In early April this year, my husband and I visited California and explored three national parks – Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park. My previous blog detailed our trip to the first two parks and our journey along the Majestic Mountain Loop. Now we venture on to Yosemite.
After spending a busy couple of days exploring the previous two parks, we drove to Oakhurst, California and spent the night in this lovely little town located fourteen miles south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park. We felt like we needed some rest, a good meal (had some great Italian food!), and some time spent outside of the rental car. It turned out to be a smart choice for us.
We awoke that next morning, had a great breakfast, and began our short drive to the park. It was only a twenty minute drive until we crossed the border into the park but little did I know that Yosemite Valley and our hotel were at least 90 minutes ahead. The slow speed limit, road construction, winding roads, morning traffic, and park entry lines took a little longer than expected. Luckily, the drive was entertaining. We spotted mule deer by the roadside. I enjoyed seeing the snow that was still packed on the shaded sides of the road from the heavy winter snowfall. We passed through acres and acres of total devastation from last summer’s horrendous forest fires (this caused the traffic delays with crews removing trees and debris from the main road). Overall, it was an enjoyable and very scenic drive. About an hour into the park, following the curvy mountain roads – we entered Wawona Tunnel.
All I can say here is WOW!
You exit the tunnel and you are at Tunnel View, the first of many astonishing sights. This view places you at one end of the valley looking straight out at Half Dome, El Capitan, granite walls, waterfalls, rivers, and vast evergreen forests. I understood immediately why this valley is referred to as “one of the most beautiful places on earth.” The Yosemite Valley is only seven miles long and two miles wide and this lookout point pretty much presents it to you in all its glory. We parked in one of the large parking lots and joined dozens of others taking photos from this gorgeous, panoramic spot.
After this photo-op stop, we drove down into the valley and followed the circular one-way road that leads you past all of the major Yosemite landmarks. Sights that I had only seen in books, photos, and on screens appeared before me in real life: Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, Cathedral Rocks, Arches Rock, and the Merced River. Everything was larger, higher, brighter, and more spectacular than I had ever imagined. I stood in the footsteps of John Muir and Ansel Adams and soaked it all in – another one of life’s “pinch me” moments.
David and I were lucky enough to stay at the historic Majestic Yosemite Lodge (awesome place!) located within the park. The parking, rooms, restaurants, amenities, and location couldn’t have been any better. We could easily walk to several of the park sights or catch a shuttle at the hotel to venture farther. The free park shuttles run every 20-30 minutes and allow you to “hop on / hop off” at any stop within the valley – they were very convenient and saved us a lot of time.
We hiked up to the rock-strewn base of the three-tiered Yosemite Falls. We hiked to the base of Bridalveil Falls and got drenched with the ice-cold spray. We walked the trails through Ahwahnee Meadow and stood still as a herd of deer fearlessly walked by us. We stood and gazed up at the gigantic El Capitan. We enjoyed the visitor’s center and the film that covered the history of the park. We browsed through the Ansel Adam’s Gallery and saw photographs from this area that brought him fame and fortune. We walked along the Merced River and relaxed a bit on the beautiful, sandy Cathedral Beach. We sat out on the hotel lawn one evening after a fantastic dinner and watched the stars in the night sky. We took a two-hour guided bus tour of the valley and learned a lot about Yosemite’s history, geography, geology, wildlife, and sights we saw along the way that are not in the guide books. When all was said and done, we crammed as much into two days as we possibly could and enjoyed every second!
There was no way we could see as much as we wanted to in such a short amount of time, but we gave it our best effort. Yosemite National Park actually covers 1200 square miles and over 95% is wilderness, with the valley being a very small part of the whole park. Luckily, April turned out to be a perfect month to visit. The temperatures ranged from the fifties at night to the seventies in the day – and we experienced warm days, blue skies, spring flowers, and fewer tourists than other months of the year.
The hotel, the weather, and the sights of Yosemite Valley were all better than we could have ever anticipated. Everything seemed to work in our favor. My one and only wish that was not fulfilled was a bear sighting! Maybe next time…
I belong to a book club that read a lovely little book last year called “Dear Bob and Sue.” This book tells the story of Matt and Karen Smith’s travels to all 59 U.S. National Parks written as a series of emails to their friends, Bob and Sue. The book is funny, irreverent, unpredictable, and sarcastic – all in the spirit of humor. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this book, I got some great travel ideas from it. I learned about the “Majestic Mountain Loop,” a three-day trip where you can visit Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite all in one fell swoop. I was sold!
My husband and I flew into Fresno, California from Dallas and rented a car there. Fresno is a small airport and proved very convenient to getting a rental car and starting off on our merry way. We stopped for a wonderful lunch outside Fresno in Sanger and headed up the mountains to Sequoia National Park and the Wuksachi Lodge. The drive was spectacular! We went from wildflowers, farmland, and sunny, citrus groves to cloud-covered mountains and snowy roads in less than two hours.
On our first day in Sequoia National Park, we visited the Lost Grove (the densest concentration of sequoias in the park) and General Sherman – my “must see!” The General Sherman Tree is the largest living organism on the planet and the largest living tree in the world. It was just as magnificent as I had imagined! If you want to feel small and insignificant, just stand at its base and gaze up at its top 275 feet above you. I stood and wondered about all that this tree has lived through and witnessed in its 2200 years. If only it could talk…
The next day we left for Kings Canyon National Park. The two parks intersect each other so you go from one to the other without much fanfare. We started at the Kings Canyon Visitor’s Center in Grant Grove Village and enjoyed the exhibits and a movie detailing the history of the parks – very interesting. The rangers were very helpful in letting us know which roads were open or closed and helped us plan our day.
The park is at a high elevation (up to 14,000 ft) and on this particular day in April we experienced rain, sleet, and heavy fog – all in a matter of hours. Then lo and behold, the afternoon turned out to be sunny and clear. Luckily for us, the weather was a deterrent for crowds and we got to visit Grant Grove pretty much by ourselves. Grant Grove is only a mile from the visitors center and proved to be one of my favorite excursions. It consisted of a half-mile walking trail through the forest that loops to the German Grant Tree (third largest in the world and a “young” 1,650-years-old). The paved trail was easy to walk and we passed by fallen trees, crossed over streams, and wandered through giant sequoia groves. The forest here was breathtakingly beautiful and on this particular day, the towering trees seemed ethereal and unworldly. There was no wind, no sound, sparse light, and a mystical fog all around. I loved it!
Many of the higher altitude roads in Kings Canyon were closed to vehicles this time of year so we drove to a lower elevation and visited beautiful Hume Lake (a park ranger’s suggestion). The sun was shining, the water was glistening, and the temperature was perfect for exploring the area around the lake. We ended our afternoon after a relaxing stop here and headed for Yosemite National Park – our third and final stop!
There is not anywhere else in the United States where national parks are located so close together as these three here in California. We spent a full twenty-four hours in each Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park before heading on to spend three days in Yosemite. I highly suggest trying the Majestic Mountain Loop whether it be for three days, a week, or maybe more.