Yosemite National Park: 313 miles via the 5, 99 and 41; with side trip to Sequoia National Park, 100 miles in and out.
By Catherine Gaugh
When I was growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, family vacations generally centered around camping. And my favorite place to camp was Yosemite National Park.
Over the years, it has become everyone’s favorite place judging by the summertime crowds and winter skiers. I’ve often been told that to have a fairly easy and relaxing time in Yosemite, go in October. Days are warm, nights are cool and the crowds are gone.
That’s what we decided to do when my brother-in-law David and his wife Gena headed out from Atlanta for a short visit. David has always wanted to see the giant sequoia trees and Yosemite. We had only three full days before we had to take them to LAX, so my husband Matt drew up a sight-seeing plan to hit the highlights not only in Yosemite, but Sequoia National Park as well. Declining gas prices helped cut the cost of the trip.
We headed out early on a Wednesday morning, traveling on the 5 and 99 freeways to Highway 41 and Fish Camp, which is two miles from the south gate of the national park. Matt had found a bed and breakfast there at a nice, low Internet rate for two nights.
We bought gas in Oakhurst, as there is no station in Fish Camp. We checked in at the Apple Tree Inn, a jewel of a place on Highway 41. It offered cabins cleverly placed along a hilly property, all named for trees. We reserved a two-bedroom suite (only one bathroom) called the Dogwood. It was very comfortable and an easy walk next door to the Tenaya Lodge, a super resort with several restaurants.
After dropping off the bags and charging up the digital cameras, we piled in the wagon and headed for the park through the south entrance on Wawona Road. Close to the entrance was our first stop, Mariposa Grove. It seemed like a dream come true for David to walk among these giant old trees (and to take hundreds of pictures of them.)
Past the ranger gate where we paid a $20 park entrance fee, is the settlement of Wawona and the famous old hotel built in 1879. We stopped to enjoy the authentic rustic feeling of it all and decided to settle on the hotel’s expansive porch with a glass of wine (or beer) to watch the sunset. (Matt wanted to stay at the Wawona, but by the time we called, all that was available were two rooms that shared one bathroom down the hall with two other rooms. Nah.)
Dinner was back in Fish Camp. From our cabin, we walked through a small line of trees and across a road to the lobby of the Tenaya Lodge to check menus. We decided to eat at Jackalope’s Bar and Grill for its casual atmosphere and reasonable prices. The menu had everything from a flank steak salad to pork schnitzel. Back at the Dogwood cabin, the electric fireplace heated our suite, but at bedtime, we opened the windows for some of that crisp clean air.
The next morning, after inhaling a continental breakfast at the Apple Tree, we stopped at the Fish Camp general store for some beverages and freshly-made sandwiches to take along with us to Yosemite.
The sky was slightly grey from a controlled burn in Wawona. The smoke from the fire drifted far into the Yosemite Valley, creating a hazy cast to the magnificent views. There also was an interminable number of flagman stops for road repair, so we lost at least half an hour stopped at two flagman points on 41. I have seen it a hundred times but the view of Yosemite Valley emerging from the Wawona tunnel is always astonishingly beautiful: El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rock, Bridalveil Falls and the iconic Half Dome in the distance. Our visitors were properly dazzled.
We drove all over the valley. We hiked up the trail to see Bridalveil Falls, the only waterfall to be active all year; inspected the damage from the landslide at Camp Curry; shopped at the Yosemite Village store; lunched on a picnic bench across from a meadow with a view of Glacier Point; chatted with the maitre d’ at the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room about our dinner reservation and the dress code, and rested in the hotel’s Great Lounge, which made an appearance in “The Shining.”
We walked along some trails behind the hotel, crossing the Merced River by bridge, and just enjoyed the smell of the trees.
Next stop was Glacier Point, a 16-mile drive up a windy road to see the view of the valley, the enclosing cliffs and giant domes from 3,200 feet above the valley, which means we were at 7,000 elevation. Wow! Despite the smoke from the fire, it was clear enough that we could see the Ahwahnee as well as the meadow where we had lunch.
Back down in the valley, we returned to the meadow and ducked into the portable restroom for a quick change into slightly nicer clothes for dinner. When we emerged, we spotted a doe and her two youngsters foraging in the tall grasses. They didn’t seem to mind the clicking of the sudden onslaught of naturalist paparazzi.
The Ahwahnee dining room is like no other place. It is cozy and comfortable despite the massive size and 34-foot high ceiling. The setting is a warm Arts and Crafts-Art Deco, the servers are friendly and slightly eccentric and the food; no matter what you order — is really good: seared sea scallops, lamb shank and duck.
We ordered a bottle of the inexpensive Ahwahnee chardonnay and had no complaint. The room wasn’t as full as it would be during summer and winter seasons, but it was still pretty busy at 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday night.
Friday morning we headed back down the 41 to Fresno and caught the 180 into the Sequoia National Forest and King’s Canyon National Park, about 57 miles. We paid our $20 entrance fee at the Grant Grove Visitor Center and then headed to the General Grant Grove. These trees are larger than those in Yosemite, and just as beautiful and wondrous.
From there we took the twisty highway into the Sequoia National Park. We stopped for lunch at the Lodgepole Visitor Center and made our way to the 2,200-year-old General Sherman Tree.
During busy times, the Sherman Tree parking lot is a half mile away, but there is a big handicapped lot just a few steps from the many trees in this forest and the giant, 275-foot-tall General itself. On this day, there were autos and motorcycles of all types stopping here, and there still was plenty of parking for any handicapped drivers that came along. From the Sherman, we took 198 down to Visalia, about 46 miles.
The road is very steep and extremely twisty; my car brakes have not yet recovered from the drive. However, we spotted two groups of bears along this road and a couple of lone coyotes out hunting for their next meal. We stopped in Visalia for gas and coffee and then got on the 99 to head home. It is a long haul and it would have been more restful if we could have stopped for the night in Sequoia. But because of the tight timeline, we did the drive all the way from Fish Camp, through Sequoia and Visalia, in one day, and of course, we hit Friday night traffic in L.A. before arriving at home, all tuckered out.
We figured that we spent for four people $110 on gas (we had a half tank when we got home) $500 for two nights at the bed and breakfast (a special Internet rate) and $500 for food, including two dinners, lunches and cocktails. Not bad for a good set of memories of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
Apple Tree Inn,1110 Highway 41, Fish Camp, (559) 683-5111, www.appletreeinn-yosemite.com
Jackalope’s Bar and Grill, Tenaya Lodge, 1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, (559) 683-6555
Ahwahnee dining room, Ahwahnee Hotel, In Yosemite Valley, Dinner reservations required, (209) 372-1489
Yosemite National Park, Nearly 1,200 square miles of mountainous terrain in the Sierra Nevada of California. Closest entrance is off Highway 41, nps.gov/yosemite
Sequoia National Park: From highways 65 or 99, go east on Highway 198 to the park entrance.
Kings Canyon National Park: From Highway 99, go east on Highway 180 to the park entrance. The main park road, the Generals Highway, connects these two entrances. nps.gov/sek