Yosemite National Park is the first big destination of our USA road trip and we were about to take our beast of a motorhome on the open road for the first time!
Day 3. Fri, 21 Sep
Thanks to jet lag plus buckets of excitement and anticipation, we were up at 3 am and left San Francisco soon after, while it was still dark.
This new jetlag routine was growing on me. We’re ready to hit the road before the sun was up while still enjoying the best part of a slow morning to snuggle with the kids, have a lazy breakfast and get everyone ready without the usual panicked screams and threats. We got the best part of the day and certainly could make the most of precious daylight time.
It’s the WRONG side people!
Again, it was nerve-wracking to drive on the wrong side of the road. Very stressful! In hindsight, we can say that the drive up and down highway H120 to Yosemite was the worst of all the mountain passes we drove in the US on this trip.
Maybe it felt worse and more intense because Yosemite was our first. All ‘firsts’ should be memorable and this one definitely was. It was steep with sharp hairpin turns and sheer drops that gave me mini heart attacks over and over. The drive felt tougher than Yellowstone, Bighorn, Spearfish Canyon, The Smoky Mountains, and Death Valley.
In one close call, our satnav indicated that we needed to take the next turn, but just as we took that turn another car flashed and honked at us to stop. The passengers actually hung out of the windows, madly waving their arms in the air as they passed, to indicate that we couldn’t go that way. We’d completely missed the ‘No RV’s’ sign! Fortunately, we were able to avoid catastrophe on one of the old roads leading to Yosemite, reversed and got back onto the safer road.
The good news is that, with care, if you take it slow and take note of all road signs and warnings, it’s very do-able in a large motorhome.
Look For The Light
We also decided at this point not to drive in the dark again. No more 5am departures. Wait for the sun to come up first so that we can easily see that small green sign on the side of a busy highway, to anticipate a sudden bend in the road and to avoid animals.
Often we were ready long before sunrise, literally sat buckled in our seats, waiting for the sun to poke its head over the horizon so that we can start the RV, step on the gas and GO! But definately no more driving on foreign roads before sunrise for us, thank you.
Near Yosemite National Park, we stopped at Groveland’s Tourist Info center and hesitantly walked through the door, unsure of what to ask or where we wanted to go. We just wanted to get off the road at that point. (Nog so bietjie bleek na ons die pas deurgery het met die groot wa!)
A Helping Hand From A Friendly Ranger
The ranger on duty at Groveland Tourist Information, Loretta, took control from the moment we said ‘hi’. Super friendly and helpful, she asked all the right questions and called ahead on our behalf to find a campsite nearby. She found and booked the last premium RV spot at Yosemite Pines, only 8 miles away. What a lifesaver!
It felt like we were driving all day, but we got to our campsite at 10am so had all day to relax and enjoy the campsite. Later in the afternoon we explored, went to see the alpacas and farm animals, the kids panned for gold and I did laundry while they went for a swim. The water was especially icy cold here.
Still jetlagged, we tried to push for later, but just couldn’t stay up; we went down for the night at 6 pm. Again.
The pretty town of Groveland on H120 before Yosemite Pines RV Park is gorgeous. It boasts California’s oldest continuously operating saloon, the Iron Door Saloon. All the shops and buildings are in the old western style from the gold rush era. We were sorry that we didn’t stop to take more photos or that we spent more time there but we’re glad that we got to at least see it.
Day 4. Sat, 22 Sep: Visiting Yosemite National Park
The YARTS, the Yosemite public transport system, stopped at our campsite, Yosemite Pines, at 9:30 to take us to Yosemite Valley for the day. It’s a rather long 1,5hr ride, but it’s free and we were too nervous to drive the RV into the Valley ourselves anyway.
Speed: The New Movie
We should’ve been more nervous about the bus ride! It seems that years of experience gave the drivers unsettling confidence on the mountain passes as they steer the fully loaded busses into the valley at, what felt like, full speed. At one point I was hoping for Keanu and Sandra to pop up at any minute to save our runaway bus! Of course, we arrived safe and on schedule and, to the driver’s credit, that is the norm, but the memory still raises the hair on the back of my neck.
In all fairness, they drive by the speed limit and they do a great job – it’s just me being a total wimp and drama queen.
Please take the bus into Yosemite Valley if you can? You’ll be fine. You’ll experience the thrill of a YARTS bus ride and you’ll be helping to ease the massive traffic problem the park has to deal with most of the year.
Yosemite National Park is a big place and there’s so much to see and do that nature-lovers, hikers, photographers, and adventure seekers could be entertained for weeks.
We only visited Yosemite Valley, but apart from numerous hiking trails, there is also the Glacier Point road to explore, the Wawona and Mariposa Grove areas, Hetch Hetchy, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows. You need days, not hours, to take in all its beauty.
