Hiking Yosemite from Tuolumne Meadows

Hiking Yosemite National Park has long been on my bucket list. When we learned that my daughter’s first job after college would station her near Yosemite National Park, my wife and I decided we’d plan a family vacation around dropping her off. Initial plans called for a driving vacation with a few stops at other national parks along the way. A visit to AAA, resulting in the receipt of guides and maps that stacked literally a foot-and-a-half high, convinced us that air travel from St. Paul, Minnesota would be much more enjoyable.

Yosemite Vacation Planning

Having viewed an Ansel Adams’ calendars and photo books, we had a general understanding that Yosemite was a special place. Then we watched the excellent document on mountain climbing, Valley Uprising, which zeroes in on Yosemite Valley on Netflix. We were more excited. A neighbor who had grown up in California further whetted our appetites further by saying that Yosemite was the most scenic national park that he’d ever been to (and he had been to a few).

Hiking Yosemite from Tuolumne Meadows

Then to top it off, we watched the excellent National Parks Adventure, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service this year (2016), at the Omni Theater at the Science Museum in St. Paul. We were ready. El Capitan, Half Dome, and the highest waterfalls in the country: bring ‘em on!

Getting There: Yosemite National Park

After flying from St. Paul to San Francisco and a short stay there, we headed out for Yosemite. A pleasant, four-hour drive on Hwy. 120 led us to a winding, switch-back climb to higher elevation. Heights and guard rail-less roads are not my cup of tea. Despite the white knuckles on the steering wheel, the views were amazing. Ten miles of scary driving led to a series of 3 tunnels which then unveiled the beauty of Yosemite Valley.

Views from turnouts on Hwy 120 were spectacular. Postcard photo opportunities presented themselves seemingly at every turn.

Yosemite Valley

The Yosemite Valley image
Yosemite Valley view from roadside

A park brochure noted that 95% of visitors to the Park visit the Valley which features the marquee attractions like El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Visiting Yosemite Valley in August can mean big crowds. We struggled to find a parking space and some of the popular spots – like Lower Yosemite Falls – were pretty packed. But even full of people, the park is still a wonderful place.

Crowded at Lower Yosemite Falls image
Crowded at Lower Yosemite Falls

While I imagine Yosemite National Park is a popular destination for Californians, it’s just far away enough from Midwesterners and East Coasters that many have not made the visit. Maybe due to its proximity to San Francisco’s airport, we all noticed how many international visitors came to Yosemite. While waiting for our kids to climb a series of rocks that would take them directly beneath the falls, it seemed like over half of the folks in the viewing area spoke a language different from English.

The Valley is also home to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the only four diamond hotel in the park. Even if you elect not to stay there, a visit to the hotel is a must if just to see the dining room with its high ceilings and tall windows. The hotel’s fireplace is also a site to behold. During prime time in the summer, room rates can exceed $400 per night. Lunch at the hotel works better for those of us on a budget, just make sure to get your reservation in early, as it’s a popular spot.

Tuolumne Meadows Lodge

After visiting the Falls, the hotel and a short hike, we loaded into our Ford Focus rental car and headed to our accommodations at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. An hour drive – again featuring some incredible scenery and the corresponding scary, hairpin turns – led us to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

Inside tents at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge image
Inside Tent #9 at Tuolumne Meadow Lodge

The Yosemite Park folks and I might have a difference of opinion in terms of when to use the term “lodge.” When I think lodge, I think in terms of a more permanent structure than the tents on concrete floors, with cots, a stove, wood, a lantern, a folding table and chair that we found in tent #9. Others might refer to this as a camp site.

Situated at 8,700 feet elevation right next to the Toulumne River near the Tuolumne Meadows, the “lodge” features 69 canvas tents. The tent set-up does not begin until July usually due to snow. Open for three months – mid-July thu mid-September – the rustic accommodations provided a one-of-a-kind adventure that our whole group enjoyed.

Tent Living at Yosemite

Tuolumne Meadows Lodge tents image
Tent #9 at the “Lodge”

The tents were roomy enough for 4 people as we placed our luggage beneath the cots. The Ben Franklin-like stove enabled us to make a fire at night and in the morning to keep things toasty inside. Wood, matches and tinder were supplied. This came in handy as one morning in August we awoke to 39 degrees. The days quickly warmed up and while hiking might begin with long sleeves, by 10 a.m. everyone in our party had taken off a layer to short sleeves.

Bathrooms and showers were a short 30-foot walk from our tent in a separate building. The lantern provided and a flashlight that we brought came in handy. At about $150 per night, the lodge experience is comparable to a hotel stay in the area, and not inexpensive. But, it’s worth every penny.

