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Thrill Quest: Five Days of Outdoor Adventure In Yosemite Mariposa

The Zone. We’ve all been there.  Lungs full of fresh air, thoughts crisp and focused as we achieve that blissed-out-yet-energized state of oneness with our natural surroundings. Here in Yosemite Mariposa, the Zone awaits daredevils and nature lovers alike with a torrent of outdoor adventures all set in a mountain paradise unlike anywhere else on the planet.

Whether it’s rafting big water on the Merced River or climbing big walls like El Capitan, mountain biking down a gonzo fire road in the Sierra National Forest or skydiving from 14,000 feet as Half Dome stands guard in the distance, Yosemite Mariposa is a prime destination for all thrill levels and budgets. Here is a five-day itinerary to get your heart pumping and your chi flowing.

Day One: Hiking

Day hikes in Yosemite Valley like Cloud’s Rest (pictured) provide a challenge that results in views of Yosemite Valley that very few hikers get to experience.

With its extreme elevation gains, old-growth forests and glacially-carved valleys, Yosemite Mariposa offers unmatched hiking for those who crave an idyllic challenge.

Clouds Rest (via Sunrise Lakes Trailhead)

Distance: 14.2 miles (22.9 km) roundtrip

Elevation Gain: 1,775 ft (541 m)

Visitors to Yosemite can’t help but be awestruck when looking up at the prominent knife of granite known as Clouds Rest.  Standing behind Half Dome like a big brother, its narrow ridge at the summit and lengthy approach make this hike truly challenging yet wholly gratifying. The route begins along Tioga Road at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead (8,150 feet) next to “Jewel of the High Country” Tenaya Lake. The first 1.5 miles of the hike are relatively flat but then the fun begins. A series of switchbacks climb 1,000 feet over the next mile giving way to a gentler climb over the next four-plus miles until reaching the summit of Clouds Rest (9,926 feet). Once there, pat yourself on the back and exalt in views of Half Dome and the dramatic Tenaya Canyon as it cascades down to Yosemite Valley.

Ascending Half Dome’s cables is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences on can take on any day hike in the world.

Half Dome (via the Mist Trail)

Distance: 17 miles (27.4 km) roundtrip

Elevation Gain: 4,800 ft (1,463 m)

Considered one of the most challenging day hikes in the world, Half Dome’s greatness lies not only in the sense of reward from calories burned but its incredible beauty. From the mist-soaked granite staircase along Vernal Falls to the iconic chunk of granite that marks your final ascent, this butt-kicker of a trail is a true accomplishment for those who want to test their Yosemite Mariposa mettle. Half Dome features a cable system to assist hikers in reaching its 8,842 ft (2,695 m) peak that goes up seasonally in mid-May and comes down mid-October. Permits are required via a preseason lottery (every March, with approximately 225 permits issued for each day of the hiking season) and a daily lottery (two days prior to the desired hike, with approximately 50 permits issued for each day). Apply for permits here. Of course, it goes without saying that hiking Half Dome requires excellent physical condition and necessary gear/supplies, most importantly bringing at least 4 liters of water per person.

Day Two: Rock Climbing

“Go climb a rock!” is a common saying in Yosemite, the Mecca of rock climbing. (Photo by: Marta Czajkowska, Painted Cave Studios for Delaware North at Yosemite)

Mariposa Yosemite is a climbing mecca.  With its granite walls, knobs, pinnacles and domes, world-class ascents can be found whether you’re free climbing, aid climbing, free soloing or bouldering. In fact, the standard means of rating the difficulty of all climbs in North America is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), a tip of the hat to this bastion of worthy pitches.

Yosemite Valley Climbing

Whether tackling a 3,000 foot (900 m) wall like The Nose of El Capitan or bouldering around Camp 4 with some friends, Yosemite Valley granite is nothing if not popular. The most difficult climbs might require an extra day or two bivying on a ledge, but beginners should consider hiring a guide from the Yosemite Mountaineering School & Guide Service to literally learn the ropes.

High Country/Tuolumne Meadows Climbing

There’s room to roam once you get out of the Valley and hit the High Country of Yosemite. Tuolumne Meadows has that prehistoric feel, and you easily envision dinosaurs tromping along the meandering Tuolumne River between forest and unique extrusions of rock. An easy scramble up Pothole Dome is just a short distance from Tioga Road, and can be finished off with a dip in the Pothole Dome Cascades on the backside. Try Tenaya Peak for a great introduction to alpine climbs with only a 20 foot section higher than a 5.4 YDS rating. Craving some challenging bouldering problems?  Solve away in areas with names like Puppy Boulders and The Gunks. SuperTopo offers useful guidebooks to help find the right chunk of granite.

Day Three: Mountain Biking


With its steep peaks, dedicated mountain bike parks and vast network of fire roads, Yosemite Mariposa is a shredder’s paradise. Whether you bring your own mountain bike or rent from places like the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, there is no shortage of tracks to explore.

Mariposa County’s Exchequer Mountain Bike Park is a heart-pumping experience in a beautiful setting.

Exchequer Mountain Bike Park

Overlooking beautiful Lake McSwain in the rugged foothills of Sierra Nevada gold country, Exchequer Mountain Bike Park offers 700 acres of technical descents and creative features created by mountain bikers for mountain bikers.  Tracks such as Gnarnia (double-black diamond/642 foot descent), Dirtsurfer (blue/236 foot descent) and Flying Squirrel (black diamond/736 foot descent) are aptly named and aim to thrill. After getting dusty, take a dip in Lake McSwain then grab a bite at the Barrett Cove Marina Cafe.  A detailed trail map can be found here.

