Southern Yosemite: Yosemite Valley, Highways 140 and 41, and Wawona
Yosemite Valley is the Grand Central Station of the Sierra Nevada. It has everything you could possibly want; great hikes, stunning waterfalls, towering cliffs, expansive meadows, reasonable campgrounds, majestic lodges...and more people than the rest of the park combined.
Which is saying something, because Yosemite Valley is only about 2% of the total area of the park. But this section also has trips that lead into the southern section of park--which gets far less traffic than Tuolumne Meadows, and offers the kind of High Sierra experience that we really love.
You do owe it to yourself to see this place. And don't be afraid to just wander out into the meadows and enjoy the spectacular vistas--in fact, those meadows offer a kind of solitude you can't find many places in Yosemite Valley. Then get out on the trail and see the other 98% of the park.
Here's how to see Yosemite in all it's glory. And at the bottom of this page, we'll give you some good ideas to get away from the crowds--even in a busy season!
Little Yosemite Valley—through hike, or from Happy Isles, including Vernal Falls, the Mist Trail, Nevada Falls, and Half Dome: This is the big one--the first real backpacking trip that many people take in Yosemite. P did it forty years ago with his sister. The most popular way to do this hike is to start at Happy Isles, climb up past the two waterfalls, and then camp in Little Yosemite Valley. Be prepared for bears and lots of people here. It's one reason we avoid this hike these days. We've also extended this hike up the Valley even further to camp near Merced Lake or even Washburn Lake. The next day you have an easy day-hike up to Half Dome, and then you can hike back out again.
But the route we prefer is to start at Tuolumne Meadows and climb up to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Then next day is an easy hike to Merced Lake, and then you can head downhill the whole way to Happy Isles. Either way, it is a gorgeous trip, if you don't mind company. We've even done that last part of this hike, down past the waterfalls, under a full moon at night. The trail was easy to follow, and the memories are with us still today. 20 miles..+/-
Illilouette Canyon to Ottaway Lakes: Have you always wanted to take a nice trip off to a distant lake, nestled amid granite peaks, where you will find solitude, stunning beauty and great fishing? This trip is one to consider. We like doing it from the Mono Meadow trail head, for a couple of reasons: it's easier to get a permit for Mono Meadows, and it actually saves you about a mile on the trail in each direction. Plus you avoid the crowds and traffic of Glacier Point.
The trail leads down to Mono Meadows in a steep mile, then continues a less steep descent, crossing the Buena Vista trail into the Illilouette Canyon. From here it is a long gentle ascent up the canyon, through an area that burned about fifteen years ago, with some nice views of Mt. Starr King and the Clark Range. Once the trail wends its way back to the creek, there are lots of good campsites.
Upper Merced Pass Lake is lovely, and the the final climb up to Lower Ottaway Lake is wonderful, with trees growing straight out of solid granite slabs. The photo shows Lower Ottaway Lake at sunset. And you can probably see fish rising...there were so many that it was hard to take the photo and get a clear reflection in the water. A note: this is above the fire limit, so no campfires are allowed. Which hasn't prevented some people from building fires. But it should. It's 32 miles rt on this route. Photo log
Cora Lakes, Isberg Pass and the Ansel Adams Wilderness: The hardest part of this trip is the drive to the trailhead, which is more than an hour from Bass Lake on Beasore Road. The trail takes you past Cora Lakes and then up to Sadler Lake, Isberg Pass, and into the very southern sections of Yosemite. And if you take Post Peak Pass on the return trip, you get views of most of southern Yosemite on one side, and all of the southern High Sierra on the other side.
This is some of the greatest country in the Sierra, and the views will stay with you a lifetime. Photo Log
Fishing is good in these lakes, and the Fernandez Pass trail takes you to Rutherford Lake, Anne Lake, Lillian, Stanford, Vandeburg...lots of lakes to fish here. The ones closest to the road get the most people, and are the least attractive because of that. The total trip, from Granite Creek Trailhead to Isberg Pass, over into Lake 10005 and then back down through Post Peak Pass and the lakes above is about forty miles, total. We did it easily in five days. Here's the blog: The Full Report on our last trip... and there are a few more entries about our adventures here: You'll never walk alone...; Cowboys on the Trail, and The Fish are always bigger..
Hite Cove, Sierra National Forest This one is good just about any time the weather is nice, because the elevation is only about 1800 feet, and there are no prolonged climbs anywhere on the trail. But the trail is only open during the wildflower season, because some of it runs through private property. You leave from the trailhead at Savage's Trading Post off Highway 140, between Mariposa and Yosemite, and then follow the South Fork of the Merced River about 4.5 miles into an old mining camp on the river. There are some nice views up and down the river, and during fishing season this must be even more fun.
