I have visited some alluring places throughout my travels; I’ve frolicked through tropical forests in Hawaii, hiked high altitude Andes in Ecuador, swam in the Mediterranean Sea in Italy, traversed gorgeous gorges in Greece, scrambled around calanques in Southern France, marveled at cherry blossoms in Japan, and hiked around glaciers in the North Cascades just to name a few highlights, but nothing would have ever prepared me for the vast beauty I was about to witness in Yosemite National Park. There’s almost a sacred feeling when you enter the valley; as though you’re floating into a time capsule prior to tall sky scrapers, prior to phones and technology, prior even to human existence. You can actually feel a palpable sense of reverence as you drive through the valley floor. Visitors fall silent with their jaws slightly agape, widened eyes of wonder, not quite believing that they are actually witnessing such beauty; that such beauty should be reserved for fairy tales or museum prints.
Now is a very special time to visit Yosemite National Park. Why? Because during the Covid pandemic, the park has put in place a reservation system where you must have a reservation prior to entering the park, limiting the number of visitors.
How To Make a Reservation To Visit Yosemite National Park
This was my birthday trip, and Yosemite was the main reason we chose California over Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Because we booked our trip fairly last minute, I read about the required reservation system only two weeks prior to our arrival. Day-use reservations are only available via recreation.gov with 80% of reservations being available one month out, and 20% two days in advance of your scheduled arrival. You must arrive on the date you indicate, and your pass is valid for 7 days. You may not share a pass with another vehicle because they list your license plate number on your pass, which must be displayed on your car’s front dash at all times. For more information on how to make a reservation, visit the Yosemite NP website. If you cannot get in, there are alternative options such as the YARTS bus, which is running on limited hours during Covid.
Sasha and I both got on our computers at 6:58AM with our mouse hovering over the “reserve” button, and when 7AM came, we clicked on our arrival date, and it spun for five minutes. We held our breath and waited on the edge of our seats. After what felt like a lifetime, a window popped up and said, “date not available”. They had sold out within five minutes!!! I was devastated. We had already booked our entire trip around visiting Yosemite and everything was non-refundable. What would we do?
My incredibly resourceful husband immediately joined Yosemite Facebook groups and posted on Craigslist, and within one hour, received advice to go to the Recreation.gov app because cancellations immediately become available and the app is quicker than the website. Here’s how it looks:
Voila! 20 minutes later a cancellation popped up on the app and he snagged us tickets for our desired day. How lucky we were! Just as I was starting to feel resentment towards this “stupid ticketing system”, I then felt immense gratitude that we were one of the lucky few who would be able to get in. And it wasn’t until we actually arrived that I realized how effective this system is and how I wish they would keep it like this forever moving forward, even after the pandemic is over. The limited number of people made it feel like we had the park to ourselves. No queues to get to popular waterfall hikes, no feeling like you’re waiting for a ride at Disney Land to see Tunnel View; just quiet, peaceful nature and the occasional visitor, who, just like us, knew just how damn lucky they were to be in. Seasoned locals told us that this is how the park felt back in the 70’s before selfie sticks, tour busses and overtourism. The squirrels seem to like it as well! (By the way, I’ve never seen this behavior in chipmunks or mountain squirrels where they flatten themselves on a rock. Does anybody know why they do this? I can’t imagine it’s to keep warm, because it was nearly 100 degrees F! Let me know in the comments below!)
Yosemite is a huge national park; so how long should you plan to visit? Just like any other national park, if you’re keen on hiking or climbing, you’ll want to spend several days. However, if you’re on a quick passthrough, you can certainly see the main beautiful scenic photographic spots in one day.
Top 6 Sights in Yosemite National Park
- Tunnel View (drive up, scenic lookout)
- Glacier Point (.6 miles RT walk, scenic lookout)
- Vernal & Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail (9.4 miles RT, 2,191′ elevation gain, moderate)
- Sentinel Dome Trail (2 miles RT, 456′ elevation gain, elevation at the top is 8,200′)
- Lower Yosemite Falls & El Capitan Views (1.2 miles RT, 60′ elevation gain, easy)
- Swinging Bridge & Merced River
This is THE lookout spot that Yosemite is famous for and the image you’ll see on all the posters, as well as in many of Ansel Adams’ famous pieces. You can simply drive up to the car park to see this one.
The ROI (return on investment) for this hike is 100% because you simply park and walk .3 miles to the view point. This is the best vantage point of Half Dome because you’re up so high (7,200′ / 2,400 meters). It’s really neat to see the Vernal Falls from so high up and then the next day hike the falls.
Vernal & Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail
This was one of the most fun and rewarding hikes we’ve done recently. You’re starting at just over 4,000′ elevation already and you’ll climb another 2,000′ in just over 9 miles, so it’s challenging in the sense of getting winded easily. Be sure to pack more water than you think you need for this hike, especially if you’re visiting during summer, as temperatures can soar into the high 90’s and there’s no shade cover.
The falls were barely trickling when we visited in August, but it was still a stunning sight. Remember the photos you saw above from Glacier Point? This is them, up close!
You’ll pass an oasis swimming spot with incredible dome views. The dip was refreshing in the high mid-day heat.
Once refreshed and cooled off, you’ll continue on upward and get to see views from the top of the falls looking down!
Sentinel Dome Trail
This short trail provides a different perspective of the valley below and is much more densely populated with trees.
Lower Yosemite Falls & El Capitan
El Capitan is a climber’s destination. The record to climb this giant granite monolith is 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In less than one mile, Sasha and I passed a little bridge over the Merced River and saw a park ranger. We inquired where we could find the swinging bridge, and she said, “you’re looking at it!” Apparently the swinging bridge was replaced several years back and made into a stationary bridge instead, so don’t get your hopes up expecting an Indiana Jones swinging bridge! The views from the valley floor gazing up are just mind blowing. I love how nature has a tendency to make us feel small in such a humbling way.
Where To Eat in Yosemite
Unfortunately during Covid, there aren’t many options for food within the park, so be sure to pack in your own lunch, snacks and water because only the general store is open during this time.
Just 30 minutes before the park entrance is a great little local spot called Around The Horn Brewing Company. They have excellent house-brewed beers and finger food such as sandwiches and gyros. This was an excellent stop after a long day of hiking in 90-degree weather.
Whether you visit in any season, I hope that you will discover the same sense of overwhelming peace and beauty that we did in this magnificent place on our beautiful Planet Earth.
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