The Rugged Beauty Guide to getting out in Yosemite this spring.
The Yosemite region received record rainfall this past season. Rain, rockslides, hail … and more rain made for a wild winter but now that the spring has arrived we are all in awe of the majestic waterfalls and fields of wildflowers that have emerged after the storms. It’s never been a better time visit!
You may have heard that there is a road closure in Yosemite due to recent storm activity. While most of the roads have been tidied up there is still one hard closure at Big Oak Flat Road, which is the road that connects Highway 120 to Yosemite Valley. See map below that illustrates the closure located between the northern entrance of the park near Hetch Hetchy and access to Yosemite Valley.
If you are staying on Highway 120 there are still two excellent ways to get to Yosemite! If you have two days in Yosemite and you are staying on Highway 120 here is a good optional itinerary for your trip that focuses on the best waterfalls and wildflower viewing.
Day 1: A Hike to Wapama Fall
Tip: Stay at Coulterville, Greeley Hill and Buck Meadows
My friends and I heard about the Highway 120 road closure when we were planning our annual wildflower hike to the Yosemite region. Early spring (March, April, and early May) is the best time for viewing wildflowers and waterfalls in the Yosemite region and western Sierra Nevada foothills and we weren’t going to let a little road closure stop us from hiking to our favorite spots.
We had already planned to stay in Mariposa County because it provides excellent access to the foothills surrounding the park from either the northern or western entrance. From here, you can head to the northern part of Yosemite to Hetch Hetchy or venture into the Gold Rush towns of Coulterville and Mariposa on your way to Yosemite Valley, hitting some wildflower hot spots along the way.
There are several excellent places to stay on Highway 120 that give you access to some of the best areas of the park. For a more traditional hotel experience, stay at the Westgate Lodge or Yosemite Ridge Resorts near Yosemite’s northern entrance for some of the best access to Hetch Hetchy trails. For B&B’s the beautiful Blackberry Inn Bed & Breakfast is unsurpassed, or if you are into a cultural experience along with nature, stay at Jim & Dawn’s Art Farm. This homey and secluded cabin in Greeley Hill is owned by two artists, Jim and Dawn, and the art that lines the two-bedroom cabin is all original.
If you are staying in the quaint town of Greeley Hill, a must-stop is the Greeley Hill Market, a family-owned and operated grocery store, diner and delicatessen that is perfect for your pre-trip fuel up. Stop here for a hearty breakfast, excellent pack lunch and plenty of advice from the store owner Raphael, or his mother, Virginia. Featuring organic and gluten-free options, the owners are welcoming and quick to give advice about where to find the cheapest gas (hint: it’s at the adjacent Shell Station – get it here before going to the park!) or driving directions (never use GPS in this area – opt for an offline map like Magellan GPS instead) or even for a birthday surprise (stop in on your birthday and owner, Virginia will give you a special gift).
Since access to Yosemite Valley from Highway 120 is currently cut off on Big Oak Flat Road, we recommend checking out the northern area of the park and specifically, Hetch Hetchy, which is the start of several awesome hikes and because of the low elevation of this part of Yosemite you will see plenty of wildflowers, way before they begin to arrive in Yosemite Valley.
Head into the park and stop at the north entrance for your map and day pass. The park has waived the entrance fee for all vehicles entering via the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. Visitors entering the park via Highway 120 can also enjoy camping at Hodgdon Meadow Campground, snowshoeing and Nordic Skiing from Crane Flat and hiking in the Merced and Tuolumne Groves of Giant Sequoias.
We opted to hike out to Wapama Falls from the O’Shaughnessy Dam, a massive dam at the trailhead to Wapama that provides water to the City of San Francisco. After taking a few photos of the dam we continued on towards Wapama, passing iconic features such as Tueeulala Falls and Kolana Rock before finally arriving at Wapama Falls.
“Hetch Hetchy is a grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life . . . while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music…” John Muir
A small section of the Wapama Fall bridge was damaged in the recent storms so we decided to stop our hike here and have our picnic lunch from the Greeley Hill Market deli.
