Spring in Yosemite: Waterfalls, wildflowers, and rainbow-mist hikes
Ready for your Yosemite packing list? Here it is: your five senses and a love of nature. (Also, you know, snacks and a jacket and stuff.) Late spring in Yosemite is a festival of thundering waterfalls, wildflower-studded meadows, and baby animals—and it’s the perfect time of year to visit if you want to beat those cramped summer crowds.
Teresa Baker, founder of the In Solidarity Project and co-founder of the Outdoorist Oath, loves Yosemite this time of year. Growing up as the only girl in a family of eight brothers, she was no stranger to the outdoors, and she found her love of nature early, through an after-school program. Now she works to make natural spaces welcoming to all. “Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many people of color were legally barred from, or segregated at, public recreational sites, including national and state parks,” she says. That history has a long, lingering effect on communities of color. ”Their initial perception [can be] that these parks are not for them, for various reasons.” By raising awareness and leading by example, Baker hopes to change that and make everyone feel welcome in nature.
Yosemite was the first national park Baker visited, and it’s one that still wows her every time. “There is a peace that surrounds Yosemite, a stillness that exists that can’t be put into words,” she says. ”It’s a feeling of fullness that speaks to your spirit, that nothing else matters in that moment. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt without words, only gratitude.”
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Baker’s Yosemite advice starts simple: “Don’t rush, be still.” Resist the urge to hurry through the valley, cramming as many sights into a day as possible. Instead, “get away from the crowds as best you can, venture out in the early morning, it’s magical.” If you can, she says, rent a bike, since it’s an easy and fun way to ditch the car and spot more wildlife. And put your phone or camera away and be in the moment. “No matter how many photos you take, you will never capture the real beauty of the park, because part of the beauty is in how you feel when you’re there.”
Finally, leave space for feelings. “One thing I know for sure is that when you are in Yosemite or any national park, it’s overwhelming how in awe we become with the serenity of it all,” she says. Baker hopes these big emotions foster a desire to protect these beautiful lands. “These places depend on each and every one of us to leave them better than we found them, to roam gently, and use every opportunity to promote the protection of them.”
In this Yosemite edition of the WeekEnder, we’ll show you how to make the most of a spring trip to this national park. Read on for our picks below.
—Christine Sarkis, SoCal’s Senior WeekEnder Guide
Editor’s Note: For the latest on Covid, visit the official California COVID-19 Information Page.
Things to do
Breathe in the fresh air and prepare to be wowed.
Pick your jaw up off the ground at Tunnel View
You know how sometimes you need the big picture before you zoom in to appreciate the details of a place? Tunnel View is literally that—the overlook that gives you the super famous panorama of the valley in all its glory. Soak up the extreme beauty of El Capitan looming on your left, Bridalveil Fall cascading off to the right, and Half Dome at center stage. It’s a quick drive from the valley floor, and if you’re an early riser, it’s the place to see the sun rise. Note that the parking lot can get full even in spring, though the turnover is pretty quick (people tend to scoot out of the way once they’ve had their moment with the view) so a bit of patience is all you need to score a spot.
Walk among the giants at Mariposa Grove
Here’s a fun game: Before you get to Mariposa Grove, keep an eye out for the biggest trees you can find. And then, when you get to this grove of giant sequoias, laugh and laugh at how small they were by comparison. Because for real, seeing giant sequoias will break your brain a little. They really are that big—and with their red trunks, that beautiful, too. Mariposa Grove is Yosemite’s biggest stand of these giants, and there are a bunch of different trails here, so you can go for a quick stroll or a long hike, depending on how much time you want to spend feeling teeny-tiny and totally awe-struck.
Have the prettiest picnic of your life at Swinging Bridge
Even in a valley full of amazing spots to picnic, Swinging Bridge stands out for its perfect combo of useful facilities—shout-out to those bathrooms and picnic tables—and scenery that somehow manages to blow your mind and lower your blood pressure at the same time. These picnic areas (no reservations necessary) even have grills in case you, say, want to rock a barbecue with a view. And if you’re wondering about the location of that “swinging bridge,” it was replaced a bunch of years ago with a sturdy, not-swinging one. But the name stuck and the sightline from the middle of this not-swinging Swinging Bridge is just as good.
Find a big reward for a mellow stroll at Lower Yosemite Fall Trail
If what you want is low-output, high-return, then make a beeline for the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail. The loop is a mile through pretty redwood and pine forest passing by Yosemite Creek. Along the way, there are some great glimpses of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. Stick to the left (as you’re facing the falls), and you’ll be on a wide paved path the whole time; do the loop and things get a little off-road (but still low-key) on the path to the right of the falls. At the base of the fall, there’s a big observation point, so even though it gets crowded, there’s plenty of room to get that just-you-and-this-amazing-waterfall pic and cool down in the mist that constantly drifts over the bridge.
Hike through rainbows on the Mist Trail
The Mist Trail is definitely the most famous part of the Vernal Fall trail, but it comes with some caveats. The biggie: It’s mostly made up of slippery, steep stairs. But if you’re cool with that, you’re in luck, because this experience is truly epic. That’s no overstatement. You’ll hike through billowy mist that casts rainbows in all directions as you climb beside the wild and wonderful Vernal Fall. This is one of those times when the journey really is the destination, but the actual destination—the top of the fall—is a pretty great reward too, and it's the perfect spot to picnic before you continue the loop back to the valley floor.
Where to eat and drink
Avoid “park food” let-downs at these venues.
