Playing Tourist in my Home State: Yosemite National Park

Upper Yosemite Falls and Eagle's Peak at Yosemite

Yosemite. /joʊ.ˈsɛ.mɪ.ti/ Proper Noun. “Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra,” according to the National Park Service. Just don’t feed the black bears. 

Now that I live abroad, I sometimes forget that people come from far and wide for the opportunity to visit my home state of California.

San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge. Muir Woods. Lake Tahoe. Highway 1. Sequoia National Park. The Sierra Nevada. Los Angeles. Hollywood. Death Valley. These places are right in my backyard, or a tank of gas away.

So when I texted my friend in New York that I would be heading to Yosemite for a weekend in August, she seemed shocked. How close are you to Yosemite that you can just casually pop down for 48 hours?!? she asked.

Oh right, that’s a pretty big deal. Yosemite National Park is a four hour drive from my door, and it’s on many world travelers’ bucket lists.

Weekend Escape to Yosemite

A group of friends and I headed down on a Friday afternoon, with plans of an epic hike and some swimming. With campsites booked months in advance at this time of year, we reserved 8 beds at a youth hostel in Groveland, a bit over an hour from Yosemite lodge. Our trip coincided with a huge forest fire, less than 30% contained, but the park is big enough that most of the trails were still open. (Though visibility and air quality were at an all-time low.)

Our ambitious group decided to avoid the crowds and hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls (2500+ feet elevation gain in 3.2 miles), and then continue on another 2.8 miles to Eagle’s Peak, at an elevation of 7,779 feet.

When we began the ascent, I secretly thought we wouldn’t make it. Switchbacks up a mountain side. 2 liters of water consumed in the first 3 hours. Temperatures spiking to the upper 90’s in the valley below. But with some homemade trail mix and the right group of people, even Yosemite’s towering cliffs become tamable.

California’s experiencing the worst drought in history, and it’s scary. Forest fires, dried riverbeds, and dead lawns are all symptoms. The governor even suggested people only accept water at restaurants if they really need it. But there’s a silver lining to the lack of rainfall, and it came in the form of two natural swimming holes at the top of a mountain, where Upper Yosemite Falls would normally be rushing. Instead of being swept to our death, we jumped into the frigid pools and cooled off after a nearly vertical climb. In moments like these, you forget that California will look like the surface of Mars pretty soon; the only thing that really matters is the here and now, surrounded by sweaty friends, cannon-balling into a natural pool 6,500 feet in the air.

We then headed onwards to Eagle’s Peak, sufficiently refreshed from our frigid swim and picnic lunch. The trail was more gradual, and wound its way through shaded forests and meadows. When we finally reached Eagle’s Peak, we had unforgettable views of the (albeit very hazy) valley, Half Dome, North Dome, and Cloud’s Rest. We could even see the plumes of smoke from the wildfire in the north.

As we took in the views (and I coped with my fear of heights), it was easy to see why Yosemite is a destination for so many natives and visitors to California. The granite landscape instills pure awe. In the pensive words of one of our group, “Nothing makes you feel small like rock formations of incomprehensible scale.”

We began the descent just past 3 p.m. Word to the wise: do not tackle Upper Yosemite Falls and Eagle’s Peak with weak knees. I’d consider myself a spring chicken at age 23, and coped with knee pain for over a week after the hike. When your legs turn into jello on the way down, make sure to take it slowly. The sand-covered granite rocks are slippery, and one of our group took a fall and gashed her forehead, requiring stitches.

At the end of 13 miles, we were banged up, dehydrated, exhausted, but elated. It’s clear why California is the envy of all the world. I’m happy I get to play tourist in my own state once in a while.

Upper Yosemite Falls view

Tips for hiking Upper Yosemite Falls to Eagle’s Peak (in Summer, at least):

  • Start early to beat the heat. We started just before 10, reached the pools a bit after 12, hung out for an hour, continued to Eagle’s Peak, and were eventually back at the car by 6:30. It’s a full day’s hike.
  • Bring more water than you think you’ll need. 3,500+ feet elevation gain is no laughing matter. I brought 3 liters and could have used a 4th.
  • Homemade chocolate chip cookies allow you to push through any kind of pain. Bring them.
  • Pack a swim suit if you want to enjoy the pools without hiking in wet underwear the whole rest of the way.
  • This hike is great if you want to skip the Lower Yosemite Falls crowds and have a more solitary Yosemite experience. BUT IT’S TAXING. Be in shape and have young knees. Or walking sticks. Or both.

Have you ever been to California? Would you make the trip out to visit Yosemite? 

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  • Gemma Two Scots Abroad

    I loved this place, I saw a double rainbow! Would go back in a heartbeat.

  • Guest

    I loved this place. I saw a double rainbow for the first time here. Would love to go back.

  • I still have yet to go to Yosemite but it is on my list! I will make sure to pack lots of water and cookies for the trip, thanks for the tip :D

  • As a kid, my family went to Yosemite frequently, and it was by far my favorite vacation destination. I haven’t been in six years, though, and I miss it terribly! It was nice to revisit vicariously through your post!

    • Thanks, Kirstie! I went a few times with my family when I was a kid too. Fun to keep going at it, but this time with friends!

  • Ryan Zieman

    Looks like you had an intense weekend! I’m so jealous of people who live near the mountains. Those of us from the midwest are always in awe of such beauty. Thanks for the tips, too.

    • Hahaha at least your from the coolest city in the Midwest! But ya, when I was in Chicago I was blown away by how flat it was ;)

  • Petra

    Awesome! I love Yosemite. Would love to get back there to do some good hikes one day. The haze looks crazy though!
    – Petra @

  • lindsaypunk

    AHHH, shock of all shockers I have been DYING to get to Yosemite. I can’t wait to have it as my backyard someday like you do! Except when I go, I’m going BIG – Half Dome, baby! :P Glad you got to visit before jetting back to Spain!

    • Hahah HUGE shock, Yosemite is right up your alley :) Good luck getting that permit for Half Dome, I’m too last-minute for that.