Autumn Colors Paint Yosemite Valley Photo by Keith Walklet
Falling for Yosemite
by Barbara L. Steinberg©
For most of us, Labor Day signaled the unofficial end of summer. Vacations are over. Kids are back in school. It was the last bonafide summer holiday weekend and, from this point forward it’s a slow, steady slide into the New Year.
Each year, the Fall Equinox occurs around September 23rd. The sun crosses the celestial equator, from north to south, heralding the end of summer and marking the official start of autumn. Professed or scientific – it’s autumn! The days are shorter; shadows are longer; nights are cooler; and you can feel the change in the air. It’s inspirational! It’s also one of the best and most inspired times of year to visit Yosemite National Park!
When it comes to visiting Yosemite, fewer travelers visit in this “off-season.” Annually, millions of people throng to see the splendor of the granite cliffs, cascading falls, giant sequoias, and the grandeur made famous by the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams. During late spring and throughout the summer months, Yosemite is teeming with guests from around the world. There’s more traffic and making lodging reservations, especially within the park, can be a challenge. Post-summer, the visitor-tide ebbs and the Park begins an unhurried progression into a seasonal hibernation. Fewer cars on the roads in, out, and around the park, is definitely a big plus. The availability of lodging – at all levels – is much more attainable. And rates start to fall, ever so slightly, usually towards the end of October.
The autumn weather remains comfy with daytime temps warm enough for shorts and river sandals such as Teva and Keen; nights can be chilly but cozy – even more so as the autumn season evolves. Changes in temperatures and weather should be considered when packing. Better to err on the conservative side – the layered approach is usually best – and remember that rain and early snow is always a possibility; come prepared.
Yosemite Valley is famous for its colorful dogwoods – shades of pink and red; and California live oaks turn a golden amber color mid-October to November. Throughout the season aspens adorn themselves with seasonal hues. The onset of autumn colors can’t be timed. Lengthening nights and colder temperatures signal the change. So in other words, later in the season is better but is no guarantee. In the solitude and calm of the autumn season, you can be assured that Yosemite will not disappoint even the most ardent leaf peeper. Look for the landmark blazing red sugar maple near Yosemite Chapel and colorful black oaks in Superintendent’s Meadow. Take Tioga Road along the Merced River for some of the best fall foliage photo-ops.
Visitors should keep an eye out for mule deer and coyote, which are now seen frequently as they move from the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada down into Yosemite Valley. Bears should always be a concern – though not as frequently sighted. Do not leave any food or sunscreen, toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, gum, candy and any other items that have a scent in your car. If camping, be certain to take precautions and use food storage lockers.
From the golden foothills of Sacramento, you have the benefit of missing all that pesky Central Valley traffic heading south. Your foothill perch provides easy access to one of California’s most scenic byways, Hwy. 49. It’s always best to travel with a detailed map and Mapquest also provides some simple directions if need be. It’s mostly downhill (sort of) to Hwy. 120, and coast into the Park. There's no better way to begin this fall foliage sojourn. As autumn flourishes, sightings of color along Hwy. 49 are clearly an added attraction to this multi-hued escape.
Also known as the Golden Chain Heritage Corridor, Hwy. 49 passes through charming and historic towns. Allow time to enjoy the sights and an occasional stop at towns along the way. Amador City, Sutter Creek, Angels Camp, Sonora, and others offer outstanding opportunities for shopping, sightseeing, and maybe a fresh-baked loaf of bread or a glass of wine. California’s past lives on in these Gold Rush-era gems. If you choose to bypass downtown Sonora's 2-lane traffic, a detour on Rawhide Road saves about 15-20 minutes of driving time.
