Explore Outside Yosemite Valley

When we think of Yosemite National Park we most often think of the face of Half Dome.  Its wide smooth face overlooking the grandiose Yosemite Valley cutting between sharp cliffs littered in waterfalls.  This is actually a very small portion of the 1,169 square mile park.  Although the Valley floor is fantastic and has more than enough to keep you busy for weeks, there are also many must see places beyond the Valley.  This is a list of my favorite places to visit that are in the National Park, or just outside.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Hetch Hetchy Reserve from the O'Shaughnessy Dam, 2012

Hetch Hetchy Reserve from the O'Shaughnessy Dam, 2012

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is Yosemite Valley’s often forgotten sister.  Before 1923 it was an open valley, with untouched wilderness and tall granite walls.  It was often described as a second Yosemite Valley.  In fact, John Muir pressed for the protection of Hetch Hetchy Valley and Yosemite Valley to be under one single National Park.  San Fransisco looked at the Valley as an opportunity for water storage.  By building a dam on one end, they could fill up the entire valley and create a water reserve to feed San Fransisco.  John Muir fought tirelessly against building the dam and lost.  They began construction on the dam in 1914, the year of John Muir’s death.  Today Hetch Hecthy remains a reservoir for the City of San Fransisco, and has a few hikes open to visitors.  

Wapama Falls is a gorgeous hike that takes you around the edge of the reservoir.  On this hike you will cross the infamous O'Shaughnessy Dam that was featured in Patagonia’s documentary Damnation, 2014.  You will hike through a long tunnel, cross bridges and give you a few opportunities to take a dip in some pools made by the waterfall.  The hike round trip is 5 miles and best during the spring and summer.  

Looking Out at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir from the Wampama Falls Trail, 2012

Looking Out at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir from the Wampama Falls Trail, 2012

Tioga Pass to Tuolumne Meadows

View of Tuolumne Meadows from Lembert Dome, 2012

View of Tuolumne Meadows from Lembert Dome, 2012

Tioga Pass runs through the Sierra Nevada and is the highest highway in California. It serves as the Eastern entrance to the park.  If you are staying in the Valley I suggest you save one whole day to drive Tioga Pass to Tuolumne Meadows.  Along the way be sure to stop at Tenaya Lake, make a trip out to May Lake (4 miles round trip) and stop by Olmsted Point.  Once you get to Tuolumne Meadows you will be greeted by wide open fields scattered in a watercolor of wildflowers, tall Sierra peaks and pure silence.  While you’re in Tuolumne Meadows, plan a hike to the top of Lembert’s Dome (4.5 miles round trip).  This will give you a 365 degree view of the high Sierras and endless photo opportunities.  To finish off a perfect day grab a bite to eat at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, make sure to get a reservation before arriving, 209-372-8413.

Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias

This grove is located off of Tioga Pass road and is home to several mature giant Sequoia’s including one that you can walk through.  This grove is lesser known than the Mariposa Grove and is a downhill hike.  If you are someone who likes to avoid crowds, this may be the grove for you.

View of Tenaya Lake from Tioga Pass, 2012

View of Tenaya Lake from Tioga Pass, 2012

Merced Grove

Merced Grove is the smallest out of the three Giant Sequoia groves Yosemite has to offer.  Because of this it is also the least known, which means no crowds!  It is located off of the 120 and is a total 3 miles round trip.

Big Trees Lodge (Formerly known as the Wawona Hotel)

At the 41 entrance this historic hotel sits proudly waiting to great visitors eager to reach the valley.  The hotel was originally built for guests traveling via stage coach from San Fransisco and offered them a place to rest the night before they arrived at their desired destination.  This beautiful hotel is equip with a 18 hole golf course, veranda and horseback riding stables (horseback rides go around the golf course).  There is also a restaurant where you can grab a delicious meal and a lounge in the front where they play live piano in the evenings.  During the summer on Saturdays they have a barn dance where you can learn to line dance and do-si-do.  The hotel is located close to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.  A must see if you are first timer to the park.

