Did you know that Yosemite National Park is nearly the size of Rhode Island? Did you also know that the largest sequoia in Yosemite is at least 1,800 years old?
Our trip to Yosemite started with an early drive one morning departing at 3AM. We decided to get up early for a few reasons. One was to get a lot of driving done while the girls slept. The second was because of Los Angeles and rush hour traffic is pretty darn thick on a weekday morning. The bright side of getting on the road early meant we could actually take advantage of Yosemite on a travel day.
We rolled into the newly reopened Mariposa Grove to see a grove of giant sequoias. The largest was Grizzly Giant which absolutely dwarfed everything near it and had branches that were bigger than most of the trees in our neighborhood. We also got a few pictures under the California tree, with a tunnel cut through it. Mariposa Grove was a great midweek stop because it wasn’t too crowded and the loop to see Grizzly Giant and some other sequoias was just over a mile. It gave all four of us the opportunity to stretch our legs before driving the final hour to our campsite.
While we were making our way back on the trail, it started to rain, so we hustled back to the bus stop and squeezed into a crowded bus with standing room only. An older woman from Germany offered to have Quincy sit on her lap while we took our ten-minute ride. Not only did Quincy sit on her lap, but Leona joined her and the three of them sat contentedly. We’ve always been able to find a helping hand when we really need one. I think the fresh air increases positive vibes.
The final drive of the day was to Upper Pines campground. What was described as a scenic drive was pretty stressful and slow as a heavy downpour rained down and had Mary driving slowly (and white-knuckled) on the two lane, winding road. By the time we got to our campground, the rain stopped, but it was wet.
A first time experience for us at a National Park was checking into our campsite. Because the sites are so popular and coveted in Yosemite Valley, people used to sell them on the secondary market like Craigslist. To prevent that now, people must show their ID to confirm it matches the reservation. No messing around at Yosemite Valley.
As for the Upper Pines Campground, it’s a huge place with over 250 sites. When you’re on the inside of the loop, there isn’t much privacy, but it also means you are less likely to have a bear stroll into your campground looking for food. In fact, when checking into the campground, the host gives a pretty lengthy lecture on bear policies. More info on Yosemite’s bear management can be found here.
Once parked, we quickly set up our tent and a tarp over our picnic table knowing rain was in the forecast. What we didn’t expect was to find out our tent was leaky. It was brought to our attention when Quincy said, “Momma, rain in tent!” The tent is nine years old and hadn’t encountered a true rain storm in a few years so when a few drops came into the tent, we had to drape another tarp over the top of it to keep us dry. Unfortunately, the tarp wasn’t large enough to completely cover the tent, so the sides were damp to the touch and the ends of our sleeping bags were slightly wet, but everyone was dry. And that is how we came to the conclusion we would need a new tent.
The focus of this trip was to spend pretty much all of our time Yosemite Valley. Because Yosemite is so large, you can spend a lot of time driving around. We wanted to set up basecamp right in the Valley and explore around on our bicycles. We towed the girls around in their trailer and it made for much easier travel. We could get closer to the trailheads and never had an issue looking for parking when it got crowded. For those able, we would highly recommend bringing or renting bikes to explore Yosemite Valley. There are a few rental options within the valley.
Because we were pedaling around and using the bike paths, we saw wildlife that we would not have seen while driving, such as mule deer, coyotes, and a black bear. The coyotes were a bit of a surprise as it was around 5PM and two of them were standing less than 20 feet from the bike path. They were definitely surprised to see us. The bear was seen as we crossed a bridge. Mary spotted an “animal” in the water thinking it was an otter or beaver, but soon realized it was a black bear crossing the stream. She slammed on her brakes and we quickly pulled the girls out of the bike trailer so they could see. We were in a safe position up on a bridge, but still about 30 yards away. We took a few pictures, showed the girls and then kept biking with huge smiles on our faces.
On an overcast day with a lot of rain in the forecast, we decided to explore the museums and visitors center around Yosemite Valley. The park does a really great job of educating people on its history. They have galleries with works of Ansel Adams and other landscape photographers as well as exhibits on the seven native tribes that called Yosemite Valley home.
