Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 19, 2016

Yosemite National Park: Phenomenal Splendor

One of a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service.

Don’t ask a mother to choose a favorite among her children. Don’t ask me to indicate which U.S. National Park I think is the best. It’s impossible. I will not choose. I know, though, one I can recommend for a visit without hesitation: Yosemite National Park.


Covering nearly 1,200 square miles of western central California, Yosemite includes mountains, a dramatic glacial valley framed by towering cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, lakes, glaciers and hiking and camping in developed areas and wilderness alike. There are megafauna (black bear, deer, mountain lions and more) and a diverse ecosystem that includes groves of giant Sequoia trees and 20% of all the native plant species in California.

The question is not, “Should I go there?” The question is, “How soon, and how often?”

Most of Yosemite’s 4 million annual visitors spend all or most of their time in the Yosemite Valley, the nexus of the park’s roads, trails and most iconic sites. Here is probably the best-known feature of Yosemite National Park, Half Dome.


Half Dome is also visible at the right of the first photo, above. That face, by the way, is not a glacial feature, but the result of exfoliation: crystals in the granite expanding, causing layers of rock to peel away.

Yosemite Valley comprises 7 square miles out of the park’s 1,200. You could spend several days touring and hiking in the valley, leaving untold more days to see something of the rest of the park. I hope when you go, you do hit some of the trails (well maintained in typical NPS fashion)  and, if you have a say in where you drive, you go to Glacier Point, Tunnel View and, if at all possible, travel at least some of east-west Route 120 through the high country north of the valley.

Here is a view from Glacier Point, late on a summer day, with Half Dome (8,836 ft.) on the left.


Look down in the low valley of the Merced (mer-SED) River and you may see two significant waterfalls. Here’s a closer look.


At the bottom left of the photo is Vernal Falls, 317 feet, and above it on the right, 594-foot Nevada Falls. You can hike to both falls (7.2 miles round trip) from Yosemite Valley, just one hike  out of 10 trails leading from the valley in a variety of directions. There are scores of trails in Yosemite, ranging from accessible to those requiring expert, strenuous effort and wilderness camping. HERE is the guide to Yosemite trails.

Two Yosemite waterfalls are world famous: Bridalveil and Yosemite. We were there in midsummer of a particularly dry year, and didn’t get much of a show. Yellowstone Falls was a scant trickle. Here was the barely-flowing Bridalveil.


Spring is the best time to see the falls at their greatest volume, when high country snow is melting. The next photo, from Tunnel View, shows that Bridalveil is tumbling out of an excellent example of a U-shaped “hanging valley,” formed by one glacier flowing into the larger glacier that helped carve Yosemite Valley.


Yes, you can climb to the top of Half Dome (from the “back,” not the face) without rock-climbing gear or skills. Between 14 and 16 miles round trip, allow at least 10-12 hours, quite strenuous exertion required. HERE is the trail info.

You can drive around the valley in your vehicle, with some limits, although there’s also a system of public transportation shuttles which will get you to the major points of interest, campgrounds, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (silly new name for the historic Ahwanee due to a dispute), lodgings, camping and trailheads. Biking’s an excellent option, too.

Another iconic feature of the Yosemite valley is 3,000-foot El Capitan, the vertical cliff on the near left.


In almost any weather, look closely at the face through your binoculars. You’ll see small dots moving up the wall: climbers. El Capitan is one of the world’s prime rock-climbing challenges. Most climbers require multiple days, involving nights suspended by lines in a snug little cocoon. A few speed climbers have summited in less than 2-1/2 hours.

Words won’t do. Photos are a pale reflection of the grandeur and sheer immensity of the place, even those by a gentleman named A. Adams who shot some pretty good ones there. Plan to go. It’s one of the oldest and most glorious of the U.S. National Parks.

Don’t fail to stop, breathe and look. Listen to the water, the sound of wind, still shaping the wilderness, which — at least here — is protected for us all. You’ll remember Yosemite for as long as memory endures.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Map via Google.

Getting there

Yosemite National Park is due east of San Francisco, north of Los Angeles. In the center of the map below, it’s about a 3-hour drive from San Francisco, 4-1/2 hours from L.A.


The Sierra Nevada Mountains are packed with natural wonders. In red at the top, Lake Tahoe and at the bottom, Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Death Valley National Parks. Mono Lake, which I’ve yet to write about, but will, is circled in blue, and there’s a blue star marking Devil’s Postpile National Monument, which I wrote about HERE.


  1. Another very interesting post filled with beauty and information! Your mention of bears brought back a childhood memory–although my bear encounter was in Yellowstone.


  2. National Geographic is drooling over those pix!


  3. […] Yosemite National Park: Phenomenal Splendor […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We visited Yosemite twice, at least 20 years ago and stayed at Yosemite Lodge. I wonder if it is still called that? We drove / walked around most of the points you mentioned and made a return visit a couple of years later. Such stunning scenery, thank you for reminding me!


    • I’m delighted you’ve had the opportunity to visit one of the crown jewels of the American national park system. It’s difficult to say anything meaningful about the place; so much has been said and — ultimately — the place itself is more eloquent than words, more expressive than pictures. I’ve never stayed in the park, but the Lodge certainly looks nice. According to Wikipedia, the management company (a contractor, not the Park Service) changed its name to Yosemite Lodge at the Falls in the mid-2000s. Now, a new management company, back to being “Yosemite Valley Lodge.” In case you’re thinking of returning, it’s a separate website from the National Park Service: Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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