Yosemite National Park is one of the great scenic wonders of the world, but, by virtue of its location, is also accessible to millions of visitors annually. This article paints a picture of what a visitor to Yosemite can expect to see, including sites both in Yosemite Valley and in the surrounding high country. The article concludes with some practical notes about planning a visit to the park.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California just a few hours from San Francisco lies one of the great natural and scenic wonders of the United States and of the world: Yosemite National Park. Before the modern notion of the National Park system had come to fruition, Yosemite was set aside, in perpetuity, by the federal government and the government of California to preserve the incredible beauty of its sheer cliffs, roaring waterfalls and pristine, alpine country. Today, Yosemite remains one of the most visited National Parks in the country, a playground for hikers, climbers, campers, fishermen, artists and lovers of the outdoors.
The centerpiece of Yosemite is the seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley. Upon entering the valley from the west by the Wawona Tunnel, park visitors are greeted by the iconic Tunnel View vista. From a perch many hundreds of feet above the valley floor, they can see the 3,000 ft. sheer face of El Capitan, one of the best-known rock-climbing challenges in the world, the 600 ft. drop of the delicate Bridalveil Fall and, at the far end of the valley, the peak of Half Dome, beckoning hikers to attempt its exhilarating but manageable ascent.
Yosemite’s High Country
Yosemite Valley, at an elevation of 4,000 ft., comprises only a small portion of the area of Yosemite National Park, yet bears the brunt of the park’s nearly four million annual visitors. In the high country surrounding the valley, reaching elevations up to 10,000 ft. at Tioga Pass, visitors can experience a more intimate, less crowded, communion with nature. The Tuolumne Meadows, at some of the highest elevations in the park, are marked in summer by fields of vibrant wildflowers, treeless rock domes and dear, alpine lakes. In the Mariposa Grove, south of Yosemite Valley, visitors can walk among Giant Sequoias, massive evergreen trees that are the largest living things on earth. The Hetch Hetchy Valley, nestled away in the park’s northwestern comer, was once a favorite spot of noted naturalist John Muir. Today, visitors to that valley can experience much of that same beauty, but also bear witness to a cautionary tale: Hetch Hetchy was dammed to provide drinking water for the city of San Francisco and, today, one can no longer hike the floor of Muir’s beloved valley.
Yosemite is worth visiting again and again; John Muir spent much of his life exploring this place. Yosemite Valley is open year-round, but lodging and campground space become much more difficult to obtain in the summer months. With the exception of the ski facilities at Badger Pass, all of Yosemite’s high country closes in the winter due to snow. Lower areas, such as the Mariposa Grove and Hetch Hetchy begin to reopen in March or April, but the Tioga Road to the Tuolumne Meadows and the park’s eastern entrance typically does not open until June. Permits are now required to climb Half Dome during the summer months, and are obtained through a lottery.
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