From the moment that we entered Yosemite, we already knew that we did not want to leave.. ever. We arrived in the first week of March, which is considered as the “off-season” of the valley due to the cold winter conditions and road closures. But off-season for us means less crowds, and no requirement to book our campsite 6 months in advance (as is the case when visiting during peak time throughout the summer). It also meant beautiful sunny weather, followed by lots of snowfall, and every season wrapped into five amazing days!
As the park is much quieter during the winter, there are only 2 campgrounds opened during this time in the valley - Upper Pines ($26 per night for a whole site and up to 2 x vehicles with around 150 sites available during winter), and Camp 4 ($6 per person, per night - however this is a walk-in only site and also only allows tents, with all cars needing to be parked in the carpark). As we have been rather enjoying sleeping in our van, we decided to opt for the most convenient campsite. Upon entering Yosemite we drove straight to the Upper Pines campsite to secure our perfect spot for the next 5 days. We picked site 118 - with our own fire-pit and a picnic table which wasn’t shaded by the thousands of pine-trees, it meant that we would be able to enjoy the sunshine in the forest when at camp. After stowing all of our food in the bear-proof boxes, we immediately headed back towards the valley to continue gawking at the incredible landscapes that surrounded us.
Words do this crazy magical place no justice, so photographs are going to have to be the next best thing to help describe how formidable the mountains, forests, valleys, granite rocks, and wildlife of Yosemite truly are. As a few of the trails are closed and considered unsafe during the winter months, we went to the Visitor Centre to organise what we could and could not explore over the next few days. The helpful staff here provided us with trail maps which detailed each of the different hikes that could be completed and spectacular viewpoints that they would recommend us making our way to. We already had a Yosemite bucket-list and were pretty stoked to hear that most of the places we wanted to enjoy were still accessible via foot or car. Find below our blow-by-blow experiences!
Bridal Veil Falls & Tunnel View - these two spots are quite close together, so we visited them both on our first afternoon in Yosemite. Bridal Veil Falls being only a short 10 minute hike from the carpark area, takes you as close as can be to a pretty formidable waterfall where the strong spray of the water above you will drench you as though you have been standing out in the rain for hours - bring a raincoat guys! After a few snaps before our camera started to get a little too wet, we made our way to Tunnel View lookout point for sunset. Filled with over a dozen other photographers, we joined the crowd and watched as the sunset in the valley, turning the trees and mountains before us a glowing golden orange colour. As darkness began to set, we made our way back to our campsite where we warmed ourselves by the fire, cracked open the red wine, and enjoyed chats with new friends and campsite neighbours from Lake Tahoe, California.
Mirror Lake - a lake that is accessible via both car and foot, we decided to hike our way to this peaceful picnic-spot. Only around an easy 2 hour return walk from the Upper Pines campsite, we packed ourselves a lunch and made our way through mountain-lion territory (not that we saw any much to Kirks dismay and Mish’s happiness) to Mirror Lake. Set amongst colourful trees and a rock smack-bang in the middle, the mountains beyond perfectly reflecting in the lake below making for yet another gorgeous photo opportunity in Yosemite Valley.
Horse Tail Falls.. aka. Firefall - with each day in Yosemite being incredibly memorable and leaving us with our jaws dropped to the floor, it’s near impossible to pick a favourite spot.. however Horse Tail Falls comes pretty darn close. A rare phenomenon which only usually occurs for 2 weeks in the middle of February, Horse Tail Falls in the valley, comes alive at sunset. With the sun hitting the falls from a particular angle at a particular time, for only 15 minutes this waterfall becomes a sight like no other, appearing as though the water is instead fire flames roaring down the side of the mountain.. hence the name Firefall. Much to our delight, Firefall decided to hang around an extra couple of weeks this year, and with a tip-off from a fellow photographer, we headed to the right place at the right time to photograph this potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience. From 5.30 - 5.45pm, our mouths and eyes wide open, the waterfall looked just as spectacular as the photos we had seen on Instagram and only dreamt of capturing ourselves one day. We could not have been more thrilled that this day came for us much sooner than expected.
Upper Yosemite Falls - our favourite day in the park. A 6mile / 11km return hike up to the top of a raging waterfall. The first 1 hour of this trail was fairly easy/moderate - lots of incline, but all relatively easy rocks to work your way up. Reaching an incredible view-point area of the Upper Falls, many hikers at this point turned around and headed back down after getting a few snaps. But we wanted to make it to the top! The trail ahead was steep and covered in a fair amount of snowfall, but with crampons attached to our shoes and an adventurous spirit, we were ready for what was ahead! After a further 2 hours of climbing up the mountain, never-ending views, lots of photo-stops, lots of snow, and lots of fun, we were finally at the top. 2,500 feet above the valley, and it was a completely different world from up here. Scrambling up and around all of the rocks, we made our way to a look-out spot of the waterfall below, the wind almost blowing us off our feet! This was certainly the most epic view that we had seen of Yosemite throughout our time here. And made all the more rewarding when you climbed your way there :)
Badgers Pass, Ski & Snowboard Resort - On our last night in Yosemite, the snow-storm hit. And boy was it a big one! A big and mighty beautiful one. With most of the hiking trails closed due to icy and unsafe conditions, we instead caught the free Yosemite shuttle up to Badgers Pass, around a 1 hour drive from the valley. Everyday at 10.30am there is free snow shoeing tours around the forests up in the mountains. Snow shoeing was something that we both hadn’t tried before, and with so much fresh powder, we couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to do it! It was a two hour session with free snow-shoe’s included and the friendly ranger that led our small group of around 8 people was incredibly informative & we learnt a whole heaps about the Yosemite wildlife, weather, and forests.
We spent the rest of the day hanging out in the warm resort, sipping on hot chocolates and watching the skiers and snowboarders shredding the powder up outside - an awesome way to spend our last afternoon in Yosemite.
Other Yosemite recommendations:
if you are not visiting during peak-season, try and aim to arrive during the week - as even weekends in winter can be pretty jam-packed with campsite bookings and you may miss out!
if camping isn’t your thing, there are many gorgeous (but expensive from what we hear) lodges available to stay in also - many located in the very heart of the valley
firewood collection is prohibited whilst inside the national park, so make sure that you stock-up before you arrive
there is a fairly large grocery store located in the valley, convenient but pricey - bring your own food and drinks and you will save yourself a heap of money during your stay
as the weather in Yosemite can change as quickly as anything, always stop by the information and visitor centre for updates on which trails and roads are safe to access
Utilise Yosemite’s shuttle bus service! Reducing the amount of cars on the road through the national park, road-accidents, and car emissions being released, this wonderful shuttle service can take you almost anywhere around the park, and the best part is that it’s FREE and there are buses being run every 20 minutes
Be respectful of the wildlife and give them their space. They don’t want to hurt you (they maybe just want your food!), but you are in their home, not the other way around :)
Being the highlight of our time in California so far, we truly did not want to leave this absolutely gorgeous national park, filled with so much history, beautiful wildlife, and picture perfect landscapes.. but it was time for us to move along to our next stop. Napa Valley (blog soon to come)! Check out our previous posts to read more about our USA road trip and feel free to touch base with us with any questions you may have - we always love to hear from our fellow adventurous followers!