Vien R. Guenther
Yosemite National Park – Sierra Nevada, Mariposa County, California
Updated: Jan 8
Yosemite National Park, located in the Central Sierra Nevada in California, is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Almost four million each year visit this park, reaching a high of five million in 2016. If you have been here, then you will understand why. The park’s nearly 1,200 square miles (or 759.620 acres) offer plenty of places to explore - valleys, meadows, giant sequoia trees, a vast wilderness and rich human history, not to mention spectacular mountains to view and climb. Yosemite is also home to some of the most impressive waterfalls – Sentinel Falls, Yosemite Falls, Ribbon Fall, Horsetail Fall, Bridalveil Fall, Nevada Fall, Vernal Falls, Illilouette Fall, Wapama Falls, Chilnualna Falls, as well as impressive cliffs and rock formations.
Yosemite meaning, “killer” in Miwok language, has been home for native Americans for thousands of years, since Ice Age glaciers receded. The area was once called the Village of Ahwahneechee (“dwellers”) people, the largest Indian village in Yosemite Valley. Behind the Yosemite Museum is a reconstructed village of the Miwok people, which is still used today by members of the local American Indian community for ceremonies and special gatherings. The first European Americans to enter Yosemite Valley came in 1851. It was the beginning of tourism in the area and marked the end of life as they knew it in the valley for the Indian communities.
Painters and photographers, such as Albert Bierstadt, lobbied to establish the original Yosemite Grant in 1864. The images they provided for Congress and President Lincoln helped to approve its preservation, under the protection of the state of California. Finally, Yosemite was established as a National Park in 1890 after John Muir’s successful lobbying of Congress. It is believed that John Muir influenced President Theodore Roosevelt to expand the park’s federal protections, after spending time with him in the park in 1903. Later, in 1984, Yosemite was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
POPULAR VIEWPOINTS IN THE PARK
When we visited the park, visitors could drive freely into the pami valley of the park, but in later years traffic congestion became a problem during peak season such that shuttle buses were provided for free year-round. Starting in 2020, it now also requires advance reservations to access the park during peak seasons. What hasn't changed is that most visitors still confine their visit to the Yosemite Valley, concentrating on the park's most popular viewpoints.
TUNNEL VIEW – Located along Wawona Road is one of the most famous views in Yosemite Valley. It is the first viewpoint visitors see in the valley when approaching by this road. The view is impressive indeed, as you can see from the picture below. Imagine how many photos of this view have been taken over the years? You will never get tired of looking at it.
GLACIER POINT - is the most spectacular viewpoint in the park, with the view of Yosemite Valley below, the famous Half Dome and three waterfalls. This must be the busiest area of the park. Half Dome is Yosemite’s icon, rising nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor. People climb it, but there's a lottery to get tickets for that if you are planning to climb it. This limits the number of hikers that can do this hike each day since it has become over-crowded.
From Glacier Point, you will see Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls below. These are some of the best waterfalls in the park. We couldn't resist hiking to these falls the next day.
If you don't have vertigo, look down and you will see an impressive aerial view of the Yosemite Valley below. It's a long way down so utmost care is a must. This valley is the most popular area in the park and it means crowds are concentrated here.
There are over 800 miles of trails in Yosemite, from easy, moderate to strenuous. Some trails, of course, requires backpacking. Almost 95 percent of the park is wilderness with 750 miles of trails, and backpacking here requires a permit.
We didn't plan on doing long hikes here, in fact we didn't even bring along our hiking boots and hiking sticks. But how can you resist not hiking in this place. We only did a couple of day hikes since we combined visiting other two national parks on this trip - Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Park. We were not equipped for hiking in the wilderness, so we hiked the two most popular trails, Vernal and Nevada Falls, and a short hike to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point.
VERNAL FALL & NEVADA FALL TRAILS – 8 miles
This trail begins at the Happy Isles trailhead which gives access to the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail, which begin about 0.6 miles from the parking lot. If you take a shuttle bus, it’s stop #16 (Valleywide or East Valley Shuttles). This trail is mostly uphill, so you can choose how far you want to go, either to the Vernal footbridge, the top of Vernal Fall, the top of Nevada Fall or all the way. To Vernal Fall bridge is about 0.9 mile and another 0.5 mile to Vernal Falls. Both waterfalls are fed by Merced Lake high above.
About 0.2 mile from Vernal Fall is a junction. It splits into a loop trail, so either way will take you to Nevada Fall. Both trails also connect to the John Muir trail. The Mist Trail continues on the left while the trail to the right will take you to Clark Point and then to Nevada Fall. This trail is longer but scenic all the way.
You have a choice to end your hike at Clark Point, or continue on the John Muir Trail all the way to Nevada Fall. From here the trail is even more scenic, or I should say, spectacular.
Along the trail you will see Nevada Fall from afar and the impressive Liberty Cap, a granite dome above the fall - the park contains dozens of granite domes and you will find them everywhere you look.
The loop trail ends past the Nevada Fall, while the John Muir Trail continues on into the wilderness area, interconnecting with other trails in its 200-mile length. We ended our hike here at Nevada Fall, enjoying the view as much as we could while we had our lunch.
Above the waterfall is Emerald Pool, from which the water flows down the waterfalls. You can easily find a nice spot here, to rest and recharge for the journey back down. There were people here but it was not crowded when we were there.
TAFT POINT & THE FISSURES– 3 miles
There are two trailheads on this hike - Pohono/Artist Point Trailhead and Taft Point Trailhead. Taft Point was named after the 27th President of the United States, William Howard Taft, who came across the point while visiting the area with John Muir in October 1909. The short hike is accessed via the Glacier Point Road, the only access by car to this trail. The Glacier Point Road opens around late May or early June and closes sometime in November. For a longer hike, you can start at the Artist Point Trailhead via Wawona Road, near Tunnel View overlook.
So, we opted for a short hike from the Taft Point Trailhead, an easy short hike but with the same spectacular views of the valley below and the wilderness beyond. From here, Taft Point is just 1.1 miles, but if you want to add some miles, you can follow a loop trail around Sentinel Dome and Roosevelt Point, then on to Taft Point.
On the trail, after passing through sparsely populated pines, the view opens up where a stunning view of the Yosemite landscape is revealed. There is El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Valley right before your eyes. Would you dare to stand at the edge of the cliff? Some people do, we did also, but not right to the edge, at least. It's not for the faint of heart, I can tell you especially if you have vertigo.
In 1900, Kitty Tatch and Katherine Hazelston, waitresses at Yosemite National Park hotels, danced on Overhanging Rock at Glacier Point. Their pictures were later made into postcards, autographed and sold for years.
Look down at the fissure - it's one of the attractions on this trail. It's a natural crack in the granite rock that drops all the way down at some point.
Check the park's website for road closures, reservations, tickets and permits if you are planning to visit Yosemite National Park.