Driving Yosemite Valley…
On the extreme west end of the valley on the Wawona Road, just after the tunnel, is “Inspiration Point.” The vantage point looks east. It is another iconic view of the valley; El Capitan on the left and Bridalveil Falls on the right and just a tiny glimpse of Half Dome at the far end – another Breath Taking scene. Actually, this vantage point is called the “Tunnel View” because it is just past the tunnel on the road from the South Entrance into the park. Sometimes it is referred to as “Discovery View.” The real “Inspiration Point” is up the side of the hill on the Pohono Trail near an old, abandoned road. It is accessible only by hiking up the trail from the parking lot at “Tunnel View”. But I believe you won’t confuse anyone by calling it Inspiration Point. It is difficult to tag any particular scene in Yosemite as “the best”, but the tunnel view would definitely be a contender.
This stop was re-furbished in the early 2010s. A tree that stood near the overlook was removed allowing more people to spread themselves along the knee-high block wall that edged the viewpoint. I’m going to miss that tree. Aside from the fact it was a tree AND the park service was supposed to protect stuff like that (but, I digress), it provided nice framing for a shot of the scene or a shaded backdrop to a selfie or a group shot of your party. But all is not lost. Turn around (180 degrees). Just to right of the parking lot on the other side of the road is the end of Pohono Trail. Take a quick jaunt up that. After the first switchback, you’ll come to a vantage point with a nice tree for framing your shot.
I usually like to get to this spot at dawn during the off-season where there is a chance of seeing the whole valley break open from the morning fog. This isn’t so likely during the summer months. I’ve been most lucky with this during our February trips (when we visit to try to capture Horsetail Falls).
The next stop on our tour is Bridalveil Falls. There is a small parking lot from which there is a view of the falls through the trees. I’m not sure how much longer this particular view will be available as trees tend to get bigger as time goes , but it was still a good shot in the mid 2010s.There is a short, paved, walkway, maybe 400 yards, up to the base of the falls. You will get sprinkled on by the mist, but it’s worth the walk and the wet. I have found the best viewing is the late afternoon when the breeze whips up the “Bridalveil” and you get treated to a rainbow of colors.
Up to this point, the Wawona Road has been a two-way street, but shortly, just east of the Bridalveil parking lot, you will come to a junction where Southside Drive comes up from the Pohono Bridge where Big Oak Flat Road meets up with the valley. This is the end of Wawona Road and you pick up Southside Drive, two lanes going one way.
As you pass this junction, you’ll travel a short distance under canopy of tree branches. It will then suddenly break out into an opening with parking on either side of the road, but you’ll be confronted with a stunning view of El Capitan. On the left is El Capitan and on the right is a clear view of Bridalveil. This is one of those places where you really need to pay extra attention to your driving; especially during the busy season. There are people on both sides of the street looking up at the sites; and not where they are going. Don’t fight ‘em; join ‘em. Pull over and become one with them.
Just past the El Capitan/Bridalveil viewing area, you will get to another junction that leads off to the left and a sign saying “Park Exits” and straight ahead for “Yosemite Village”. This is the two-way cutover to Northside Drive I mentioned above. But, we want to stay on Southside Drive.
There are two picnic areas off of Southside Drive just past this junction; Cathedral Beach and Sentinel Beach. “Beach” in this sense refers to the sandy shore of the Merced River. The locations are named after the area. Cathedral Beach is just opposite Cathedral Rocks on the south rim. It offers a nice view of the Merced River and El Capitan. Sentinel Beach is across from the Sentinel Tower farther east along the south rim. It also is on the river and offers views of the north rim and small view of Yosemite Falls. Neither of the picnic areas offers much of a view of their namesake features as the picnic grounds are nestled in tall trees.
Almost directly across the street from Sentinel Beach picnic area is the trail head to the “4-mile trail.” This trail, closed in the winter, runs between the valley floor and Glacier Point. It offers fabulous views of the valley from various heights. There is a turnout on the right for parking for the hike.
Just ahead on the left is a pullout and parking at the “Swinging Bridge.” This bridge, though itself is not paved, is part of a paved roadway that circumnavigates the east end of the valley. The “road” is accessible only on foot and bicycles. Some of the pathway is also available to vehicles with handicap plates or placards. The bridge is a nice place to stop and take a picture with the river and Yosemite Falls in the background. Using a tripod to take a picture of your whole group may prove to be problematical. It is called “The Swinging Bridge” because it sways, not because it’s fun at parties.
