Last year, my friends and I booked a motorhome with a goal of driving around some of the top sites in California, including Yosemite, East Sierras, Death Valley, and Big Sur. However, it happened to be just after the fires had destroyed huge swathes of Eastern California, and much of the area remained closed, so we had to make drastic changes to our plans, and instead drove south and enjoyed the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and L.A – Part 1 and Part 2.
This time, nature was on our side, and the park was open to tourists. The plan was roughly the same as last time, travel by RV from San Francisco, to Yosemite, across to the East Sierras, down to Death Valley, and then back up to SF via Big Sur. It was an ambitious timeline for just under a week, but the amazing thing about having a motorhome, is the ability to be flexible along the way, spending more/less time at locations as needed.
Rather than hiring an older motorhome privately, via Outdoorsy, we opted to rent directly from an RV rental company, Cruise America. It actually turned out to be cheaper, for a nicer/newer RV – but, we might have gotten lucky with the timing, between peak periods at the start of June. Like last time, the RV was still far larger than needed, but, smaller vans are a rarity here in US.
It was a little after lunch when we were on the road towards Yosemite, stopping a few times on the way, first for In-n-Out (no road trip in California is complete without In-n-Out), and a grocery shop at Walmart (no journey to US is complete without visiting a Walmart).
Thankfully I’d pre-booked the first two nights of accommodation. Unfortunately, I only did this a month-or-two beforehand, which meant that all the sites in the National Park were well and truly gone. There was the possibility to chance a campsite on the day, but I wasn’t really keen on that idea. So, it meant we stayed at a private site, Yosemite Pines, outside the park boundaries. It was a little bit of a pain to have to commute nearly 60km in/out of the park, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. It was quiet, and clean enough, and that was all we really needed.
I had toyed with the idea of registering to do the Half Dome hike (they have a lottery system for people to do this hike, as it is quite popular). I balked, thinking that it might be a bit much for us, as it is an entire day’s hike – that I hope to complete another year.
Instead, and by no means a poor consolation prize, we hiked up to Glacier Point from the Valley Floor. I was conscious about parking, with such a large vehicle, so we were up and moving shortly after sunrise, only having breakfast once we’d arrived and safely parked up for the day near the trailhead. It was a Sunday morning in early June, so I guess it’s not quite peak season, but I’d say it’s still quite a busy time of year. We had no problems parking around 7:30AM, but your mileage may vary. It proved to be a glorious place to have breakfast anyway, on the valley floor, staring up at the roaring Yosemite Falls. Traffic was still quite minimal, so the roar of the falls dominated the soundscape.
I’d read that it was quite a steep hike, and staring up at cliffs above us, I was feeling a little nervous about what lay ahead. I was also nervous about the state of the trails, as some comments only days prior mentioned about the amount of snow on the trail. But, we filled water bottles and muesli bars, and shortly before 9AM, we made our way up the trail.
It started easy enough, through some pines, but in no time at all, the relentless climbing and switchbacks began. And so it continued, averaging just around 12-15% for the next 7km. But, the views were so incredible that the shortness of breath, and tiredness in our legs wasn’t even registering.
As we continued to climb and climb, the view of the valley kept changing, and becoming more and more epic. Yosemite Falls continued to be this low thunderous roar, with occasional cracks that sounded something between glaciers moving, and thunder. It was tremendous.
It was also amazing looking across at El Capitan, which I knew of, but didn’t really respect and appreciate until I’d watched Free Solo. There is no shortage of enormous cliffs in Yosemite, but even amongst them, this stood out.
And the hike continued to gain altitude, and provide fresh vantage points as we went. It was never a boring hike, even though at times it felt like a never-ending one.
But, eventually, the trail flattened out, and before long, we were surrounded by dozens and dozens of tourists, fresh from their car and tour bus journey to the summit making the short stroll from the visitor centre car park. Just a short walk further, and we had arrived at the ultimate vista, looking eye-to-eye with Half Dome just across the valley.
We sat and drank this view in, absolutely mesmerised by what was in front of us. But, all things must come to an end, which happened to be a little sooner than we’d expected with the weather starting to close in. As we descended, we had a few light patches of rain, that had us rushing for the waterproof covers for our packs.
About half way down, we started to hear the waterfall roar louder than we’d noticed on the way up, until we started to see the sky flash, too, and realised that it was actually thunder/lightning, and being on an exposed rock probably was less than ideal – OK, we weren’t really that exposed, but still, it didn’t feel like a comfortable/wise place to spend any more time than needed.
As the rain moved in, the look and feel of the valley completely changed, with the layers of the valley disappearing slowing fading away into the rain.
In the end, the hike ended up being 17km (with over 1000m of ascent), and took just over 4hrs return.
While there might have not been enough time to do any further hikes, it was still light enough out to look around a little further now that the main storm clouds had passed. There were a few swimming holes near where we’d parked, and for curiosity, we went to see just how cold they were – very, far too cold to bathe in, regardless how appealing a quick dip was after that hike.
We drove around to have a look at the village, which wasn’t really much of a tourist attraction. But, crossing the Merced River, we had spectacular views of Half Dome.
We also noticed that we were right by Yosemite Falls, so did our best to find a trail across the meadows to get a closer look.
I could feel the weather changing as we approached the falls. Temperatures were chilling dramatically, just as the roar increased, and increased, and increased!
Eventually we were standing at the base of the falls, walking across the creek and blasted full force by the mist of the falls. Attempting to photograph it was futile, as seconds after lifting my camera, it was covered with mist and I couldn’t see a thing. But, the energy of the falls was exhilarating, if a tiny bit terrifying.
The weather started closing in again, and the light was rapidly dropping, so we made our way back out of the camp towards our RV park.
Even though we had more than enough food for the week, we thought we’d check out the nearby town of Groveland. It seemed like an interesting town, with old wooden buildings full of character – but it turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap, with one of the most expensive burgers I’d ever ordered, only for it to be a basic patty on a bun. Whatever, holiday mode!
The next day didn’t quite go to plan. I was hoping to do a second hike on the other side of Half Dome, called Cloud’s Rest. However, to access the start of the trail, you have to drive along CA-120 – which happened to still be closed from winter, even after having checked a day/two before on Google Maps and seeing that it was open. It also meant that accessing the East Sierras was going to need a significant detour today – but that’s a tale for another blog post.
I wasn’t sure if all the love for Yosemite was just hyperbole, but after having visited just a tiny section and seen it with my own eyes, I can say that it absolutely lives up to the hype – and then some!