Our Yosemite Adventure
We've talked about going to Yosemite ever since we moved to California. Around the end of 2016, we decided to make it happen. We quickly went forward with planning, so that things would be scheduled and nothing would get in our way. What better time to go to this beautiful place than for Valentine's Day? We made plans to rent a van to camp in, as we expected a cold and snowy Yosemite to greet us. As luck would have it, California got more rain and snow than it knew what to do with, for most of the winter and right before we visited. Several roads closed due to mudslides and damage, and we were left rather uncertain of if we'd even be able to get into the park. The van we booked cancelled on us, due to what they considered potentially unsafe driving conditions. Our campsite got moved because some large trees fell down on several sites, including the one we had reserved. It was a weather mess.
At the last minute, we decided that we could just drive our own car there, and figure out how to make that work. We purchased snow chains, and made sure the car was ready for winter driving and for us to use as shelter. Read more about that at our "How To Sleep In A Crosstrek" blog! After all the switcharoos, our plans calmed down and we ended up driving through completely clear roads all the way into the campsite. We never even used our chains.
Alas, the switcharoos were not done with us yet. We arrived at around 5pm, only to find that someone had dropped their camper in our spot. Thankfully, the ranger office still answered their phone, and they were incredibly helpful. They told us to head to another site, also letting us know it would be a quiet spot. They called the campground hosts and let them know, also. We ended up back in the closed loop, where the trees had come down and there was considerable flooding. But one site sat like and island in the water, and was easily accessible for us. We landed in a nearly empty loop, with our only neighbors being the hosts a few sites away. It was perfect. Things work out... ya know?!
To try to keep this blog from getting ridiculously long, I'll break a few of the highlights out into sections...
Our Campsite - Upper Pines Campground
This is one of the larger campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. There are a few other options at more popular times of the year, but for a snowy winter camping, this was our only Valley choice. We knew we wouldn't be tent camping, so we prepared the car for sleeping. The campground had snow covered ground when we arrived, and what wasn't snowy was muddy. There was no way we would have been comfortable in a tent, as the temperatures dropped well below freezing each night.
As I mentioned already, we got to shuffle over to a "closed" side of a loop, since someone hijacked our reserved site. We were right next to a bathroom, but it was barely used by anyone other than us. There are pretty bright lights on the restroom buildings, so if you plan to visit in a tent or car without blocked windows, try to get away from these buildings. We had Reflectix on our windows, so the lights didn't bother us at all.
Each site is equipped with a fire pit, a picnic table, and a bear box. We didn't end up having a fire at all, because things just got too cold after the sun went down. The picnic table came in handy for preparing meals and sitting to look at the stars (until we couldn't stand the cold anymore). The bear boxes are huge - we ended up leaving our cooler, our food, our toiletries, and some of our gear in the box throughout the trip. This gave us more room in the car for sleeping, which was nice. The boxes are lockable if you have a padlock, and the host gave us permission to lock ours up since we were leaving some gear in it. They "lock" to protect against bears, but not against curious people. One tip, take an extra trash bag and use it to line the bottom of the bear box - ours was ended up muddy and wet due to the environment around us. Having something on the bottom helped to protect our dry gear from the muddy stuff and kept things clean for when they had to go back into the car.
We happened upon Bridalveil Fall on the way to our campsite as we drove into the park. The parking lot was still flooded from the heavy rain just days before, but the Subaru took the puddles in stride and we headed up the very short trail. The closer we got to the booming fall, the louder it got and the wetter we got. The trail got slippery in several places due to moisture and cold temperatures - in truly bad weather, they recommend ice spikes for boots. At the end of the trail, it felt like the waterfall might swallow us whole - everything got wet, cameras got tucked away, and the massive amount of water crashing down the side of the huge rock was just breathtaking.
Yosemite Falls - A Mirrored View, Rainbows, and Frazil Ice
Our first morning there, we headed right to the center of the valley to see "the" waterfall. With the very active winter weather, we got lucky and saw several huge, flowing falls throughout the park. Yosemite Falls was putting on a particularly excellent show. It is a huge waterfall - actually a three part fall - that can be viewed from across the Valley floor. Parking is available right near the falls, or around the loop on the other side of the meadow. We started at the further away parking, and were surprised at the amount of water, the mirrored water on the floor, the snow spread across the meadow, and the magical rainbow forming in the falls mist. After wandering through the meadow and taking plenty of photos, we drove around the loop and headed for the short trail.
The Lower Yosemite Falls hike is a loop at most times. On our visit, the back side of the loop was closed due to ice, so we had two sides to hike - one took us through the woods and to a bridge over the river, and the other almost to the bottom of the falls. We were stopped on both sides by park officials due to unsafe conditions further down the trail. The amazing frazil ice had taken over at one section, and was covering the trail and a bridge. I was so excited to be there for frazil ice, but didn't really ever get a good view of the stuff in action.
At one point on the trail, we were met with some amazing views down a long sidewalk of the entire waterfall. This walkway provides a beautiful view of Yosemite Falls, from the top to near the bottom. The trail to the actual base of the falls was closed due to that frazil ice and ice covered trails, but we got as close as could and were not disappointed at the sight.