A few hundred feet past the Swinging Bridge is a turnout along Leidig Meadow where you are treated to a nice view of Yosemite Falls. A Chapel is nestled in some trees on the right. There are a couple photo opportunities here. From the road, just to the left of “straight on” to the chapel, is a nice shot of the Chapel with a large tree in the back. This is especially colorful in the fall when the leaves are turning. Also, another view, from behind and to the right of the Chapel, you can get a shot of the side of the chapel (with steeple) and Yosemite Falls in the background.
Just across the street is a foot bridge taking you over the river and through the woods to gra’ma’s house….no, that’s something else…to Cook’s Meadow.
Keep on Southside Drive to a stop sign at Sentinel Drive at Sentinel Bridge. Continuing straight ahead takes you to the LeConte Memorial Lodge , Housekeeping Tent Cabin sites, Camp Curry and other camp sites. A left turn takes you onto the two-way street, Sentinel Drive, and across the bridge. The bridge is an ideal spot from which to photograph Half Dome with trees and a river view. You will usually find a plethora of photographers there at dusk waiting for the “sweet” light, a cloud or other interesting lighting effect to enhance the already miraculous scene.
Just past the bridge, to the left is a parking lot offering a view of Cook’s Meadow and Yosemite Falls. There is a shuttle bus stop making it convenient to park and use the shuttle for the various stops around the valley. There is a short trail around Cook’s Meadow that will take you around the meadow from the parking lot along the north shore of the Merced River to the footbridge connecting Cook’s Meadow to the Chapel on Southside Drive. The path then turns away from the bridge coming along on the west side of the meadow to Northside Drive. The trail then parallels the road going east to a wooden walkway across the meadow and back to the parking lot. Or, you may continue along the road to Sentinel Drive and walk back to the parking lot that way.
From the parking lot, continue on Sentinel Drive to Northside Drive. Turning left (westbound) takes to more the valley features. Turning right will take you to Yosemite Village. Either way is still a two-way street. The main feature of the village is the general store. It contains staples with regard to groceries. About half the floor space is dedicated souvenirs; clothing, key chains, mugs, signature items. There are also camping utilities; portable stoves, utensils, some cookware and common remedies and toiletries. Down a few doors, there is the “sports” store for more clothing but also a larger selection of camp related items like sleeping bags, small tents, etc.
The village also has a deli for pre-packaged or made-to-order sandwiches. There is a post office, museum, wilderness office and the Ansel Adams Gallery. The Gallery stocks some fine works from Ansel Adams like calendars, photos, books and prints. There is usually a display of the work of a noted photographer or illustrator specializing in Yosemite or nature in general. And there is a convenient “photo” shop available.
The road to the village also takes you to the Ahwahnee Hotel. This is a high end hotel, dripping with rusticity. The rooms will cost 2 to 3 times the amount for a room at one of the hotels outside the park in El Portal (outside the Arch Entrance). Reviews are mixed on the accommodations; very good or very bad and very little “in between”. But then again, for $400 a night, you’re not going to get middle of the road review. I’ve never stayed there and short of winning the Lotto, I probably won’t. Even if you choose not to stay, you really should at least visit. We liked the gift shop, it has a grand lobby and a there is a relaxing lodge area with a fire place large enough to stand in . Every fourth or fifth trip, my wife and I will splurge and have breakfast there. It is easiest in the winter. We try to get “The Queen’s Table”, which is a table for two by the window overlooking Yosemite Falls (it is so called because when Queen Elizabeth visited the park in 1983 and this is where she was seated). You’ll need to get there the moment it opens (usually about 7 AM) and be one of the first in line for a party of two. We usually have a simple breakfast of bacon and eggs with coffee or tea. The last time we went, it sets us back about $70 with tip. But it is worth it every once in a while to be treated like royalty.
From the village, along Northside Drive, you’ll pass Cook’s Meadow on the left and a shuttle stop on the right. This is the shuttle stop to take for the short hike to Lower Yosemite Falls. From the “entrance” to the walk, you can see the upper, lower and middle cascades of the falls. This is a short walk up a slight inclined, paved walkway to a footbridge over the creek created by the falls. From there you have a fabulous view of the lower falls. Continue on for a walk around back to the bus stop (or, return the way you came). It is an easy, wheelchair-accessible walk.
Oh, and a little tip. From the bus stop, near the trash cans, you can get a great picture of Half Dome framed nicely though the tree branches.
