Having made the flight from Chicago to the Bay Area more times than I can count, I’ve always looked forward to peering out the plane windows toward the end of the flight to see the snow blanketed mountain range, extending father than the eye can see to both the south and north. The icy peaks of the Sierra Nevadas are the precursor to the announcement that we’re about to start the final descent into the Bay Area. And on this trip, backtracking towards those mountains was finally the goal.
We’ve had the privilege of visiting many parks, monuments, and landmarks in the U.S. National Park System (USNPS), yet somehow had never managed a trip to one of best-known parks, Yosemite.
On this trip we focused on Yosemite as well as Sequoia/ King’s Canyon National Parks. Over 7 days, we had finally explored the Sierra Nevadas, enjoying the grandiosity of the nature, yet had to deal with the extraordinary summer time crowds. Following are the highlights of the trips, along with a few suggestions to avoid some of the frustrations.
Day 1: Fly to Bay Area; stay the night
Days 2, 3, 4: Drive to Oakhurst; explore Yosemite National Park and surrounding areas
Days 5, 6: Drive to and Explore Sequoia/ King’s Canyon National Parks; stay in the area
Day 7: Return to Bay Area; fly home
Onward to Yosemite
Habit had always dictated flying into San Fransisco (SFO) or San Jose when traveling to the Bay, but as I have since learned, if planing on heading out to the Yosemite area, Oakland is the perfect launch-point – smaller airport, less local congestion, and a 30 minute head start. Alas, we spent the night at an airport hotel a few miles from SFO, but began out true trip early enough.
The 3.5 hour ride to the pine covered ascent of Gold Rush country starts off as a fairly unremarkable trip. Minor ups and downs through foothills, and a little time in the salad bowl valleys between Modesto and Merced provided the chance to formalize this into a road trip – pick up a cooler, snacks, and whatever other necessities that might be harder to come by once we arrived in the mountains.
If you’re not staying at the Yosemite lodge, you have 2 main areas to stay – 1 to the northwest entrance of the park and one in the south, Oakhurst, which would be our home base for the next 3 nights.
Oakhurst itself provides plenty of basic amenities and restaurants, as well as the ever important ice cream shop, a necessity as the local temperatures were hovering in the low 90s. At this peak time of the year, the hotel we stayed at, which was basic but comfortable, was jut under $200/ night- not unreasonable given the supply/ demand of the area in late June/early July. The Queens Inn by the River provided a pleasant stay.
In many of the USNPs, gateway towns are still a long distance to the entries and main attractions of the parks, and in this case we had a 45 minute trek to the Yosemite National Park gate and Wawona Visitor Center. This particular visitor center is near the Mariposa Sequoia Grove, which was unfortunately closed for the summer of 2017.
From Wawona, the roads wind, and they wind, and they wind. What felt like an eternity, but what was probably about 40 minutes, brought us to a final turn to the east (I think), and a descent. As the canopy of trees began to clear, the sudden appearance of the granite peaks of El Capitan and Half Dome shocked and awed us. Though we were in the midst of a downhill descent our jaws hit the ground, stunned that we were really seeing one of the most iconic nature sites with our own four eyes- it’s up there with the Grand Canyon in terms of grandiosity.
The excitement did not wear off. After snapping a number of pics from every angle possible at the pull-out, we quickly continued the decent into the Yosemite Valley. We were FINALLY here!
Within mere minutes of entering the 12ish mile loop of the valley floor, you have endless choices for stops, walks, hikes, and viewpoints which leave you in awe. We stopped immediately at Bridalveil Falls – a chance to stretch our legs and hop around, trotting over streams, catching the mists from the falls, and walking far enough to catch another vantage point of El Capitan.
Throughout this first evening, we made additional stops at Sentinel Beach and the meadows a bit further into the valley. Gorgeous is the only word to describe these sites. The chances to stop and stare were only interrupted by the deer that bounded throughout the valley floor. After a few hours of wandering around, we realized that before long, the shade that was beginning to cover the floor of the valley would soon turn to night, and we knew we had a long and winding road back to Oakhurst south down 41. This first day was remarkable. We were also very lucky to have accessed the valley when we did – more on that at the end of Day 2.
Yosemite from Above – Day 2
We made our way north on 41 and noticed a few potential side stops – a sign for a grove of Sequoia, a train ride into the pines – things we might well have considered if it were not for our fairly limited time at Yosemite. The hour plus drive back into the park brought us to the decision to head upwards in altitude along Glacier Point Road (GPR) on the south side go the canyon, hopefully providing views of the valley from up high – this choice did not disappoint.
Much like the valley below, once on GPR, there are a number of stop-offs for hikes and viewing. We chose a few, starting with McGurk Meadows. The hike/ walk itself is a very soft descent through forests, and about 30 minutes in, you stumble across a long-vacated cabin in ruins. Nestled within a gorgeous meadow, which felt out of place this high up, we wandered about in the warmth of the California sun. This was a great, reasonably quick hike, and in the 1-2 hours we spent wandering, we only encountered a few other nature lovers – we really felt isolated here.