A Mossy Hideaway
Right nearby to the Yosemite Falls trail, we discovered a rushing creek running through a mossy, green forest. We found rocks that could be used as a path, without disturbing any moss or plants. This provided us with an up close view of the water running through the forest, likely from those huge waterfalls we had just been admiring. I am slightly in awe of moss, so this scene is something of a dream like place for me. I could easily have spent all day exploring the area and just watching the water flow.
Yosemite Valley Meadow and Hungry Coyotes
The large meadow in Yosemite Valley is home to many creatures. When we arrived in Yosemite, the meadow was covered in water and snow. By the time we left, most of the snow had melted off. That snow doesn't stop the creatures from coming out to play. As we were driving by, we noticed a coyote out in the field. I stopped and noticed that he seemed to be stalking something. After a minute of two, he jumped and took a nose dive into the snow and came out with something to munch on. There was another coyote with him, but he seemed more content to just stroll along and look around. I love coyotes, so anytime I can watch them in the natural behaviors is a treat. This particular behavior was extra fun to sit and watch. We watched for quite a while, and that coyote was definitely not hungry when he decided to strut away.
The Merced River also runs nearby, and while we were there, it was running quickly and at high levels in most places. All around the park, this river provided just absolutely beautiful scenes.
What To Eat, Amenities, Etc.
During our winter visit, the Yosemite Lodge was the only place open with a resturant. We took advantage of the heated building and the hot food twice - a warm breakfast, and a big burger after a day of hiking. They have standard lodge eats here... from coffee, to breakfast, to burgers, to pizza, and a "healthy" section if you feel like a salad. We did not feel like health food - we went for burgers and fries and warmth. The food was actually very good, and not ridiculously priced.
There is also a market in the valley area, which was open for the winter - lots of souvenirs and a basic grocery store. We got some local beers here, and, of course, a sticker for the Subaru. They have a good variety of food and snacks, souvenirs, and even some camping supplies. Expect to pay more than normal just just about everything, but it's not outrageous.
We were there in winter, so several place were not open. During the busier seasons, there are a few more options. Yosemite is a land out by itself, but they've done well making the Valley a "town" to meet needs that may arise on your stay.
A Hike To Mirror Lake
Be sure that this hike is on the to-do list when visiting Yosemite. It’s a short, easy 2 miles roundtrip. The hike takes you through somewhat thick forest areas, along a service road. The closer we got to the lake, the more ice and snow pack began to cover the trail. It was a bit messy in places, and slippery, but for the most part, flat and manageable.
The wet California winter did us a favor and the Mirror Lake was full and living up to the name. The sun was out, the wind was calm, and it was beautiful. Fun fact, this is not actually a lake, but rather a wide pool that is part of Tenaya Creek. If the creek is dry, so is this pool, and it turns into more of a meadow. We were so happy to see it so full and smooth.
Don’t be deceived by the “Lower Pool”, which is nice, but not the famous pool. Keep hiking, the view will get better! Beautiful views of Half Dome and its granite neighbors are waiting along this trail!
A Hike (Almost) To Vernal Falls on the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail
After we made the short trek out to Mirror Lake, we headed towards the Happy Isles Center. We parked in a small parking area near Happy Isles Center, locked our goodies in a bear box, and headed for the trails. (Even in winter, please follow the rules for bear safety - it keeps us safe and the bears safe!)
The John Muir Trail and Mist Trail overlap for the first part of this trail. It always feel nostalgic putting our boots on a trail like the John Muir Trail. It seems like we can almost feel the history and stories of the past with every step. We enjoyed this hike, although it was quite steep, and at times, quite slick.
Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Vernal Falls. The day was winding down, and we were feeling tired and hungry, just shy of a mile into this steep hike. I was still dealing with a knee/leg injury, so the steep walk up was not going to be much fun coming back down. Even though we didn’t get to the waterfall, the trail provided some stunning views of the rushing river below. At times, it was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other talking. We enjoyed the short distance that we covered on this adventure. and intend to make the rest of the hike next time!
Tunnel View - The Classic Yosemite Angle
Don't miss this view (don't worry, it's hard to miss)! The classic view of Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan... all in one scene. There is plenty of parking on both sides of the road here, right at the entrance/exit of the Wawona Tunnel (which is also pretty cool). The views are breathtaking from every angle. When it's time to go, drive through that tunnel. It's a drive through the side of a mountain, which is just super fun. There is another lookout not much further up the road, which also has some fantastic views.
Firefall - A Valentine's Day Special at Horsetail Fall
We didn’t know about this phenomenon when we were planning our mid-February trip to Yosemite. We had no idea what a firefall was! The day before we left, an article popped up somewhere and explained this “firefall" excitement for us. Little did we know that we had scheduled our trip at a perfect time to witness the firefall this year.
We arrived in Yosemite and were quickly greeted with signs warning about parking and viewing, and we realized we would have to make time to deal with the traffic to see the fall! We chose a little picnic area with a good view of Horsetail Falls, and joined the many other photographers lined up with their tripods. The sun eventually started to go down, and this pretty waterfall was soon illuminated in pink, then golden sunlight… and began to look like fire. We couldn’t have been more lucky with having our trip booked to overlap this crowd-drawing phenomenon, and it was a fun experience!