Here are useful ideas from a former Mount Rainier climbing ranger, now in top brass at Yosemite, along with tips from an avid videographer working in the highly popular California park.
“ … the mighty Sierra, miles in height … so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.”
— John Muir, “The Yosemite” (1912)
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — Any visit to Yosemite, even for just a day, can deliver a jolt to the senses or a tonic for the soul. So imagine what it would be like to actually live within Yosemite’s boundaries, as Muir did from 1868 to 1874.
“It’s one of the pinnacle places to live if you’re a mountain person,” says Mike Gauthier, who in 19 years at Washington’s Mount Rainier (1990-2009) rose to chief climbing ranger and search-and-rescue coordinator before beginning a seven-year stint as chief of staff at Yosemite.
“It’s one of the most incredible valleys on the planet,” Gauthier says. “It’s very special to live here. I know it’s a gift. I know it’s memorable. I know it’s significant. I’m struck by that every single day.”
Steven Bumgardner, meanwhile, a videographer who since 2005 has been documenting the Yosemite experience in a distinctive interpretive film series, “Yosemite Nature Notes,” is routinely reminded of how deeply both he, a local, and visitors resonate with Yosemite’s near-mystical vibe.
“Not to overstate things,” says Bumgardner, aka Yosemite Steve, “but Yosemite Valley is one of the most amazing features on the planet. It is in-your-face natural beauty: granite domes a mile high, half-mile high waterfalls, and incredibly charming meadows and black-oak savannas. It’s one of the few places that I’ve been where people are moved to tears while driving in their cars.”
So after years of soaking up views from the centerpiece of Muir’s Range of Light, what advice would these two offer travelers who are pondering a trip to Yosemite?
“The key is to make good travel arrangements and have your lodging figured out,” Gauthier says, stressing the practical over the ethereal. “Don’t just come to Yosemite Valley and think you’ll find a campsite. You won’t.”
The park set a record for visitation in 2015 with almost 4.3 million people. “In 2016, 5.2 million people showed up,” Gauthier says. “So don’t come to the valley if you don’t have your lodging figured out.”
Though the park is spread across 1,169 square miles (or 748,436 acres, of which 94.4 percent is designated wilderness), most visitors cram into compact Yosemite Valley to gawk at its famed 8-mile corridor of nonstop scenic marvels. A 2009 study estimated the valley’s nightly population during the peak months of July and August averaged 15,000.
“The valley is pretty well enjoyed,” Gauthier concedes. “I’m not going to lie — people are crawling all over the popular places.”
He recommends visits in spring or fall, even winter, to dodge the summer rush, and an early start each day no matter what time of year you visit. To cope with the valley’s warm-weather crowds, Gauthier advises maintaining a good-natured understanding that solitude will be fleeting, and nonexistent at prime gathering spots such as Tunnel View pullout (at the east end of the 0.8-mile Wawona Tunnel, California’ longest) and the base of Yosemite Falls.
“The key is being with people you enjoy being around, taking in a spot and enjoying wherever it is,” Gauthier says. “Have a good time with the people you’re there with. Any of the sites are a winner. It’s always an incredible experience.”
Paths less traveled
Bumgardner serves up an idea that also caught my attention during my last Yosemite Valley visit.
“I’m often surprised how few people walk the Valley Loop Trail, especially at the west end of the valley, which has less people,” he says. “I enjoy getting away from crowds and exploring the Merced River, especially in the western half of the valley where there is less development.”
Agreed. The almost-always level west section of the Valley Loop starts at shuttle bus stop 6 (Lower Yosemite Fall) and covers 13 miles. The 6.5-mile half loop skips Bridalveil Fall but does lead to a towering view of El Capitan along a sandy, picturesque spot along the Merced (when the water is low) with nice views of Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires.
Take the shortcut to the south side of the valley by crossing El Capitan Bridge. Motorists can get to this spot via the outbound Northside Drive, not quite 2 miles west of Camp 4, the walk-in campground. Watch for a small parking area near a sharp bend in the Merced known as Devil’s Elbow.
A good one-day approach to the valley with minimal exertion? Gauthier endorses an idea I proposed: From Yosemite Village, visit Yosemite Falls or Devil’s Elbow in the morning. At midday join the throngs for an obligatory stop at Tunnel View. Head south on Route 41 toward Wawona and in about 9.5 miles turn left on Glacier Point road.
About 13 miles up the winding route is a parking area for Taft Point (7,503 feet, 3,400 straight-down feet above the valley floor) and Sentinel Dome (8,123 feet). Both are relatively easy 2.5-mile round trips, with Taft Point being the real knockout. Finish the drive to Glacier Point. If time permits, wander a way on the Panorama Trail, then return to watch the sun’s final rays on Half Dome.