Devil’s Peak (Signal Peak Lookout Tower)

This 24.4 miles out & back full-day ride starts at the world-class Tenaya Lodge resort in Fish Camp and climbs 3,327 ft (1,014 m) to the still-active fire lookout at Devil’s Peak (6,992 ft/2,131 m). The killer 360-degree views span Yosemite and the Central Valley alike, with summits such as Mount Conness (12,590 ft/3,837 m) and Mount Clark ((11,522 ft/3,511 m) visible in the distance. The all-terrain roads provide a rugged workout combined with excellent descents and are located entirely in the Sierra National Forest where dispersed camping is allowed if you want to extend your stay. After your ride grab a beer and pizza at the Tenaya Lodge or head over to the historic Gold Rush town of Mariposa for a tasty selection of beverages & bites.

Day Four: Whitewater Rafting/Kayaking/Hiking

The most exciting spring activity to partake in is rafting down the Merced River with outfitters like Zephyr Whitewater Rafting.

A river runs through it, indeed! With haystacks, funnels and hairy drops, the rush of whitewater along the mighty Merced River tingles the spine and satisfies the most ardent thrill-seekers. Changing its vibe with the seasons, spring snowmelt from the High Sierra rumbles through the steep Merced River canyon creating high and fast runs (Class IV) then — as summer progresses and the flow decreases — transforms into easy Class I ripples. Local outfitters such as Sierra Mac, OARS, Whitewater Excitement and Zephyr have years of experience running the Merced and offer half-day and full-day trips. A mile-by-mile guide to rapids with such names as Nightmare Alley, Stark Reality and Corner Pocket is a fun way to get an aerial view of what you’re about to experience.

Kayaking has become increasingly popular on the Merced, with the same rules applying: safety is a function of experience, time of year, and flow.  Paddle to your heart’s desire, but beware of exposed rocks and always wear a helmet.  A great flatwater option is heading downriver to Bagby Recreation Area where the Merced River Arm feeds Lake McClure. Historic Highway 49 crosses the river here, and the rolling oak-studded hills create yet another unique mood to the ever-dynamic Merced.

 

If spring has already sprung, you can hike areas of the Merced River Canyon and swim and explore along the way. Great hotel options for river canyon exploration at Yosemite View Lodge or Cedar Lodge in El Portal.

Day Five: Skydiving/Hang Gliding

We saved the biggest thrill in our Yosemite Mariposa quest for the final day.  Getting airborne. Sure, it isn’t cheap but the cost is commensurate with the experience — being one of the few who can claim they’ve jumped out of a plane with Yosemite National Park as their tandem.

Skydive Yosemite

Located at the Mariposa-Yosemite Airport, Skydive Yosemite is the only skydiving option with a bird’s-eye view of iconic El Capitan and Half Dome. Dives can be reserved from 10K, 12K and 14K feet, including options such as an aerial tour of Yosemite National Park and professional video as you tug that ripcord amid the roar and rush of adrenaline. Skydive Yosemite is family-run and staffed with experienced jumpmasters and pilots to help you take that big, exhilarating leap. Check here for special pricing and availability.

Learn more about Skydive Yosemite and its owners, Paul and Julie Wignall in our video below.

 

Hang Gliding

Keeping the local birds of prey company, the non-profit Mother Lode Sky Riders Association (MLSRA) promotes foot-launched flying out of its Lake McClure location. With over 80 miles of horseshoe-shaped shoreline and situated at 867 ft (264 m), Lake McClure is a magnificent setting as the rugged Sierra mountains loom in the distance. The site once hosted a record 300 gliders on a single day (1986) and operates with permission from the Merced Irrigation District. Pilots must be an MLSRA member and have a USHPA pilot rating of 3+ in order to access the launch site. If you’d like more information, check here for upcoming events.

 

Where To Stay

The beauty of adventure travel in Yosemite Mariposa is not only the terrain but the slew of lodging choices it provides. Whether it’s #vanlife or a cozy hotel, setting up base camp is an essential part of a thrill-packed journey.

Campgrounds/RV Parks

One of the newest, coolest and most sought after places to stay in America right now is Autocamp Yosemite.

For those ballin’ on a budget, campgrounds abound not only in Yosemite National Park but throughout Sierra and Stanislaus National Forests. Deep in the woods, along the shores of Lake McClure or the banks of the Merced River, there’s a site for everyone that goes easy on the ATM.

Mobile comfort is a popular option these days, and there are numerous RV-friendly parks in Yosemite Mariposa that are great for keeping some space while also providing the freedom to explore.  For those who want to glamp without all the hauling fuss, AutoCamp is just 10 minutes from the Merced River and offers finely-appointed Airstream trailers set on a 35-acre property complete with a communal sky deck for stargazing and swimming pool.

Hotels & Lodges

If you want a soft spot to land after a full day of pounding, paddling or plummeting, Yosemite Mariposa boasts an array of hotels & motels as well as cabin & Airbnb rentals. Need a rejuvenating massage at a world-class resort to get you ready for the next day? Rent one of the Tenaya Lodge’s spacious Explorer Cabins and relax with the Hiker’s Trek Treatment.  Want something a little more down-home? With its 1930’s vibe, the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort offers cabins on stilts in a small Midpines valley with a stream coursing through. In El Portal, Cedar Lodge and Yosemite View Lodge put you right near the action on the Merced River as well as just a stone’s throw from the gate to Yosemite National Park.

Quest Fulfilled

After five thrilling days, you’ve earned another getaway!  When you come back to visit please remember to support local businesses whether that’s going out to eat, staying at local hotels, buying camping supplies at local groceries or hiring local guides. They are the lifeblood of our community and help make Yosemite Mariposa the mountain paradise you’ve come to know and love.

(Note: Due to state and local restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact destinations mentioned in this story for current hours of operation.)

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