But the real spectacle comes during the wildflower season, when some of the early slopes of the hike are simply covered with poppies and other flowers. This trail will get a lot of traffic on the wildflower weekends, but we hiked it on a Friday in March, and saw about ten people as we hiked in--and they were all on their way out. We had the campsite and old mining equipment to ourselves for the evening. And on the way out, we saw crowds heading up the trail...but by that time we were on our way home...and into Yosemite for a little sight-seeing in the spring. If if you have to get into the Sierra during the winter, this might be your best bet! 9 miles rt. Photo Log
Chilnualna Falls and beyond: For people staying at Wawona and the southeast entrance station, this is the best hike in the area. But while most people do this as a day hike, it is also possible to lug your pack up to the top of the falls, and then you have a wonderful and solitary region to explore.
It's a steep hike, but there are some really nice views along the way. First you pass the lower falls, which are the destination for most of the day hikers. From there the trail climbs pretty steadily, occasionally opening up to show vistas of the ridge opposite the creek, and even a few views of the upper falls themselves.
Then the last steep pitch leads you right up to the edge of the falls, which actually take a quick right hand turn as they go over the lip. The area above the falls is really beautiful, the water having sculpted the granite into some amazing shapes. Fishing is good for small rainbows, and if you continue on above the falls, there is another cascade, and then the whole Chilnualna Valley to explore. Early in the year this can be a tricky hike above the falls, as the creek can be roaring and the trail requires a crossing. If in doubt, do the smart thing and sit back and enjoy the view. 9 miles to the top of the falls and back.
What lies beyond the falls? In April of the 2015 drought we hiked out of the Ostrander Lake trailhead, just past the Bridalveil Creek campground, to see some more of the backcountry--aiming towards Grouse Lake and a larger loop. Photo Log
The trail weaves through the forest without doing much climbing or descending for many miles, and that was fine with us. After about four miles, it climbs up to a ridge, where you can barely make out a few of the peaks in the Clark Range, and even a shot of Mt. Hoffman through the trees. And then it goes down to Chilnualna Creek. During this drought, the creek was tame.
From there we climbed up to Grouse Lake to camp for the night. It took us a while to find it, because the trail was not marked well, and the lake is not visible from the trail. P finally called a halt to our hike when he realized that we were now climbing past the lake to hike over the ridge to Crescent Lake.
At that point we turned south and wandered in the woods until we found a decent campsite by a stream...but no Grouse Lake.
P wouldn't give up, and eventually worked his way out into a meadow that gave him a better view. Looking up the canyon, he strained his eyes to see where the lake outlet might be, but couldn't see anything that looked right.
Then he turned around to see the west side of the meadow...which turned out to be Grouse Lake. (If you're taking this hike, it's much easier to simply follow the trail up from Chilnualna Creek junction, and when the trail starts to run parallel to the outlet of Grouse Lake, follow the outlet stream for 1/4 a mile to the lake. That's way easier than either Nat Geo or Tom Harrison's map show.)
Day Hikes in this Area:
Glacier Point: OK, this isn't a trail. It's just a spectacular view. So go there and see it; Photos.
Half Dome: Yes, you probable have to do this hike , just so that you can say that you have done it. But that doesn't make it the best hike in Yosemite, because it isn't. And we suggest that you leave VERY early in the morning, so that you can not only get most of the climbing out of the way before it heats up--you also want to try to get to the base of the cables before the line gets too long.
Yes, there is a line to go up the cables. And now you need a permit as well. And it takes a long time, and there are stupid people on the trail who really shouldn't be there, and who make it harder for everyone else. The new permit system (2011) may improve things.
The view from the top of Half Dome will exceed your every expectation. Really. 16 miles rt.
Sentinel Dome: This is as easy a hike as you can take, and still consider it a hike. It leaves from the Glacier Point road and it may be slightly more than a mile, total. But what makes it well worth your time and energy is the view from on top of the dome. This is one of the best sites on the south rim of Yosemite Valley, and it would be easy to spend an hour or more just taking photos. Yes, there will be lots of people.
But the clamber up the dome does make this seem a bit more like an adventure.
Let's add Taft Point to this hike, and it will include a visit to the Fissures and the dramatic views from the edge of the canyon. (We love the signs at the trailhead that encourage you to "control your children" on this hike. Good advice for any hike!) All of this can be done from the same parking lot and trailhead, and if you do both Sentinel Dome and Taft Point, you might get a total of three miles of hiking. That's a pretty good value of views per mile! The photo below, of Dewey Point, will take you to even more shots of the area, via our Picasa photo pages.
