© Ron Niebrugge
A visitor enjoying the view of Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park
Travel to California should include Yosemite National Park, or at least
the plan to visit eventually. A vacation to Yosemite and the
surrounding area can be a rustic cabin, a back county hiking trip or,
instead, pamper yourself and stay in a resort or bed and breakfast
inn. Accommodations inside and outside the park cater to
This is true alpine country – some of the peaks on the eastern boundary
of Yosemite are over 13,000’. If you are traveling November
through May, snow is likely and some roads close or require
chains. Most visitors to the Yosemite area arrive during summer
vacation so plan ahead if you are traveling at this time. If
Yosemite is too crowded, try the Mammoth Lakes area where many winter
ski resorts and condos are available in the summer.
Some of the highlights of this vacation destination include:
Attractions: El Capitan, Vernal Falls, Half Dome, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite Valley, Devil’s Postpile
Towns: El Portal, Mariposa, Oakhurst, Wawona, Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes
Lakes and Rivers: Mono Lake, Tuolome River, Merced River, San Joaquin River
National Forests: Stanislaus National Forest, Inyo National Forest, Sierra National Forest, Toiyabe National Forest
National Parks: Yosemite National Park
State Parks: Bodie State Historic Site (ghost town)
SCENIC DRIVES: Photographer Ansel Adams immortalized the
Park in his famous mid-century black and white photos. Two of the most
dramatically different and unique natural environments can be
experienced in this scenic trip – majestic Yosemite National Park and
bizarre Mono Lake. This driving tour is best spring through fall
as the higher elevations are closed by snowfall. Summer weekends
are the most crowded.
Yosemite Valley is nearly a town, with services to fit an
ever-changing human population, including bus tours, tent cabins and
restaurants. Some of the most stunning landmarks (El Capitan,
Half Dome and its ever-present hard-core rock climbers, Bridal Veil
Falls, the Awahnee Hotel) are in or near the Valley. The rest of
the Park is much quieter, offering true backcountry hiking, camping and
climbing - in addition to lovely scenic drives.
Prices are high in Yosemite National Park for all food, supplies
and gas so prepare as you approach the towns on 120, 140 and 41 before
entering the park. A detailed map and description of the park is
included in our National Parks section.
To start the driving tour, take 120 to the entrance to Yosemite and
plan some time in the Valley. There are short hikes to falls,
views of Half Dome and El Capitan, educational exhibits, and the famous
Ahwahnee Hotel. Take binoculars to spot wildlife and to peer at
the tiny figures of climbers clinging to vertical rock faces on Half
Dome and El Capitan.
Take 41 towards Wawona and the Mariposa Grove. Don’t miss an
opportunity to see 3000 year-old trees rising 300 feet above you.
Leave the park and turn onto 49 at Oakhurst for a beautiful drive
to historic Mariposa and then connect to 140 to return to
Yosemite. Take a left onto 120 to Tioga Road (closed in winter),
access to a vast sub-alpine meadow with gorgeous wildflowers, lakes,
streams, two groves of giant sequoia (Toulumne and Merced Groves) and
views few places can top.
When you leave Yosemite National Park (the first town outside is
Lee Vining), Mono Lake provides a stark contrast in topography, climate
and wildlife. Once threatened by dropping water levels, this
protected area is a birder’s dream. Set in high desert, the
super-salty inland sea is on the "other" higher, drier side of the
Sierras. It is a surreal landscape of calcium carbonate deposits
(tufa) and brackish water that hosts millions of migratory birds
feasting on billions of insects. Visiting at dawn or dusk adds
visual drama to this unique environment.
SIDETRIP: Continue north on 395 to Bodie State Historic
Site – an unrestored ghost town without a touristic veneer, three miles
from paved roads.
SIDETRIP: From Lee Lining, head south on 395 to 158 for a
truly scenic loop around June Lake. Continue south to the resort
community/ski area of Mammoth Lakes.