“All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” It’s difficult to say which of America’s national parks rank at the top, but we can certainly understand what inspired the Scottish-born writer John Muir to credit Yosemite National Park as the finest creation of nature incomparable to any other on the face of the earth.
Geologically speaking, Yosemite owes its splendorous stone formations and diverse, rugged landscape to the earth’s ever-changing geological processes over long periods of time. The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range extends in altitude from near sea level along the park’s west edge to more than 13,000 feet in height along the range’s crest in the Yosemite area.
Scientists believe the range was created when a massive block of the Earth’s crust broke free along a fault system to the east, tilting the land westward and uplifting the imposing cliffs and mountains so iconic of the Yosemite National Park region today. As a result of altitude and climate changes, glaciers formed two to three million years ago are largely responsible for the park’s many remaining lakes. Most families choose to visit the park in summer, when they can introduce their kids to a remarkable outdoor environment without the threat of storms and snow, though these can happen in summer at altitude.
Yosemite’s South Entrance & Attractions
First let me say, families cannot see all of Yosemite in a day. To begin exploring the park’s 1,169 square-miles of wilderness, visitors can fly into Fresno Airport and rent a car to take the approximate 2 ½ hour drive north to the South Entrance of Yosemite. Among its multitude of attractions, this portion of the park is well known for the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, which crosses through its highest point in Yosemite at Donohue Pass at a dizzying 11,056 feet, continuing to the North entrance at Dorothy Lake.
The remainder of the 2,650-mile trail, which begins in Mexico, winds all the way up the Cascades and Sierras to Canada. It is said that the PCNST crosses through the greatest number of elevation changes of any of America’s National Scenic Trails, which means that hikers and equestrians (no vehicles allowed) who traverse its length will experience six of the seven ecozones found in North America, including high and low desert, old-growth forest and artic-alpine country. Obviously not a challenge for everyone.
Your family’s first stop upon entering the South Entrance can be the 695-foot Chilnualna Falls in Wawona, where visitors can hike a steep trail to get a good view of the surging water.
Also near the South Entrance, the Mariposa Grove is filled with nearly 500 mature giant sequoias, some of which exceed 3,000 years in age. Interestingly, the bark of a Giant Sequoia -– which can sometimes be up to 60 centimeters thick — is fire resistant. This is important because fire helps open the sequoia cone and scatter the tiny seeds, clears forest debris from the mineral soil and provides a nutrient rich seed bed as well as clearing competing species.
The Heart of Yosemite
Arguably the most popular portion of the park, Yosemite Valley is home to the Yosemite Falls, made up of three separate falls totaling 2,425 feet in height. The Falls flow November through July and can best be seen from the areas around Sentinel Meadow and the Yosemite Chapel.
The first attraction visitors see upon entering the park, however, is the Bridalveil Fall, standing 620-feet tall and at its heaviest flow in the spring. Rock climbers test their mettle on the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan, the largest monolith in the world and the location of the 1,000-foot Horsetail Fall. These glowing orange falls flow from December to April and are best seen in mid- to late-February sunsets.
From the El Capitan Meadow, take in impressive views of the Cathedral Rocks and Spires. Atop the 8,122-foot Sentinel Dome, the famous wind-blown Jeffrey Pine rewards adventurous hikers with a short rest. From the pristine Mirror Lake, guests can see the remarkable landmark, Half Dome, which stands at nearly 5,000 feet above the Valley floor and is a popular spot for hikers and rock climbers.
Among other features in the park, Nevada, Vernal and Glacier falls are popular places to visit, while the latter of the three is famous for its view from Glacier Point cliff. You can see Glacier Point while driving to Curry Village or The Ahwahnee Village, where kids can learn the art of basket-weaving, bead working and acorn grinding.
The Park’s Hidden Cultural Gems
Even in summer when the outdoors beckon, there are some wonderful indoor and cultural attractions well worth a visit. To the front of the Ahwahnee Village sits the Yosemite Museum, a perfect place for kids to observe displays on native inhabitants of the park – Miwok and Paiute people – from 1850 to the present. Demonstrations of basket weaving, beadwork, and traditional games are also presented.