Hwy. 49 has more than it’s share of twists and turns and slow-moving vehicles. Relax and enjoy the ride. Remember, getting there is half the fun, even with today’s soaring fuel prices. If you’ve never driven to Yosemite via Hwy. 120 you may want to avoid Old Priest Grade, which is recommended by Mapquest. This incredibly steep, 2-mile stretch of road is not for the week-of-heart. I love it and wouldn’t think of going any other way, but never with a trailer or motorhome! Think about staying on Hwy. 120 on the west side of the canyon. This will meet Old Priest Grade at the top. About a 6-mile trek, the New Priest Grade bypass is longer and somewhat winding, but the easy ascent can easily accommodate trailers and motorhomes as it's the preferred route for tour buses.
If heading down the “vertical” Old Priest Grade, make sure your brakes are in good working order.
Hwy. 120 passes through the Gold Rush-era town of Groveland, an excellent pit-stop or place to stay outside the Park if that’s your choice. Greeting guests since 1849, the 3-diamond Groveland Hotel’s Victorian Room is known for its extraordinary cuisine and wines; and the Iron Door Saloon (yes, real iron doors) is the longest continuously operated drinking establishment in California. Across the road, Hotel Charlotte offers convenient and comfortable lodging and dining, at Café Charlotte . BTW – both hotels are pet-friendly but call ahead to confirm availability of “pet” accommodations. Something else they have in common: the Groveland Hotel owner’s name is Grover, and the Hotel Charlotte owner’s last name is Upthagrove. Strange but true!
About 23 miles from Groveland, is the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park. Here you’ll be required to purchase a $20 Vehicle Pass, valid for seven days. Be sure to gas-up before heading into Yosemite Valley. The “last chance” is at the intersection of Yosemite Lakes Road (Harden Flat), but it's typically 50 cents to a dollar per gallon more than the Valero station in the town of Big Oak Flat at the top of Priest Grade. There's also another station in downtown Groveland, the very consumer-friendly Vern’s is all “full service” at self-serve prices!. Gas and propane are also available at Crane Flat, Wawona and Tuolumne Meadows (summer only). Without any detours, it’s about 160 miles from Serrano to Yosemite National Park. Depending on your speed and traffic, expect to be on the road at least 3 ½ hours.
If you’re staying in Yosemite Valley, park your car and ride the hybrid electric shuttle to nearby attractions. It's green and environmentally friendly in a big way. And will clearly save on the fueling sticker-shock.
Answering the lodging question may be the toughest: Is this a family outing? A romantic getaway for two? The budget? Lodging possibilities range from the 4-diamond grand dame of the park, The Ahwahnee Hotel and the family-oriented Yosemite Lodge at the falls, to the Victorian elegance of the Wawona Hotel and Curry Village which includes motel rooms, cabins with and without baths, and unheated canvas tents. Checking online will provide additional information about accommodations, amenities and rates, plus the availability of wonderfully priced packages. Plan early to give yourself the best options!
The majestic lady of Park lodging is The Ahwahnee. This celebrated, 4-diamond resort rests grandly among the pines and by the Royal Arches, a dramatic granite wall popular with climbers. The Ahwahnee’s regal architectural details combine the best of the Art Deco and Arts & Crafts movements with a splash of Native American and Middle Eastern influences. Spacious common areas and 99 elegantly appointed rooms – there’s not a bad view in the house – are romance personified. Surrounded by dogwood trees, 24 cottages provide a private showing of dazzling red foliage during the Autumn season. Hotel rooms have stunning views of Half Dome, Glacier Point, and Lower Yosemite Falls (usually dry this time of year). Yosemite Village is an easy walk or shuttle ride from the hotel.
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is ideal for families with kids (or not). There are 245 rooms including four family rooms – which include one double bed, three single beds, a sofa bed, and a dining table. Daily maid service is available in each of the rooms. After registering, be sure to check out the tour desk for upcoming activities. The Lodge is located near Yosemite Falls. Even though it’s dry this time of year, Yosemite Falls (the highest waterfall in North America) is still worth a look and a stroll along the Merced River. The Lodge complex also includes an outstanding gift shop and small convenience store, just in case!
