After spending two glorious days visiting King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, I was eager to move on to one of the crown jewels of the American national park system. Yosemite has always been a magical place for outdoor enthusiasts, which climbers, backpackers, and campers flocking to the place in large numbers. America’s second national park didn’t disappoint either, as it reminded us of why it is often considered one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
The drive from Sequoia National Park to Yosemite takes a couple of hours, so in order to maximize our time in the park, we set out bright and early for the last day of our adventure. Descending out of Sequoia and King’s Canyon was a bit sad, as we knew we’d miss those spectacular landscapes, but those feelings were eased a bit by the knowledge that Yosemite would be our reward at the other end of the road.
Arriving at the south gate on our way in from Fresno, we paid the entry fee, and drove into the park with excitement. But Yosemite demands patience, and while the drive was a scenic one, it would take some time before the amazing valley would actually reveal itself. The twisty turns of California Highway 41 kept the brilliant display of the surrounding landscape well hidden, until we rounded a bend to find the entire area opened up before us. In a flash some of the most iconic Yosemite landmarks could be seen, including El Capitan and Half Dome. It is an unforgettable sight to be sure, and we immediately pulled over to snap some photos.
Stretching out beneath us was the entire Yosemite Valley, flush with the greens of spring brought on by recent rainfalls. The granite rock faces that the park is so well known for were prominently on display, and numerous waterfalls could be spotted splashing their way down cliff sides. To call it a magical scene would be an understatement to say the least, and breathtaking hardly begins to describe the setting.
With a somewhat limited time to explore, we crawled back into the car and descended down to the valley floor. The thick forest shaded the road, but gave way at regular intervals to give us a glimpse of the towering cliffs that surrounded us on all sides. On occasion, one of the magnificent waterfalls would reveal itself as well, reminding us that the park is home to countless others scattered across its 1200 square miles (1930 sq. km). The ones that were closest include the amazing 2425 foot (739 meter) Yosemite Falls and the 620 foot (188 meter) Bridalveil Falls, both of which we stopped to gape in wonder at.
We also watched in wonder at the crowds of visitors that were found in the valley as well. Coming from Kings Canyon and Sequoia, two parks that saw limited traffic while we were there, the hustle and bustle of Yosemite was a bit off-putting. We much preferred the peaceful solitude of Kings Canyon, which rivals Yosemite in beauty in many ways. Our visit was even taking place in the middle of the week, before the start of the busy travel season. On weekend during the summer, the roads must be bumper-to-bumper with traffic.
Still, the large crowds didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the place, and we enjoyed soaking up the scenery that is found at every turn. After all, there is a reason that so many people come to Yosemite, as there are few landscapes anywhere that can compare.
At mid-afternoon we stopped for lunch at the charming Ahwahnee Lodge. This historic hotel allowed us to enjoy a good meal while eating outside on a scenic patio with great views of the park around us. It was a nice place to take a break from the road, and the crowds, while still enjoying the setting to its fullest. The lodge is also an amazing looking place, and if you wanted to stay in the valley itself, it would be a great choice.
But on our third night in the parks we would be staying elsewhere. Our home for the evening was the spectacular Tenaya Lodge, which sits just outside of the park and offers every amenity that a traveler could ask for. Accommodations include newly renovated rooms that are spacious, comfortable, and beautiful. Tenaya also has luxury suites and quaint cottages as well, offering something for just about every taste and budget.
Upon entry into Tenaya one can’t help but be impressed with the absolutely huge lobby. Built to evoke a sense of mountain lodges from days gone by, the lobby itself is impressive at any time. I’m told however that in the winter a massive 35-foot (10.6 meter) tall Christmas tree is brought in to help celebrate the holidays. That should give you a sense of scale for the place that greets you when you first arrive.
Tenaya also offers guests both indoor and outdoor pools, adults only hot tubs, and a full-service spa that simply has to be seen to be believed. There are also four onsite restaurants, a couple of retail outlets, and a concierge the can help travelers to make plans and reservations for their stay. Active guests can even rent mountain bikes to hit the trails, learn archery, or hone their skills on the outdoor climbing wall. In short, this lodge is an amazing place to rest, relax, and recuperate during your Yosemite adventure.
After checking into Tenaya, and taking a brief tour of the facilities, we found it hard to pull ourselves away. But we weren’t quite finished with Yosemite just yet, and we wanted to make one last trip into the park while we still had the chance. So, we loaded ourselves back into the car, and set out for a place called Glacier Point, which we had been told offered some of the best views of the valley below.
One of the things that we had missed from the previous two parks that we had visited was the abundance of wildlife. While in Kings Canyon and Sequoia we were constantly spotting deer, bear, marmot, and other woodland creatures. But in Yosemite we hadn’t seen much wildlife at all. Of course, considering how busy the park is with visitors, that was somewhat understandable, as too many people are going to keep most of the animals at bay. But on the drive out to Glacier Point we did manage to spot a rather large brown bear, and plenty of mule deer too. My advice is that if you hope to spot wildlife on a Yosemite visit, your best opportunities are to get more off the beaten path. There are plenty of animals to be found there, they just tend to avoid the more heavily trafficked areas.
The drive out to Glacier Point is on another long, and winding road, but it is more than worth the effort to reach the scenic overlook. From that spot you can look directly down on Yosemite Valley, and see it from a vantage point that is even more beautiful than the initial approach. Once again, Half Dome, El Cap, and numerous waterfall can be spotted dotting the landscape, making it a picture-postcard setting.
We arrived shortly before sunset and the valley below was set on fire by the sinking sun. On that late spring evening temperatures were dropping quickly too, bringing an undeniable chill to the air. This being Yosemite, we weren’t alone at Glacier Point, as there were dozens of others looking to capture the perfect shot of the landscape as well. But as with most of the national parks, you can share the setting with a lot of people, and still find your own personal solitude. It was a perfect place to end the day, with a view that would be tough to match.
Our last evening was spent enjoying the comforts and luxuries at Tenaya Lodge, where we had a wonderful meal and bottle of wine, then made s’mores around a campfire, while looking at the stars overhead. The whirlwind national park adventure was nearly over, and were simply weren’t ready to go home just yet. Still, it was a great reminder of just how special the national parks truly are, and how many amazing places there are to visit right here at home in the U.S.
When we set off for home the next day, we vowed to return to explore these landscapes further. There is just so much to see and do that one day in each park wasn’t enough. Besides, those destinations – along with the lodges we stayed in – are simply too enchanting to not visit again.