White Wolf Lodge

Think Yosemite Valley is a secluded get away?  Wait until you see White Wolf, this Lodge is beautifully located in a wildflower filled meadow surrounded by pine trees.  White Wolf Lodge is a great starting point for hikes to Lukens and Harden Lakes.  The lodge is complete with 24 canvas-tent cabins and four traditional cabins that include a private bath. In the morning and evenings you are welcome to join other guests in the central dining room and take in the spectacular views.  

Looking North at Half Dome from Olmsted Point, 2012

Looking North at Half Dome from Olmsted Point, 2012

Badger Pass Ski and Snowboard Area (Winter Only)

Badger Pass is open winter only and when there is snow.  The park has a variety of fun snow activities to keep you and the kids busy.  These activities range from down hill skiing, snowboarding, cross country skiing, snow tubing, and snowshoeing.  There is a shuttle that conveniently runs to and from the Valley to Badger Pass to make your visit as easy as possible.

The Mobil

Outside of the Eastern Entrance of the Park you will find The Mobil.  This is an awesome restaurant that serves great mango margaritas and has live music.  It is a locals hot spot during the summer.

Sal's Taco Truck

Every other Tuesday in the summer just outside of the Northern Entrance in El Portal Sal's Taco Truck comes to feed the locals.  This is a great social event and they most often have live music and dancing on the grass.

Eastern Sierra Hot Springs

A Natural Hot Tub at the Mammoth Hot Springs, 2012

A Natural Hot Tub at the Mammoth Hot Springs, 2012

If you drive south on the 395 outside of the Park you can find the Mammoth Hot Springs.  This is a killer excursion if you are into soaking in a secluded hot tub in the middle of the High Sierras.  Plan to car camp next to the hot springs if you want to see more stars than you've ever seen before and get in a steamy soak before the sun rises.

Discover Yosemite Valley

Guiding a Tour in Wawona, 2012

Guiding a Tour in Wawona, 2012

In May of 2012 I spent the summer living and working in Yosemite National Park as a horseback tour guide.  I led tours on horses and mules up the back side of Half Dome on the John Muir Trail (JMT) to Clark’s Point and on the Mirror Lake Loop Trail.  I lived in a canvas tent next to the Curry Village Stables (Now Closed) and on my free days I explored the park. 

As a photographer, I tried to capture as much of what I experienced as I could to share with my family and friends back home.  What I learned was that Yosemite is more than forests and mountains.  It is the embodiment of a soul alive.  Its heart beats with every river, plant and animal and the deeper we explore, the more we realize that it is as much a part of us, as we are a part of it.

The following is a compilation of notes drawn from my experiences in the park throughout my life.  I have organized it by Hikes, Concessionaires, Night Time in Yosemite, Seasons and What to Expect, Sample Itinerary: Exploring the Valley, High Sierra Camps, and Explore Outside the Valley.  I have also labeled hikes with their round trip mileage, if it is good for kids and if the concessionaire has wifi or is a good place to find cell phone service.  Remember that the Valley does not have gas available for visitors, so be sure to fill up before driving in.  I hope that this provides guidance to your Yosemite adventure and helps create an experience you will never forget.  If you have any questions beyond what is provided here, please feel free to contact me!

Last Note: Please enjoy the park responsibly.  It is dangerous just as much as it is beautiful.  Respect the wildlife, plants and cliffs, by keeping your distance, putting your food in bear boxes (that includes not leaving food in your car), staying away from steep edges and keeping on trail. 

