A Guide to the Parks: Yosemite National Park

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The base of Lower Yosemite Falls

About 160 years ago Yosemite National Park became the first piece of wildland protected forever, thanks to Mr. Abraham Lincoln. For those who aren’t familiar with the National Parks, Yosemite is in the beautiful state of California. It is just southeast of Sacramento and has five park entrances so you aren’t having to fight traffic too much getting in. The park features incredible waterfalls, massive granite cliffs, hiking trails aplenty, and picturesque views from just about everywhere. We are by no means experts, but I want to share a few things that we learned from visiting this park and the many others. This is the first of many guides to the National Parks.

Spring time in the valley leaves a reflecting pond in the middle that amplifies the beauty of the park

Yosemite wasn’t the first National Park we visited, but it has become one of our favorites. We knew it had to be on our California bucket list, and honestly, we had every intention of visiting the park sooner than we did. Unfortunately, we moved to California in the summer 2019 and we all know what happened in March 2020. On one of my last drives from Washington to California I decided that I would at least drive through the park and maybe try to squeeze in one hike with the boys before completing the trip. It was a pretty big detour but I knew I wanted to see it and I wasn’t sure what our road trip across the states was going to look like so I put in in my itinerary.  I entered through the Big Oak Flat entrance so it was a very easy drive in and the traffic was pretty light.  We drove through at the very start of June so there was still some snow in the higher elevation and the valleys were flooded.  All of the parks give you that initial awe-struck feeling but Yosemite might take the gold for the biggest WOW factor. I’m not joking when I tell you that I turned the music off, rolled down my window, and kept repeating “wow…oh my goodness! This is incredible!” The boys were in the backseat doing the same.  Once we made it into the valley all three of us were shouting all that we could see.  “There’s a waterfall!” “There’s a waterfall on this side!” “WOAH! Did you guys see that one?!” “Look at those huge rocky mountains mom!!” I pulled over the first chance I could and all three of us got out and spun in circles trying to take it all in. I knew in that moment that coming back to the park was a must. Our return a month later with Caleb was when we really explored the park. The boys and I drove around the valley and looked at a few scenic spots I had heard about but mostly we stayed in the car and drove.  I would love to share some of the things we learned while visiting this park as well as the many others we have visited so far.  So, here are my top 7 recommendations–

The staircase that takes you to the top of Vernal Falls.
  1. Get there early. This is a big one—if you plan to visit the park in the summer you need to get there as early as you can.  The longer you sleep in, the longer it will take to get into the park.  The summer is the busiest time to visit and while the park does have other entrances they will all start to get backed up if you wait to late in the day to get going.  Our second time visiting we entered through the Southern entrance so we could drive through the tunnel and emerge with infamous Tunnel View.  We did not get up and get going that morning so we ended up having to wait about 40-45 minutes to get into the park and actually had to circle the valley twice before we could even find a spot to park.  Learn from our mistake…get there early!

    Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park
    Shelly Osborne Photography
  2. Pack lots of food and water! There are a few places to stop and eat in the valley, but like most parks, the focus is on nature, not amenities. For our road trip from California to Tennessee we decided to have all the fixings to make peanut butter sandwiches and had prepped a lot of fruit and vegetables so we could have quick and easy snacks throughout the day. This made park visits a lot smoother because we never got ourselves in a pickle trying to search out food.  When I visited the park the first time, parking wasn’t an issue. We drove through early June on a week day and it was about 3pm so traffic was very light and if I wanted to stop and look around there was always a place to park. When we went a month later it was night and day difference.  Traffic was extremely heavy and parking was a bit of a nightmare. When we finally found a place to park my husband and I agreed that we wouldn’t be moving the car unless we were ready to leave. We packed as much as we could into our backpacks and came to the agreement that we’d probably have to snack until dinner. Same goes for water—as heavy as our backpacks were we knew we didn’t want to be caught without drinking water while out hiking so we loaded up as much as we could and refilled our water bottles when we could.
  3. Rent bikes. We had not planned on renting bikes but mid afternoon when we realized we were running out of time and the boys out of stamina we decided to rent bikes with the kid trailers. I regretted not getting them sooner once we had them. We were able to ride through the valley and see parts of the park that we otherwise wouldn’t have because of how tired the boys were and how horrendous parking was that day. We didn’t rent the bikes until after hiking one of the waterfall trails and from there we rode our bikes to the other trail heads and biked as far as we could then walked the rest of the path.  The bikes with trailers are available to rent in Curry Village and cost $55 for a half day rental, $75 for a full day.  Without the trailer the bikes are almost half the price.  Even though traffic was crazy, the bike trails were wide and I never felt stressed about riding the bike with my kid in a trailer amidst the chaos.  My husband and I decided to rent two bikes with trailers so the boys had room to stretch out a bit and we were also able to store our heavy backpacks in the trailers which was huge relief for my back. 10/10 recommend renting a bike if you go.
  4. Plan your stops. Whether it’s viewpoints, hikes, or landmarks you want to see it’s incredibly important to plan your stops. There are a lot of signs in the park, but unless you know some facts about the park, you won’t know where to pull over and see what you want to see.  I was happy I drove through the valley a month prior to our trip there because I was able to talk to Caleb about the layout of the valley and the few places I did stop. I was able to share what we saw and maybe what we should do on our family trip instead of wasting time driving around in circles.  The first stop the boys and I made that first trip was the Bridalveil Fall Trail. I had actually wanted to revisit this hike with Caleb because of how heavy the water was flowing when we first went, we couldn’t get as far as I wanted to and I had hoped to see it again and get closer. Unfortunately, the traffic and our late arrival didn’t allow us the time to do it.  But for families with younger kids, this is a great little hike to do when you enter the valley. It’s one of the first big spots to stop and it’s beautiful!
  5. Vernal Falls. This was the big hike our family did on our second trip. I had seen plenty of videos of the massive waterfall and I knew I wanted to see it. I had been advised by one of our dear friends that the last stretch of the hike is a steep staircase that will take you to the top of the waterfall. It sounded amazing I won’t lie.  I was so excited to get up there and see it.  Again, the water flow was extremely heavy last year so we had also been advised that the mist coming off of the waterfall would soak us. We packed accordingly and I did my best to prep the boys for what was to come but I had no idea how much water there would be. It was incredible. It was powerful. It was intense. It was beautiful. The hike up to the staircase was busy, but beautiful.  There were so many stunning views and some parts even had shade.  When we got to the staircase, we put our raincoats on, changed our shoes, and covered all that we could…and it still wasn’t enough. Guys, we were soaked. The mist coming off of the waterfall was so intense that there was a steady stream of water flowing down the staircase. Not only was it incredibly wet, but because it was so busy I found myself more fearful of my kids tripping or being tripped by the other hikers. About half way up the staircase the mist intensified and we all agreed that while the view from the top was probably amazing, it was time to turn back. We didn’t really get a great picture of that vantage point because our phones/camera would be soaked in a matter of 5 seconds. But for those adventure seekers out there—I highly recommend that hike. It was incredible.
  6. Stay informed. This is a really big one. This park has just recently brought back park reservations. This includes just driving through the park. While many travelers are frustrated that this is happening, I am actually grateful because of what we experienced in June 2023. The park is beautiful and worth visiting, but when it’s too full to find a place to park then you’ve wasted your time and money. When we went the Tioga Pass Road was still closed due to winter storm damage. They had gotten so much snow up top that they were still trying to uncover the ranger station and repair the road damage. Because that part of the park was closed, it pushed many of the travelers into the valley which made for a very crowded park visit. I would strongly advise any visitor to download the National Park app or at least visit the national park website https://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm before visiting the park to be informed of any road/trail closures so you can plan accordingly.
  7. Visit the Visitor Center! I know it may not sound like an important thing to do, but it truly is. The rangers at the visitor center are very informed and can advise you on which hikes to do or not do. They can tell you what wildlife has been spotted, where to be at certain times of the day, and can point out trails you may have overlooked. We have made it a priority to stop at all the visitor centers because of the wonderful advice we have received in the past. Most of the visotr centers we have visited also include a little museum element that teaches about the wildlife, plants, and history of the park which has helped us in our visits. They also have some pretty great souvenirs in the gift shop.
One of the many trails you can bike along in the middle of the valley.

If all you can do is drive through the valley, it’s worth visiting Yosemite. My first travel to the park I only had about 3 hours. I definitely didn’t get to see some of the amazing things the park has to offer in those 3 hours, but I saw a glimpse of the potential.  President Teddy Roosevelt said this after visiting Yosemite, “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” If you happen to find yourself in mid California, take the drive. It’s worth it.

Our family photo with the Lower Yosemite Fall in the background
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Shelly Osborne
Shelly Osborne married her high school sweetheart and is currently the CEO of Home Operations (AKA a stay at home mom). She graduated Eastern Washington University with her teaching degree and soon after became a mom to two wild boys. At their first duty station Shelly decided to pickup her old high school hobby and began photographing military families. She has continued to do photography part time to break away from the mom/wife role and to meet local families. To put her teaching degree to the test she has been homeschooling her boys. So, in the small amount of free time she does have, Shelly enjoys being outside, throwing a frisbee at the beach, camping, exploring, crafting, movie nights, and adventuring with the family

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