Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

By Ariel Blandford

In May of 2012 I spent the summer living and working in Yosemite National Park in California as a horseback tour guide.  I led tours on horses and mules up the back side of Half Dome on the John Muir Trail (JMT) to Clark’s Point and on the Mirror Lake Loop Trail.  I lived in a canvas tent next to the Curry Village Stables (Now Closed) and on my free days I explored the park. 

Guiding a tour on horseback on the Wawona

As a photographer, I tried to capture as much of what I experienced as I could to share with my family and friends back home.  What I learned was that Yosemite National Park is more than forests and mountains.  It is the embodiment of a soul alive.  Its heart beats with every river, plant and animal and the deeper we explore, the more we realize that it is as much a part of us, as we are a part of it.

The following is a compilation of notes drawn from my experiences in the park throughout my life.  I have organized it by Hikes, Concessionaires, Night Time in Yosemite, Seasons and What to Expect, Sample Itinerary: Exploring the Valley, High Sierra Camps, and Explore Outside the Valley.  I have also labeled hikes with their round trip mileage, if it is good for kids and if the concessionaire has wifi or is a good place to find cell phone service.  Remember that the Valley does not have gas available for visitors, so be sure to fill up before driving in.  I hope that this provides guidance to your Yosemite adventure and helps create an experience you will never forget.

Last Note: Please enjoy the park responsibly.  It is dangerous just as much as it is beautiful.  Respect the wildlife, plants and cliffs, by keeping your distance, putting your food in bear boxes (that includes not leaving food in your car), staying away from steep edges and keeping on trail. 

*Items bolded are my top recommendations

Yosemite Hikes

Looking over the Merced River at Yosemite Falls

Walk Ups: (All Great for Kids)

  • Glacier Point (Found off of the 141)
  • Tunnel View (Found off of the 141) 
  • Sentinel Dome (Found off of the 141) (This is where Ansel Adams took his famous photo of the Jeffery Pine.)
  • Valley View (Found off of Northside Drive, just before you begin seeing directional signs for highways leaving the park.)
  • El Capitan (See if you can spot the climbers clinging to the edge)
  • Bridal Veil Falls (.5 mi. round trip)
  • Cook's Meadow
  • Sentinel Beach/Bridge
  • Olmsted Point (Found off of Tioga Pass)

Easy Hikes:

  • Mirror Lake/Meadow Loop Trail (The dam that created the famous reflective lake was removed in the early 70s, and the original meadow is slowly being restored.  In 2009 a large rock slide fell from Ahwiyah Point onto the trail, splitting the loop trail in half.  Although, the lake is now gone, there are still some small bodies of water to take a refreshing dip in.  (To walk to the lake is 2 miles round trip, to walk to the rockslide is 5-6 miles round trip.) (Great for Kids)
  • Lower Yosemite Falls Hike (1 mi. round trip) (Great for Kids)
  • Happy Isles (There is a Nature Center at Happy Isles that is perfect for kids! During the summertime there is a ice cream stand that opens and serves ice cream nearby.)
  • Valley Loop Trail (The loop goes around the entire valley.  I recommend biking this, or choosing to spend a day walking half of it to really get to explore the Valley Floor!) (6.5 mi. half loop / 13 mi. entire loop) (Great for Kids)
  • Taft Point (From Glacier Point, 4 mi. round trip)
  • Inspiration Point (2.6 mi. round trip), (The trail head is at Tunnel View.  If you're feeling a bigger challenge you can pass Inspiration Point and hike on to Old Inspiration Point, which is further up the trail.)

Moderate Hikes:

The Last Stretch of the Upper Yosemite Falls

  • Vernal Falls (You can hike to the bridge, or hike to the top of the falls.  This is one of the most popular hikes in the Valley.  The trail is paved to the bridge and there is a water filling station and bathroom there as well.  You will see a lot of strollers and families hiking to the bridge.  Heads up, the first part is super steep for stroller pushing, but definitely worth it if you are looking to get some exercise.) (To the bridge round trip is 1.6 mi., to the top of the falls round trip is 2.4 mi.) (Great for Kids)
  • Columbia Rock via Upper Yosemite Falls Trail (3 mi. round trip)

Long Hikes:

