Yosemite National Park
A Sidetracked Guide
Photography by Elliot Simpson
Produced in Partnership with Visit California
Two teams were scaling El Captain the day we arrived. Or at least, we were told they were. Pinpointing anyone with the naked eye was out of the question. We thought we may have seen a portaledge, but couldn’t be sure… and we were standing underneath the seemingly glass-smooth 900m granite monolith, its scale unimaginable.
El Capitan in Yosemite Valley is the spiritual home of big wall climbing. For merely world-class climbers it can take a week to climb from valley to summit. For superhuman climbers such as Dean Potter and Sean Leary, Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, it can take less time than watching a movie. Alex Honnold also climbed it without a rope.
Not the photos nor the films, not the words nor the poetry written about Yosemite Valley – about El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls – can prepare you for the view as you crest the hill and see it before you.
It’s been called one of the most beautiful sights in the world, and we couldn’t argue. But with fame and beauty come crowds. In the summer, the locals call Yosemite Valley Disneyland. Our Sidetracked guide shows the Yosemite in the slower seasons, shows the trails that leave the crowds behind, the parts of this 1,100-square-mile park where the locals go.
With a little planning, you don’t need to travel far in Yosemite, in any direction, to find a true wilderness, particularly backpacking on the longer trails. Away from the roads and visitors’ centres, you’ll find abundant wildlife – bears, golden eagles, and mountain lions are alpha predators here. You’ll find some of the biggest trees in the world and four distinct geographic areas: the High Sierra, granite cliffs, sequoia groves, and the valleys.
Let’s start with the valley. This is the one in the photos. The one with El Capitan looming, with Half Dome dominating almost every view. It’s the place to start a visit to Yosemite. The Yosemite Museum, Valley Wilderness Center and Valley Visitor Center offer an excellent context for the natural and human history of the region. In the summer, it’s stiflingly busy, so for quieter times aim for spring, late autumn, or winter. Early in the morning or as late as you can in the evening are spectacular times to be there too. As the red sun sets the granite on fire, many of the cars have disappeared.
There are 10 walks manageable in a day with trailheads in the valley. The harder they are, the less likely you are to see people. Don’t miss the falls in the spring when the rivers are at their fullest. Snow Creek is one of the quietest trails; Half Dome is technical, with cables to assist the very steep climbs. A permit is required.
BEYOND THE VALLEY
We cover long-distance trails below, but there are dozens of places accessible for shorter-stay visitors. The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias has more than 500 of the world’s biggest trees – in fact, the idea of national parks grew into existence among these behemoths. The seven-mile Mariposa Grove Trail is the best way to see them. In winter, there are few better places to cross-country ski and snowshoe.
Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Road
Wide-open subalpine meadows against a backdrop of rounded granite domes characterise this more peaceful part of the park. Lakes, including Tenaya and Siesta, offer opportunities for paddling and SUPing. This area also provides some excellent campgrounds. The Tioga Road is only open between late May and October or November. It can be accessed by cross-country skis, usually from the Snow Creek trailhead in Yosemite Valley.
What you see at Hetch Hetchy isn’t how it used to look; it was flooded in the 1930s to provide fresh water for the Bay Area. It’s still a quiet place with some excellent hikes. Smith Peak delivers one of the highest points in the zone after a hike gaining 1,127m over a 13-mile round trip. Views of the Tueeulala and Wapama Falls shouldn’t be missed either. This area also has one of the longest summer hiking seasons thanks to the relatively low elevation.
Almost 95 per cent of Yosemite National Park consists of designated wilderness, and there are 750 miles of backpacking trails. All of the trails leave from one of the following locations: Tioga Road (closed in winter), Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center, Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center, Wawona Visitor Center, and Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station. Most of the trails have a mixture of first-come, first-served quotas and reservable quotas. The least-visited areas are to the north of the park, above the Tuolumne River. Free wilderness permits are required for an overnight stay in the park away from the campgrounds.
Two of the monster North American trails go through Yosemite National Park. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, known as the PCT, extends 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Just under 70 miles of it are in Yosemite, crossing through Tuolumne Meadows. The 211-mile John Muir Trail, named for the Scottish-born conservationist so entwined with the history of Yosemite, starts from Yosemite Valley and joins the PCT at Tuolumne Meadows. It follows the PCT for around 160 miles before branching off to finish at Mount Whitney, California’s highest peak.
In winter, trails are accessed by ski or snowshoe, and between December and April you’ll nearly always be camping in the snow. There are marked winter trails around the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area and Crane Flat.
Photography by @elliotjsimpson
Closest airports: When to go: Yosemite can be visited all year round, but be aware of road closures when there’s snow. Backpacking is very limited in winter and travel is by ski and snowshoe. Snow can lie until May. Rivers are very high during snowmelt season. Summer and fall are the best options for backpacking.
Permits: wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the Yosemite Wilderness (only one per trip). They are free, but only issued to a limited number of people. It is worth reserving them ($5 per confirmed reservation plus $5 per person). See nps.gov/yose/index.htm for full information.
Bear activity: any danger from encountering bears is very low, mostly because of the precautions taken by visitors and backpackers – in particular, the proper use of bear-resistant food containers required by federal regulations. They can be rented at any staffed wilderness permit station.
Safety: weather is very changeable, and lightning is a factor to be avoided. All water must be treated, as Giardia is a risk. Some ticks carry Lyme disease and relapsing fever.
Where to stay: the best place near the park is the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort. It has a series of cabins and an excellent cosy restaurant.
For more information:
Yosemite National Park information and reservations: nps.gov/yose/index.htm
Yosemite Mariposa County information: yosemite.com
Travel information and inspiration: visitcalifornia.co.uk
Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort: yosemitebug.com