The hikes around Yosemite Valley have one thing in common: ELEVATION GAIN! Our first hike was the Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls hike. Leona threw us a curveball after we biked a mile to the trailhead from our campsite. She requested that Mary carry her. Typically, I carry Leona because she is a few pounds heavier and it can be noticeably different when you’re hiking uphill. So Mary carried Leona to the top of Vernal Falls, a 1.5 mile hike with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. After a lunch break, we swapped kids and hiked another mile and gained another 600 feet of elevation before turning around. We didn’t make it to the top of Nevada Falls because we knew the descent would be tough with the weight of the girls and the 600+ granite steps that we would have to negotiate back down the trail. Considering this was our first hike of the trip and Mary’s knees were already asking for a bit of reprieve, we thought this was a good call.
Because of the rain, both waterfalls were running pretty strong, but nothing like what you see in the spring or early summer when the snow is still melting and there is mist and water everywhere. I think we were both happy we didn’t have that situation because neither of us wanted to hike on slippery granite steps for 5+ miles.
Our other big hike was to Columbia Rock, which is part of the longer Upper Yosemite Falls hike. Columbia Rock was a 1.3 mile hike with another 1,000 feet of elevation gain. This hike started near Camp 4, which is a historic campground where the sport of rock climbing really took off in the U.S. From there, we hiked through a nice tree canopy with lots of switchbacks. As we got to Columbia Rock, the winds picked up and it looked as if a storm was going to roll in. We took a few pictures and then headed back down. Luckily, that storm didn’t roll into the valley and we were able to explore Lower Yosemite Falls and let the girls climb around. It was incredible to see their brains churning as they figured out the best way to climb up to see the waterfall. A few times they asked for help, but for the most part, they weighed the risks themselves and looked for solutions.
The quintessence according to…
Sean- I would say my favorite moment was the sunset at Tunnel View. We had overcast skies up until we drove to watch the sunset and it was well worth it. It gave me a great perspective at how large the valley is and how tall the mountains are that bookend it.
My second favorite moment was after dinner in Half Dome Village on Saturday evening. After pizza, we were walking back to our bikes when we saw the Guest Lounge with a roaring fire. We decided to walk in and see what it was all about. Luckily, having two small children often gets us a free pass to be nosy. We walked right up to the fire and got a front row seat to warm up before biking back. We spent about 45 minutes chatting with folks about a variety of topics. It was great to see a community come together with no technology to discuss the day’s hikes or tomorrow’s plans.
Mary- The wildlife. Considering how crowded Yosemite can be, it was really incredible to find some solitude on the bike paths which gave us the opportunity to see more animals that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. The girls are still talking about the bear.
Quincy and Leona- We think their favorite part of the trip was the “rock climbing” they did to get to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. They scrambled around and took the challenge head on.
Pleasant and unpleasant surprises
-Because of the topography of the Valley, the weather can be a bit scary. You can’t see if storms are rolling in or what the future holds in terms of weather.
-This was probably the most unprepared we’ve been for a trip in a while. Because we threw our stuff in the car, we didn’t scrutinize our gear as well as we do when we need to fly. So we forgot some things like olive oil, dish soap, coffee, etc. The good news is that Yosemite Village and Half Dome Village basically have full scale grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables. To put it this way, we could have done all of our grocery shopping there instead of lugging it from Encinitas. It was also helpful on Saturday night when there was a sudden torrential downpour right as we were starting to talk about making dinner. Surprisingly, we didn’t feel like cooking and decide to hop on the bikes and go eat pizza (soaking wet – the girls were dry though) from the Pizza Patio.
-We were expecting low temps in the upper 40s up until the night before our departure. The forecast dropped to the low 40s. Our sleeping bags and sleep setup were fine. Everyone slept great and we were never cold at night. The hardest part was the mornings before the sun would come over our campsite. We don’t have warm boots or shoes for the girls living in San Diego and we didn’t proactively go buy any (see the unprepared note above) so even with socks and sneakers, we knew their feet were cold making them cold. We had them sit in the car with the heat on once to warm them up, but we are now going to make sure they have waterproof footwear as well when we’re camping.
-We made a quick pit stop at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel after our Columbia Rock hike. We wanted to check it out and had a quick snack (read beer and pretzels) on the hotel lawn. It was beautiful and the restaurant looked incredible. Next trip will definitely include a meal here.
-Both pleasant and unpleasant is that the girls are getting bigger. This means when we are hiking, they usually enjoy it and we are able to hike longer distances and see some really great scenery further from the crowds. The downside is that they are growing and getting heavier to carry. Leona is pushing 30 pounds and Quincy is around 27, on top of the water, food, ten essentials and weight of the packs, we’re getting close to 40 pounds total weight.