For high-energy people, hike up Four-Mile Trail (starting near Yosemite Chapel) to Glacier Point, then return to the valley via the Panorama and Mist trails (13.7 miles).
Or from shuttle bus stop 16 (Happy Isles), hike up the Mist Trail past Vernal Fall and above Nevada Fall, then return via the John Muir Trail (6.5 miles). The Mist Trail is also the approach for the 16.4-mile Half Dome ascent, if you have the appetite for dealing with a difficult permit system.
“They’re all great hikes,” Gauthier said. “I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Well, this isn’t that worthwhile.’”
Because of this past winter’s immense snowfall (the second-snowiest winter on record, eclipsed only by the winter of 1983), high-country travel on trails accessed from Tioga Road in the Tuolumne Meadows area will be challenging until late summer. Tioga Road, covered by as much as 15 feet of snow in some locations (with drifts as deep as 50), did not open until June 29, the latest it has opened since 1998.
When trails melt out, a wealth of great day hikes and overnighters await. “I would park at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and hike out to Cathedral Peak,” says Gauthier, who just published the third edition of his book, “Mount Rainier: A Climbing Guide.” “It’s such a foundational Yosemite experience.”
Other high-elevation gems: May Lake and Mount Hoffman; Clouds Rest; Young Lakes; 13,061-foot Mount Dana (second-highest peak in the park), with a trail that begins at the Tioga Pass entrance station. “That’s the thing about Yosemite,” Gauthier says. “If you go hiking, you can’t lose.”
Camping and dining
Camping? “One of my favorites is Yosemite Creek Campground,” says Gauthier. “It’s a little harder to get to (about an hour from the valley off Tioga Road, just east of the turnoff to White Wolf Lodge; the 4.7-mile approach road has many potholes) and it’s pretty primitive, but it’s also a little more private. It feels more like you’re out in the mountains.” Campers can hike 4 miles along Yosemite Creek Trail to the top of Yosemite Falls.
Bumgardner also likes Tamarack Flat along with Yosemite Creek. “Campsites have a pretty mellow vibe since they’re not on the main highway,” he says. “It feels like old-school national-park camping there.”
Food? Popular Degnan’s Kitchen (sandwiches) in Yosemite Village reopened in late June after a months-long remodeling project. Degnan’s Loft (pizza) reopened last week. “They’ll have new food,” Gauthier says. “I’m excited to try it.”
Bumgardner: “The Mountain Room restaurant at Yosemite Falls Lodge (now known as Yosemite Valley Lodge) is my favorite in-park food. Outside the park, the Evergreen Lodge on the road to Hetch Hetchy is hands down the best food and drink in the area. I sometimes go out of my way to have dinner there.”
Gauthier, who will spend four months this summer serving as the acting superintendent of the Nez Perce National Historic Park in Idaho, says that along with crowds, visitors must adapt to things such as a traffic-revision project in the valley, the delayed reopening of the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias (pushed to October) and fees (up to $19 round trip) now imposed on riders of the once-free Tuolumne Meadows shuttle bus.
“It will forever be a complicated place to manage and to visit,” he says. “But it’s worth it. Yosemite works its own magic on people. Very few people go there and regret their visit.”
If you go
Seattle to Yosemite National Park by road is roughly 920 miles. Entrance fee: $30, valid for seven days.
Alaska Airlines flies into nearby Mammoth Lakes, via Los Angeles.
Camping and hiking reservations
Seven campgrounds accept reservations, at $26/night. Half Dome hiking permits are $10 per permit plus $10 per person; reserve both at www.recreation.gov or 877-444-6777. Campsites get booked five months in advance; check for cancellations.
Six campgrounds and half of Tuolumne Meadows’ 304 sites are first-come, first-served ($6-$26). No hookups in any campground.
Backcountry permit reservations ($5 per permit plus $5 per person): 209-372-0740. Walk-up permits are free.
For lodging inside the park (three lodges, four canvas tent villages) see travelyosemite.com/lodging (concessionaire website). Rooms/tents book five months in advance; check for cancellations.
Outside the park: Search the web for “lodging around Yosemite.”
• “Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks,” Lonely Planet
• “Yosemite: The Complete Guide” by James Kaiser
• Yosemite National Park website: nps.gov/yose; phone 209-372-0200; wilderness info: 209-372-0826.
• Notifications via social media: facebook.com/YosemiteNPS