We headed back in the afternoon and still had some energy left so we drove another couple of miles down the road on Highway 120 towards Carlon Falls. This short, mostly flat trail brings you to some beautiful cascades with plenty of flat rocks to lay out on and listen to the thundering falls. Not well-known, we found we had these cascades mainly to ourselves and enjoyed hanging out in the early twilight of a crisp spring evening.
Day 2: Yosemite Valley via Coulterville, Mariposa and Hite Cove
Travel Tip: The best place for wildflower viewing in April is Hite Cove on the way to Yosemite Valley via Highway 140.
After staying the night at the Westgate Lodge at Buck Meadows, we ventured out on a road trip where the ultimate endpoint was Yosemite Valley, but the journey was the real destination. We departed Buck Meadows and headed on the J132 “John Muir Highway” towards Coulterville. In Coulterville, be sure to visit the John Muir Geotourism Center, and do a photo stop outside the Sun Woo General Store and the Hotel Jeffery. We started early in the morning and stopped off for a few photos in front of the Coulterville sign before continuing over the famous Bagby grade towards Mariposa. The twists and turns of this road are legendary, but it’s the views in spring that we were interested in, stopping frequently to enjoy clusters of wildflowers and views of scrub oak and rolling foothills.
After clambering over the grade towards Mariposa, we stopped for a coffee at one of our favorite spots, Pony Expresso and crossed the parking lot over to the High Country Health Food store for a “grab n go” lunch and a couple of trail snacks that we planned to eat on our Hite Cove walk. For this part of the trip, we also brought along another travel buddy, my pup, Kona, to explore the Hite Cove trail with us.
We drove up the Highway 140 route towards the park for about 21 miles east of Mariposa driving first through the dense pine forests of Midpines and then dropping down into the “Wild and Scenic” Merced River Canyon. We passed over the one-way bridge at the old Ferguson Rockslide, marveling at the mountains of rock and boulders that still cover part of the old highway.
We stopped just past the bridge and parked along the river across from Savage’s Trading Post. The trail head is well marked, we walked by a couple of great lodging options we noted to check out on our next visit, including the Yosemite River House.
The Hite Cove Trail snakes through the south fork of the Merced River Canyon. It’s a lower elevation then most might expect for this region (sub-2,000-foot) meaning lots of oak, brush, and Digger pines. The wildflowers dot various parts of the trail. The large bush-like shrubs with masses of magenta buds that stand about 5-8 feet tall along the trail are redbuds, while the blankets of color on the hillsides can be anything from poppies, lupine, columbines, Indian paintbrush, stone crops, blue dicks, baby blue eyes and much more.
The first mile of the hike reveals the most wildflowers and best views of the river. Keep an eye out for poison oak on this trail and be sure to wash your exposed skin after the hike with soap or technu to prevent any reactions. Also keep an eye out for the occasional obstruction. We ran into a mini rockslide on the trail that we had to saunter over. Expect to encounter a few down trees or other over-grown areas of the trail, especially early in the season.
Towards the end of the first mile, the grade drops down to where you can easily access the river along some small beaches and granite outcroppings. In March and early April, it appears inviting but it’s still too cold and fast for swimming. It’s a great spot for enjoying a little sunshine and a picnic.
After we had our share of sunshine and sandwiches, we headed back on the trail towards our car and headed onward to Yosemite Valley. As this was early afternoon we did find the entrance station a little crowded. We know the best way to enjoy Yosemite is to get out of the car, so we looked around for the first parking spot we could find. In this case, we were fortunate to find a spot at Half Dome Village, and from here we could easily take the free shuttle anywhere we wanted to go. We had already done a fair bit of hiking so we simply took the shuttle to stop #8 which is Yosemite Falls. Instead of heading out towards the falls we headed into the meadow to enjoy the view of Upper Yosemite Fall from afar and enjoy the late afternoon sun on the face of Half Dome.
As the crowds started to thin out we chatted about the day’s adventures and planned our next visit to Yosemite!
About the Author: Rugged_Beauty is the digital space of Renaissance woman, Kimberly Lawson, a photojournalist, artist, fire dancer, travel industry professional, adventurer and life-long native of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. Her blog promotes adventure travel and outdoor experiences for women. Follow her @Rugged_Beauty on Instagram and Facebook.