(This article was recently in USA Today)
Yosemite National Park wasn’t the first national park, but the idea of the national park was born there.
A law signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 ceded the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to California for use as a state park — the first time the federal government had designated land for preservation in such a manner. Eight years later, Yellowstone became America’s — and the world’s — first national park.
More than 150 years later, millions come to marvel at the wonders of Yosemite.
And what wonders they are: towering sequoias and deep valleys; meadows of flowers and mountains of granite; glaciers, wildlife and waterfalls.
Tourists have been making pilgrimages to Yosemite for generations. If you’re planning a trip this year, or any year, here’s what you should know.
Consider the season
•Summer. From June through September, all areas of the park are usually accessible by car, although park officials say services along Tioga Road often open a bit later in June.
Summer visitors will enjoy the sight and sounds of water flowing. The water comes from snowmelt in the high country, so runoff decreases as the summer progresses.
Peak runoff typically occurs in May or June. Some waterfalls (including Yosemite Falls) will get only a trickle or be completely dry by August.
•Fall. As the summer crush dwindles, you can have a closer encounter with Yosemite.
Yosemite isn’t known for spectacular fall colors because most of the trees are evergreen, park officials say. Still, big-leaf maples, black oaks, Pacific dogwoods and some other trees tend to be showy around October.
Most areas of the park are open through October and sometimes November. Short-term closures may occur, however, due to snow.
•Winter. December through March is the season of snow and solitude.
Winter in Yosemite is snowy and cold, although sunny (but still chilly) days occur, too. Tire chains are often required on park roads, and park officials ask that winter visitors know how to use them.
Most of the park is covered in snow during winter, but some trails in Yosemite Valley are accessible, and backpacking options are limited.
•Spring. April and May are best for waterfall viewing.
With warmer weather melting the snow, even small creeks are engorged. Small, unnamed waterfalls and cascades break out along the Valley’s rim. Larger creeks and rivers and the better-known waterfalls tend to reach peak runoff in May or June.
It’s too early to see wildflowers in the park, but California poppies and other species at lower elevations can be seen. Redbud and dogwood trees bloom in May.
Sights and sounds
The Yosemite Conservancy provides grants to help preserve and protect the park and enhance the experience. Here are a few conservancy-aided options:
•Glacier Point overlook affords breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley, the Half Dome rock formation, Yosemite Falls and Yosemite’s high country. It’s accessible by car from late May through October or November.
“It’s a wonderful view point where you can look at a different angle of Half Dome and then looking down into Yosemite Valley,” says Jennifer Miller, a conservancy spokeswoman. “It’s just a really stunning view to see all of the peaks of the surrounding Sierra Nevada.”
•Spectacular views of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls are attainable with just a short walk. The restored trail makes the trek a little easier.
“There are seating areas along the way for you to stop and pause,” Miller says. “It feels very natural as you’re walking along the path.”
•The conservancy’s art program allows visitors to experience Yosemite in whole new way, Miller says. Workshops are offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday throughout the summer.
“Often, when people are visiting Yosemite for a day, they gravitate toward the Valley,” she says. “But if they are sticking around or want to learn how to paint or draw and create their own wonderful memento, the art workshops offer that.”
•Hikes scheduled by the conservancy accommodate different fitness levels and focus on each visitor’s interests. The outings range from multiday backpacking adventures to day hikes or walks.
“They’re not only helping you through the hike, but you’re hearing about your surroundings and learning about the park,” she says.
About the park
Size: 748,036 acres.
Visitors: 5,028,868 in 2016.
History: The Ahwahneechee tribe lived in and around Yosemite for generations. White travelers arrived in the 1800s, but the rugged terrain kept many out. From the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s, only about 650 visitors made the journey to Yosemite Valley by horseback or stage. By 1907, construction of the Yosemite Valley Railroad from Merced to El Portal eased the journey and increased the number of park visitors.
When visiting: Yosemite is open all year, although some areas of the park are inaccessible by car from November through May due to snow. Visitors can drive their car into and around Yosemite, or use free shuttles or fee-based tours to get around to popular areas. For information: 209-372-0200 or nps.gov/yose.