Having just returned from over 3 weeks travelling the southwestern USA and visiting seven National Parks, we arrive home thinking on what we’ve enjoyed and what we might have done differently, as well as what went really well.
Yosemite was our first destination, a short(ish) drive from San Francisco where we all met and started this journey. Thinking back over the parks we visited, I would have to say that this was my favourite, helped in part by the fact we were fresh and also by the location and accommodation. I’m going to list some of the reasons why and also hope they will be useful tips for others planning a visit.
1: Book early! We booked almost a year ahead of time to secure 2 classic cottages at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, and it was worth the effort as we were pleasantly surprised by their spaciousness and amenities. Despite being told there was no air conditioning or wifi in the National Parks, we had access to both! And we got a fabulously located set of interconnecting cottages less than 2 minutes walk from the Hotel complex.
2: Book cottages rather than hotel rooms. For the same price as a hotel room, we had a spacious cottage with a separate dressing area and bathroom, and space to sit in and out of the room. There was better privacy than a hotel room and easy access to the park and hotel complex. Because we booked two rooms to accommodate our family, we ended up with interconnecting cottage suites, which made life very easy for family interaction.
3. Stay as long as you can! Unfortunately, I should have thought more about this… and two nights should have been three so we could explore more of this amazing park. (Conversely, we stayed three nights at the Grand Canyon and that should have been two.)
4. Hire the bicycles… despite initial misgivings from one family member, this was an excellent mode of transport for our first morning in the park. There are numerous cycle trails and it’s a great way to get between the major sights, avoiding the traffic and parking hassles that were evident, despite this being out of peak season. The bikes are easy to get around on and we had a lot of fun.
5. Get up early and find the sunrise – well, I didn’t but the men got up very early and made the one-hour drive to Glacier Point to catch the sunrise over Half Dome. They told me it was worth it, but they were amazed at the number of others who had made the same trip.
6. Book a meal at the Grand Majestic dining room! This lodge is a fantastic place to sit and enjoy views and soak up the ambience, and the dining room is a special place too. The literature said it was supposed to be even larger than it ended up, but it is certainly big. The high ceilings soak up the noise of the diners so the levels are not overwhelming. The menu was excellent with choices of half portions for those of us without large appetites. However, be aware that there is a dress code of collared shirts for men and no too-casual dress for either women or men.
7. Take a Ranger-led tour… because our stay was short, there was only one tour we could take. We enjoyed an interesting study on the way that water has shaped and is still shaping the Yosemite landscape, both geologically, landform and vegetation, led by the extremely professional ranger, Shelton Johnson. We didn’t travel far physically, but in the short distance we walked together the group learned a lot about the way water is essential to the life of this park. We also learned that we were very lucky to see these falls in August, as they are usually dry in this month.
8. Take the Tioga Pass road (Hwy 120) either in or out, depending on your direction of travel. I was concerned that we would not be able to take this scenic road due to a major landslide closing the road and delays in clearing it, but by August it was open so we got the travel east via the Tuolumne Meadows and the Tioga Pass. Reviews of this route made it sound quite a risky venture, but it was a pleasant drive on roads that were no worse than anything we’d encountered on NZ ski access roads, or even some of the local roads in Europe. The views were lovely as we climbed higher and higher and then opened out into the meadows, and beyond to lake areas and then the hill road leading down to the junction with 395 and south to Lone Pine. There are numerous stopping areas to take photos and one of the busiest was at the Olmsted Point lookout which had great views back to Half Dome, and a ranger with a telescope aimed at the climbers on that rock. It’s a great place to stop and take in the views as the geology is very unique here also.
9. Go in off-peak – we went at the end of August, hoping that the summer holiday crowds may have dissipated, but we were sadly mistaken. I hate to think what the crowds would have been like in the peak season but expect crowds no matter when you go.
Enjoy Yosemite and all it has to offer and, as we were reminded by Ranger Shelton, what you see is probably less than 1% of the park. It’s a wonderful treasure in the USA and worth the visit. Look at the rock forms, enjoy the natural environment, respect the wildlife and appreciate the awesome creation around you.