WHAT IS IT? A stunning Sierra mountain valley immortalized by Ansel Adams’ iconic black and white photographs. The valley holds the largest concentration of waterfalls in the world. After the winter melt, the granite valley becomes alive with cascades.
BEAUTY (10/10) The Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Its signature landmarks are numerous, stunning and contained in such a compact area; the Park feels more like a planned outdoor amusement park than a natural wonder. Its attractions carry names that are indelible to the American outdoor conscience, from the tremendous granite behemoths El Capitan and Half Dome to the graceful beauty of Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) A small reconstructed village behind the Visitor Center indicates that Native Americans inhabited the Yosemite Valley for as long as 8,000 years. Aging exhibits display the crafts and ornaments of these people, but offer little more in historical insight. A small woman quietly sat among one of these displays weaving a new basket, similar to the ones behind the glass. We might have asked her, had we not been so taken by surprise.
An 1864 Act by President Abraham Lincoln granted the Yosemite Valley to the State of California as a public trust. The area encompassed by Yosemite NP was the first piece of land set aside by the federal government solely for protection and public enjoyment. As a result, the Yosemite Valley has been the inspiration for photographs, paintings, sketches and other art forms for well over a century.
CROWDS (4/10) Over 3,000,000 people pack into Yosemite NP every year, most of them visiting only the Yosemite Valley, home to all the marquee attractions. In addition, the tourists come primarily between the spring snowmelt and the first snow of the fall. Odds are it will be very crowded when you come to Yosemite Valley.
The large crowds are a double-edged sword. First the good: Everybody is happy and having tons of fun. Kids are excited and smiles are everywhere, you might as well be at Disneyworld.
Now the bad: The large crowds necessitate advanced planning, especially if you want to spend the night. There are no same day openings from April through October. You NEED to book a campsite five months in advance. Yes, FIVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE. Everyone from Rangers to tourists to the birds above repeated this planning mantra. Since we have not had to plan at any other National Park Site we refused to believe in Yosemite’s exclusivity. Now we believe. Book your lodge and hotel rooms well in advance too.
Do not expect to find you own secret hiking spot in the Yosemite Valley. All ten trails are full of people with varying levels of hiking skills and perfume amounts. Even the very strenuous Half Dome hike (up over 4,000 feet in 9 miles) is full of people, most of them greeting you with warm hellos. Michael first gained his love of hiking here, mostly because of the kind nature of his fellow hikers.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5) You can approach Yosemite Valley from three cities situated along California Route 99 and America’s agricultural center, the San Joaquin Valley. From the north, the Yosemite Valley is 118 from Modesto via Calif. Route 120. Merced is 78 miles west via Calif. Route 140 and Fresno is 90 miles south via Calif. 41. The Park is a feasible day trip from Sacramento (180 miles away) and the Bay Area (about 180 miles away, too).
Measures to make the park accessible to visitors (the shuttle bus, day use parking and advanced reservation campsites) did not help us. The shuttle bus is superfluous at best. Cars can and do travel on all park roads. The loop drive is all idling cars all the time. Our shuttle was packed with people but covered the slow roads at a crawl, two miles in 45 minutes.
Until you get onto the trails, the Yosemite Valley experience is chaotic. Dust and construction line the pathways. Access paths and roads are unmarked. There are few Rangers and volunteers armed to help. We had no idea where to go and what to do. We were not the only ones. A British couple pleaded to us, “we’re just trying to figure out what’s here to do. Seems a bit disorganized, innit? Especially for being in America. Usually you guys have everything in order.” After we concurred with their judgment, they felt relieved. “Well then, it’s not just us. Good luck.”
We could not help but compare Yosemite NP to Zion NP in Utah. Both are situated in a valley, both have shuttle buses and droves of tourists. In contrast to Yosemite NP, cars are not allowed on Zion NP’s loop road. Shuttle buses run every 5 minutes and everything moves smoothly. Unlike Yosemite NP, Zion NP has numerous outdoor exhibits that explain what to do at the Park.
The Zion NP Visitor Center stands alone, a few steps from day use parking, and serves as a visual center and meeting place. The Yosemite NP VC is hidden in a cluster of independently owned restaurants, concessionaires and bookstores, collectively called Yosemite Village. The VC is also a two-mile walk from day-use parking.
Nothing about Yosemite NP is accessible or easy. You need to plan all aspects of your trip ahead of time. This flagship National Park deserves better.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) Yosemite Valley counters its lack of organization with an overwhelming glut of concessionaires. If you go hungry, cannot find the right book, Ansel Adams picture or souvenir then you have not looked hard enough. There are 12 restaurants in the Yosemite Valley, an Ansel Adams gallery, a well-stocked (if not pricey) backpacking specialty store, a terrific (and reasonably priced) supermarket, at least four bookstores and one store dedicated to all things black bear. Unbelievably, all these places were crowded on a pre-Memorial Day Tuesday afternoon.
COSTS (1/5) Park entry is $20 per car.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) There did not seem to be any Rangers at Yosemite NP, only volunteers surrounded by questioning tourists. We felt lost at Yosemite NP.
There can be no excuse, funding or otherwise, for a dearth of Rangers at Yosemite NP. The other Parks in the National Parks pantheon, Yellowstone NP, Mt. Rushmore N MEM and Grand Canyon NP all had sufficient staffing. Yosemite NP should not be an exception.
TOURS/CLASSES (2/10) Yosemite NP feels like it is in the late stages of a transition from the classic National Park to a privately run nature-based theme park. The NPS presence is minimal at best.
NPS offers two tiny, decaying museums and an introductory film. We searched for the theater but could not find the entrance. We visited on a Tuesday in May along with tens of thousands of other people. There was only one Ranger talk that day. We missed it. In May, when the Park’s waterfalls are at their most stunning, there is never more than one Ranger talk per day. Yes, even on weekends.
Your tour-led Yosemite Park learning and discovery must be done through the Yosemite Mountaineering School, the Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts Division, the Sierra Club or the Ansel Adams Gallery. Most of their offerings are fee based.
The Yosemite NP brochure and newspaper rank among the NPS’ least helpful. You are on your own.
FUN (9/10) Yosemite NP beauty is overwhelming. We found it difficult to believe our surroundings were real. Take time to breathe everything in. Bicycle around the Valley. Hike up the edge of waterfall on the Mist Trail. Stare forever at the countless plummeting cascades. Humble yourself in the awesome mass of El Capitan and Half Dome. Lose yourself in the energy of this magical place.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10) Even with its lack of Rangers and post-renovation logistical challenges, Yosemite NP remains a must-see American attraction. Were we disappointed? Well, yes. But all of our grumblings were drowned out by the roar of snow-fed cascades and the shrieks and laughter of visitors getting soaked as they got closer and closer to the subjects of their photographs. Have we seen anything more beautiful than the Yosemite Valley? Nothing comes to mind.
Looking for a free guided tour or a place to pitch your tent on a spur-of-the-moment camping trip? Keep looking. Yosemite NP is neither cheap nor user-friendly. Still, a full day in this magical place and a few miles up and into the mist of Vernal and Nevada Falls were all we needed to confirm the legendary beauty of the Yosemite Valley.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.