We continued down the main thoroughfare, eventually finding ourself at Washburn Point. For my money, this was probably my favorite stop in the park (not counting the grand entrance the evening before). Though the next stop on the road, Glacier Point, may offer a slightly more all-encompassing view of the park, Washburn Point was the one which took our breath away. Though a great expanse covers the distance between, you are basically at eye level with Half-Dome. With few other folks making this stop before the “lunch rush,” we hovered around the area, taking in all of the sights, holding our breaths as we took in a 180 of the park, from 1000 plus feet down and around. This certainly had a Grand Canyon vibe – meaning words nor picture properly capture – and your brain truly struggles to process the enormity of this place.
Glacier Point, only a few miles/ twists and turn down the road, offers up similar views, along with concessions, washrooms, and ever-growing crowds. We stuck around long enough to do a few of the short walks to see the vista points, beautiful in their own right, before quickly deciding to begin the return trip back on GPR.
We made one more hike-stop along GPR, Taft Point and the Fissures. This hike was about
a 2-hour round trip though plenty of forests with large granite boulders dotting the area, before leaving the shade of the trees for a final 30 minutes or so on the exposed rock outcrops overlooking the valley once again. The setting was unbelievably serene and completely worth the effort on what was the most physical of the hikes we had been on in the park. I also found this hike quickly became empty of other people early on and really allowed for an awesome sense of peace. The temperatures at this time had risen considerably and on the exposed rock, the direct sun only exacerbated the heat. One of the perks of the hike is once you make your way back off the exposed rock (which take a decent amount of time), your senses are slowly exposed to the inviting scent of the pines as the trees beckon you back to their coverage.
It was mid-afternoon, and we decided to descend back to the valley. GPR led right back to the main road down to the valley, and we replayed the grand entrance we had experienced the day before – though this time the traffic had easily quadrupled, and the great detractor of Yosemite had made itself visible. Being so close to the Bay Area, Yosemite has an enormous draw, and what we had not experienced the day before quickly became a source of frustration, taking away the serenity we had been fortunate enough to have enjoyed over the last 24 hours. Recognizing the building crowds, we opted to immediately make our way to the far end of the valley, the Happy Isles.
Totally worth it. Despite driving in circles looking for parking space near the jammed Yosemite Village, this was a stop well worth the trip. Hiking along the rapids of the Merced River was awesome. We strolled for about 1.5 hours, pausing frequently to enjoy the sounds of the crushing river as well as watching the woodpeckers hacking away at the surrounding trees. Had we known this would be our last stop in Yosemite, we likely would have stayed longer.
We popped back in our car, ready for the ride home. It was now roughly 6 in the evening. And in our car we stayed, and we stayed. The congestion on the one-way out part of the loop had grown immensely, and was eventually literally stand still as a few of the local bears decided to join in the holiday fun and hang out near the road. This is the blessing and curse of one of America’s national treasures. We had had 1.5 full days of experiencing Yosemite, but by the time we finally made it to the exit of the valley, knowing we still had a full hour ride back to Oakhurst in the dwindling day-light, we had made the decision to say good-bye to the park, in favor of seeing Sequoias and taking a ride on the Sugar Pine Railroad the next day.
Yosemite Area Excursions
For our third day, we jumped at the chance to take a steam engine ride on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, and what a trip it was. The $24/ ticket, hour plus ride through gold-mining country was an awesome experience. Occasional narration provided some background, but what we loved was just to see this part of the country through a different lens, on the rails. Beside the steam engine, the this operation (about 10 miles south of the southern Yosemite gate) included a small museum, as well as a gold-panning experience for kids. This was a total treat, and perhaps because it was unexpected, we drove away elated and ready for our next stop, Nelder Grove – a sweet hike into Sequoia Country – greatly appreciated with Mariposa Grove in the park having been closed off.
The trek to the grove was a bit more complicated than we had first thought. Though not really far, the paved road quickly changed over to gravel for the not-so-well-marked uphill route to Nelder Grove. Once there, we spent a few hours hiking around and having our first experiences with these mighty trees. Like their California Redwood cousins, there really is no way to describe their size other than wow!
The area itself, in the shadow of Yosemite, was remarkably uncrowded – we may have seen 4-5 other people the whole time we walked the loop. The choice to do these two side trips was perfect for us, and capped a perfect introduction to the Sierra Nevadas.
The distance between Oakhurst and the southern entrance to Sequoia/ Kings Canyon National Park was 3-4 hours, during which we passed through Fresno, and into the citrus groves areas before getting to our base outside of Sequoia – The Kaweah Park Resort, a mix of a campground/ cabins just a few miles outside of the gate to the park in Three Rivers. Often staying near national parks means paying a premium for negligible amenities. In this case the price was a bit more reasonable (~$160/ night) and the aged room did have a little kitchenette with a fridge, which was a nice perk for an area with only a few resturants. At the end of the day – a stay is a stay – we were there for the park.
