Yosemite, land of rock and water, of towering trees and grassy meadows, of deep valleys and their surrounding mountains. It is my happy place. Unfortunately, it is also the happy place for millions of other visitors each year, who clamor to the California icon to hike, camp, and ooh and aah at the breathtaking scenery.
Yosemite Valley is stunning, no doubt. But some parts of it (Yosemite Falls, for instance) can be absolutely overrun by tourists, especially during the peak season. When you factor in that during this summer peak many of the park’s iconic waterfalls are either trickles or completely dry, the long descent into the valley and the resulting fight for parking and the best views can seem little worth it. Fortunately, Yosemite is so much more than just the valley, and a perfect day – or three – in the park can be had without ever setting foot there amongst the hordes. Yosemite South, the area between the southern entrance outside Oakhurst and the valley, is the ideal place for those who wish to experience the majesty of Yosemite without the crowds, to achieve a bit of the beautiful solitude that John Muir or Ansel Adams would have found in this amazing place.
For the purposes of this article, we are going to divide Yosemite South into three main attractions: Glacier Point, Wawona, and the Mariposa Grove. There is more to see, of course, with additional viewpoints and hikes, but these are the highlights. (Reminder, Yosemite is currently on a reservation system through the end of summer, and you must pre-book your entrance regardless of whether or not you intend to visit the valley.)
Glacier Point is the pinnacle of Yosemite, both figuratively and literally, as it sits 3,200 feet above Yosemite Valley, with a 270 degree view of the park and the majority of its most famous features. The road is only accessible from May to October or so (sometimes even early November) – subject to change depending on snowfall – but is worth the detour for anyone visiting the park during the summer season. It is from here that the glacial history of the valley is truly apparent. Half Dome, the most recognizable point in the park, is actually half a dome, sliced by a glacier over millennia as it formed Yosemite Valley. (By contrast, Sentinel Dome, the hike trailhead for which can be found off Glacier Point Road, is still a full granite dome, albeit one smaller than that which would have made Half Dome whole.)
To the right of Half Dome, visitors to Glacier Point can see the ever-flowing waterfalls of the Merced River: Vernal and Nevada, accessible from Yosemite Valley via the Mist Trail, one of the most popular in the park. To the left, Yosemite Falls, the tallest in the United States, thunders into the valley when water is present. Dry years will cause it to reduce to a trickle by July. The world-famous Ahwahnee Hotel seems but a tiny toy from up here, and Mirror Lake is barely a shimmer. It is a feeling of majesty not to be missed, and better appreciated early in the day before parking can fill up.
(It should be noted that Glacier Point Road is expected to be closed in 2022 for construction, although an exact reopening hasn’t yet been officially announced.)
By contrast, Wawona seems nearly deserted, other than guests of the venerable Wawona Hotel, built in 1876 and still serving the park today. Wawona marks the original headquarters of Yosemite National Park, and from the hotel, you can cross a covered bridge that dates to 1868 – one of only twelve covered bridges currently existing in California – to the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. The center is a collection of historic buildings, each with good signage, dating from the founding of the park. The Wells Fargo office, original superintendent’s headquarters, and residences of artists-in-residence are well kept up, and offer visitors a unique look into the history of both the park and the region.
Crossing the street, and through a bit of the Wawona golf course (currently being renovated), one will find the Wawona Meadow trail, a three mile loop – in and back today given the construction on the golf course side of it – around a beautiful meadow. At dawn and dusk it is a common grazing spot for deer, though during the middle of a summer day it is too hot for most animals to be out. The trail seems deserted, and I passed only two people during my time on it. The solitude is refreshing and recharging.
The Mariposa Grove is one of only a few groves of giant sequoias in existence, and the only one here at Yosemite. While normally a shuttle runs from the parking area to the grove, it is currently not running due to Covid, forcing visitors to walk about 2.5 miles each way to reach the huge trees. Giant sequoias are the world’s largest trees, and many exceed 200 feet in height and 25 feet across at the base. They are immense, giving visitors a similar feeling to standing at the base of a huge skyscraper.
The largest tree in the Mariposa Grove is the Grizzly Giant. Measuring at 209 feet tall, 25.5 feet across, and 96.5 feet around, it is the 25th largest giant sequoia in the world. Best, it is easily accessible off a short trail!
Yosemite is amazing at any time, in virtually any weather, and from basically every point. However, for those who wish to avoid the overwhelming crowds of Yosemite Valley, consider basing yourself in Oakhurst and spending your time exploring the wonder of Yosemite South. You won’t regret it!
Thank you to Visit Yosemite / Madera County for hosting me and for arranging my reservation for the park, allowing me to have an incredible day in Yosemite south!
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