Photos by Douglas Cornell
First-Time hikers could not do better than spending a week exploring Yosemite National Park. You could spend the entire time day-hiking without ever getting enough of the gorgeous scenery. This was one of our first major hiking and backpacking trips.
Arrival at The Mariposa Grove
On Friday, September 17, Carol and I flew from Detroit to Fresno (via Dallas) to begin a week of hiking in Yosemite National Park. Exploring this park has been a dream for both of us for our entire lives.
The drive from Fresno was interesting and took about 2.5 hours. We entered the park from the south and first took an easy hike trough the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias. These trees tower hundreds of feet above the ground, and can be 2000 years old. The first mile of the trail was crowded with tourists, but immediately after passing through the Sequoia Tunnel Tree we were alone. We continued hiking up to Wawona Point, which provided our first big view of the park. On the return trip, three deer grazed right next to the trail. They didn’t seem to be concerned about us at all.
On Saturday, our first full day in the park, we departed from our room at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and headed into the park via the west entrance. A beautiful 20 mile drive of curves around the massive valley walls eventually brought us to our first views of El Capitan and Half Dome. At 7 am, there is virtually zero traffic on the park roads.
We found the Yosemite Lodge and purchased one-way tickets to Glacier Point. After a one-hour bus ride (full of interesting narration by the driver), we were deposited at the trailhead for the Panorama Trail. This trail is mostly down-hill and is a good trail for hikers to get acclimated to the 6000 to 8000 ft. elevation. The first part of this hike was quiet, uncrowded, and visually stunning. We had constant views of the Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome and the surrounding granite geological wonders. A trickle of water flowed down Nevada Falls.
The last mile or so was very crowded by tourists gawking at Vernal Falls, but Carol and I had no trouble descending the tricky trail and made it back to the hotel by 2 pm. We were fortunate to share the trail with a park employee, who suggested a high-country hike for us to try.
Our lodging at The Yosemite Lodge at the Falls was adequate but unspectacular. A small store provided the basic necessities (milk and cereal), and a cafeteria-style dining room provides modestly priced meals. There is also a very expensive sit-down restaurant that we avoided.
May Lake/Mt. Hoffman
We took the park worker’s advice and drove 1 hour north to hike to the May Lake and Mt. Hoffman (10,850 ft.) trailhead. The drive is very beautiful but requires concentration to navigate the countless switchbacks safely.
We arrived at the trailhead and began a moderate climb towards May Lake. Once we arrived there, we both thought we had found the most beautiful place on the planet. There are backcountry campsites at May Lake, so it would be a wonderful place to spend a night or two.
We headed around the lake and began our climb towards the summit of Mt. Hoffman. After about an hour, we reached a series of high-country switchbacks. There are few trees here, and the wind was quite strong. Nearing the summit, we realized that we’d have to negotiate some large boulders and perform a bit of scrambling. This was no problem for us, as we’ve become quite comfortable with scrambling over the years. Eventually we reached the summit, gave each other a hug, then sat down and enjoyed lunch and looked at the incredible scenery. For the return trip, we re-traced our steps. On the way down, we both thought that we were fortunate to be able to witness such natural beauty.
For Monday’s hike, we were looking for something a bit less strenuous, so we hiked from the Tioga Road down to North Dome. This hike is mostly downhill and features miles of soft, wooded hiking before the terrain opens up on the ground surrounding North Dome. The prominent feature of this hike is the constant view of Half Dome, which bursts out of the ground on the other side of the valley. Our hike was dry, warm, and the winds were calm.
On the return trip, we headed up a spur trail to Indian Rock, the only natural arche in the park. We scrambled up to the arch and enjoyed a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and barbecue flavored Pringles.
The North Dome hike is quiet and fun and highly recommended.
Upper Yosemite Falls
The best time to view Yosemite National Park’s many waterfalls is in the mid-summer, when the snow melt-off is at full force. But the summer is also the most crowded time to visit the park, so if you like quiet trails, visit the park in September. The falls may not be as spectacular, but you will find peace and quiet.
The next day, Tuesday, had us wanting something fun but brief. The trail to (the totally dry) Upper Yosemite Falls is right behind our hotel, so we headed up more than 60 switchbacks and covered 6 miles on this fun round trip hike that seemed to head directly up the side of a rock wall. We climbed (and descended) 3000 feet, but were done by noon. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and preparing for our backcountry trip to Half Dome.
The majority of hikers who attempt to climb Half Dome do the 12-hour hike in one day. Carol and I had a more modest plan. By hiking to the backcountry campground in Little Yosemite Valley, we could hike 5 miles on our first day, climb Half Dome (3 miles), then descend the entire 8 miles back to our lodging. To camp anywhere outside of the main campgrounds (which are crowded and noisy), you must secure a back-country permit. There are so many backpackers in the park that it is sometimes difficult to get a permit, so plan your trip early. You can apply for a permit online on the National Parks website. [EDIT: All Half-Dome hikers must enter a lottery to obtain a permit to climb the cables. Click here for details].
We parked our car at the designated backpackers lot and headed out on the John Muir Trail at 7 am. Carrying up to 40 pounds of camping gear up this steep trail was difficult for the first mile or so, but eventually one gets used to the weight. There were a few people on the trail with us who were going to do the entire trail – out and back for 16 miles – in one day. We wondered how successful they would be, since they would probably be back well after dark.
Since we only had to hike 5 miles, we took our time and enjoyed the scenery. We really weren’t tired at all when we arrived at the campsite. It was only noon, so we set up camp and spent the afternoon lazying in the sun next to the Merced River.
We had heard all sorts of warnings about bears, but we never did spot one! The squirrels and chipmunks were another matter, and one chewed a hole in our tent trying to get to a bottle of contact-lens solution in Carol’s backpack. Never, ever keep any food or lotion in your tent!
