The drive in from San Francisco felt a little long. We chose the northern route and came into the Yosemite Valley through Sonora and Big Crane Flat (Highway 120). I kept waiting for mountains to appear but I just think the long series of switchbacks that led us into the valley didn’t reveal their elevation as we climbed the foothills. I was half expecting the Rockies or Tetons to appear on the horizon, but the Sierra Nevadas present their elevation much more subtly. I was also saddened by the amount of damage from forest fires we observed on our route into the park. It wasn’t until we passed the Tioga Road and drove through our first tunnel that I caught my breath. We were on the high edge of a magnificent valley looking East to a vast tunnel of granite and forest, the spectacular Yosemite Valley.
I quickly learned that we were witnessing huge monuments like El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls for the first time. I knew I wanted to see Yosemite from the first time I saw Ansel Adams photographs memorializing this park. But I sometimes don’t do all of my homework until I arrive – I might not have had time, or I just might want to explore it as it comes; the latter was the case with Yosemite. So arriving on this vista was truly a surprise that inspired us to journey on and discover the valley for ourselves. We only had 3 days to do so, having planned an interlude here between our time in the San Francisco valley and Lake Tahoe. But the 3 days gave us a perfect little glimpse into the park and its environs.
Day 1: Bridal Veil Falls, Ahwahnee Lodge
After that first tunnel lookout, we learned that once Highway 120 and 140 meet up, there is only a one-way loop in and out of the Yosemite Valley. We had booked the Ahwahnee Lodge, close to the end of the loop on the north side, so we made our way towards it, stopping for pictures along the way and a hike at Bridal Veil Falls and the meadow approaching Yosemite Falls…
I knew I wanted to stay at the Ahwahnee – 1) because it is a surviving national park lodge with loads of history; and 2) because there is not much other lodging in the valley! You can camp or stay at a few other smaller hotels (another historical one is the Wawona). But plan early – the Ahwahnee books up months/years in advance – I was extremely fortunate to book a room just a few months earlier via Expedia.com. National park lodges require preservation and maintenance so the cost is high ($500+/night), but staying is an experience and service is always great – we decided to splurge for our two nights. Sometimes I’m discouraged by the old construction with thin walls and gaps around doors, but the Ahwahnee was solid and quiet – we slept well! A way to save money when staying at a historical lodge is to buy food at a grocery store and picnic outdoors or in your room – we usually do so for multiple meals. In Yosemite, the Village Store is well stocked and walkable from the Ahwahnee or a short shuttle ride. The shuttle is also an excellent way to get around the loop – we were able to valet and park our car for our full stay. The Ahwahnee is a wonderful example of National Park architecture and its stone and wood facade was built to blend into its surroundings, and the Arts & Crafts and Indian textiles compliment the structure well. From its location on the valley floor beneath the Royal Arches you will have vistas to the major Yosemite sights. We even had a view of Yosemite Falls from our room!
The Ahwahnee invites relaxation after a morning or afternoon of hiking/climbing. They serve complimentary afternoon tea for guests in the Great Lounge and a la carte dining in the Dining Room and Bar. For our first night we ended up outdoors on the terrace at the Bar for a Tuolomne Meadows IPA and an Ahwahnee Amber Ale – both delicious with a hummus and veg/pita platter. We had great weather and enjoyed sharing the terrace and lawn with other guests, young and old.
Day 2: Vernal Falls, Mirror Lake, Royal Arches
We woke Friday with plans to spend the day hiking. We took the shuttle to the Vernal Falls trailhead and made our way up the ascent, which was considered a moderate hike and mostly paved actually, but was still quite steep. At the bridge, the trail becomes decidedly more steep and ends with granite stairs soaked with spray from the falls – I got a little fearful of slipping so we turned around. But you can also hike even further past Vernal Falls to Nevada Falls.
From Vernal Falls, we skipped the shuttle and connected to the Mirror Lake trail, seeking out the perfect spot to capture some photos. And again, eschewing the shuttle for connection with nature, we decided to continue on our own loop of the valley and hike the Royal Arches back to the Ahwahnee. The trails were sometimes a little unmarked and very quiet on some stretches, but we did find our way back to the lodge. 🙂 In total, we found our chosen connection of hikes to be a moderate level of effort that gave us a taste of the park’s attractions and a perfect way to spend the day. For dinner, we ended up in the village for pizza at Degnan’s Pizza Loft.
Day 3: Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Tioga Pass Rd
We were headed to Tahoe on our third day so decided to experience the breakfast buffet in the Grand Dining Room at the lodge (we got a seat in the bay window with incredible views!). After that, we were only prepared to do easy-moderate hikes so checked out of the hotel and stopped to do the hike to Yosemite Falls, which was stunning up close. We spotted some daring rock climbers high above ground on precipices leading to the top of the falls, yikes. To get better views, we hiked across the meadow to Sentinel Bridge. From there we not only experienced the falls but the Three Brothers mountain as well.
On our drive out of the valley, we got one last glance at El Capitan before taking the Tioga Pass Road across the ridge on our way to Tahoe. We were lucky it was open that Saturday; it had been closed for snowfall and avalanches the day before! Make sure you check and plan accordingly – from Yosemite to Tahoe we would have had to go back the way we came in and a very broad loop West and North so we were thankful it was open. We didn’t stop to hike but passed Tuolomne Meadows and many more beautiful views and pullouts on the pass and out of the park.
Our trip was a special introduction to Yosemite National Park and another National Park tick on our bucket list…we will be back. 🙂