For an unbeatable breakfast, Jackalope’s Bar & Grill
Vacation vibes rule at Tenaya Lodge’s Jackalope’s Bar & Grill. Everything feels relaxed both inside the spacious dining room and out on the patio at this resort restaurant two miles beyond the park’s South Entrance. If you’re heading to nearby Mariposa Grove, this is the perfect spot to stop before or after for a hearty breakfast—think scrambled egg and carnitas tacos or fluffy, scrumptious buttermilk pancakes. But whether you’re there for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner, the ingredients are fresh and the options are inventive (and a great break from the hot-dogs-and-chicken-fingers park food found elsewhere).
For grab-and-go picnic supplies, Yosemite Village Store
Why would a grocery store with a big stock of grab-and-go goodies be a top spot to eat in the valley? Because a valley picnic is an absolute must, and the Yosemite Village Store makes it ridiculously easy to create a delicious spread. Whether you grab a pre-made sandwich and a bag of chips or you want the full picnic spread, complete with meats, cheeses, crackers, and fruit, you’ll be able to find it here. And then the fun part starts: Finding a picnic spot with views that will feed your soul while you refuel your body.
For an iconic backdrop to any meal, The Ahwahnee Dining Room
Soaring ceilings, massive windows, and historic surroundings that remind you of all the big names who have dined here before you (including Queen Elizabeth II) are part of the appeal at The Ahwahnee Hotel’s dining room. For a meal that feels really special, book ahead and arrive a little early so you have time to explore this famous hotel’s lobby and grounds. Then settle in at your table, admire the gorgeous space, and go ahead and order the legendary boysenberry pie for dessert because there’s no way you’ll regret it.
For a hot pizza after a long hike, Curry Village Pizza Deck
With its tents, activities, and cluster of eateries, Curry Village feels kind of like a big summer camp for all ages. And the pizza deck opening in spring acts like a raising of the flag trumpeting that the whole valley is open and ready for fun. After a long hike—when you’re thirsty and your feet are aching—this deck is the perfect spot to regroup and relax. Hand-tossed pizzas have names to match the landscape (e.g. Half Dome is a meat-lovers delight) and the s’mores pizza is an ideal way to close out the day with a camping-inspired dessert.
For veg-friendly good vibes, June Bug Cafe
Embrace the mountain-hippie vibe at Yosemite Bug Rustic Resort’s funky June Bug Cafe. Loved by a mix of locals and visitors, this restaurant has hodgepodge interiors with wagon-wheel chandeliers, taxidermied deer heads, upside-down maps, and other random flourishes. It also has a menu with a rotating lineup of classics (think flatiron steak with mashed potatoes or chicken and dumplings) and creative vegetarian (celery root schnitzel or vegan cassoulet). There’s a daily breakfast buffet, sit-down and packed-for-the-trail lunch options, and a daily dinner that draws folks from far and wide. June Bug Cafe is about an hour from the valley in Midpines, out the Highway 140 exit toward Mariposa.
Places to Stay
Sleep close to the Yosemite action at these comfy spots.
For luxury with history in the heart of the valley, The Ahwahnee
There’s something downright magical about The Ahwahnee. First off, it’s a total icon, one of the great national park lodges and a true bucket-list hotel. It’s got this grand and dignified vibe that somehow never feels stuffy, and it’s full of beautiful spots to kick back and enjoy the scenery, the fresh air, and the details that make this grande dame of “parkitecture” really shine. For not that much more than the cost of a basic room, you can upgrade to a suite or opt for one of the little cottages set in the peaceful woods across the lawn from the main building. But whatever room you choose, be sure to spend quality time exploring the grounds and your amazing valley location.
For camping without the hassle, Curry Village
No tent? No problem. Curry Village has you covered. This valley-floor destination is packed with rustic and ready-made sleep options. Cozy up in a canvas-sided tent cabin (choose between heated or unheated) that has both beds and some basic furniture, or opt for the less-rustic-but-still-pretty-rustic cabins or motel rooms. It’s not fancy, but it’s definitely fun. Plus a Curry Village stay puts you in the heart of the valley, close to hiking, bike rentals, and food. And the off-the-hook Half Dome Views? They throw those in at no extra charge.
For poolside drinks and endless s’mores, Rush Creek Lodge
With its primo location just a half mile from Yosemite’s Highway 120 entrance, Rush Creek Lodge is a well-situated, upscale resort with a playful spirit. The rooms are big, comfy, and cool—but let’s be real, a stay here is all about the big heated pool, the game room and zip-lines, and the nightly free s’mores. Those looking to keep their downtime chill can hit the lounge with books and puzzles, overstuffed chairs, and a roaring fire. Then there’s the spa—even if you don’t get a treatment, you should book some time to relax under a warm waterfall, breathe in nature in the aromatherapy steam room, and reset in the weirdly amazing sensory room.
For Airstream and luxe-tent glamping, Autocamp Yosemite
You know you’re really glamping when the shower in your trailer is outfitted in glossy subway tile. Autocamp Yosemite knows that you can love nature and glamor, and it delivers both with its mix of Airstream trailers and glamping tents. With each site comes your own private fire pit ringed by adirondack chairs—the perfect spot to rough it before retiring to your supremely comfy and sleek bed. Come daytime, you can kick back at the pool, grab a drink at the clubhouse, and settle into the just-outdoorsy-enough surroundings.
For cabin living plus resort amenities, Tenaya Lodge
Perfectly placed two miles from Yosemite’s South Entrance (you’ll likely pass it on your way into the park), Tenaya Lodge puts you within shouting distance of Mariposa Grove’s giant sequoia trees. But that’s not the only reason to stay: Pools (both indoors and out), activities (hello bikes and guided hikes), and restaurants make Tenaya feel like a true destination. When it comes to accomodations, you’ve got options. The big rooms in the main building are luxe-lodge style, but you can also book yourself a one- or two-bedroom cabin in the woods, which are a quick walk from everything.
Weekend plans. Shared.
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