Yosemite National Park

My first trip to Yosemite National Park was, like so many of my trips, a spontaneous one, and it had the potential to not turn out well at all. But it didn’t.

I was in the Navy and had shipped my relatively new Nissan 200SX from Honolulu to Oakland, California in as part of my latest transfer to a new command. My plan was to pick up my car and drive it to Chicago and leave it with my parents before heading off to spend a year on Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory. The kicker was that I picked up my car on 23 December 1985, and the thought of driving a little two-door coupe with Hawaii license plates across the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter was a tad disconcerting.

A college friend (you know who you are—thanks!) let me crash in his apartment in Benicia that night before I started my journey east on Christmas Eve morning.

On my way out of town, I recognized that I was only about four hours from Yosemite, so I decided at the last minute to swing by and check it out. I stopped in Fairfield to pick up a set of snow chains for my car at a local Sears and headed east on Interstate 80.

The San Joaquin Valley was blanketed with a thick fog that made driving treacherous, but we all kept cruising along until we climbed the foothills of the Sierra and were above the cloud that was enveloping the valley below.

Because I didn’t take the most direct route, I arrived in the park after sunset, but there was a near full moon illuminating the snow-covered ground with a gentle white light. Fortunately, the roads were plowed and dry and I didn’t need to use the chains I had just bought hours earlier.

I went to the Yosemite Lodge reception desk and asked if they had a room available for the night—Christmas Eve. “Do you have a reservation?” “No.” “Let me check.” As luck would have it, the fog in the valley likely cancelled a few flights for guests, and I was able to get a room for the evening. And again for Christmas night. Luck was with me.

I spent all of Christmas Day shooting eight rolls of 36-exposure film, and one of the best photos I took that night was of the moon rising over Half Dome. The timing of this year’s trip was specifically planned around the rising full moon in November 2021 so that I could hopefully replicate, if not improve, on that image.


Park Overview

November in Yosemite can be dicey when it comes to the weather in Yosemite. You can be at the tail end of the autumn colors and snow isn’t uncommon. In fact, Tioga Road was closed for the season already because of snow at elevation but the road to Glacier Point was still open (it had been closed temporarily because of snow a week or so earlier). Fortunately the weather cooperated and was in the low 60° F / 16° C degree range during the day, and 40° F / 4° C range at night.

Some would argue that Yosemite Valley—which is only a small fraction of the park—is the crown jewel of the American National Park system. It’s where most of the iconic photos are taken and it’s where most visitors will spend their time. One good thing about visiting in mid-November is that the crowds were non-existent and it was very easy to get around and find parking.

The road in the valley is a loop that runs on either side of the Merced River. The Southside Drive runs to the east, and the Northside drive runs to the west. There are only a few places where you can cross the river on a bridge, otherwise, you’re forced to drive the entire loop (about 5 miles in each direction). Watch out for critters big and small as you’re driving through the park.

The key locations that every visitor to Yosemite should see, at a minimum, include:

  • Tunnel View
  • Valley View from Northshore Drive
  • El Capitan
  • Yosemite Falls
  • Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge
  • Glacier Point

Again, those are the big, iconic views that will be familiar to everyone, but it’s also important to remember to look for the beauty in the smaller things in the park.

Tunnel View

If you enter the park from the south on CA 41, you’ll pass through the Wawona Tunnel to enter the valley. As you exit the tunnel, be prepared to have your breath taken away by the sight before you. You’ll want to immediately pull off to the overlook (parking on either side of the road). It’s a grand view no matter what time of day, but it’s probably best to visit in the afternoon as the sun illuminates the faces of many of the rock formations.

El Capitan

The 3,000 foot / 915 meter tall granite monolith is visible from pretty much anywhere in the valley. I didn’t see any one climbing the sheer vertical face of El Capitan when I was there, but in the summer you can sit in the adjacent meadow and watch rock climbers scale the giant mountain.

Valley View from Northside Drive

While you get a great, elevated view of the valley from the Tunnel View lookout, you can get a much more intimate view of the valley from the Valley View parking area at the west end of Northside Drive. You’re right beside the Merced River as is meanders through the park.

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Creek spills over a granite cliff not far from El Capitan to form one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. From the top to the base of the Lower Falls, the water plummets 2,425 feet / 739 meters in three sections: The Upper Yosemite Falls (1,430 feet / 440 m); the Middle Cascades (675 feet / 206 m); and the Lower Yosemite Falls (320 feet / 90 m). Spring is the best season to see the falls, as meltwater from the Sierra makes its way down the mountains. By mid to late-Summer, the flow has all but dried up. Recent rains from the “atmospheric rivers” of rain that pummeled northern California a few weeks ago caused the falls to start again in earnest.

Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge

When you’re standing on the Sentinel Bridge over the Merced River, you have a pretty much unobstructed view of the iconic Half Dome. It’s where I took my moon over Half Dome photo in 1985, and it’s where I returned to repeat the process this year. Along with half a dozen or so other photographers, I was able to capture the moon starting to rise. But after the first few photos, my camera wouldn’t fire its shutter, and the more I fiddled with it to get it to work again, the darker it got and it was impossible for me to recompose and focus the image. Ugh.

Glacier Point

The drive from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point takes about an hour or so, but it’s worth every minute of the trip. When you arrive, you’re treated to an “eye-level” view of Half Dome and an “eagle’s-eye” view of the valley below. The day I went there, it was overcast and gray, so I thought the black and white versions of my photos worked well.

Beauty in Small Things

Even though you’re standing among these grand vistas, it’s always good to find the beauty in some of the smaller elements of the park.

Epilogue

I’m trying to recall exactly how many times that I’ve been to Yosemite; this was definitely at least my fourth time, if not my fifth. But it doesn’t really matter much, because each time is as good as the last.

When your time is limited in a place like Yosemite, you have this urge to see and do as much as you possibly can in the time that you have available. To an extent, I did that on this trip, chasing after the ultimate Yosemite photo. But I also forced myself to slow down and enjoy the world before me. I spent a good hour or so just watching the Merced River flow by from Cathedral Beach, and sitting on a bench watching the cascading water from Lower Yosemite Falls was mesmerizing. I also met some great people along the way. Oddly, two couples I spoke with were from San Diego, one of which lives about 2 miles from me.

If you’re up for the risk of potential weather issues, I really encourage you to visit Yosemite National Park during the shoulder seasons. You’ll have a much better experience.

Logistics

This was a relatively short trip with three nights at the Yosemite Lodge and two full days in the park, arriving on 16 November 2021 and departing on 19 November 2021.

The entrance fee for Yosemite National Park is $35 per car and is valid for seven days. Of course, I used my Senior Lifetime Pass to enter.

The Drive

My goal was to be at the Wawona Tunnel View somewhere between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. so I could catch the late afternoon sun lighting up the valley. To make that happen, I left home at 6:30 a.m. and, even with the morning commuter traffic in Los Angeles, I arrived at the south entrance to the park at 2:30 p.m. and at Tunnel View by 3:20 p.m.

For the return trip, however, I wanted to avoid L.A. at all costs on the Friday evening before Thanksgiving week, so I took a left at Bakersfield and headed across CA 58 to US 395, and then south to I-15. It added 45 miles to the trip, but I think it was worth it.

Lodging

I booked my room at the Yosemite Lodge on 18 July 2021 and, as I recall at the time of booking, there were many options available to me even that far in advance. You definitely pay for the convenience of staying in the heart of the valley—with all taxes and fees, my three nights cost $947 total.

The lodge is comprised of multiple buildings scattered around the main office, restaurants, and gift shop. You may have to walk some distance from your car to get to your building. In my case, it was just over 100 yards / 90 meters via an unlit service walkway behind the restaurants (bring a flashlight). Had I walked around the front of the buildings, it was about a 375 yard / 344 meter walk to my room.

Dining

There were several options for dining in the Lodge area and Yosemite Village, a brief drive from the lodge. Prices, for vendors in a national park, were actually pretty reasonable. A full dinner (with huge portions at the Base Camp Eatery ran about $16.50; a burger and fries was about $11.50 (soft drinks included). I went to the Village Store in Yosemite Village and bought things like bananas, trail mix, cheese, and pre-made sandwiches to munch on throughout the day rather than having to return to the lodge or the village to eat.

Gasoline

There is no gas available in Yosemite Valley, so plan ahead and fill your tank before entering the park. There is a 24-hour, credit card only, self-serve station near the Wawona Lodge near the south entrance to the park. Otherwise you’ll have to drive outside the park to El Portal or Oakhurst to get gas.

Weather

The weather in the mountains can change pretty quickly without much advanced warning. Layers (some waterproof) are definitely in order. Also, if you’re going to be in the park during the off-season, snow can be a real possibility and tire chains can be required at any time. Make sure you have them with you.

3 thoughts on “Yosemite National Park

  1. Thank you so much for your great photo’s of Yosemite park, almost like being there! You take the most beautiful pictures!
    Charles

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