Nearby, the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center allows you to learn how Yosemite’s spectacular landscape was formed and how it has continued to evolve over time. Displays feature a replica of the base of a giant sequoia, a bear cave that kids can enter, and a “glacier” that welcomes a hands-on approach.
In operation since 1902, the Ansel Adams Gallery has been preserving Native American history and has on display a collection of timeless photographs — in Adams’ signature black and white style — of the park landscapes.
Families with younger kids will enjoy some of the exhbiits designed for elementary school students. A quick stop at the family-friendly Nature Center at Happy Isles gives visitors a more in depth look at the area’s flora, fauna and geology with interactive displays, while the Pioneer Yosemite History Center allows visitors to see horse-drawn wagons, walk across a covered bridge, and visit historic buildings out of Yosemite’s past.
Summer is also the time for rafting along the Merced and South Fork rivers or kayaking on the calmer waters of the Tenaya Lake — great fun for teens and tweens.
Venturing Out East in Yosemite
If you branch out west of Yosemite Valley, you’ll find the East, or Hetch Hetchy entrance, where there are more waterworks (such as the Wapama Falls which flows at an impressive 1,400 feet) to explore. At its peak flow in May, the falls can be best seen from O’Shaughnessy Dam.
Perched on Olmsted Point, which can be accessed by the East Entrance along the Tioga Road, onlookers can spot the prominent peaks of Half Dome.
Perhaps even more famous than the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and overlapping most of its length, the 211-mile John Muir Trail stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. To trek portions of this trail is a great way to see many of Yosemite’s sensational sights. Ask the local Park Rangers to suggest portions of the trail most suitable to the hiking abilities and stamina of your family.
Trip Planning Details for Yosemite
Yosemite is certainly the epitome of a wilderness frontier, but by no means does that imply that there’s a lack of lodging in the area. During the busy summer season, the park has several facilities open that will be of interest to splurge and budget-watching families as well.
Overnighters can choose to shack up in one of Half Dome Village’s, 424 canvas tent cabins, but should be warned that cooking facilities and campfire rings are not available onsite. Located in Yosemite Valley, the village is a great place to relax, enjoy the outdoors and gaze out toward the daunting Half Dome and Glacier Point. Half Dome Village has several amenities including onsite bathhouses and provided sheets, wool blankets, and pillows in the tent cabins for a cozier stay.
Whereas Half Dome Village gives you the mountains, the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls gives you accommodations that coexist serenely with nature and the nearby Yosemite Falls. With bus lines and bus tours available at the Lodge, transportation is not a problem. The Yosemite Lodge even provides a few venues for casual dining and often offers special packages designed for visiting families.
Open from mid-June to mid-September and located near the eastern entrance of the park on the Tioga Road, the Tuolomne Meadows Lodge is a rustic lodge that provides 69 canvas-covered tents, each with a wood burning stove and provided wood. This is a good place to kick back, turn off the cell phones and computers (There’s no electricity anyway) and enjoy the spread of Sierra Nevada sub-alpine meadows. Included in overnight stays is a family-style breakfast and dinner in the central dining tent.
If you’re really looking for a unique way to stay at Yosemite, try Yosemite High Sierra Camps Lodging, which comprises of five sites situated along a loop trail in Yosemite’s High Country. Accommodations are canvas tent cabin-style and are perfect for large families, as the owners strive to fill their site to full capacity. Be warned, however, that the camp is accessible only by foot or horse. Interested campers can apply online on a first-come, first-serve basis and applications are offered during select dates and offered by lottery. Yet, it may be worth your time to wait it out and get the chance to really “rough it,” and explore the mountainous terrain on saddle. (Or perhaps the inclusive full dinner and breakfast served to your cozy tent will seal the deal.)
Note: While summers in the Sierra mountain region can bring sudden and intense downpours and thunderstorms, Yosemite actually receives less than five percent of its annual precipitation in the summer months, often making for a warm and dry season. When hiking any trails, don’t forget to take along water bottles and other accessories to combat high temperatures and sun.
To learn more about the history of Yosemite National Park and its attractions, the National Park Service website is a very helpful and has detailed maps for navigating your way through the area.
For more information and reservation details on each of the listed park lodgings, visit the Yosemite National Park Vacation website or call 888/413-8869. Camping reservations within the park can be made by calling at 877/444-6777 or by visiting the Recreation Reservation website.
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