Whether romance or family-time is on your agenda, the Victorian-era Wawona Hotel provides the best of all possibilities. Located in the southern end of the park, this oldest of Yosemite accommodations is reminiscent of a soft Southern Belle. Sweeping verandas and Adirondack chairs whisper your name. Rooms with or without baths are available. If you’re really looking to escape any of the “crowds” in Yosemite Valley and still have endless possibilities of things to see and do…come to Wawona.
Outside of the Park boundaries, Evergreen Lodge Yosemite offers couples and families a rare opportunity to enjoy all of Yosemite, including the little-visited Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. A variety of fully-furnished cabins and cottages accommodate up to six guests. Or if you want something more natural, check-out their new “custom camping” rates. It’s the beauty of sleeping under the stars, without any of the hassles of pitching a tent.
If you're on a budget, or even not, the laid-back and ever-so comfy Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines offers a Hostel-friendly alternative. Private cottages, as well as dorm-style lodging, are available at unbelievable prices considering the proximtiy to the Park. The price of beautiful surroundings is free. The addtion of the new spa is a real plus after a long day hiking in the Valley. A $10 day-use pass is a deal!
The Ahwahnee Dining Room is a gourmet dining experience, with the heart of the menu steeped in California cuisine. Whenever possible, dishes feature both organic and sustainably-harvested, locally-grown ingredients. Ceiling-to-floor windows bring the beauty of Yosemite to your table. Reservations are recommended and proper attire for dinner is requested.
Within easy striking distance of Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is the Food Court, Mountain Room Restaurant, and Mountain Room Lounge. The Food Court offers a cafeteria-styled selection of dining options. Kids will be happy to pick and choose their food favorites, and pre-packaged items are perfect for backpacking or hiking. After a day of sightseeing, unwind next to the Swedish-style fireplace at the Mountain Room Lounge where libations and lite-fare are available for lunch and dinner. The stylish Mountain Room Restaurant features more of Yosemite’s epicurean cuisine and provides a children’s menu for those under-developed taste buds.
The Wawona Hotel serves more of the Park’s exceptional fare. End a day of exploration with Wawona’s Signature Flat Iron Steak and a piece of Big Trees Pine Nut Pie. It’s worth the drive to see this 1880s beauty who housed such celebrated guests as Ulysses S. Grant, Lily Langtry and President Theodore Roosevelt. The hotel is closed in January.
Built in 1921, the main lodge at Evergreen houses their restaurant and historic tavern. Three meals-a-day are served or you can “grab-and-go” if you’re anxious to hit the trail. Other snacks, freshly-made sandwiches, ice cream, and sodas are available at the General Store. If weather permits, dine al fresco on the front porch or outdoor dining area. Kid-friendly food is served!
There are endless feasting opportunities within Yosemite Valley. The Village has the largest collection of “fast food” from tacos and burritos to deli sandwiches, burgers, and drinks. Picnic lunches can also be arranged through your hotel. Other snacking options are available at Glacier Point and the Wawona Golf Shop. Some places are open seasonally, so check online or ask at your front desk before heading out.
The on-sight restaurant at Yosemite Bug is pretty gourmet and priced for the truly hungry. It has vegetarian AND vegan options, plus heartier fare such as lamb shanks and NY steaks for the not-so vegetarian types. If you're on a stricter budget or just want to be domestic, there's a communal kitchen for you to prepare your own food.
With so much to see and do, you may find yourself trying to do too much. Pick two or three top things; you’re bound to find more to do once you arrive. Learn the lay-of-the-land and begin to plan return trips.
The Yosemite Valley Floor Tour, it’s highly recommended! The guided two-hour tour is an excellent introduction to Yosemite’s history and nature, and includes some of the most picturesque spots. Special sunset and moonlight tours are offered seasonally.
Nighttime is the right time for parents and kids. Story Time for Kids (12 and under) and Wee Wild Ones (interactive program for 6 and under) are free and no pre-registration is required. Look for programs highlighted in color in the “Yosemite Today” as they are geared for children and families.