If you want even more adventure, follow this same trail down to Dewey Point on the Pohono Trail. This is another 4.4 miles from Taft Point, and except for a pleasant crossing of Bridalveil Creek, it doesn't have great views. Until, that is, you get to Dewey Point. And then you have some of the very best views of the whole park. Really wonderful stuff, and not very many people here--after all, it's five miles from the nearest trailhead, and that discourages a lot of people. Don't let it discourage you. Take your time, enjoy your lunch, and enjoy the show!
Vernal & Nevada Falls: Gotta do this hike, even though you will meet everyone in the park. It's the big hike in Yosemite for most people, and you should make sure that at least one way, up or down, you take the innumerable stairs of the Mist Trail.
Actually, it is a great hike. It's just that there are so many people on it that it is a little less like a wilderness experience, and a bit more like a very, very, very scenic subway. There is a trick that will help--start your hike before 8 in the morning. Before 7 is even better. The heat of the day will be less, and you won't see nearly so many people...until you start hiking down. And then you will pass hordes of very hot, sweaty people.
And if you keep going up the Merced Canyon, the trail takes you to the junction to the Half Dome Trail above.
Yosemite Falls: There is the short version of this hike, which is just a few hundred yards up to the base of the falls from the Yosemite Loop Road, and there is the more serious version, which leaves from the famous Camp IV campground and climbs up 3000 feet pretty darn quickly to the top of the falls. The latter version is a much better hike, but also requires some real physical exertion.
Be sure to wave at all the climbers you see in camp IV--they are the ones you will be photographing later as they hang from the sheer cliffs of El Capitan or other granite faces of Yosemite Valley. And then begin the climb up to the top of the falls. You get a great view of Half Dome about half-way up, and at the top of the falls you can actually continue your hike along the northern rim of the valley, heading either West or East for a really long loop. Those hikes are not for the weak of spirit or under-prepared.
And be sure and check out the Lost Arrow, a granite spire that is just visible on the far right edge of the photo at right. That's one of the landmark climbers' destinations in Yosemite.
Wawona: On the southeastern end of the park, this is by far the best place to see giant Sequoias. And while there might also be a lot of people here, there are also enough trails in this area to give you the chance to really feel the forest without the crowds.
It's a lovely place in the summer time, but our favorite time to visit is winter. You park at the entrance station, and it's about a two mile hike into the Sequoias. You don't usually need snowshoes (although the park will require chains for your car) because this trail gets enough traffic to tamp down the snow pretty well. But if you have snowshoes, you can really get out an explore this gorgeous forest. Photo Log
A top ten hike, for sure.
And now for something really different. Do you want to find a quiet spot away from the crowds?
First of all, take one of the backpacking trips above; particularly the ones that avoid the John Muir Trail and/or Half Dome. You'll be amazed at how few people you see. But there are some other, shorter hikes that will do the same thing...and some of them are right in the heart of Yosemite Valley!
Yosemite Meadows: Yep--so many people drive around the valley, and so few get out of their cars! We've had some delightful picnics by just walking out into the center of the meadows and sitting down. (please stay on the developed trails in this delicate eco-sytem...) It's really almost amusing to see the people standing near their cars, 1/2 a mile away, and yet we have the meadow to ourselves. A very relaxing, easy, and enjoyable way to get away from the crowds. No matter when you are in Yosemite, give yourself the pleasures of these meadows. Some photos
And if you are up a more energetic experience, try one or more for the four hikes below. They are guaranteed to be beautiful, and you will leave far more than 99% of all the visitors to Yosemite Valley behind once you strike out on your own! But a word of warning--these are not for the faint of heart. And three of them have no official trail. If you get lost or hurt, you may not get rescued. If you don't have a good sense of direction, know how to use a topo map, and are comfortable with Class II and Class III climbing, these are NOT for you.
Snow Creek Falls: Do you want a hike out of Yosemite Valley that has almost no people on it, great views, and some exciting destinations at the end? Snow Creek Falls is the perfect trail--if you don't mind a very steep first few miles up out of the Valley. This trail leaves from the end of the Mirror Lake trail, and heads up the side of Tenaya Canyon opposite Half Dome. The views in the first mile are well worth the effort, as within a couple of hundred yards you are well above the trees, and can see up Tenaya Canyon, across to Half Dome and over to Glacier Point. From then on, it just gets higher and better. It does not get easier.
