First Time Guide to Yosemite

During Memorial Weekend, I found myself ending a birthday celebration early enough on Monday to visit Yosemite National Forest.

Because I’d never been, I’m going to share with you how I visited one of America’s favorite national parks on a budget, by my lonesome and made it a most memorable experience.

It was just past noon when I decided to “stop by” Yosemite. As I went up the highway, I passed the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad where I stopped by and learned about the railroads history. Is there anything cooler that seeing old trains!?! The machinery is amazing! Visiting the location was free, and the one-hour steam train ride through the Sierra National Forrest was $19.00 for adults and $9.50 for children. I didn’t do it, but seemed cool! There were a lot of really cute kids so excited to be on the train. Made me wish I had little ones to take on board!

To my surprised, there was also a museum! A small wood cabin filled with old black and white photos of men in railroad gear cutting down huge pine trees lined the walls and old machinery made of iron and wood filled up space in corners just waiting to be used once more. Emil, a burly museum keeper suggested that since I was short on time, I should see Sequoia trees at the Mariposa Grove. They were the fastest to get to before the sun went down.

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Emil, from the Sugar Pine Museum, he’s packing heat!
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Sugar Pine Museum

So up the mountain I went again, in search of the giant trees. As I entered Yosemite, I was greeted by an actual Forest Ranger with a Smokey the Bear sign and everything! I opted the get the annual pass which was $40 vs. the $20 daily pass.
I was faced with two choices, go left to the Sequoia’s or go right to the valley and Glacier Point, where the famous Half Dome is easily seen. I decide to go right.
I quickly realized that Mariposa Grove was HUGE. Miles and miles of hiking to see all the gorgeous big trees, but luckily, there was a tram! YEY! I opted to take the audio-guided Big Tree Tram Tour ($26.50) which lasted about one hour. I loved listening to the descriptions of the trees and Galen Clark, one of the original explorers. I also loved that the audio tour was available in several languages including Español! My parents would appreciate that.
When you’re on a time crunch and don’t have time to hike and explore, or if you have small kids, seniors of folks with disabilities, the tram is THE BEST thing to do. Took us all the way to the top and we stopped at Galen Clark’s cabin and the California Tunnel which was created in 1865! That’s the giant Sequoia tree that has a giant hole in the middle where cars use to pass through. It was amazing!! The set of trees called The Bachelor and the Three Graces were also really cool. The audio guide mentioned that the roots of those trees are so intertwined that if one were to fall, it would take the set down all together.

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Mariposa Grove: Clockwise R-L: Rainy top of grove, Galen Clark’s cabin, the Bachelor and the Three Graces, California Tunnel tree 🙂

By 5pm I was done with the Sequoia’s and I thought, well… maybe I had time to go down to the valley. So I went back the opposite direction and I kept on driving. I drove for what seemed like forever and I passed the Wawona Hotel, which looked really gorgeous, like a Southern plantation. I passed the exposed tunnel carved into the mountain which was amazing! At the viewpoint, I stopped to see Half Dome way off in the distance. There had been another split in directions to go up another mountain to see Glacier Point, which I learned later is actually a top destination in Yosemite. But I passed it and kept on driving.
As I drove on, I saw amazing waterfalls and hiked my way up to get splashed in the face. I wasn’t quite prepared to go hiking with my Keds, but next time, I’m taking hiking boots! I was tired!

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Inside Yosemite at Bridal Veil Fall

When I finally reached the center of the valley, I was greeted by the majestic Ahwahnee Hotel which seemed to come right out the mountain. It was like a fairy tale with giant pine trees surrounding the place and the glow of windows inviting me in.
I noticed a group of small cabins at the village area and learned those are available to rent, which seemed awesome. I was being crazy about driving back to Los Angeles that same night and decided it was time to leave the park. It was nightfall by the time I left the entrance and the night sky was pitch black. I pulled over and gazed at the stars for a few minutes. It’s a strange feeling to be out in the woods, surrounded by nothing in the darkness, with only the moon and the stars as company. After a while, I kinda creeped myself out. Too many scary movies came to mind and I decided to get back in my car!

