was absolutely no possibility of staying overnight in the park – in the peak summer season, in-park options fill up way in advance.

Looking at our options available the week before, we first searched in towns right outside the park. El Portal would have been ideal, since it’s definitely the closest outside town to Yosemite Valley. Alas, it was booked out. We then started looking at Mariposa and Groveland.

After searching hotel options for a bit, we then looked into “camping cabins” near Yosemite, and found a few websites with info and reviews. We ended up reserving a “camping cabin” at Yosemite Ridge Resort in Buck Meadows, roughly 30 minutes from the park entrance (though closer to an hour from the middle of Yosemite Valley).

We weren’t sure what to expect, since “camping cabin” can mean many different things. It ended up being a small trailer in a campground, though the pine-panelled walls inside gave it a nice ambience. As a plus, it had a small kitchen, air conditioning, and a separate master bedroom with a door. And, it was in the middle of a campground with plenty of trees. Like anything near Yosemite, it wasn’t inexpensive, but it was a reasonable option, given the alternatives.

We were about to book for 3 nights – arriving Friday night, coming back Monday morning, but realized that the campground’s office closed at 10pm. With Jeremy’s work situation, and with Friday afternoon traffic leaving the Bay Area, arriving by 10pm wasn’t completely guaranteed. Plus, we weren’t sure that we wanted to drive the windy mountain roads at that hour.

So, we ended up booking a cheap hotel in the Central Valley (Merced in this case) on the first Friday night, to get us closer to Yosemite. It’s not clear that this was the optimal situation, but we both didn’t have a lot of great closer options, and also didn’t want to drive the entire distance from the Bay Area on Saturday morning.

Meals

There are limited options for dining inside National Parks. And even if there are pretty good options (Yosemite seemed to have quite a few in the Valley), you may not be near them at meal times.

Note: In Yosemite in particular, you need to be careful of bears when storing food, particularly at night. If your accommodations are not bear-proof, store all food in bear lockers.

The Coolers

Since park lunches are great near a hiking trail or lake, we like to pack a cooler with sandwich essentials for lunches. In this particular case, since we had a kitchen in our camping cabin, we brought along a mid-sized cooler where we could store some food for dinner as well. I also brought a tiny cooler just big enough for some lunch meat and cheese.  When it was time for a picnic, I could simply transfer a few things into the small cooler, then put them back in the large cooler when we were done – which was handy.

Our main cooler consisted of lunch meat, sliced cheese, sausage, hamburger, and eggs.  Everything else, except a couple of onions, was non-perishable.

Breakfast Food

Maybe a breakfast bar or pop tart is your style. That said, given the cabin, we ended up bringing a box of Bisquick, eggs (kept in the cooler), dry milk powder, cooking spray, syrup, and a box of tea.  With the decision to skip fresh milk, I also brought hot cocoa for the kids and mixed in some of the dry milk to get a little extra calcium into them.  Success!

Lunch and Snack Food

We usually just pack sandwiches for lunch.  To save on cooler space, I don’t pre-make them.  At a minimum you need lunch meat (in cooler), cheese (in cooler), and bread.  Or PB&J and bread, although you will get a spoon and knife dirty to do this.

I will also bring a box of cookies – my kids like Oreos – for each day.  Add in some goldfish, crackers (great with left over lunch meat and cheese), and/or trail mix, and you won’t go hungry. If you want to be a bit more healthy, bring some fresh (in cooler if the car gets hot) or dried fruit.

Dinner Food

For dinner, I like to have a simple home-cooked meal.

Our first dinner consisted of a pack of sausages (in cooler), cooked in diced onions and a can of diced tomatoes to minimize risk of smoke and add some vitamins.  We also make a pack of instant mashed potatoes and a can of corn.  Easy to pack in the car, easy to cook, not incredibly unhealthy.

The second dinner was based on a hamburger helper.  Cook some hamburger (in cooler) and a diced onion, then pour in the spices, some water, and some dry milk powder.  Easy and delicious.  A can of vegetables can be a good addition.

To come…

We’ll follow up with posts about our Yosemite Valley day and our Tioga Pass day. Yosemite is a great place to visit!  Just make sure that you get there early or stay late to minimize difficulty with crowds. Watch out for bears and deer, particularly at dawn or dusk.

If you are there for 1 day, see the Yosemite Valley. If you are there for longer, spend 1 day seeing the main Yosemite Valley sights, then explore some of the less crowded sights on your remaining days,

If you want to stay in the park, read the guides to do this – e.g. camping spots are typically released 5 months in advance, minus a small number of first-come-first-served spots. But if you fail at doing this, there are many other places to stay outside the park.

Bring your own picnic food.  If you are camping, make sure you store all food in bear lockers.  Never bring it into your tent!

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