Those with good eyes (or binoculars) can clearly pick out the long lines of people working their way up the cables on Half Dome.
At the top, you find yourself up above the Valley, with Mt. Watkins a nearby destination, along with North Dome. You can camp along Snow Creek, and from here work your way along any number of trails, including one back down along the rim of the Valley past North Dome to Yosemite Falls. Or you can continue up, and connect with Tioga Road and the destinations beyond.
It's a tough climb. But it's well worth it. 6 miles straight up and straight down.
Tenaya Canyon: OK--we know. This one is NOT RECOMMENDED by the park staff. This is pretty rugged country, and in the spring, when Tenaya Creek is roaring, it might well be suicide. We've never even tried it then. But in September or October, when most of Tenaya Creek is dry, this is a great adventure. And note that we have always started at the bottom, and turned around when it got too hairy. If you start at the top (Tenaya Lake) that is more complicated--and consequently more dangerous. You need ropes from that end. Really. People have to get rescue here--even rangers!
So we started below the canyon, at the bridge above Mirror Lake, where the trail crosses Tenaya Creek. You can see a trail on the left side of the creek as you stand on the bridge, looking upstream. That's because once, a long time ago, there was a trail here. Take the remains of that trail...and stay on the left side, no matter what happens. You will find cairns left by rockclimbers, but not enough to mark the trail well. And you will need to use your hands at times to clamber up some of the steeper spots. But once you get up into the canyon, it really is quite beautiful.
This is not a trail. It is not a hike for inexperienced hikers. But the photo above right shows Clouds Rest and the Quarter Domes from the Canyon.
Illilouette Canyon: This one is very similar to Tenaya Canyon,
in that the rangers in the park will not recommend it. In fact, we know at least one person who was told that you need ropes and climbing gear to get here. You don't. You need arms and legs, and an indomitable will to plug away uphill through some dense brush and really big boulders. And you need to be smart, not stupid.
There is no trail. You start by the Happy Isles Nature Center, and follow the trail there up past the display about the rock falls, and into Illilouette Canyon. When you get to first bridge across the creek; stop. Don't cross the creek. There should be a huge water tank on your right. Turn right and go past the tank and keep climbing up the canyon, always staying to the right of the creek. There is no trail. It gets steep. It gets brushy and full of massive boulders. But you eventually get up above most of the trees, and at that point you have some great views of the back of Half Dome, and up Merced Canyon above Vernal Falls.
Illilouette Falls themselves are lovely, but that's not the real reason for this hike. The real reason is to get away from everyone in the Valley and see a part of Yosemite that very few people have ever seen.
It's only about three miles round trip, but we recommend at least three hours to make this scramble/trip. And be careful. There is plenty of evidence of bears in this area...and if you get hurt up here, it will be reallly hard to get you out of here. Be safe. Some Photos Here
Ribbon Falls: Speaking of getting away from it all...there are people who rock climb all over Yosemite Valley, and they don't see many people at all! This "trail" is a use trail that was created by some of those climbers on their way to climb the Golden Wall--a section of granite just west of El Capitan. They've left a ducked route that you can follow, if you pay a lot of attention, and it goes just about straight up. This is a very steep trail, as these guys don't believe in switchbacks. They just go straight up the side of the canyon, and so do you if you follow them!
But it's easy to get started. As you drive west past El Capitan, look for road V9 that goes up off to the right. Sometimes you can drive up this--other times it might be closed. Either way, it's not far to the "trailhead." The road switchbacks twice, and just as you complete the second one (near a large woodpile) and head off on a long straight section going West, look for a small cairn on the righthand side of the road. That's it.
By the way, this road is the old road into Yosemite from Big Oak Flat--and it does run for quite a while to the West of here. You won't meet many people on it, and if you work your way through the slides, it will take you all the way out to the new road into the park, many miles to the West. Another chance for a quiet hike in Yosemite Valley.
From the cairn, follow the trail as it goes straight up to the base of the cliffs, and you will have climbed up about 1400 feet in about a mile. That's STEEP. It took us more than an hour to climb that mile. Good thing those cairns were sometimes hard to spot---because that gave us a chance to rest and look for them.
But once you get to the cliff, you can bushwhack your way to the right towards the creek...around the first huge boulder, then through the Califonria Bay trees. That will take you over to the foot of Ribbon Falls. It's only a hundred yards or so...and then you are out on a rocky slope underneath these towering cliffs, with a waterfall on one side. and the Valley and Cathedral Rocks all in clear view. Yowza!
Coming down is a LOT easier--but take your time. If you get hurt up here, it's no joke.