YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Arguably the world’s largest concentration of stunning mountain hiking trails are just over two hours away for almost anyone living in the 209.
There are nearly 800 miles of hiking trails within Yosemite National Park’s 1,169 square miles.
Many of them are accessible from Yosemite Valley or along Tioga Road. And you don’t have to carry a three-day supply of food and water along with camping equipment on your back to enjoy most of them. A good share of the hikes range from easy two hour ventures to more strenuous 12-hour undertakings.
It makes a day trip from Manteca, Turlock, Oakdale, Riverbank or Escalon to hike extremely do-able.
And if you opt for the 12-month national parks pass it costs $80 instead of the $35 pass that is good for seven days, you can enjoy a lot of Yosemite without putting a serious dent in your pocketbook. There is also a $70 Yosemite Park pass good for 12 months but given there are a few national parks with fees that are within an easy drive of the 209 — Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Pinnacles — spending an extra $10 would cover entrance to those locations as well as national parks across the country.
Keep in mind between May 20 and Sept. 20 you need to make reservations to enter the park on top of paying the entrance fee.
It is why planning Yosemite visits now are critical for that time period. You can reserve a three-day stay. While 70 percent of the available reservations were up for grabs last month, 30 percent of the reservations for every date of entry starting May 20 have been held back. They are available at 8 a.m. seven days before the entrance day. Reservations go almost immediately. There is a $2 non-refundable reservation fee.
The maddening thing is the high country is usually not too crowded but it is also under the reservation system.
This is good in that it thins the crowds somewhat. But because Tioga Road isn’t usually open until mid-May to June after snow removal and road repairs have been made, the only way to access the high country to take advantage of hikes described in the story and the accompanying article until at least late September is via the reservation system.
That is why you need to make a Recreation.gov account in advance and be logged on when 8 a.m. rolls around.
The only drawback to Yosemite National Park is that it’s the park that half the world seems to want to visit every year. Last year 3.29 million people visited Yosemite. The record attendance was in 2016 with 5.03 million visitors.
Yosemite Valley at times takes on the feel of communing with nature on a Los Angeles freeway or strolling down Market Street in San Francisco at high noon on a weekday. That is why between now and October is not exactly the ideal time for anyone in the 209 to make their way to Yosemite Valley. Waterfalls that typically run their strongest between late March and early June are still flowing in the valley but so are thousands of cars. If you want to go to Yosemite Valley before the end of the peak season and not get caught in a traffic jam that makes being caught on the 120 Bypass after a major accident has occurred seem like a pleasant experience, either go on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday or try to get into the park entrance on Highway 120 no later than 6:30 a.m. on Friday through Monday.
The high country along Tioga Pass Road — the Highway 120 segment maintained by the National Park Service — isn’t much better between June and August. The crowds are significantly smaller but still heavy enough to compromise a sense of solitude on most hikes of four hours or less.
That makes the early season along Tioga Road and in Tuolumne Meadows golden. The season starts when crews clear the road of snow. The park service doesn’t give an estimated opening until several days before the last snow is removed.
Based on weather, snowpack and previous year the odds are the high country will likely open in early May in most years. That gives you a 30-day window to avoid nature’s equivalent of Black Friday crowds.
The high country is also pleasant to visit in September until the first snow closes the road for the season. The earliest closing date since 1980 was Oct. 30. Typically, it closes sometime in mid-November with the latest closing since 1980 being Dec. 11 in 1995. Tioga Road closed Nov. 20 last year.
You can’t go wrong planning a mid-September to late October trip to the high country. While the snow is all gone and most green is history by then it still has a lot of appeal. It is cooler plus the air has a distinctively different feel. Also, less crowds means more solitude.
Keep in mind the general store and restaurant at Tuolumne Meadows literally folds up its tent before September ends so you won’t find any services. Tuolumne Meadows, by the way, is at 8,619 feet.
While there are literally dozens of hiking trails worth your time on a day trip along Tioga Road, there are six that are especially sweet.
* CLOUDS REST: Let the rest of the world snake up Half Dome like ants. You get a view of not just Half Dome that is to the south and 1,100 feet lower, but a commanding view of Yosemite Valley and the high country that you rarely share in late September and October with more than a handful of people if that.
It also comes without the terrifying and potential lethal drop-offs that Half Dome has except for the last 300 yards. That final 300 yards requires scrambling over a narrow spine that has drop offs of several thousand feet on each side with the longest being over 4,000 feet. That said, going slow and resorting to a partial crawl gets those who are unnerved by the path to the summit and back.
The expansive 4,500-foot high face of Clouds Rest that reaches an elevation of 9,931 feet is the largest granite face in the park. It also offers an unparalleled 360-degree view.