View of Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from the JMT

  • Nevada Falls Loop (I suggest starting with the Mist Trail and going down the JMT) (8 mi. round trip)
  • Upper Yosemite Falls (This is one of my favorite hikes and I have done it over four times.  Be sure to hike all the way to Yosemite Point) (To the top of the fall round trip is 7.2 miles, to Yosemite Point round trip is 8.8 miles)
  • Four Mile (I recommend taking the bus from the Valley floor to Glacier Point and then hiking down this trail.  It is extremely steep and I advise against walking up it during the hotter months.) (4.7 mi. one way)
  • Panorama Trail (8.5 mi. one way)
  • Illilouette Falls Trail (To the Panorama Point Vista, 5 miles round trip)

Advanced Hikes:

A Sunset View from Cloud's Rest

  • Half Dome (Requires Permits) (14.2 miles round trip via Mist Trail and 16.5 miles round trip via John Muir Trail)
  • Snow Creek Trail (9.4 mi round trip)
  • Cloud’s Rest Hike (This is my all time favorite hike to do in Yosemite.  The hike takes you past Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, through Little Yosemite Valley and up a rarely trafficked back side of Half Dome.  When you get to the top the views are endless with a 365 degree vantage of the Yosemite Backcountry, Tuolumne Meadows, Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.  I suggest making this a three trip, with two nights in Little Yosemite Valley.) (14.5 mi. roundtrip)
  • Grand Canyon of Tuolumne River (46.7 mi. one way) (I am doing this hike for the first time in the Summer of 2017!)

Yosemite Concessionaires

Yosemite Village:

Valley Wilderness Center in the Fall

  • Valley Visitor Center (There is a Ranger-staffed information desk, bookstore, theater, and exhibit hall detailing Yosemite's geology, plant, animal life, and history.  Be sure to stop by for a showing of the Spirit of Yosemite film.)
  • Valley Wilderness Center (This is where you can get your Half Dome and backcountry permits.)
  • Yosemite Museum (Learn about the history of Yosemite's native Miwok and Paiute people.)
  • Ansel Adams Gallery (If you are a photographer looking to get some sweet shots this is the place for you.  In the back of the shop you can sign up for photography classes led by an experienced photographer who is familiar with all the best places to take pictures.  Lessons range from free to $100.)
  • Yosemite Cemetery 
  • Post Office 
  • Degnan’s Deli
  • The Loft (A Seasonal Pizza Restaurant only open in the summer.  During the winter they close it and make it a hangout place for locals.)

The Village Store:

  • Grocery Store (Good place to find cell phone service)
  • Ticket Purchasing Station (You can buy tickets to Star Tours, Valley Tours and more here. Tours are super kid friendly.)
  • Burger Stand
  • Art Center (Painting Classes and Arts and Crafts Classes. Great for Kids!)

Half Dome Village (Formerly Curry Village):

A Ranger giving a Valley Floor tour

  • Hotel (They have Canvas Tents and Wooden Cabins available for Lodging)
  • Mountaineering Store
  • Grocery Store/Gift Shop
  • Burger Stand
  • Pizza Stand
  • Ice Cream Stand
  • Half Dome Village (Ask for the local's Yosemi-tea)
  • Half Dome Village Buffet
  • Community Center (Great place to sit on the porch and relax and meet people.  Wifi Available.)
  • Outdoor Wilderness Theater (Great for Kids)
  • Ice Skating Rink (Wintertime)
  • Raft/Bike Rentals (Summertime)
  • Pool (Summertime)

Yosemite Valley Lodge (Formerly Yosemite Lodge at the Falls):

  • Hotel (Actual Hotel Style Rooms)
  • Gift Shop
  • Pool
  • Outdoor Theater (Summertime, Great for Kids!)
  • Bike Rentals
  • Mountain Room Restaurant
  • Mountain Room Bar
  • Cafeteria (Good place to find cell phone service and wifi available) 

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (Formerly The Ahwahnee Hotel):

The Majestic Yosemite Dining Room

  • Hotel (They have rooms and cottages for rent.  Notable guest of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel have been President Obama and Family, Steve Jobs, and President JFK)
  • Pool (for Guests Only)
  • The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Bar
  • Gift Shop
  • The Majestic Yosemite Restaurant (The Brunch Buffet is my favorite, but it is $$$.)
  • The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Living Room and Patio (Great public place to sit and relax or explore the old building. Good place to find cell phone service and wifi available.)
  • The Majestic Yosemite Historic Tour
  • Story Talks (Great for Kids, check the Yosemite Newspaper for times.)
  • The Bracebridge Dinner (This world famous event only happens in the wintertime at the hotel and is performed in the dinning hall of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.)