*Items bolded are my top recommendations


Looking Over the Merced River at Yosemite Falls, 2016

Looking Over the Merced River at Yosemite Falls, 2016

Walk Ups: (All Great for Kids)

  • Glacier Point (Found off of the 141)
  • Tunnel View (Found off of the 141) 
  • Sentinel Dome (Found off of the 141) (This is where Ansel Adams took his famous photo of the Jeffery Pine.)
  • Valley View (Found off of Northside Drive, just before you begin seeing directional signs for highways leaving the park.)
  • El Capitan (See if you can spot the climbers clinging to the edge)
  • Bridal Veil Falls (.5 mi. round trip)
  • Cook's Meadow
  • Sentinel Beach/Bridge
  • Olmsted Point (Found off of Tioga Pass)

Easy Hikes:

  • Mirror Lake/Meadow Loop Trail (The dam that created the famous reflective lake was removed in the early 70s, and the original meadow is slowly being restored.  In 2009 a large rock slide fell from Ahwiyah Point onto the trail, splitting the loop trail in half.  Although, the lake is now gone, there are still some small bodies of water to take a refreshing dip in.  (To walk to the lake is 2 miles round trip, to walk to the rockslide is 5-6 miles round trip.) (Great for Kids)
  • Lower Yosemite Falls Hike (1 mi. round trip) (Great for Kids)
  • Happy Isles (There is a Nature Center at Happy Isles that is perfect for kids! During the summertime there is a ice cream stand that opens and serves ice cream nearby.)
  • Valley Loop Trail (The loop goes around the entire valley.  I reccomend biking this, or choosing to spend a day walking half of it to really get to explore the Valley Floor!) (6.5 mi. half loop / 13 mi. entire loop) (Great for Kids)
  • Taft Point (From Glacier Point, 4 mi. round trip)
  • Inspiration Point (2.6 mi. round trip), (The trail head is at Tunnel View.  If you're feeling a bigger challenge you can pass Inspiration Point and hike on to Old Inspiration Point, which is further up the trail.)
The Last Stretch of the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, 2016

The Last Stretch of the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, 2016

Moderate Hikes:

View of Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from the JMT, 2016

View of Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from the JMT, 2016

  • Vernal Falls (You can hike to the bridge, or hike to the top of the falls.  This is one of the most popular hikes in the Valley.  The trail is paved to the bridge and there is a water filling station and bathroom there as well.  You will see a lot of strollers and families hiking to the bridge.  Heads up, the first part is super steep for stroller pushing, but definitely worth it if you are looking to get some exercise.) (To the bridge round trip is 1.6 mi., to the top of the falls round trip is 2.4 mi.) (Great for Kids)
  • Columbia Rock via Upper Yosemite Falls Trail (3 mi. round trip)

Long Hikes:

  • Nevada Falls Loop (I suggest starting with the Mist Trail and going down the JMT) (8 mi. round trip)
  • Upper Yosemite Falls (This is one of my favorite hikes and I have done it over four times.  Be sure to hike all the way to Yosemite Point) (To the top of the fall round trip is 7.2 miles, to Yosemite Point round trip is 8.8 miles)
  • Four Mile (I recommend taking the bus from the Valley floor to Glacier Point and then hiking down this trail.  It is extremely steep and I advise against walking up it during the hotter months.) (4.7 mi. one way)
  • Panorama Trail (8.5 mi. one way)
  • Illilouette Falls Trail (To the Panorama Point Vista, 5 miles round trip)

Advanced Hikes:

  • Half Dome (Requires Permits) (14.2 miles round trip via Mist Trail and 16.5 miles round trip via John Muir Trail)
  • Snow Creek Trail (9.4 mi round trip)
  • Cloud’s Rest Hike (This is my all time favorite hike to do in Yosemite.  The hike takes you past Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, through Little Yosemite Valley and up a rarely trafficked back side of Half Dome.  When you get to the top the views are endless with a 365 degree vantage of the Yosemite Backcountry, Tuolumne Meadows, Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.  I suggest making this a three trip, with two nights in Little Yosemite Valley.) (14.5 mi. roundtrip)
  • Grand Canyon of Tuolumne River (46.7 mi. one way) (I am doing this hike for the first time in the Summer of 2017!)
A Sunset View from Cloud's Rest, 2012

A Sunset View from Cloud's Rest, 2012


Yosemite Village:

