“After a full day of hiking around the Yosemite Valley, we had finally found the crowds.”
I had expected it to be the other way around – trying to get away from the crowds for just a minute. But we managed to make it nearly 13 miles in the 4th most visited park in the country without having to deal with any crowds. Hiking down the Mist trail at the end of the day truly made me appreciate the full day of exploring the valley without feeling like I was in Disney Land. Let me tell you how we did it.
I had been putting off going to Yosemite because of the stories of how crazy crowded it is. So crowded, that every single camping site was booked through 2016. But, Yosemite is absolutely breath-taking in the summer, so every family and couple goes during this time. The skies are clear, the views are stunning, and when you catch them at the right time, the waterfalls are inspirational. Never having been to Yosemite before, I had to see the waterfalls in their full glory, so I was ready to brave the crowds for my chance to see them up close. Since there were no sites available in Yosemite, we decided try our luck with a day trip.
Side note: I am a little lucky here because Yosemite is just a 3-hour drive into the valley from my front door. But if you want to see Yosemite and the campsites are full, just find a place to stay outside of the national park and drive in.
Now, if you are anything like me, you love nature and beautiful sights, but hate – I mean absolutely can’t stand – crowds. I wanted to see Yosemite, but was very hesitant about spending the day with thousands of other people in my way. I mean isn’t that the purpose of going to a national park like Yosemite – to take in the beauty of nature with no cars and limited distractions so you can fully appreciate it?
Here is my quick list of recommendations for hiking the valley:
- Arrive early – By early, I mean park your car somewhere by 8am (seriously…by 8:10am the park was packed)
- Start with 4-Mile Trail – You get the uphill portion over with in the morning when it is still cool; after the 4.8 miles of uphill, the rest of the hike is mainly flat or downhill
- Move on to Panoramic Trail quickly – At the top of 4-Mile Trail, you reach Glacier Point, which connects you to Panoramic Trail. Panoramic Trail has views just as beautiful as Glacier Point, so grab your GP picture and head for the trails quickly to avoid the crowds
- If you run into a crowd, MOVE – Wherever there was a point of interest, there was typically a gathering of people. If you walk away from them for about 100 meters, you are sure to find a peaceful place to hang out with a beautiful view.
- Pack Snacks – Be prepared to be out on the trail for 10+ hours. Bring a lunch and some snacks for the hike. (don’t bring more than you will carry though – you can’t leave food in your car)
And here is my detailed guide to how I planned a trip that – without meaning to- avoided the crowds during high season.
Side note: This trip does involve walking all day – 16 miles to be not-so-exact
We drove straight into the valley with hardly any other cars around us, parked our car just down the road from the 4-mile trail head at 8am. When we arrived, the parking lot had one other car in it.
Perfect timing: We walked around to get ourselves situated and take a minute to pick our jaws up off the floor. We walked to a bridge with a gorgeous morning view of Yosemite Falls, snapped a couple pictures, took a quick trip to the bathroom, then went back to grab our things and start the day. When we got back to the car, less than 10 minutes after getting out, the lot was COMPLETELY FULL and cars were starting to park on the street.
Where all those people went is still a mystery to me, because they sure weren’t on our trails.
So we put on our first layer of sunscreen for the day and hit the trail.
The Starting Point:
4-Mile Trail: First, 4-mile trail is actually 4.8 miles…the name is misleading, no big deal, except its 4.8 miles of steady uphill switchbacks, gaining about 3,000 feet in elevation. That said, it’s not very steep and oh are the views worth it.
Every time we got to the end of a switch back on the east, we got a beautiful view of Yosemite Falls – and at the end on the west, a view of El Capitan. The higher we got, the more beautiful the view became. Eventually, the trail wrapped around to the other side of the mountain and we caught our first glimpse of Half Dome. Not too long after, we caught a glimpse of crowd #1.
Dodging the Crowd
4-Mile Trail ends at Glacier Point. This is also a parking lot VERY popular with tour buses full of people. However, those people all go to only one place – the scenic view labeled as Glacier Point. We headed over that way to check it out….DENSE CROWD! The view was similar to the views we had hiking up the 4-mile trail, so we quickly got away.