Scattered throughout the Valley:

  • Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center (Formerly known as LeConte Memorial Lodge, it is operated by the Sierra Club and features a library, children's corner, and environmental education programs.  You can find this off of Southside Drive just passed Housekeeping Camp.) (Great for Kids)
  • Yosemite Valley Chapel (This little Chapel hosts services every Sunday)
  • Nature Center at Happy Isles (This is a fun place to explore with kids and learn some cool things about the park.  During the summertime there is a ice cream stand that opens and serves ice cream nearby as well.)

Camping in Yosemite Valley 

Places to camp in the Valley:

  • Lower Pines (Tent and RV Friendly)
  • Upper Pines (Tent and RV Friendly)
  • Housekeeping (Perfect for glamping, this campsite offers a small shelter, water and electricity and is always full during the summer.)
  • Backpackers Camp (The lesser known campsite is situated just behind Upper Pines Campground and is a walk in campsite for any person with a permit and a tent.  It is $5 to camp and you are only allowed to camp one sequential night here.
  • Camp 4 (The famous climber campsite is walk up only and fills up quick.  If you are looking to fulfill your deepest dirtbag desires be sure to show up early to land a spot.)

Night Time in Yosemite

Nighttime in Cook's Meadow

Growing up I never liked Yosemite at night.  I felt that most of the cool things were day time activities, which left me feeling bored once the sun went down.  There are definitely a ton of great places to grab a food throughout the park and places to grab a drink.  Beyond that, you have to do a little bit of research to know what is happening at night.  When you enter the park every visitor receives a newspaper loaded with things that are going on in the park during that season. This is full of cool night time activities for you to keep yourself busy.  Activities range from Star Talks in Cook’s Meadow, Sunset Ranger Talks at Glacier Point, Moon Bow Photography Excursions, Climbing Talks, Wilderness Lessons and more.

Seasons and What to Expect

Wintertime on the Merced River

June - August:

  • Expect it to be hot during the day, and warm during the night.  Bring your swimsuit!

September - October:

  • It starts to cool down this time of year, pack warmer clothes for the day and a nice jacket for the night time.  Expect to see colors in the Valley!

November - May:

  • These are the colder months in the Valley, look ahead because there will be snow in the valley and below freezing temperatures.  Be sure to check www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm for road closures due to snow and ice.

First Visit: Sample Itinerary

Water Pouring off the Edge of Upper Yosemite Falls

Day 1:

    1      Bridal Veil Falls

    2      Stop to see El Captain from the Road

    3      Explore Sentinel Bridge

    4      Explore Yosemite Village

Day 2:

    1      Vernal Falls Hike (You Could Modify this Day to Hike to Nevada Falls)

    2      Explore Happy Isles

    3      Explore the Yosemite Nature Center

Day 3:

    1      Hike to Columbia Rock (You Could Modify this Day to Upper Yosemite Falls)

    2      Hike to Lower Yosemite Falls

    3      Visit Tunnel View

Day 4:

    1      Drive up to Glacier Point

    2      Stop by Valley View

    3      Explore Cooks Meadow

A Ranger Giving a Talk on Yosemite Geography at Glacier Point

“When it comes to a natural marvel like Yosemite, that tells everybody’s story, the story of humanity exploring and seeing and being amazed.”

— Barack Obama in Yosemite National Park, 2016 

Yosemite Permits and the Backcountry 

View of Tuolumne Meadows from Lembert Dome

There are a ton of amazing sites to see in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park.  If you are into multi-day backpacking trips be sure to contact the Valley Wilderness Center, (209-372-0826) twenty-four weeks in advance to see if you can land a permit for your chosen trail.  All backcountry camps require permits.  If you don't get one over the phone you can still show up to the Valley Wilderness Center at 6 am and wait in line to try and snag one of the permits they set aside for walk ups.  I have done this and it worked out really well.  Keep in mind that when you get your walk in permit it is for the following day that you bought it.  

High Sierra Camps:

  • Glen Aulin
  • May Lake
  • Sunrise
  • Merced Lake
  • Vogelsang

Other places that require permits:

Ribbon Falls, A Seasonal Waterfall That Only Flows in the Spring

  • Half Dome (To hike this highly coveted rock you will need to enter into the Half Dome Permit Lottery, or show up early at the Valley Wilderness Center to see if you can snag a walk up permit.)
  • Camping in Little Yosemite Valley (Camping here is included in your wilderness permit.  There are compostable bathrooms here.)

Yosemite National Park has so much more to offer than what I have listed here, but I hope that you found this a helpful introduction for your future visit to the park. 

Written by Ariel Blandford
Photographs by Ariel Blandford

More of Ariel's work at http://arielblandford.com/

Jared Prince