Siobhan and I have visited 26 national parks now so we’ve seen a few things. So many, in fact, that it gets tough to keep them all straight. We decided that a ranking of all the parks we’ve visited would help us better remember places that were truly special. Of course, we have different points of view so we decided to have separate rankings of the parks and then a combined ranking too (equally weighted, of course). For those of you that will ask, the ranking criteria is purely subjective with all things important to the evaluator being fair game.
We are sharing this with you as a way to demonstrate just how beautiful this place is, in our eyes, at least. Being a bit more educated now on how crowded these heavily-visited parks get, we departed Coarsegold before 6AM for the one hour ride to the park entrance and arrived at an overlook of the valley inside the park (it’s a big place) about an hour after that. Just stopping at that first vista point after coming through the tunnel, breathtaking! Instant top ten status, right there and then! And it kept getting better from there as we proceeded deeper into the park. Which park, you ask?
Yosemite National Park, established on October 1, 1890, covers 747,956 acres of some of the most beautiful landscape we’ve seen so far. Over four million of our closest friends/visitors come here each year (2015 data), making it the fourth most visited of the 58 National Parks in the country. We came into the park through the south entrance before sunrise, passed the Wawona Visitor Center, continuing along the steep climb through the switchbacks for about an hour before reaching the vista at Tunnel View, overlooking the Yosemite Valley. Stunning…see for yourself.
Our drive to the Yosemite Village down in the valley took us past views of Bridalveil Fall, Glacier Point, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock and Yosemite Falls on our way to the Cook’s Meadow trail along the overflowing Merced River.
Then quickly onward to the Visitor Center in Yosemite Village were we (just barely, even at this early hour) scored a tough-to-get parking spot right in the center of the village. A short walk on the paved multi-use pathway got us to the visitors center for some park info and advice from the Rangers before they opened at 8AM. This park, like Zion, has an extensive 19-stop shuttle system designed to reduce the traffic within the park. Here, though, its use is voluntary. We opted to take it to Happy Isles Shuttle Stop #16 get to what is affectionately called the Mist Trail trailhead.
This strenuous three mile roundtrip trail gains 1,000′ in elevation starting with a steep climb to Vernal Fall Footbridge where it crosses the Merced River. From there, a left turn leads to millions (well, that might be a slight exaggeration) of shallow steps carved into the rock ledges leading to the top of the Vernal Fall. They call this trail the Mist Trail because some mist from the waterfall usually sprays toward the hikers as they ascend the stairway to the top. This year, however, with the record snowfall, the trail should be renamed (at least temporarily) the Monsoon Trail. As we started up the trail, we could see some people descending that were soaked through and through (just ask the lady with the white pants…). At that point we didn’t understand why and assumed they must have decided to go for a swim somewhere further up the trail. As we continued our ascent, we got a first-hand understanding of just how much water was being blown from the head of the falls into the trail. We got completely soaked all the way through all of the clothes we were wearing. Glad we weren’t wearing white, but it sure would have been nice if we had our rain gear! As we climbed higher and higher, the slippery stone steps went from being wet to being covered by a developing small stream. The long, slow climb along the ledge got pretty chilly as we meandered along in the shade. Ahh, but the reward when we reached the top was spectacular. It was a party up there! All the people that made the journey were stripping down to dry out while basking in the sun and enjoying the awesome view of the waterfall, the Yosemite Valley and the village below.
We took another trail down to avoid getting drenched all over again and from it we could see the next two levels of the waterfall further up stream. Impressive! Then the shuttle back to the village center and a drive to the El Capitan picnic area for lunch in the shadows of this rock climbers mecca.
Thinking of the hour long drive along the switchbacks with no guard rails from the village to the park entrance, we had to decide if we wanted to drive back to Coarsegold or make the hour-long drive over to another section of the park called Glacier Point. With all the trafific and the long drive, we decided to make the trek to Glacier Point now while we were here so a return trip the next day would be optional rather than necessary. It made for a long day of driving and hiking but also turned out to be well worth it. We drove all the way out to Glacier Point for unbelievable views of the High Sierra to the north and east and the entire Yosemite valley 3,214 feet below, including El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite, Vernal and Nevada Falls and sparkling Mirror Lake.
From there we began our trip back to Coarsegold, but, just had to stop for our third hike of the day, the moderate Sentinel Dome Trail which many visitors regard as the best view of the entire valley other than from the top of Half Dome. Since Half Dome is an extremely strenuous 14 – 16.3 mile round-trip climb (depending on which trail you start on) gaining 4,800′ of elevation during an estimated 10 – 12 hours elapsed time, Sentinel Dome sounded like a great alternative! We even got to watch a thunderstorm heading toward us from across the valley while up on top of that mountain and still made it back to the Jeep before it let loose on us. Wonderful way to wrap up our twelve hours in the park that day before the two hour drive back to Our Way.
Certainly, a Top Ten park. If not for the crowds, perhaps a top five!