“Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.” —John Muir
It’s been a difficult summer for Yosemite National Park. Since June, three visitors have died from hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a pathogen carried by a common species of deer mouse—one of the many forms of wildlife that call this stunning piece of California wilderness home. And since August, as park officials worked furiously to prevent further illness, concerned campers have been rethinking their plans to vacation in one of America’s most awe-inspiring natural landscapes.
As tragic as death is in any of our national parks, it is also a reminder of the overwhelming power of nature to both inflict wounds and to heal them. After all, I can think of few more healing experiences than waking up in Yosemite Valley surrounded by 4,000-foot granite walls; wading into the crystal clear water of Tenaya Lake; or hiking among the fragrant pines on deserted Sierra trails.
Thus, as the weather turns cooler and the summer crowds blissfully subside, we shouldn’t forget the promise of Yosemite National Park—wild and untamed as it may be. Certain cabins at the legendary Curry Village remain closed after the HPS scare, but other campsites, tent cabins, and lodge rooms are open, inviting visitors to experience what John Muir—the legendary champion and protector of Yosemite’s wilderness—viewed as America’s most sacred cathedral.
So if you find yourself awestruck in Yosemite Valley, here are some unforgettable ways to spend three days.
“Hiking—I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains—not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’—‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” —John Muir
Hey, You, Get Off Of My Cloud
Although it’s wise to make your weekend base in Yosemite Valley, don’t forget that stunning granite formation is a mere one percent of the park’s total area. So with fresh legs, a tank of gas, and a cup of coffee, spend your first Yosemite morning driving up above the valley on the Tioga Road toward the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows. Keep one eye open for bears, and the other on the lookout for Tenaya Lake, a breathtaking glacial formation that will come in handy later, when your feet are in desperate need of a soak.
With a backpack full of picnic supplies and plenty of water, begin your hike at Tenaya Lake’s Sunrise trailhead and follow signs to Clouds Rest, a challenging 15-mile roundtrip journey that will lead you to one of the most spectacular views in the park. But hikers be warned: If you have a fear of heights, this trail might not be for you. In the final stretch before the 9,930-foot summit, the path disappears into a granite slope with sheer cliffs to the left and right. Just stay low to the ground and pray that the wind is kind—you’ll be rewarded at the top with a 360-degree panorama of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.
Dome Sweet Dome
Of course, Clouds Rest is just one of countless breathtaking trails available to experienced hikers in Yosemite. Towering nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor and just begging to be climbed, Half Dome’s summit has a prominent place on the bucket list of nearly every seasoned California hiker. But this 11-hour trek is not for the ill-prepared—or the faint of heart. To reach the summit, hikers must ascend a 45-degree rock face using a 400-foot cable system, an infamous section of the trail that has seen the deaths of at least six people. But as anyone who has made it to the top can attest, there’s no feeling quite like standing on the roof of Yosemite.
To reach Half Dome’s summit, begin early—and I mean early—at Happy Isles and follow the well-marked trail past Vernal and Nevada Falls. For safety concerns, the summit is now strictly limited to permit holders, and permit holders only.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” —John Muir
The Breakfast Club
When the Mariposa Battalion stumbled upon what is now Yosemite Valley in 1851, the company physician, Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, thought it fitting to give this extraordinary place a name. He called it Yosemite, believing that to be the name of the native people in the valley. But years later, scholars would discover that the Ahwahneechee were the true inhabitants of the valley they called Ahwahnee, meaning “the place of a gaping mouth.” Yosemite was, in fact, the Ahwahneechee way of referring to people who were to be feared, translating to “they are killers.”
Although Dr. Bunnell’s name stuck, the Ahwahneechee’s name for their valley is the source of The Ahwahnee Hotel, a destination for rustic luxury since it opened its doors in 1927. Even if you’re not in the market for a room, do what’s good for you and spend a morning eating the most delicious breakfast—in the most beautiful dining room—in Yosemite National Park. Make a reservation, ignore the buffet, and don’t pass up the Ahwahnee Signature Bakeries. After yesterday’s hike, it’s a well-deserved splurge.
I Wish I Had A River I Could Skate Away On
Spend the afternoon resting your sore limbs on the valley floor, where you’ll discover countless activities for the young and old, veterans and newcomers alike. Take a stroll through the grassy meadows along the park loop road, mingling with deer and searching for bears along the way. Take the free shuttle bus or ride a rental bike to Mirror Lake, a short and easy path to the lake at the base of Half Dome. Or rent a raft and lazily float down the Merced River, admiring the granite walls and towering waterfalls that surround you.