Sequoia/ King’s Canyon National Park
The traffic into the park through the Three Rivers area was heavily congested, and initially left us concerned we were going to relive the Yosemite experience. Thankfully, once we made the 45 minute incline into the Sequoia areas, it was easy to remove yourselves from the heavily congested areas without sacrificing the chance to see these mega-trees.
We started off from a large parking lot near the Grove of the Giants, and made our way outbound, away from the large crowds there to share in this unique experience. Though I did not jot down the name of the hike, I believe the endpoint was Beetle Rock. Trekking a solid 45 minutes, dwarfed by a number of large trees, and occasionally passing around some of the fallen giants, we found ourselves on a granite outcrop overlooking the surrounding Sierras. We stuck around a good while, hardly another soul around, just enjoying the grand vista. We headed back toward the lot and made our way to the Big Trees Trail, which coupled with the just completed hike, were my two favorite strolls in Sequoia. The Big Trees Trail is basically a large oval of just under a mile, where a hefty number of Giant Sequoias encircle a delicate meadow. Even with quite a few other visitors present, this trail just oozed calm and peace. Several benches throughout the trail offered a chance to just stare upwards, and we certainly took plenty of time to make our way around the loop.
Though the day quickly was turning into evening, we chose to tackle the opportunity to see the General Sherman Tree, one of the more famous trees in the park. Seeing the other enormous Sequoias left us wondering if it was worth it to engage with what would certainly be large crowds, but the decision to head to the tree was made in an instant – and the tree, with the corresponding hike, was totally worth it. The lot we parked in was about a mile stroll down a slight decline, shaded by other tall trees, but nothing like the giant we were about to meet. Though it might not have stood out so much on the Big Trees Trail, seeing the Sherman Tree in it’s relative isolation from the others was well provided a unique perspective. Though the expected crowds were there (as they should be), we loved the chance to see this living skyscraper. Unlike the Big Trees Trail, this was heavily shaded and just felt like you were deeper in a forest. We spent a good amount of time, probably a solid 1.5 hours, strolling to the tree and just stopping and staring. As we made our way to the car we left this day in love with these trees and the park itself.
The next morning we chose to enter the park through a western entrance, which meant taking tiny side roads along the perimeter of the park, just to get some different views before heading to the northern end of the park. Though it was not the worst experience in the world, if we were to do it again, we would have taken the winding incline that we used as our gateway the day before.
The lengthy drive left us with plenty of time to consider what we wanted to see. We knew the 2 days we had left was going to move fast, and though we wanted time with the giant trees, we abruptly began to consider the King’s Canyon N.P. which, it seems, no one ever really mentions. Our final decision was “let’s see some giants, and if we have time, let’s go to the canyon.”
Since we began our day early, we entered the park with a head start over many of our fellow visitors, and hopped right to the General Grant Grove. All I can say is wow! Retaining the vibe of the area surrounding the General Sherman Tree, but with quite a few more giants, this was just splendid. We started the loop literally walking through the hollowed out body of a Sequoia, and took an hour or so to complete the loop, before having to take another stroll through the hollowed out tree. The trail was 100% perfect and the Grant Tree, similar to the Sherman, really was a sight to behold. All in all, from standing 6’2″ on the ground, its not possible to tell much of a difference between the heights of the trees. If someone told me they were 700′ tall, I probably wouldn’t have doubted it – they’re just simply amazing – like they were taken out of some fantasy world and left for us to try to make sense of.
By the time we returned from the loop, the crowds had built up to the point that the lots were filled. We made a quick stop at one of the park concessions before quickly deliberating and deciding to head into King’s Canyon N.P., a separate, yet physically connected area – and boy am I glad we did.
Though I won’t say it was better or worse than Yosemite, it had some remarkable similarities without the crowds. From Sequoia, the trip is a long descent of about 1-2 hours (depending on stopping for vista views.) As you get to the bottom of the canyon, you find yourself riding along the south fork of the King’s River. Large granite outcroppings above leave you with a feeling similar to that of Yosemite Valley, though without the well known El Capitan or Half-Dome staring down at you… and without the crowds.
We started our visit grabbing a few towels just to chill by the rushing river – a space we had all to ourselves for a solid hour, before choosing to move deeper into the park. A short drive later, we came to the literal end of the road (but, what in reality for the more experienced hikers is the beginning of the park).
Arriving at Road’s End, we took a hike deeper into the canyon, probably about 1.5 hours round trip, before heading back to a few of the other trailheads that led through meadows and some shady tree coverage from the heat of the sun bathing the valley floor. Though a few of the trails had other folks on them, we certainly found ourselves in absolute love with King’s Canyon and wished we had planned spend more time here. We took in a trail near the Zumwalt Meadows, a mix of meadows, rivers, and granite boulders to climb over, before beginning the drive out of the park. We made a few more stops up with the giant trees before heading back to our room for the night. King’s Canyon and Sequoia were stunning and are definitely worthy of another visit.