Valley Wilderness Center in the Fall, 2015

Valley Wilderness Center in the Fall, 2015

  • Valley Visitor Center (There is a Ranger-staffed information desk, bookstore, theater, and exhibit hall detailing Yosemite's geology, plant, animal life, and history.  Be sure to stop by for a showing of the Spirit of Yosemite film.)
  • Valley Wilderness Center (This is where you can get your Half Dome and backcountry permits.)
  • Yosemite Museum (Learn about the history of Yosemite's native Miwok and Paiute people.)
  • Ansel Adams Gallery (If you are a photographer looking to get some sweet shots this is the place for you.  In the back of the shop you can sign up for photography classes led by an experienced photographer who is familiar with all the best places to take pictures.  Lessons range from free to $100.)
  • Yosemite Cemetery 
  • Post Office 
  • Degnan’s Deli
  • The Loft (A Seasonal Pizza Restaurant only open in the summer.  During the winter they close it and make it a hangout place for locals.)

The Village Store:

  • Grocery Store (Good place to find cell phone service)
  • Ticket Purchasing Station (You can buy tickets to Star Tours, Valley Tours and more here. Tours are super kid friendly.)
  • Burger Stand
  • Art Center (Painting Classes and Arts and Crafts Classes. Great for Kids!)

Half Dome Village (Formerly Curry Village):

A Ranger Giving a Valley Floor Tour, 2012

A Ranger Giving a Valley Floor Tour, 2012

  • Hotel (They have Canvas Tents and Wooden Cabins available for Lodging)
  • Mountaineering Store
  • Grocery Store/Gift Shop
  • Burger Stand
  • Pizza Stand
  • Ice Cream Stand
  • Half Dome Village (Ask for the local's Yosemi-tea)
  • Half Dome Village Buffet
  • Community Center (Great place to sit on the porch and relax and meet people.  Wifi Available.)
  • Outdoor Wilderness Theater (Great for Kids)
  • Ice Skating Rink (Wintertime)
  • Raft/Bike Rentals (Summertime)
  • Pool (Summertime)

Yosemite Valley Lodge (Formerly Yosemite Lodge at the Falls):

  • Hotel (Actual Hotel Style Rooms)
  • Gift Shop
  • Pool
  • Outdoor Theater (Summertime, Great for Kids!)
  • Bike Rentals
  • Mountain Room Restaurant
  • Mountain Room Bar
  • Cafeteria (Good place to find cell phone service and wifi available) 

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (Formerly The Ahwahnee Hotel):

The Majestic Yosemite Dining Room, 2016

The Majestic Yosemite Dining Room, 2016

  • Hotel (They have rooms and cottages for rent.  Notable guest of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel have been President Obama and Family, Steve Jobs, and President JFK)
  • Pool (for Guests Only)
  • The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Bar
  • Gift Shop
  • The Majestic Yosemite Restaurant (The Brunch Buffet is my favorite, but it is $$$.)
  • The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Living Room and Patio (Great public place to sit and relax or explore the old building. Good place to find cell phone service and wifi available.)
  • The Majestic Yosemite Historic Tour
  • Story Talks (Great for Kids, check the Yosemite Newspaper for times.)
  • The Bracebridge Dinner (This world famous event only happens in the wintertime at the hotel and is performed in the dinning hall of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.)

Scattered throughout the Valley:

  • Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center (Formerly known as LeConte Memorial Lodge, it is operated by the Sierra Club and features a library, children's corner, and environmental education programs.  You can find this off of Southside Drive just passed Housekeeping Camp.) (Great for Kids)
  • Yosemite Valley Chapel (This little Chapel hosts services every Sunday)
  • Nature Center at Happy Isles (This is a fun place to explore with kids and learn some cool things about the park.  During the summertime there is a ice cream stand that opens and serves ice cream nearby as well.)
Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, 2016

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, 2016

Camping in the Valley:

Places to camp in the Valley:

  • Lower Pines (Tent and RV Friendly)
  • Upper Pines (Tent and RV Friendly)
  • Housekeeping (Perfect for glampers this campsite offers a small shelter, water and electricity and is always full during the summer.)
  • Backpackers Camp (The lesser known campsite is situated just behind Upper Pines Campground and is a walk in campsite for any person with a permit and a tent.  It is $5 to camp and you are only allowed to camp one sequential night here.
  • Camp 4 (The famous climber campsite is walk up only and fills up quick.  If you are looking to fulfill your deepest dirtbag desires be sure to show up early to land a spot.)

