Yosemite National Park was the last destination in the California portion of our trip. In case you’re just tuning in, we traveled to California and Hawaii last summer and stopped in San Francisco and Santa Cruz before making our way to the famous national park for a three-day visit over the 4th of July and my birthday. To me, there is nothing more American than spending our country’s birthday enjoying its spectacular geography. Yosemite NP has nearly 750,000 acres of wilderness including towering granite cliffs, numerous waterfalls, giant sequoia groves, mountains, meadows, and even glaciers. While the park is probably most well-known for the granite behemoths Half Dome and El Capitan, it has so much more to offer including numerous day hikes which are described in detail with photos here. Being a holiday weekend, the park was a bit crowded, but that was to be expected.
Park lodging books up months in advance, so we decided to stay outside of the park in the small town of Mariposa. Mariposa is a sweet little town of about 2000 and offers a few nice restaurants as well as some local shops and outfitters. It also has a nice little grocery store, Sweetwater Grocery, where you can pick up snacks for your time in the park. The small grocer also offers fresh deli sandwiches, camping necessities, and more. Each day, we drove about 45-60 minutes (depending on traffic) into and out of the park, but the views on the drive were stunning and we passed time by listening to podcasts. Once inside Yosemite, the park offers a shuttle service that is quite easy to navigate. Since the park fills up quickly, it is recommended that you find parking early and use the shuttle service to get around once inside. We chose to begin each day with an early hike, which allowed us to secure parking without a problem. By the time we were done with our hike around lunch, we found that parking had cleared out a bit and we were able to move to other areas of the park fairly easily.
On our first full day in the park, we started our day on the Mist Trail and returned via the John Muir Trail. If you’re hiking in Yosemite, one of the most picturesque and memorable hikes is the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls (Note: this trail is marked medium to strenuous). The hike to Vernal Falls is 3 miles round trip while continuing on to Nevada Falls brings the total to 7 miles. The Mist Trail lived up to its name and we scrambled over wet rocks to reach Vernal Falls. One of the most exciting parts of the hike is getting covered with waterfall spray from the falls. For the same reason however, we recommend taking the Mist trail up and Muir trail down. The trail can be crowded and is quite difficult (and very slippery) so play it safe by taking the easier and drier Muir trail back down. The trail has fabulous views scattered all along, from the bridge overlook to the two incredible waterfalls that fall a combined total of more than 900 feet (270 meters). The trail ends with a view of Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, and the back of Half Dome on the Muir Trail return segment. We also saw a brown bear at the bottom of the trail!
From the trailhead, we walked to the Mirror Lake Trail nearby. In hindsight, I’d recommend taking the shuttle there to save your legs as the walk along the road is an additional 1.5 mile round trip and isn’t very exciting. The hike from the trailhead is almost 2.5 miles so if your legs are tired from the Mist Trail, you may want to cut out some of the additional mileage. The Mirror Lake Trail is marked easy and for that reason, can be crowded with hikers and families. The end of the trail rewards you with a swimming hole with pretty views of Mt. Watkins. It’s a great place to bring a little picnic!
After a long day of hiking, we were famished and stopped for an early dinner at the Happy Burger Diner as soon as we returned to Mariposa. The diner was just what we were looking for to replenish our empty bellies and we enjoyed fast service and filling meals. The restaurant offers a large selection of meat, vegetarian, and vegan burgers and sandwiches, along with numerous sides. Salad bar, beer, wine, and milkshakes are also available.
On our second day in the park, we completed the Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point trails. If you’re looking to scale a dome mountain but don’t have the time or energy for Half Dome (or maybe you weren’t successful in the lottery for a permit to do it), Sentinel Dome is a great alternative. The hike is only 2.5 miles and fairly easy until the short but steep climb up the dome at the end. You can visit the fallen Jeffrey pine, made famous by Ansel Adams. From the top of Sentinel Dome, you’ll enjoy miles and miles of 360 degree views and be able to see Yosemite Valley, the Merced River canyon, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Nevada Fall, Half Dome, and other High Sierra peaks. The hike takes between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how long you stop to take pictures and admire the views. Although Half Dome is still on my bucket list, I wasn’t quite up for the grueling and sometimes dangerous hike at 28 weeks pregnant, so we opted for the shorter and easier Sentinel Dome hike instead. (In full disclosure, I’d actually entered the Half Dome lottery just in case, but we didn’t get in. Once I realized how pregnant I’d be, I was happy to take a pass!)
Glacier Point can be accessed by the park shuttle or by hiking the Four Mile Trail or continuing on the trail from Sentinel Dome. We hiked from Sentinel Dome and marveled at the giant redwoods along the mostly downhill trail. The views of the Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point were breathtaking! The lookout features a mile-long paved path and although it can get crowded in the high season (it’s wheelchair and stroller accessible), we thought it was more than worth it for the unsurpassed views of Yosemite National Park. A gift shop, cafeteria, and bathrooms are available at the lookout. We enjoyed lunch at the outlook before taking a shuttle back to the Sentinel Dome trailhead and our car.
Before leaving for the day, we drove by the famous granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. Since it was the 4th of July, we went to the Pioneer Historic Village for an old-fashioned 4th of July celebration with an Americana sing-along and games for kids. To change up our drive, we took the route out of the park’s south entrance back to Mariposa. It was only about 15 minutes longer and provided a bit of variety. We had another great post-hike dinner at Pizza Factory and enjoyed a 4th of July classic rock concert by Soul Galaxy in Mariposa Arts Park, which we walked to from our hotel.
On our last day in the park, which also happened to be my 32nd birthday, we began the day visiting a few waterfalls. First we saw Bridalveil Falls and later, Yosemite Falls, which is the tallest waterfall in the United States and the fifth tallest in the world.
No visit to Northern California, and specifically Yosemite, is complete without admiring the giant sequoia trees. We hiked the 2.5 mile trail to the Tuoloumne Grove. The entire trip to the grove is downhill, making for a bit of a climb back up. However, it’s all worth it to see the 25 mature giant sequoias, including one you can walk through. If you’re interested in learning more about the trees, you can take a guided hike with a ranger at certain times throughout the day. It’s an easy hike over a short, smooth trail and takes about 2 hours to complete. On our way back up, we saw a baby brown bear on the side of the trail!
Our final stop was to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the far north of the park. If you are visiting Yosemite, you can get away from the crowds in the Valley and head to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. There are several hikes in the area but the most impressive sight is the The O’Shaughnessy Dam, which was completed in 1938. Today, the 117-billion-gallon reservoir supplies drinking water to 2.4 million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area (the water actually flows all the way to SF!) and generates hydro-electric power by two plants downstream. It’s a bit hotter and sunnier than the rest of Yosemite so be sure to bring your sunscreen. We explored the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir before heading back to meet our friends in Palo Alto for a homemade dinner for my birthday and our last night in California.