Communal Dining at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge

Guests are not allowed to cook, so this made it different from your typical camping experience. The restaurant, on location, was our dining destination for breakfast and dinners. The food was good. Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the trip was getting to know other lodge guests because of the communal tables set-up – we were typically seated with one other family at a table of eight.

We met a Hawaiian yoga instructor whose job also included swimming with dolphins, a San Francisco real estate mogul, a retiree who had been coming to the lodge for over 60 years, and many other great folks. I must’ve talked to five Stanford grads during our two-night stay, so this location seemed to be very popular with well-educated, Bay area folks.

Coffee and tea are free each morning, and beer was about $1.50 per bottle at night (very reasonable). There was a group campfire every night for s’mores, warmth and visiting. The staff was excellent both in service provided and in their knowledge of the park. The start of our days involved asking a staff member how to find a trail head.

Beware of Bears

Bears are a concern at Yosemite National Park. No food can be stored in your tents. Food lockers are provided. Each night, guests put their food in zip-lock containers and place it in the lockers provided. Toiletries, anything that might provide a scent, are placed in lockers near the bathroom building.

In our 3 days in the area, we didn’t see a bear. We saw several deer including one that came within 20 feet of our tent, lots of great birds and other wildlife.

Hiking near Tuolumne Meadows Lodge

Lembert Dome Hike

Our first day of hiking began quite close to our lodge area. Based on input we received from long-time visitors to the park, we decided we’d go up Lembert Dome. Although only about a one-hour hike, we gained over 800 feet in altitude. For inexperienced hikers like us, that meant a couple of stops to catch our breath.

Lembert Dome image
Hiking Lembert Dome

The reward at the end of our summit was a 360 degree view of surrounding mountains and Tuolumne Meadows that was breathtaking. A hike to the top of Half dome is 10 hours long. For a one-hour hike, this provided an incredible return on investment. And, there were no conga-like lines to get to the top. Unlike some of the Valley’s attractions, Tuolumne Meadows was not all that crowded which was a huge bonus. While we didn’t pursue, you can hike further up to Dog Lake from near the top of this trail.

Tuolumne Meadows Hike

From there, we proceeded on a 8 mile hike through Tuolumne Meadows. The meadows are filled with wildflowers and native grasses. The winding stream provided some great photo opportunities. Prairie dogs, rabbits and chipmunks were spotted by our hikers. Along the trail we encountered Soda Springs – cold, carbonated water bubbling out of the ground surrounded by a protective log structure.

Our turnaround point was Parsons Memorial Lodge, a cool log and stone building dedicated to Edward Parsons, a member of the Sierra Club. The lodge served as a meeting place for the Sierra Club. Built in 1915, it’s one of the oldest rustic stone buildings in a national park.

As temperatures in the meadows are usually about 15 degrees cooler than in the valley, it made for very comfortable hiking conditions.

Twin Bridges Hike

Right from our campsite, we took a 45-minute hike to Twin Bridges. The wooded path quickly led us to a beautiful view. The crystal clear waters of the Tuolumne River with granite beneath and a mountain and blue skies in the background, was a site to behold.

Between this hike and the Lembert Dome hike, we realized one didn’t need to hike for hours in Yosemite to gain vantage points to great views.

Tuolumne Grove Hike

Tuolumne Grove is one of the three major sequoia groves in California. From our lodge, we drove about 45 minutes to get to the trail head. A one mile hike down a paved road is very easy on the way down. The return route uphill is not quite as fun. It’s a difficult path up for small children, although we saw many making the trek. Along the way you end up seeing a dozen or so giant sequoias.

Toulumne Grove image
No sequoia in this photo, but great scenery in every direction.

While some of the sequoias are damaged, they’re amazing to view. Highlights included a giant redwood that has fallen on its side, a damaged sequoia that has been tunneled out and that you can walk through and the beautiful flowers and trees in combination.

With some of these trees up to 2,700 years old, it’s well worth a visit as there are not that many left.

Rose, Thorn and Bud

Our daughter introduced us to the Rose, Thorn and Bud approach to evaluating. What was your Rose (best thing) about Yosemite? What was your Thorn (worst thing) about Yosemite? And, what’s your Bud (thing you’d look forward to) at Yosemite?

My rose was our decision to stay in Tuolumne Meadows. The adventure of staying in the tents, meeting great folks at the site and the un-crowded hikes leading to spectacular views was the highlight for me.

My thorn was the roads to get to the park gave me that “Yikes” feeling a few too many times. Admittedly, I’m not a heights person, so it didn’t affect everyone in our party the same way. But, that was my thorn.

My bud is revisiting Tenaya Lake. After a short hike, we reached this beautiful mountain lake. Along the way, the views were incredible.

May Lake image
View from Tenaya Lake

John Muir on Yosemite

John Muir wrote about Yosemite, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” After our short visit, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from.