Yosemite National Park Review
Yosemite is a national park that is about 4-hours of driving from San Francisco, California. I know a national park is probably not your conventional tourist site like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Fisherman’s Wharf, but there is a reason why people say “visit Europe for the culture, history and architecture; visit America for the landscape.”
If you happen to be an avid newspaper reader, or just a social media frequenter (come on, who isn’t these days), you might have heard of the names Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson and El Capitan the past few weeks. Or you might have seen this video somewhere:
On 16 January 2015, the two Americans successfully conquered the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, a giant 914-metre rock formation in California’s Yosemite National Park. Free-climbing up for 19 days with just their fingertips and feet, using ropes as the only protection from plunging below to death, the climbers cemented their names in history as the first free climbers to achieve what many described as an impossible climb.
Yes, telling you that El Capitan dwarves the world’s tallest building – the 828-metre-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai – may put the impossibility of the whole climb into perspective for you. But one can never truly understand how ground-breakingly impressive this feat is unless you have seen the massiveness of the El Capitan with your own eyes. That alone is enough reason for you to visit Yosemite.
The whole history of the park itself contains amazing stories about American culture, history and geology (which you can learn about in the Yosemite Museum located next to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center). But all the slaughtering of indigenous natives , the Ice Age and Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Grant (which set a precedent for the creation of Yellowstone as the first US national park) aside, just the fact that Yosemite’s Chinese name is優勝美地 – literally meaning a land that is superiorly and excellently beautiful – is very telling.
The 3,026.87 km2 is not short of things to do, but how much of Yosemite you can see depends largely on whether you are traveling around with a car and when you are visiting the park.
The basic must-see spots are Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Tunnel View, Bridalveil Falls and of course El Capitan. Car drivers can of course just drive around, but for non-drivers like myself, you can always join the guided bus tours. Visiting in December, the only tour available was the 2-hour Valley Floor Tour which cost US$25, which in my opinion is worth every single penny. In the warmer months, you can join tours to visit the Tuolumne Meadows, the 975-metre Glacier Point and even go on a stargazing tour! My advice is to decide early whether you will join the tour and buy the tickets once you are there. Tickets sell out fast, even during the non-peak season in December.
For the more athletic ones, Yosemite is a wonderful site for hiking, rock climbing, biking and skiing in the winter. Other great spots include the giant sequoias groves – Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove. Any one of those trees, which are considered to be the most massive living thing on Earth, are probably older than you and me and our families combined – they can live up to 3000 years. Unfortunately they can only be reached by cars or by hiking. If you are just staying within the Yosemite Valley, the free valley shuttle can take you everywhere you need to go.
When I was there, I asked the help desk man what are Yosemite’s must-sees, and his answer was “I don’t know! You have to tell me that. People visit Yosemite for different reasons!” That’s very true. Know what you want and Yosemite will not disappoint. A lesson I learnt through personal experience: two days at Yosemite is not enough. Stay there longer.
Where you live during your stay in Yosemite depends on your budget. You can stay at the grand Ahwahnee Hotel (which I think carries a great resemblance to the hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) and might even bump into a president or a celebrity there (Harrison Ford and July Garland stayed there). But being a poor student, I chose the most affordable option available during the wintry December – a tent cabin at the Curry Village and it was a very fun experience. After all, it’s not every day that you get to sleep in a tent in a forest right under the Half Dome. If you are low on budget or want an unique experience, choose an unheated tent like I did, which cost me only US$62 for a two-bed tent with breakfast. Bring extra blankets/clothes or a thick sleeping bag though if you choose unheated tents – it can be a bit cold in the middle of the night (it got down to around 3 °C that night). And Curry Village even has its own outdoor skating rink!
You surely cannot camp outside during the winter, but camping is a good choice during warmer months. There are several camping grounds around Yosemite.
Bears and rodents are the one thing to bear in mind, no pun intended. You have to store everything with scent (including your bag, unopened food packages, cosmetics and even makeup) in locked bear lockers outside. Don’t leave your food in your tent cabin or your car. The animals will find it, break the tent and your car and get the food. And an interesting twist here, YOU will be fined for being attacked by a bear or for a broken car.
My two-day visit of Yosemite has been two days without any mobile reception, Wifi connection in limited places and no electricity outlets in tent cabins. I am obsessed with technology and you would think I had a horrible time there. But the truth is being disconnected to the rest of the world becomes the least of your worries when you are there surrounded by the grand wonders of nature. To quote free-climber Kevin Jorgeson, the valley makes most people feel pretty small. You drive in, and suddenly your size is put into context by giant canyons and three-thousand foot walls above your head. You don’t get that kind of perspective very often. And it is a truly humbling and inspiring experience because only then can you truly understand how small you are in the universe.
So no, going to Japan for a few days is not an excursion. Taking a few days off in your life to experience nature, to connect with nature and to hang out with people from different stages of life – that’s the true excursion. All philosophical reflections aside, I had a wonderful time just marveling at the scenery and guitar-playing and singing in the Curry Village lounge with fellow “villagers”. Go to Yosemite. Just go and you will understand no postcard-perfect photo can articulate her beauty.
Blogger: Frances Sit