Travel notes: Exploring Yosemite National Park

At Yosemite Park: El Capitan on the left, Half Dome peeking up midpoint and Bridalveil Falls at right below Sentinel Peak.

California’s Yosemite National Park wowed me as a 14-year-old on a camping trip with my family back in 1962. I was used to imposing Northwest mountains, but Yosemite’s sheer granite cliffs and dramatically plunging waterfalls made a vivid impression. They were every bit as stunning this June when I visited the park 60 years later.

Yosemite boasts granite monoliths such as El Capitan, soaring just over 3,000 feet from base to summit and one of the most popular rock-climbing destinations in the world. Famously photographed Half Dome rises 4,800 feet above the valley floor. Sentinel Dome also overlooks Yosemite Valley, rising 3,000 feet. You’ll see dozens of other smaller granite domes throughout the park.

Half Dome

All are products of dramatic glacier sculpting. About one million years ago, glaciers ground through the uplifted granite landscape and left U-shaped Yosemite Valley when they retreated. Visitors inevitably ask: what happened to the other half of Half Dome? It was ground away by the glaciers as they advanced with pulverizing force.

Yosemite National Park is equally famous for its high concentration of waterfalls. The glacial sculpting also created hanging valleys and sheer cliff drops from which waterfalls cascade in spectacular fashion. Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in both the park and North America. It drops a total of 2,425 feet from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall.

Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Falls is an equally prominent landmark. While just 617 feet high, it is the first major waterfall you’ll see as you enter Yosemite Valley, and it puts on an amazing show year-round. When the wind is brisk, the falling water is often blown sideways, creating the “bridal veil” and sometimes a rainbow.

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

All of Yosemite’s waterfalls are at their most spectacular during the snowmelt season: April, May and June.

Covering nearly 1,200 square miles of wilderness, Yosemite National Park is also remarkable for its ancient giant sequoia trees. The Mariposa Grove is the largest with about 200 sequoias, which grow taller and larger in volume than any other tree species. They often live for centuries: the Grizzly Giant is the oldest tree and second largest tree in the grove, estimated to be 1,900 to 2,400 years old.

The high country of Yosemite – at around 8,600 feet elevation – features sub-alpine meadows bordered by jagged mountains such as Unicorn Peak and the Cathedral Range. Tuolumne Meadows offers great views and attracts hikers and rock climbers. The Pacific Crest Trail wends through Tuolumne.

Tuolumne Meadows

More than 800 miles of trails are available to hikers throughout Yosemite National Park, ranging from easy strolls on paved paths to challenging mountain ascents.

Yosemite Valley has a fascinating history. Humans may have first visited the area as long as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago; it has been inhabited for nearly 4,000 years. The indigenous Ahwahneechee People were the only tribe that lived within what became Yosemite National Park. With other tribes in surrounding areas, they formed a larger population called the Southern Sierra Miwok.

The Yosemite Museum in Yosemite Village features the cultural history of the Ahwahneechee and Miwok people from 1850 to the present. It showcases an amazing collection of baskets, some up to three feet in diameter. You can watch demonstrations of basket-weaving, beadwork and traditional games. There is a reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee behind the museum.

Nearby is the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center where you can learn how Yosemite’s spectacular landscape was formed, how people have interacted with it through the centuries and how wildlife adapts and survives. Don’t miss the neighboring Ansel Adams Gallery, featuring the famous photographer’s portraits of Yosemite and other scenic landscapes.

Mariposa Grove – approaching the Grizzly Giant

Yosemite is actually the birthplace of America’s national park movement. First discovered by white men in 1851, Yosemite Valley initially attracted those seeking to exploit its extraordinary natural wonders. However, painters and photographers documented those wonders, which persuaded Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to establish the original Yosemite Grant in 1864. Then naturalist John Muir led a successful movement that resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park by Congress in 1890.

In 1903, Muir toured President Theodore Roosevelt around Yosemite, which led to expanded federal protection of the new park. Roosevelt was then inspired to sign into existence five other national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and 150 national forests. Yosemite indeed paved the way for national parks and preserves throughout our country.

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite draws four to five million visitors each year. Visitors tend to spend most of their time in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley; it has accommodations ranging from the grand, historic Ahwahnee Hotel and comfortable Yosemite Lodge to many camp sites for tents and RVs. An efficient shuttle bus system operates between lodgings/camp sites and attractions throughout the valley.

The park began requiring reservations to access it during peak periods starting in 2020 as a response to a rise in visitors.

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— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.




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