With some of the most breathtaking views in the world just a drive away, there is little reason to put off a trip to Yosemite National Park — even if you’re out of vacation days from work.
I made the trek to Yosemite Valley in late July with my husband, Kirk. Our timing was lucky enough that smoke from nearby wildfires didn’t obstruct the views of towering granite walls. And, after a good rain year, the rivers and creeks were full, so multiple waterfalls that could be seen from the valley floor were raging and the meadows were a bright, luscious green.
Here’s how we scheduled a weekend that was fulfilling and exciting, but didn’t leave me too exhausted for work Monday morning.
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We packed everything but perishables in our car Thursday evening to make a clean get-away immediately after work on Friday. We left town by 4:30 p.m. and after a quick dinner stop, we made it to our spot at Upper Pines Campground below Half Dome at 10 p.m. Arriving after dark meant there was little traffic and no lines at the entrance — score!
A morning walk to the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail gave us a good sense of the lay of the land. We strolled through serene meadows, hiked alongside the rushing Merced River and viewed the gargantuan rock formations that surrounded us, as well as Yosemite Falls. While the route ran through populated areas teaming with tourists, the trail itself was not crowded.
After an hour of wandering around with our jaws (figuratively) on the ground, we hopped on the free shuttle to a trail head near Half Dome to Mirror Lake, which is deep enough to swim in. (By walking and riding the shuttle we avoided losing precious time that could have been lost in a car waiting in traffic or trying to find parking.)
The trail to Mirror Lake is gentle and about 1.5 miles round-trip — unless you continue past the lake and do the entire Mirror Lake Loop into Tenaya Canyon, which adds about a mile.
After cooling off in a popular swimming hole, jumping off a rock, and lounging on a beach with epic views, Kirk and I continued on the trail to do the full loop.
What we found in the forest along the Tenaya Creek was more butterflies than people — remarkable for a Saturday afternoon in July, when the park receives 600,000 visitors. While the views aren’t spectacular, the seclusion on the trail offered a sense of wilderness not found in many other areas of Yosemite that are as easily accessible.
Alternative option: After a morning hike, rent a raft and float down the Merced River to cool down and soak in the views.
No trip to the wild is complete without at least one hike with decent elevation gain. We opted for the Mist Trail, anxious to see at least one waterfall up close after a particularly wet rainy season.
We were on the trail by 9 a.m. It was crowded by then, but not as overwhelmingly busy as when we headed down about an hour later.
The hike to the base of Vernal Fall is 1.5 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 400 feet, and offers views of two other waterfalls in the distance.
A footbridge offers a nice view of Vernal Fall, but keep going. Another half-mile —and hundreds of rock stairs — later, and you’re eye-level with with a full rainbow in the mist of the 317-foot waterfall.
Hikers can opt to continue another two or three miles to Nevada Fall. We opted for ice cream at Yosemite Village instead.
On our way out of the valley, we found a space in the day visitor parking lot in front of the Yosemite Village Store, then walked to the Ansel Adams Gallery, which showcases landscape photography, paintings and relief block prints. We picked up postcards and a cool hat from the bookstore next door.
Having spent our weekend on the east side of the valley, we stopped one last time at a viewpoint just before Wawona Tunnel. This is one of the most famous views of the valley, which includes El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall.
We were out of the park by 1 p.m., and after a leisurely drive that included three stops, we got home at 7 p.m. Just enough time to shower, post photos on Facebook, call my mom and pass out.