But here is the strange thing. There is an even more beautiful view that is much less crowded, 200 meters away. . So we walked those 200 meters, snapped a beautiful panoramic picture of the valley, and walked a little further away from the crowds to have a morning snack in peace.
After adding layer number 2 of sunscreen and filling up our water, it was time to set off on Panoramic Trail.
This portion of the day was a leisurely stroll along the rim of the valley. It offered great views of Half Dome, Illilouette Fall, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. It was almost all downhill, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with the occasional hiker coming up the opposite direction.
The first stopping point along the Panoramic Trail is Illilouette Fall. This fall can only be seen from trails – another bonus of hiking rather than taking the shuttles. At Illilouette, we stopped to take our shoes off and put our feet in the water. There were a few people hanging out along the water’s edge here, but far from a crowd.
After Illilouette Fall, we continued along the Panoramic Trail toward Nevada Fall. This trail continued to be sparsely populated with other hikers. There were few enough hikers, that the people we did see, we were able to happily chat with for a few moments before moving on.
At the top of Nevada Falls, there was a larger crowd than we had seen all day – not as dense as Glacier Point Lookout, but more numerous. Nonetheless, we were able to find a spot on the rocks at the top of the fall where we sat and ate our lunch. All we had to do to get away from the small crowd, was again, walk about a hundred meters back from the fall to sit along the river. The most beautiful section of this waterfall was actually the least crowded. After sunscreen application 3, we hit the trail again, starting out down some steep rock stairs. Here the hikers were starting to increase in density, but not to the point where we had to wait behind slower folks.
The Best Sights and the Fewest People
At the bottom of the stairs, there was a small open area at the base of the waterfall, with maybe 5 other people hanging around there. We took in the view of the waterfall, and then climbed down some rocks to get closer to the river for some pictures. This was one of the best sights of the day, definitely better than the top of the falls, where everyone was hanging out. So we hung around this area for a little while to take it in.
Final Stop – Hello Crowds
The last stop of our hike was Vernal Fall. This waterfall is the closest hike from the shuttles so it had the most people there, but our hike getting to Vernal Fall was still rather empty, so it seems like most hikers were hiking to Vernal Fall then hiking back down. At the top of Vernal Fall, there was a small pool of water protected from the rapids, so we cooled ourselves off in the water again before braving the Mist Trail – A.K.A. Tourist Trail.
I get why the Mist Trail was so crowed. It is a fantastic trail and super close to the shuttle buses. It consists of rock steps that precariously twist down the cliff side that creates Vernal Fall. The water falls hard from 317 feet and creates a soaking mist all along the trail – hence the name.
Finishing at the Mist Trail in the afternoon sun feels great with the mist from Vernal Fall giving you an afternoon soak. You will get rather wet on this trail because it IS crowded, and traffic is slow moving.
Side Note: There is another route that allows you to finish the hike without hitting the Mist Trail, but if you have not hiked the Mist trail, it’s worth it – crowd and all.
Calling it a Day: Journey to the Car
We finished our day with a peaceful 3-mile stroll on a trail alongside the valley roads. We passed the shuttle stops at the start of the Mist Trail with lines of people crowding to get on, and a few jam-packed shuttles drove by us before we made our way away from the main road. This last trail segment was a great way to end the day, and get one more chance to take in the scenery and nature before hopping in our car and heading out of the valley.
My recommendations list (not related to crowd control):
- Bring Water – There are water fountains at Glacier Point and Nevada Fall, but don’t rely on that. I brought my backpack from REI that holds 2 liters of water, plus 2 extra 1-liter bottles. I didn’t fill up at the water stations and had about a half a liter of water left when we arrived at the car.
- Take your Time – You are in one of the most beautiful parks in the country, so take it in. We took a leisurely pace – with me stopping to set up photo shots every 200 meters – and stopped for snacks and lunch. This still left us with plenty of time to complete the hike in one day.
- Take Sunscreen – It is hot enough on these trails – having burnt skin at the end of the day is not going to feel great, so bring the sunscreen and keep reapplying.
Have you accidentally planned the perfect trip through one of our National Parks in the states? I’d love to hear about it.