Night Time in Yosemite

Nighttime in Cook's Meadow, 2015

Nighttime in Cook's Meadow, 2015

Growing up I never liked Yosemite at night.  I felt that most of the cool things were day time activities, which left me feeling bored once the sun went down.  There are definitely a ton of great places to grab a food throughout the park and places to grab a drink.  Beyond that, you have to do a little bit of research to know what is happening at night.  When you enter the park every visitor receives a newspaper loaded with things that are going on in the park during that season. This is full of cool night time activities for you to keep yourself busy.  Activities range from Star Talks in Cook’s Meadow, Sunset Ranger Talks at Glacier Point, Moon Bow Photography Excursions, Climbing Talks, Wilderness Lessons and more.

Seasons and What to Expect

View of Bridal Veil Falls from Tunnel View, 2016

View of Bridal Veil Falls from Tunnel View, 2016

June - August:

  • Expect it to be hot during the day, and warm during the night.  Bring your swimsuit!

September - October:

  • It starts to cool down this time of year, pack warmer clothes for the day and a nice jacket for the night time.  Expect to see colors in the Valley!

November - May:

  • These are the colder months in the Valley, look ahead because there will be snow in the valley and below freezing temperatures.  Be sure to check www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm for road closures due to snow and ice.


First Visit: Sample Itinerary

Day 1:

Water Pouring off the Edge of Upper Yosemite Falls, 2016

Water Pouring off the Edge of Upper Yosemite Falls, 2016

  1. Bridal Veil Falls
  2. Stop to see El Captain from the Road
  3. Explore Sentinel Bridge
  4. Explore Yosemite Village

Day 2:

  1. Vernal Falls Hike (You Could Modify this Day to Hike to Nevada Falls)
  2. Explore Happy Isles
  3. Explore the Yosemite Nature Center

Day 3:

  1. Hike to Columbia Rock (You Could Modify this Day to Upper Yosemite Falls)
  2. Hike to Lower Yosemite Falls
  3. Visit Tunnel View

Day 4:

  1. Drive up to Glacier Point
  2. Stop by Valley View
  3. Explore Cooks Meadow
A Ranger Giving a Talk on Yosemite Geography at Glacier Point, 2012

A Ranger Giving a Talk on Yosemite Geography at Glacier Point, 2012

When it comes to a natural marvel like Yosemite, that tells everybody’s story, the story of humanity exploring and seeing and being amazed.
— Barack Obama in Yosemite National Park, 2016

Permits and the Backcountry:

View of Tuolumne Meadows from Lembert Dome, 2012

View of Tuolumne Meadows from Lembert Dome, 2012

There are a ton of amazing sites to see in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park.  If you are into multi-day backpacking trips be sure to contact the Valley Wilderness Center, (209-372-0826) twenty-four weeks in advance to see if you can land a permit for your chosen trail.  All backcountry camps require permits.  If you don't get one over the phone you can still show up to the Valley Wilderness Center at 6 am and wait in line to try and snag one of the permits they set aside for walk ups.  I have done this and it worked out really well.  Keep in mind that when you get your walk in permit it is for the following day that you bought it.  

High Sierra Camps:

Ribbon Falls, A Seasonal Waterfall That Only Flows in the Spring, 2016

Ribbon Falls, A Seasonal Waterfall That Only Flows in the Spring, 2016

  • Glen Aulin
  • May Lake
  • Sunrise
  • Merced Lake
  • Vogelsang

Other places that require permits:

  • Half Dome (To hike this highly coveted rock you will need to enter into the Half Dome Permit Lottery, or show up early at the Valley Wilderness Center to see if you can snag a walk up permit.)
  • Camping in Little Yosemite Valley (Camping here is included in your wilderness permit.  There are compostable bathrooms here.)