I was a little nervous coming down the pitch black road and kept passing small hotels / inns along the way when I suddenly saw the sign for the Sierra Sky Ranch. I made an impromptu turn, parked, debated sleeping in my car, decided against it and went inside. The ranch itself was nicely lit, not too much light where I could still see the stars, but not too dark where it was creepy. Rebecca, who was working the lobby let me check out the place and offered me a quaint room for $149 in the main house which had its own bathroom. That was a big win.

Earlier in the day, I had walked into the Wawona Hotel and it was $210 a night without a bathroom (shared bathrooms), $275 with bathroom and the Ahwahnee at the village was $350 at a discounted price (normally $450) for a single queen room. Yikes!

So, I knew $149 was a deal, especially since it was just a 15 min drive back into the park and let’s not forget, it was on Memorial Day.
I came to learn that the Sierra Sky Ranch is a highly sought after supernatural site, meaning, there are ghosts! Tony the night guy, gave me the full run down of the place including a small tour. Apparently it used to be a military air base and a tuberculosis hospital! Needless to say, the rooms were comfy and I slept really well! I would stay there again. See my Yelp review!

The next morning, I had breakfast (complimentary!) and headed back up to Yosemite (good thing I bought the yearly pass!) This time, I took the road up to Glacier Point and was greeted by the wonderful scent of pine trees! Smelled just like Christmas. There were so many gorgeous viewpoints I must have gotten out of my car like 5 times to take photos. And even though I had a map, I wanted to discover things on my own. Finally, I reached my destination, parked and walked a bit to the very edge of what was permitted. It was BEAUTIFUL. Half-Dome bearing its weight on the mountain, surrounded by the beauty of several water falls dancing their way across the  park. It was magnificent.

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Me at Galen Clark Range viewpoint. Half Dome in the back 🙂

At the gift store, I bought myself a ham sandwich, a drink and went to the amphitheater to sit down, eat and take it all in. Then next thing I know, music starts playing an a wedding begins! It was so moving! This young couple decided to get married at Glacier Point in front of friends, family and random strangers! I cried, it was just too much. I thought to myself, wow, what dedication. It’s no joke driving up to Glacier Point and having your entire bridal party do that for you is pretty incredible. What a lucky couple!
Needless to say, that was a perfect ending to my two day exploration project at Yosemite. I can’t wait to go back and actually camp. It’s only $50 to get a camping permit and I was told by a ranger that there are camping grounds with running water and bathrooms! For a city girl like me, that’s exciting! Haha!

Total costs:

$40 annual pass, $30 tram tour, $150 hotel stay = $220 for two days 🙂

Basically, bottom line is this:

  1. $40 annual pass, it’s worth it
  2. Mariposa Grove for big trees, if you’re short on time, do the tram $26.50 (less of kids and seniors)
  3. Camping, plan in advance and get a permit $50!
  4. Must go: Glacier Point – amazing views! go ALL the way up.
  5. For hikers, park your car and take the Valley shuttle for FREE!
  6. Tour the entire park on a bus / tram!

Do it! You wont regret it!

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2 thoughts on “First Time Guide to Yosemite

  1. Dee says:

    I enjoyed your hints to a successful trip in Yosemite when in a time crunch! My husband and I will be doing so on a day trip from Sacramento and want to make the most of it. How much time do you think it will take for us to go up on Glacier Point, accounting for stopping for a few photo ops? (Up and down) Thanks in advance! One day we will come back and visit for several days, but we live about 2,600 miles away so we want to make the most of our one day we will be there in the meantime. : )

    1. wc says:

      Dee, so sorry! just saw this comment. Did you make it out? It takes a couple of hours from entrance to Glacier if you’re stopping along the way. Totally doable.

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