Yosemite: A Pilgrimage Worth Taking Again and Again

It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see of that tunnel view of the valley, your eyes will mist and you will get butterflies the first time you see it. If you’re a hiker, a naturalist, a climber, or just someone who appreciates the beauty of the natural world then you must go to Yosemite.

I first travelled to Yosemite in September 2017. We made the road trip from Calgary, AB all the way down to Northern California. When we first arrived at Tioga Pass it was snowed out. Frustration grew into excitement when we realized that the only day we could get into Yosemite would be that day and then it wasn’t worth the risk coming back out. We cancelled our camping reservations and decided we would wing it once we got to the valley. Once the roads became clear we began the 2+ hour drive into the valley from the High Sierra.

Each place we stopped as we descended in elevation had less and less camping. We didn’t want to camp in the snow again like our chilly experience in Wyoming so we held out for the valley.

We arrived in the valley by late afternoon just as clouds were setting in. We were exhausted from the morning’s hike at Panum crater in Mono lake so we settled for hiking up to the base of El Capitan.

El Capitan

Seeing this wall instantly makes you want to be a rock climber

Upon reaching the base, you get a true sense to how difficult the climbing is. The granite is almost completely smooth. When it rains there is next to no friction. Surely, enough it did begin to rain and then hail shortly after our arrival at the base of El Cap. We each did our own best Alex Honnold impression and made it about 10 ft up before sliding back down on the wet rock. Chuckling to ourselves we retreated back to the meadow. Upon reaching the meadow we noticed the porta ledges secured to the side of the cliff by climbers seeking shelter from the weather.

In true climber spirit a loud whoop was belted across the valley by one climber when the rain stopped. Dozens more replied from all over cliffs in the valley. A chill went up my spine. Oh man I wish I had been a rock climber before I came here. We had just witnessed Yosemite’s spirit coming out in the climbers. It pumped us up for the next day and we headed into the village to find some camping.

In short… there was none. The foolish Canadian boys had given up their campsite outside the valley for a dirtbaggers day dream. Lucky for us we stumbled across some campsites about a half hour outside of the park along the Merced river. The had full intention of paying but the campsite supervisor never showed up. It made for a cheap night under the stars.

Day two began with breakfast by the Merced river. We packed up camp and decided to head for the top of the valley nail out some short hikes with big view payoffs. The temperature dropped close to 0 but the Canadian boys persevered through by throwing on a sweater with their shorts. The American tourists must have thought we were crazy. Across from where we parked, the trees were still smouldering from the previous season’s wildfires. A sobering reminder of the impact climate change has had on worsening severe weather events.

Sentinel Dome

At only 3.2km round trip this hike is possibly the best bang for your buck in Yosemite. You can experience the best view in Yosemite and what it feels like to stand on an ~8100ft granite dome with minuscule effort required. The snow on the day that we hiked it just added to the effect. Across the valley, Yosemite Falls can be seen with a slight rainbow in its mist. On one side is the infamous Half Dome and on the other side is the also famous granite monolith that is El Capitan. This hike can be connected with Glacier Point or Taft Point. We decided on the latter.

Taft Point and the Fissures

Taft Point is an easy 3.5km hike that features dizzying views 2000ft to the valley floor and a beautiful overhanging lookout.

The mind boggling views straight down to the valley floor make this hike totally worth it. It’s impossible not to have vertigo inducing butterflies as you stand on the edge.

Inspiration Point

The classic view of Yosemite Valley can be seen from the top on this relatively easy 4.2km round trip hike. We decided this was the best way to enjoy the view away from the crowds at tunnel view. Yosemite may be a gem but it’s crowds can be overwhelming. Even in shoulder season.

After completing our hike at inspiration point, we decided it was time to find a campsite for the night. A quick check-in revealed that there were no spots left in the park whatsoever. Camping was completely booked. We drove out to our campsite the night before. A bus full of tourists had claimed the entire campground as their own. Not a single spot available. The sun had set and we still didn’t have a place to sleep. We began driving farther and farther from the park. Every place we checked had no availability or refused to allow the unshaven and unshowered hikers in.

An hour away from Yosemite’s gates we turned around. We were either going to beg for a hotel room or hide out in the park. We eventually struck a deal with a hotel for paying half the price and staying in an unrenovated room. We didn’t know what this meant until we walked into a suite with no furniture, beds, toiletries or anything beyond the floor and a bathroom with running water. Exhausted, we laid out our sleeping bags and spent the evening eating pizza ordered from nearby and having a few pints. The accommodations weren’t what was planned but it beat hiding from park rangers.

First thing in the morning, we headed straight up to Tamarack Flats at an elevation of approximately 7000ft and snagged an open campsite. The nights were cold but boy was it worth it just to have a spot to sleep. Later that morning, we hiked the iconic Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

To reach the top of Yosemite Falls is no joke. The total trip is 11.6km with 2700ft of elevation gain. Much of the trail is comprised of switchbacks but there opportunities for amazing viewpoints along the way. The view from the top is worth it but don’t be surprised if there is a crowd. It’s a popular hike among tourists due to it’s reputation as the highest waterfall in North America.

Upon reaching the top of the falls there are several options. You can chill and enjoy the view, continue on to North Dome in one direction, or to the top of El Capitan in the other. We badly wanted to continue on to El Cap but there wasn’t enough time left in the day. We settled for pizza and pints back in the village before heading back to Tamarack Flats for the night.

The next day we made plans for the Mist Trail even though we did not win the lottery for the Half Dome Cable permits.

The Mist Trail

The 11km Mist Trail takes you past two of the most beautiful waterfalls in Yosemite. Be prepared to get wet! Stunning views are present throughout the entire hike. Watch yourself on the slippery rocks. It’s a long way down! Be sure to bring plenty of water along.

Vernal Falls

Nevada Fall

If you were one of the lucky few, then you can proceed onwards from the Mist Trail to the Half Dome trail. A permit is required for the cable section. If you do not have a permit even well before the cable section is reached then prepare to be hassled by the National Parks Service. The rangers in Yosemite have no sense of humour. This is the only National Park I’ve been to where they immediately escalate to confrontation with guests. A stout option instead of Half Dome is Cloud’s Rest. The trailhead can be found nearby.

We returned to Tamarack Flats for our last night in the park. There is so much to see in Yosemite. Just like the great John Muir, you may way to make your home there.

Things to Know

  • Be prepared for ALOT of people
  • Yosemite is possibly one of the few places in the world where traditional tourist culture and dirtbag culture work well together.
  • Book your camping early. If you’re hoping for a non reservable site then stake your claim early in the morning.
  • In times of emergency/poor weather the park has opened bunks in the staff dormitory to guests.
  • A fast way to a Half Dome permit is by booking a backcountry permit which includes a Half Dome permit.
  • Apply for your Half Dome permit here.
  • Tioga Pass can be snowed out during shoulder season. Make backup plans
  • Forest fires can limit access to much of the park at times. Plan accordingly.
  • Learn to climb! We wished we were better climbers when we went.
  • Build your hiking stamina well beforehand. Even the short hikes have significant elevation gain.
  • Check out my map of places we went in Yosemite Valley.

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