Right across Northside Drive from the entrance to the falls is Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. These rooms are nicely located for stays in the valley. The alternatives for staying in the valley are camping, the tent cabins at Housekeeping or Camp Curry or the Ahwahnee. Beyond that, it is 6 or 7 miles from the valley to El Portal to stay and the Yosemite View or Cedar Lodge.
In addition to lodging, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls has a nice lobby with an office to make tour arrangements. There is a small store with some groceries and other necessities of your stay along with clothing and souvenir merchandise. There is a nice sit-down restaurant along with a food court cafeteria style. There is a gift shop.
Up to this point, Northside Drive still runs both ways. As you continue west, there is Campsite 4 called Sunnyside Camp, the only one it the valley that is a “walk in”; you cannot make reservations for it. However, the camp site is usually filled up by noon on Friday. After the campsite, Northside Drive is one way going west. There is a parking area here as well, which is the trailhead for the hike up to the top of Yosemite Falls.
Just past the camp site is the “El Capitan” Picnic area. This is a, generally, unremarkable picnic area. There is a small parking lot; there are restrooms and standing barbeque pits in a cluster of standing trees. It is, however, an ideal spot from which to capture Horsetail Falls at the end of February each year.
Little past the picnic area is the cutover from Northside to Southside Drive. It is a two-way road. It crosses El Capitan Bridge at Northside Drive. The bridge offers a close up view of El Capitan to the north and Cathedral Rocks to the south. At the bridge is a nice shot of a feed to the river and Cathedral rock. It is a great shot in winter with snow, or during fall’s full color. Spring and Summer…ehh, maybe. One of the things I thought might be fun to do is find a place I could collect a “four-season” shot. You know, come back sometime during each season and take the same photo. The problem is I haven’t found a place that lends itself to a four-season shot; especially in the valley. There isn’t much flowering vegetation in the valley and where there is, the “same” shot taken at other seasons aren’t as telling. Summer and Spring, in the valley, pretty much, look the same. This shot at the Pohono Bridge is great in winter and fall, but only so-so in Summer and indistinguishable from Spring.
The crossover meets up with Southside Drive just before the entrance to Cathedral Beach Picnic area.
Continuing on Northside Drive, you’ll come to a turnout from where Bridalveil Falls is easily visible from across the Merced River.
Just beyond is another iconic scene that spells, “Yosemite”. It is called Valley View. It shows El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Falls on the right, and a meadow in between. The Merced River is flowing in front with exposed boulders near the shores and tufts of grass scattered around like Easter Egg baskets. This view is straight out of a fantasy. You almost expect Bambi and Thumper to romp out onto the meadow under a flutter of butterflies and a flight of chirping birds. Take a deep breath of the clear, cool, clean air and see if you can avoid belting out a chorus of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
From the Valley View, it’s just a few hundred feet to a fork in the road. Keep going straight and you meet up with a two-way road that takes you out of the park or up to Tioga Road. To the left, you cross over the Pohono Bridge where it becomes Southside Drive. Your drive is now encased in a canopy of trees. Almost immediately on the right after the bridge is a small turnout and “Fern Spring.” This is a nice photo opportunity. I’ll set up a tripod low to the ground and take a long exposure to see the water flow smooth out into a cottony blur. This is especially neat during the fall. You can call your shot, “Spring in Fall.”
It should be mentioned that sometimes, during the winter, that either Northside Drive or Southside Drive is closed due to re-paving, or some other kind of construction. In that case, the “surviving” road is set up for two way traffic.
Shortly after Fern Spring, Southside drive meets up with Wawona Road a two-way road where you can turn back to get to Bridalveil Falls, Inspiration Point, Glacier Point Road, Wawona, Mariposa Grove or exiting the park through the south entrance. Or, keep on Southside Drive which is where we came in to this movie.
This circumnavigation of the valley has at its center, the Merced River, which has many faces. Every trip I make to the park offers a different layout as the river meanders through the valley in a slightly different path. It can be a torrent of white water cascading over rocks and cutting into the banks. This is most common in the spring. As the spring wanes into summer, then fall and winter, the river slows and meanders more readily. But even in spring parts of the river lazily streams through the valley as if it, too, feels the necessity to slow down and take in the sights as it flows by.
1. Another in a multitude of Nature Tidbit from yours truly.
2. Joseph LeConte was a close friend of John Muir and the first Geologist to support Muir’s glaciation theory about the valley formation.
3. But don’t do it unless you want to warm up extremely quickly or you have brought a hand full of your Harry Potter flue powder.
4. Name for the John Jay Cook and family, an early entrepreneur in Yosemite Valley, who ran some hotels.
5. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.