Yosemite has so much more to offer than what I have listed here, but I hope that you found this a helpful introduction in your future visit to the park.  If you would like to see more of my photography from Yosemite National Park, check out my Yosemite Gallery.  I did not include any off trail hikes, or very many backcountry trails, if you would like to learn more, or have specific questions about anything listed please feel free to contact me.  Thanks for viewing my blog and trek on!

Finding Love in the Heart of Skid Row

As the sun set over the Los Angeles downtown skyline, it illuminated cotton candy clouds and painted the row buildings in pastels, creating a watercolor world of barred windows and littered gutters. There was a warm stillness to Wall Street; no cars turned down the road and sleepy bodies wandered the sidewalks as the colors faded.

We were heading into the heart of Skid Row, the most densely populated area of homeless individuals in Los Angeles. With homelessness on the rise—47,000 in L.A. County, by a recent count—Skid Row has the highest unsheltered population in the United States. It was a heavenly sunset cradled in urban destitution. When we parked our car and opened the door, the smell of human effluence overcame our senses.

A lot of people have been asking me what I have been working on this summer, and I’ve struggled a bit explaining. I came to the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) as a video intern to work on a docu-series for the summer of 2016. The videos are focused on religious innovation and creativity in the greater Los Angeles area. The Skid Row project is a perfect example of the type of creative places CRCC is researching.

We went Skid Row late on a Friday night to cover a worship service hosted by The Row Church, a Christian congregation aiming at bringing God and community to the people of Skid Row. The church was founded by Pastor Cue Jn-Marie, a former Virgin Records rapper who left the music industry in 1994 to begin following God. In August 2006, Pastor Cue, as everyone calls him, set forth on building “a church without walls” that would defy the common structure of a house of worship. This place of faith would be located on the corner of Wall and Winston in downtown Los Angeles. Ten years later, Pastor Cue describes The Row Church as a place where the people of Skid Row can come together and find love on the streets.

As the sermon began people started to fill in the seats. Some were there to listen to Pastor Cue preach; some were simply looking for comfort on the metal chairs set up for the service. As Pastor Cue’s voice broke the stagnant air and echoed through the intersection, onlookers observed what was going on. Some sat on the ground listening from far away, some played craps in the street, some just passed by, but the energy projected from Pastor Cue seemed to stimulate every person in earshot of the service. There was a sense of liveliness and connection, and as the sun set behind the towers of downtown, Skid Row came alive.

The seats were filled by the time the sun was gone. People stood behind the seats quietly chatting; one woman’s arms spread wide, whispered to herself in tongues. The sermon lasted two and a half hours. As it came to an end, the distant listeners came over to line up for pizza provided by the church following the worship. People mingled, laughed and ate. They embraced each other and praised God under the warm light of the street lamps. It was a community brought together by the thoughtful act of kindness.

The Row Church describes itself online as a place where one can find beauty in the midst of chaos and ultimately, a place of refuge and hope. Skid Row is an important community of Los Angeles and is often overlooked because it is considered a problem. What The Row Church did and does every Friday night is invite people in with open arms via a common interest, the desire to belong. It unites a community that often seems unhinged and providing hope for those who have lost hope.

A man I met while filming explained to me that he has been coming to The Row Church since it started. He had met a churchgoer during a service who later got him a job on a construction site that allowed him move off of the streets. He told me that he is one of many people who have had this experience. Pastor Cue and his church are acting as the spark that ignites the fire of change for those who are struggling to move off of the streets, lighting the way for those to follow.

My fellow video interns and I were there to film the service and capture the event, but I found something more. We were taking part in a significant piece of history. Through the simple acts of kindness brought to Skid Row by The Row Church, the community was being pulled together. They were finding a place of acceptance and ultimately creating lasting positive relationships that would help shape which direction each individual person might go. As the last of the sunlight disseminated into the sky, we remind ourselves that nothing happens overnight. But, the path of progress is being paved by the labor of love.