After spending a day in Santa Cruz watching surfers, dolphins (and the lunar eclipse!), we hopped back into the car to drive east toward Yosemite. Within no time the coastal landscape gave way to the flat and arid central valley, with field after field of irrigated farmland as far as we could see. When we tired of guessing the crop types (was that really cotton?) we listened to an audio book, To Kill a Mockingbird. We stopped several times for Marlow to use the toilet (in Los Banos of all places!), and four hours later, we arrived at the entrance of the national park. The approach to the park is pretty, but it’s not until you enter the gates and drive through the natural arch of fallen rocks that you can feel the magic of Yosemite — the steep granite cliffs, the giant trees, the golden meadows, the light, the sound – it’s Mother Earth at her most impressive.
What surprised me most about the Yosemite was both the size and the variety of scenery, due in part to the elevation range of 2,000ft to 13,000ft (600m – 3,900m). Though we spent nearly three days in the park we only scratched the surface. Distances between sites can be great so we spent a fair amount of time in the car–but it was always worth it. For kids mostly raised in Britain, this was fascinating terrain and we did a few (fairly easy) hikes to take it in.
On our final day we drove over the summits eastwards toward Nevada. Again the landscape changed and we were captivated by the alpine forests and the lakes at the higher elevations. We talked about the elevation and how it affects the habitat and vegetation. The kids noticed that some alpine trees grew right out of stones, that the lakes in the higher elevations still had water in them despite the long drought and that the temperature had dropped noticeably. Even when we exited the park and drove down through the Inyo National Forest, we were struck by another dramatic change as the pine forests quickly gave way to dusty, desert brush.
One of the things I love most about traveling through the US is how geographically diverse it is. Sometimes the distances are great, sometimes not, but you are never short of variety. And then of course there are the national parks, which are a huge treasure. I am so grateful to those who had the foresight to preserve and protect them so long ago.
• We stayed at the uninspiring but well located Yosemite View Lodge, a large hotel/motel just outside the entrance to the park in El Portal. The furnishings and amenities were straight out of the eighties, but not in a good way. Still, the price was right and our room had two queen-sized beds, a sofa bed and a little (but sufficient) kitchen, so it was big enough for the six of us. We bought groceries from the store just down the road and made our own meals for breakfast and lunch. We ate breakfast in our hotel room and packed picnic lunches to eat in the park. The hotel also had an indoor and outdoor pool, the one thing that always seals the deal for the kids. 🙂
• The Yosemite Park website has a list of all the different lodging options in and around the park, including camping options. (We booked our hotel really last minute, which meant that most of the other options were already fully booked.)
• We ate dinner both nights at our hotel. They have a casual pizza restaurant as well as a more comprehensive restaurant. Neither were anything to write home about (in fact even the kids complained about the pizza!), but given the location and the distance to anything else, it was good enough.
• There is a fancier hotel called the Ahwahnee located inside the park that has an award-winning restaurant, but we never made it there. That’s on the list for next time.
• You can pick up basic food staples and drinks from the several different general stores in the Yosemite area (we bought ours from the general store in El Portal).
• Yosemite Falls trail: this is a short and easy walk, with a paved path leading up to the falls. The waterfall is dry because of the time of year (true of most of the falls and lakes within the lower parts of the park), but the walk was still really pretty. We walked the loop in less than an hour.
• Meadows in Yosemite Valley (near the Yosemite Lodge): golden grasses and stunning views of the surrounding granite cliffs. A perfect spot to let the kids run around freely and with the prettiest background.
• Nature Center and guided nature walk: We took the kids to the nature center which has some simple but good displays of the wildlife in the park (including an exhibit of all the different wildlife poo and animal tracks, which of course the kids loved). We then went on a one-hour nature walk led by a park ranger who taught the kids about the different trees, plants, birds and other wildlife in the park. We saw mule deer, squirrels, birds, and a stunning red-crested woodpecker busy at work on a nearby tree. We looked high for bears, but no luck, though the kids were hoping to get a glimpse (from afar!).
• Glacier Point: Great views of the park and the cliffs (possibly the best view of Half Dome). Worth the long and winding drive up the mountain. We caught a stunning sunset but our camera battery died before we could capture it.
• Wawona swinging bridge hiking loop and swimming hole: we loved getting off the beaten path and finding this quiet area where the kids could play, wade through the river and hike along the banks.
• There is also an Ansel Adams gallery in the park that I would have loved to visit, but we never made it there.
• We drove out of the park through the northern tip at Tioga Pass, which offered a completely different landscape and perspective of the park (and being at a higher elevation meant that many of the lakes still had water in them).