As national parks go, Yosemite is the crown jewel. And Yosemite Valley is star in the middle of the crown.
A narrow inlet into the high Sierras, the place looks majestic and ancient. But although the stone monoliths are a hundred million years old, the valley has been shaped by glaciers over the last several ice ages. A scant 50,000 years, and a drop in the bucket compared to other geological wonders. The result is a nearly level valley floor a mile or so wide that is cut by the Merced River. The granite cliffs rise vertically thousands of feet to the level of the high country plateau surrounding the valley. Small streams fall over these cliffs creating some of the most spectacular waterfalls on earth.
The problem with this place is people. The place is crawling with people in all seasons, but especially in the summer. The National Park Service has done what they can to minimize the impact, but most people drive here, so the park’s roads are jammed. Still people tend to drive from place to place in the valley to see the various sights, although there is a free shuttle bus service. Others park and walk, but the distances are a bit daunting as the valley stretches about 10 miles from Half Dome where Tuolumne Creek joins the Merced to El Capitan, the largest of the granite rocks. So while walking is probably the best bet, but it is still a bit of a hike. Add to that the hikes to the various attractions such as Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake and the Mist Trail up the Merced, and the Valley needs quite a few days to be appreciated properly.
But suppose you only have a day. After all, this isn’t Week-Tripping with Rick.
We decided to tack a day onto the end of our week-long vacation in the northern California wine country to introduce Max to Yosemite. Now this really wasn’t Max’s first time, as I had taken my then-pregnant wife here a few months before he made his debut. We camped in the valley (and froze), then hiked a bit (a bit too much she’d say). So while she saw the wisdom in coming here, she was not up for a hard day’s hiking, as we had a 5-hour drive back to San Francisco airport, and a red-eye flight home waiting for us.
A perfect solution was to rent bikes. You can see everything worth seeing with much less effort than hiking from place to place. What follows is the day we spent biking the Valley.
Two things to note on the map. The first is the topographical lines. Note the flatness of the valley and the sheer cliffness of the cliffs. The second is the purple line. This is the Yosemite Valley bike trail. I’ve been here dozens of times, and this is by far the best way to see it.
1. Renting Bikes
Bike rental in Yosemite ain’t cheap. Sure you can bring your own, but if you’re tourists, chances are you’re going to rent. The price is $34 for the day PER BIKE. So the three of us cost about what one of our bikes back home are worth. And we’re talking bare bones bikes. Single speed, 26-inch cruisers with high handle bars and coaster brakes. The (mostly) flatness of the valley made this choice ok, but where things did go a bit up hill, I heard about it from the other riders. The bike lot is in Half Dome Village which used to be called Curry Village. Don’t know who Curry ticked off to lose naming rights. They require all riders under 12 to wear a helmet. We bike on the Yough River Trail back home, and the ways were wide, paved and uncrowded. All the major attractions have bike racks, and the bikes are so butt-ugly that nobody steals them.
2. The Mist Trail – Vernal Falls
This is the trail I made Denise hike when she was pregnant. She still hasn’t forgiven me. So we only went as far as the bridge across the Merced where we got this picture. The river was really flowing and the falls were audible from a mile away. Continuing on, the trail wends up the cliffs to the right of the falls and emerges on the top. In high summer, there is a lake right above the falls that people like to swim in. I don’t swim in anything above a waterfall.
3. Mirror Lake
Heading north across the valley takes you to the trail leading to Mirror Lake. Bikes are permitted about 3/4 of the way to the lake, and you have to walk the last quarter mile or so. The “lake” is a wide place in Tuolumne Creek that lies right below Half Dome, the face of Yosemite. In the summer, the lake is placid and perfectly mirrors the rock. In spring, the flow is a bit heavier and no mirror is possible. Still a beautiful spot.
4. Yosemite Falls
Riding now down the valley on the north side, you pass Yosemite Lodge and the “nerve center” of the park. There are lots of places to stay in the valley. Unfortunately, most of them are outside. Even these are booked up a year or so in advance, so if you plan to visit, book early.
Yosemite Falls is actually two separate falls, Upper and Lower. The combined drop is 2,425 feet, and the upper falls drop of 1,430 feet makes it the twentieth highest in the world. There is a mile-long foot path that leads from one of our trusty bike racks to the base of the lower falls. The trail is crowded as this is the key sight in the park. For the more adventurous, you can hike to the very top of the falls in about 5 hours. Then you have to come down. I’ll admire it from afar, thank you.
5. The Swinging Bridge
A mile or so west of Yosemite Falls, the trail crosses back over the Merced on a foot bridge. The bridge more floats than swings. It crosses a wide meadow that affords some of the best views in the Valley.
6. Le Conte Lodge – The Sierra Club
Pedaling back up the Valley, I deemed it wise to stop. So we rode up to the Le Conte Lodge which is run by the Sierra Club. The place looks like a hobbit should be living in it. Now a nuclear engineer walking in to this place might just bring the roof down, but the couple who were volunteering there seemed pleased to have us. It’s not always open, but we got lucky. The lodge is full of information about the park with a lot of cool things for kids to do. We passed a pleasant half hour there. It’s a bit off the beaten path, so I think they were glad somebody stopped in.
A mile or so back to the bike rental place, and we were back on the road home. One place not easily accessible from the Valley by bike is the road south toward Fresno which passes through a tunnel. The view from just outside the tunnel is iconic. All the major features stretch out before you as you look back up the Valley. El Capitan guards the left flank, and Bridalveil Falls booms silently on your right. Off in the distance is Half Dome below which you incredibly expensive bikes are now safely parked. You are high enough here that you are looking down on the tops of large fir trees, and there is no sign of people at all. For all you know, you might be the only one there. Well, you and the 300 people taking this same picture.
Yosemite is not a place you should come for a day trip. Spend some time and do the hikes. Come back again and again. Try to see it in winter and fall. The place is timeless. However, if you have only a day, don’t think you can’t make it a great one. And biking is definitely the way to go.
When I was younger, better looking, and in MUCH better shape, some buddies from Penn State came out to visit me in San Jose. We decided to make the trip to Yosemite and hike; specifically to climb Half Dome. The hike starts along the Mist Trail, but continues up the Merced to the top of Nevada Falls. From a campsite there where normal people spend the night to break the trip into two days, you continue up to the base of the dome. This trail sneaks up on Half Dome from the intact side (the glaciers sheared off the front of it, hence “Half Dome”. When you get there, you cross a saddle of shear rock, then climb up the dome using cables that are suspended from iron bars driven into the granite. This is truly terrifying.
The top is a wide level expanse of about 16 acres. Of course it falls away gradually on one side, with a shear 1000-foot drop on the other side. Not being real bright in my 20s, I got on my hands and knees and crawled to the shear edge. I looked over and saw a guy suspended by ropes about 50 ft below the edge. He looked up at me and said, “Don’t you spit”. I didn’t.
On the way back down, we were chased by a bear. Well not all of us, but we while we went to a spring to fill our bottles, our least hale hiker put his pack on the ground and stretched out on a log. Soon, a rather large black bear was ambling down the hillside. He saw the pack and came on at full gallop. We yelled warnings and our buddy just jumped out of the way. With him high-tailing it down the trail toward us, the bear got what he wanted, the pack with food in it.
The guy was never the same after that.
We got back to Curry Village (now Half Dome Village) after dark. Man, did I sleep good that night.
Day Tripping With Rick