For an afternoon in the valley, I can’t fail to mention the famous Mist Trail, a moderate-to-strenuous hike that begins at Happy Isles. The three-mile roundtrip trek to the top of Vernal Fall, and the additional 2.5-mile trip to Nevada Fall, is the beautiful initial leg of the Half Dome ascent, and well worth attempting if you have the leg power. But if you fail to make an early start in peak season, you might consider skipping this human traffic jam. You’ll have a great view of the waterfalls from Glacier Point tomorrow.
“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias. … Our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.” —President Theodore Roosevelt
The Tree Of Life
In 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt paid a visit to John Muir in Yosemite, the two men set off on an unannounced three-day wilderness trip. On the first night, the president and the naturalist made camp at the base of Grizzly Giant, the largest of the giant sequoia trees in the Mariposa Grove. As they sat around the fire each subsequent evening, the president was Muir’s captive audience as he passionately argued for California’s Yosemite Valley Grant and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to be ceded to the United States for inclusion in Yosemite National Park. And by 1906, Roosevelt had signed the Yosemite Recession Bill, placing both areas under federal protection.
Today, Grizzly Giant still stands 210 feet tall in the Mariposa Grove, a collection of nearly 500 mature giant sequoias just inside the park’s southern entrance. Take an early drive to Wawona, where you’ll catch the free shuttle bus to the grove, and spend the morning strolling through some of the largest living things on Earth.
We Didn’t Start The Firefall
Between 1872 and 1968, it was a summertime tradition for the owners of the Glacier Point Hotel to drop a pile of burning embers from Glacier Point into Yosemite Valley below, creating the 3,000-foot Yosemite Firefall. Although this naturalists’ nightmare has since been discontinued, Glacier Point still boasts one of the most beautiful vistas in the park, and is reachable by car, bus, or the scenic Four Mile Trail. Driving back north from Wawona, you’ll find the trailhead on the valley floor near Sentinel Rock. As a series of switchbacks carve their way up the mountain, hikers will be treated to alternating views of Half Dome on one side and the 3,000-foot monolith of El Capitan on the other.
Once you’ve reached the summit, rest your legs with striking views of Half Dome and Vernal and Nevada Falls, and congratulate yourself on another long weekend well done.
A Few Notes
Where to Stay: I can’t stress enough how wonderful it is to stay inside Yosemite Valley. For traditional campers, the Upper and Lower Pines Campgrounds take reservations in advance, while the climber-heavy Camp 4 assigns campsites each morning. The Housekeeping Camp on the banks of the Merced River is a wonderful option for those who want to camp, but don’t want the hassle of pitching their own tent. And if you have a few hundred dollars to spare, consider basking in the rustic charm of The Ahwahnee. I’ll see you there at breakfast.
Where to Eat: Besides the aforementioned breakfast, remember that you’re camping—this is not a foodie destination. That said, the Pizza Deck at Curry Village seems to taste pretty fantastic after a long day of hiking. And the stores at Yosemite Village, Curry Village, and Housekeeping Camp offer everything from meat and produce to s’mores fixins and camping supplies.
Avoiding HPS: With the threat of HPS still looming in Yosemite, there are a few elementary precautions that park officials have recommended for visitors.
- Keep food in tightly sealed containers.
- Take care not to stir up dust.
- Minimize storage of luggage on floors.
- Contact park officials if signs of rodents are present near your campsite or accommodations.
- Avoid sleeping on the bare ground.
- Avoid touching live or dead rodents.
- Early symptoms of HPS include fatigue, fever, chills, and muscle aches. About half of patients will experience headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and abdominal pain. Early medical attention greatly increases the chance of survival in cases of HPS.
TITLE: Half Dome | FRIDAY: El Capitan; Yosemite Falls; Tenaya Lake; the harrowing path to Clouds Rest; Yosemite Valley, from Clouds Rest; a chipmunk atop Clouds Rest (credit: Lexi O’Brien); Tuolumne Meadows | SATURDAY: The Ahwahnee; Yosemite Valley; Vernal Fall | SUNDAY: The Mariposa Grove; El Capitan, from the Glacier Point trail; Half Dome, from the Glacier Point trail.