The strenuous 14-mile round trip hike starts from near Tenaya Lake and follows Sunrise Lakes for a while. Two drawbacks to an early season hike occur early in your journey. One is the need to forge some streams where water may go above your ankles. The other is a stretch were mosquitos put the best repellant to the test. Both problems are virtually non-existent in the fall.
* LOWER CATHEDRAL LAKE: This moderate 7.8-mile half-day hike starts along the Tioga Pass Road 1.5 miles west of the Tuolumne Meadows campground. It is arguably one of the most popular high elevation lakes to visit making an early season hike a must if you want to minimize encounters with other people. Along the way you get to enjoy stunning sights such as Cathedral Peak. The pristine lake at 9,300 feet is relatively shallow. Venturing three quarters of a mile from the outlet you can follow the rim of Tenaya Canyon to stunning views of relatively obscure lakelets and mountain peaks.
You can tag on Upper Cathedral that adds just a mile to the round trip. While you really need to explore the Lower Cathedral Lake, I love the Upper Cathedral Lake as it is my “go to” nap lake when I want to de-stress. It’s kind of an insane concept as in order to make it a day trip after working until 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday, I get up after four hours of sleep, drive 3 hours, and hike in. But there is a smooth granite rock that juts into the lake from the south side that redefines serenity. You can see the fish swim by while Cathedral Peak looms in the background. Drifting off into a nap there is the absolute most relaxing experience I’ve ever had. I try to make the trip once a year and tentatively have it on my calendar for next month.
* POLLY DOME LAKE: It’s a fairly easy 6.2-mile round trip day hike for a readily accessible lake that not very many people visit. As trails go, it is great for a beginner since you really can’t get lost. The reward is a fairly large lake surrounded by a glacier carved landscape. The trailhead is across from a picnic area on the Tioga Pass Road midway along Tenaya Lake.
* EL CAPITAN: You don’t have to scale the 3,000-foot vertical granite walls to enjoy the views from the top of El Capitan. There is a 15.4-mile round trip day hike that starts at a trailhead at the Tamarack Flat campground 3¾ miles up Tioga Road from the Crane Flat turnoff. It is a strenuous hike that includes one major climb of nearly 2,000 feet. The views from El Capitan are worth it.
* TUOLUMNE MEADOWS LOOP: It’s an easy 5.2-mile round trip hike to take in all the charms of the Tuolumne Meadows area. Do this much after the start of June and the hikers will be thicker than the wild flowers. The trailhead is just west of Lambert Dome on the Tioga Pass Road. The crowds definitely thin out after Labor Day as will the lushness of the meadows. It is still a pleasant hike.
* MT. DANA: The second highest peak in Yosemite at 13,061 feet is Mt. Dana. It’s 61 feet lower than Mt. Lyell but doesn’t require mountaineering skills to conquer and is a lot shorter trek to reach. The strenuous half-day hike covering 5.8 miles starts just west of the park’s eastern entrance on Highway 120. It includes striking views of Dana Plateau with its sheer drop-offs as well as the Mono Basin with the prehistoric Mono Lake looming big on the horizon. From the summit of Mt. Dana you get a sweeping view of the Sierra’s spine including the largest glacier in Yosemite.
Sometimes I will do this hike two times a year. It is without a doubt my favorite Yosemite high country hike although Upper Cathedral Lake comes in a close second.
If you are hankering to say you’ve hiked to a peak that tops 13,000 feet, this is the most accessible in all of California and the only one whose trailheads starts along what is essentially a state highway.
Do your trail research first
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t hike without being prepared. All but the Tuolumne Meadows hike are best done with hiking boots.
Equally important is getting an idea where you are going.
When it comes to books, there are tons of them out there. The best for my money is “Yosemite National Park: A Natural-History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails” by Jeffrey Schaffer published by Wilderness Press. Not only does it include virtually all of the maintained trails in the park that Schaffer and his assistant personally hiked but it comes with an up-to-date map that is fairly useful.
The hike descriptions are general in nature but always include trailheads and major elements along with the highlights of what you will see.
I use the book as a base for hike planning, hitting the Internet for more information. Summit Post, is among the better sources, if they happen to have a hike you want to take. I typically pull up a half dozen or so Internet postings from various sites on a specific hike, compare them, and then draw up a general outline of what to look for on a hike that I carry with me such as splits in the trails.
Schaffer’s book will pique your imagination. It is how I found out about two Yosemite hikes — Clouds Rest and the trek to the edge of El Capitan. Clouds Rest — by far my favorite hike north of Mt. Whitney in terms of a heart pounding ending at the turnaround point — has little presence on YouTube to whet your appetite. The book’s description drove me to YouTube where I found three videos of the infamous 300-foot long spine with perilous drops on both sides. Once I saw them, I became obsessed with going. It was well worth the effort.
For more information go to www.nps.gov/yose/