At the Wawona, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is a short four-mile drive…or hike if you’re feeling energetic. A tram tour is also available. A ½-mile away, don’t miss the chance to walk across the 130-foot Wawona covered bridge – the only covered bridge in the National Park System and one of 11 in California. Built in 1878, the bridge crosses the south fork of the Merced River and leads to the 1880s Pioneer History Center.
Stay, play, eat – you decide – the Vintner’s Holiday is the real deal for couples visiting Yosemite early November and December. Wine enthusiasts can avail themselves of two- and three-night packages at The Ahwahnee or Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. Packages include lodging for two, admission to four tasting seminars, one “Meet the Vintners” reception and one gala dinner. A five-night option is also available. Visitors are welcome, free of charge, at all Vintner’s Holiday seminars and panel discussions, and may also purchase gala dinner tickets. It's not too soon to check-out Bracebridge Dinners in December...a once in a lifetime experience!
Many guided hikes can be arranged once you arrive in the Park. Check at the Tour Activity, lodging registration, or Concierge desks. Always carry plenty of water; wear a hat and sunscreen; stay on marked trails; and remember the “Leave No Trace” philosophy of pack-it in and pack-it out.
Yosemite Falls is dry this time of year. Have heart! Nevada and Vernal falls are not. The Nevada and Vernal falls trail is the Park’s most popular. Not at their most spectacular, they are definitely less crowded in the Autumn and magnificent anytime of the year. Along the well-maintained Mist Trail, the hike to the top of Nevada Fall is 3.4 miles from the trailhead in Yosemite Valley. Anyone with patience and fitness can make it to the top. The Vernal Fall hike – the first 1.4 miles – is great you’re less ambitious, but still interested in a great destination hike. Pay attention to the signs noting the dangers of the waterfalls!
A high country excursion to Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows provides stunning views and an easy hike (one-mile roundtrip) – a low work-out commitment with high returns. Gorgeous in autumn. For a full-day commitment, the hike to the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp (5.7 miles one-way) is all that and more! Isolated stands of aspen along the Tuolumne River have impressive displays of yellow, orange and red. This area was burned in forest fire many years ago; the surviving aspens are bravura. Both hikes are reached via Hwy. 120/Tioga Road. If you’re not going on a guided tour, be sure to pick-up trail maps and directions.
Guided roundtrip and one-way tours to Glacier Point can be arranged through the Park or Evergreen Lodge. Vistas from the top, 3,200 feet above the Valley, are some of the most spectacular with views of: Half Dome, and Yosemite, Nevada, and Vernal falls. The Yosemite Association (recently merged with Yosemite Fund to form the Yosemite Conservancy), a not-for-profit educational organization, also provides a series of seminars tours, and customized trips. Y-Explore Yosemite Adventures offers a wide-range of guided tours, naturalist walks, and photography sessions.
For comprehensive information on how to Go, Stay, Eat, Play and Hike on your Falling for Yosemite escape call or check online. Check for lodging packages which may include meals or special amenities.
Yosemite National Park: www.YosemitePark.com and www.NPS.gov/yose;
or call 559/252-4848. Reservations for activities can be made seven days in advance by calling 209/372-1240 or when you arrive at your lodging.
Evergreen Lodge Yosemite: www.EvergreenLodge.com
Groveland Hotel: www.Groveland.com
Hotel Charlotte: www.HotelCharlotte.com
Yosemite Association: www.Yosemite.org
Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort: www.YosemiteBug.com
Y-Explore Yosemite Adventures: www.YExplore.com
CalTRANS Road Information: 800/427-7623: www.DOT.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo
Forest Service Fall Foliage Hot Line: www.FS.fed.us/news/fallcolors.
Some babysitting services can be arranged at Yosemite Lodge or the Ahwahnee – but you need to arrange as far in advance as possible