The Little Yosemite Valley backcountry campsite is large, and accommodates about 30 tents.There are 2 communal fire pits and pit toilets. Fresh water is provided by the Merced River, but one should filter or chemically treat all water taken from rivers in the park. The park was noisy from about 5 pm to sunset, but as soon as the sun went down, everyone quieted down and went to sleep.
We awoke at 5:30 the next morning. After a breakfast of oatmeal and Starbucks instant coffee, we threw on our light Camelback-style packs and headed up the trail towards half-dome. The morning temperatures were in the 40’s, but when the sun came out, it heated up rapidly.
We were virtually alone on the trail. During the peak season, there can be thousands of hikers on this trail, which is among the most popular in the U.S. We walked trough groves of redwoods and rocky paths. There is an elevation gain of about 4000 feet from the valley, and you feel it as your lungs strain for air on the steep sections.
Rounding a bend, we finally caught a glimpse of Half Dome. Way off in the distance, we could just make out the famous cables that enable hikers to climb this amazing slab of granite. The cables are installed each summer and removed in the autumn.
Before reaching the cables, we enjoyed a beautiful mile of high-country trail that took us over the sub-dome, a fun but tricky section of climbing that would scare away anyone with a modest fear of heights. Finally, we reached the cable section.
Everyone who attempts Half-Dome must wear gloves for both hand protection and grip. The best gloves to use are rubberized gardening gloves, which provide awesome grip.
I headed up the cables first. There were about 15 people on the wall, with about half of them heading down the same cables we were going up on. It takes some tricky negotiation to get around another climber on a nearly vertical wall, where a slip leads to certain death. Eventually, one gets used to passing people, but we were glad that the cables were not crowded.
The cable climb took only about 30 minutes, then the rock leveled out and we were on the top. The flat top of Half Dome is huge, and there is ample room to find a quiet spot to enjoy the view and sense of accomplishment. We spent another half-hour relaxing, then headed back to the cables for the descent.
It didn’t seem like any big deal at all to go down. Carol and I have both found that we acquire confidence when we are scrambling over big rocks. Sections that gave us the “willies” on the way up were no big deal on the way down!
Soon we were on the trail back down to our campsite, where we packed up our gear, threw on our backpacks, and trekked back down the trail and into the valley. We arrived at our car at 3 pm, and immediately headed to the Village Grill, where we feasted on burgers, corndogs, fries, and milk shakes.
Our lodging for the evening was a the Tuolumne Meadows campsite, which required a 1.5 hour drive to the other side of the park.
Lembert Dome/Dog Lake
After spending the evening at the Toulmne Meadows campsite (with no showers!) we woke up on our last day in the park, shook out our stinky, tired bodies, and went out for one last hike. The trailhead for Lembert Dome was directly across from the campground, so it was an easy choice. This hike was easy yet seemed to be just what we needed. We hiked alone trough quiet trees and meadows and emerged next to a small pond at the bottom of the dome. The beauty of this little pond had me thinking about how lucky Carol and I were to witness the majesty of Yosemite and fulfill one of our life’s goals of visiting the park. I fought away tears as we continued our hike to climb this modest yet fun little dome.
After a brief bit of scrambling, we reached the summit (around 9200 ft.). We were alone in the high-country, with views of the entire Toulmne section of the park spread before us. We sat in the silence for several moments before heading back down the dome.
The trail to Dog Lake was easy and quiet. This beautiful lake rests next to a high-country meadow. Carol and I split a Power Bar and some maple-nut goodies, then hiked 3 miles back to our car.
Ahwahnee Lodge and Departure
The only lodging we could obtain for our final night in the park was at the magnificent Ahwahnee Lodge. Built in 1927, this historic lodge is luxurious and expensive. It was quite an extravagance for us, but as the guidebook stated, everyone should stay at the Ahwahnee once in their lifetime.
For some reason we were upgraded from a regular room to a suite. But after 3 days on the trail, we were only interested in the shower. We had a quiet dinner at the hotel bar and returned to our room where we watched a movie and snuggled into the soft bed.
On Saturday morning, we quietly departed the valley and drove south for 2 hours back to Fesno, back to the airport, back to people, jobs, commitments, and expectations.
The week we spent in Yosemite was the best vacation Carol and I have had together. The place is beautiful beyond comprehension. Yes, hiking is often hard. It is dirty, and at times can be tedious. But to be out on the trail, alone with the one person in the world you love the most, is a very, very special thing.
Notes and Suggestions
- Fresno is the closest airport. It is a small airport, but it is very easy to rent a car there and drive to the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park.
- Consider spending the first night in Oakhurst, which is only 30 minutes or so from the south entrance. All of the major hotel chains are here, so a night’s lodging won’t cost too much.
- Consider backcountry camping. We plan on returning to Yosemite soon to complete two other interesting hikes: Cloud’s Rest and the 10 Lakes area. Camping is by far the least expensive way to stay in the park.
- Avoid the main campgrounds. They are noisy and crowded.
- Take a warm jacket. The overnight temperatures in September dropped to around 30.
- If you plan on doing the Half Dome trek in one day, bring along a water filter or purifying tablets. You will find water at several places along the trail. A lot of people underestimate how much water they will need!
- Our favorite trail foods? “Milk Dougs” – put some Milk Duds and toasted pecans in a zip lock bag. Eat them. We also love Maple Nut Goodies, which are made by Brachs but seem to be a regional treat.
- Fitness! To climb the steep trails in Yosemite National Park, a strong fitness base is suggested. Carol and I logged a few thousand miles bicycling, which provided an excellent cardio base that certainly helped. You should also do plenty of “core” training if you are planning on climbing Half Dome. Pull ups and push ups are highly recommended.