Yosemite holds international recognition for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves, lakes, mountains, meadows, glaciers, and biological diversity. We got to tick off one of our USA bucket list wishes at Halfdome Village when we hugged one of its giant ancient sequoias.
The name ‘Yosemite’ means “killer” in Miwok, referring to the name of a renegade tribe which was driven out of the area (and possibly annihilated) by the Mariposa Battalion.
With more than 95% of Yosemite designated as wilderness and its spectacular granite cliffs such as El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite is one of the busiest national parks in the country. It gets over 4 million visitors a year and the natural environment is suffering because of it.
Look at these stats from the national parks website:
- Park visitors: 5,217,114 (2016), 4,294,381 (2015), 4,029,416 (2014), 3,829,361 (2013)
- Overnight Hikers: 70,357 (2016), 63,599 (2015), 56,308 (2014), 50,274 (2013)
- Search and rescue operations: 329 (2016), 239 (2015), 181 (2014), 184 (2013)
- Motor vehicle accidents: 620 (2016), 611 (2015), 465 (2014), 491 (2013)
- Fatalities: 16 (2016), 20 (2015), 13 (2014)
- Medical assists: 778 (2016), 766 (2015), 637 (2014), 653 (2013)
- Human-Bear incidents: 38 (2016), 76 (2015), 165 (2014), 120 (2013)
- Bears hit by vehicles: 27 (2016), 39 (2015), 25 (2014), 16 (2013)
One Google reviewer described Yosemite as:
A place of unrivaled visual stimulation and sensory delights. Just be prepared for the crush of humanity
Unfortunately, Yosemite it is one of the top ten tourist hotspots in the world that are suffering from over-tourism. We went in late September (fall/autumn) and it was crowded in the valley.
What We Can Do To Save Yosemite?
- To ease the traffic and reduce the negative environmental impact, visitors can avoid peak times and try to visit in winter,
- Use public transport to get into the park
- If you must travel into the valley in your own vehicle in winter a car is better than an RV
- Do not litter! Pick up trash when you see it.
- Whenever you decide to go, book accommodation well in advance.
It’s sad to see litter in public places anywhere, but it’s astonishing to see so much of it in such a special place!
You’ll find recent posts with a quick online search about the pressure Yosemite is under, but for a beautifully written piece read this one on National Geographic’s website. Here’s another one for more insight.
Our Time In Yosemite Valley
Entry to Yosemite National Park was covered by the bus or our Yosemite Pine campground rate because we didn’t have to pay the entry fee on the bus. The usual price is $35 per vehicle of 4 people.
Buy the National Parks Pass if you plan to visit three or more national parks in a year. It’s worth it. It’s called America The Beautiful Pass or the US Parks Pass. You can buy it from any national park or various stores and it can save you money.
Once we arrived at the Visitor Center, we made good use of the free shuttle
At the Yosemite Visitor Center we liked the Indian Village and museum. A short hike took us to the beautiful Lower Yosemite Falls. From there we walked to the nearest pickup point and used the shuttles to see most of the valley.
We spent some time at Half Dome village and swam in an icy cold clear stream with beautiful views of the granite mountains and a stone bridge. Refreshing!
The kids completed the Yosemite Junior Ranger program and earned their first Jr Ranger badge and a pin; a proud moment indeed. They had to complete specific pages and tasks in their ranger books, pick up a bag of trash each and attend a ranger talk.
At The End Of The Day
We were glad we took the YARTS. Traffic became a problem later in the day as more visitors arrived and we were relieved that us, the newbie RV’ers, did not attempt to navigate the small roads in Yosemite Valley with the RV, even if the bus drivers made it look like a piece of cake. It is very possible to drive RV’s in Yosemite because we saw many big rigs driving in and out, but for us, the bus was the best option for sure.
The Sonora bus arrived at the visitor center at 4:30 to take us back to the RV park, which we reached at 6pm; yes, ready to fall into bed!
A Sudden Change Of Plan
Yosemite is a special place. We did not spend nearly enough time there to see all of it, because we decided on a drastic change of plans.
The original plan was to stay there for three days then head South via Death Valley, Las Vegas and visit the Utah Mighty Five on the way to Yellowstone, but we decided to change our route after a tense drive up the mountain to Yosemite in the RV.
We decided to get to Yellowstone earlier because we did not want to get stuck in the snow with a big RV to maneuver up and down icy mountain roads; especially when the weather forecast showed snow from the 1st of October, possibly even earlier. If it was just myself and B this whole trip would be a different story and we’d take more risks, but with the kids onboard, safety is paramount. Most, if not all, our decisions revolve around their well-being.
And so our race against winter began where weather forecasts played a major role on our route most of the way. We were running from snow and ice from the start.