Break Clear Away in Yosemite

Not even a lifetime in the Rockies can prepare you for the sweeping majesty of Yosemite National Park. No matter how many times I go, my heart leaps each time I pop out of Wawona Tunnel and get my first glimpse of the valley spread out before me. Tunnel View reveals a vast glacier-carved valley, framed by the majestic rock monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome and dusted by the spray of Bridal Veil Falls. Each time, I can’t help but pull over and get out to breathe in the view and the scent of California pine.

After Tunnel View, the adventures here come thick and fast. In a few days here, you’ll discover sun-dappled groves of giant sequoia trees, colorful meadows blanketed in wildflowers and dance in the mist of Vernal Falls. When you’re seeking a change of scenery after a busy summer but can’t really bear to leave the mountains behind, Yosemite makes the perfect fall getaway.

The thundering waterfalls that materialize in the spring slow to a mere trickle by summer’s end, but so do the crowds. The trails are quieter, the days still long enough to explore and, with daytime highs in the low 70s and overnight lows in the low 40s, the conditions are perfect for hiking and camping. Oh, and the mosquitos? They’re long gone.


My favorite way to get to Yosemite is to fly direct from Denver to Fresno, a charming international airport where I can switch to flip flops upon landing, pick up a rental car in the terminal building and make the short drive north through California farmland, arriving in the valley two hours later.

If you’re feeling adventurous, make a road trip out of it. Head west on 70 like you’re going to Moab, but just keep driving. You’re looking at 15 hours of drive time if you take the most direct path, but you can take the scenic route through St. George, Utah, Las Vegas and Death Valley National Park if you have the time.


Another argument for visiting after September is that it’s much easier to secure camping in the valley, which means you can ditch your car and walk to most hiking spots or take the free shuttle bus.

Upper Pines Campground: The best spot in the valley; you can sleep along the banks of the Merced River and enjoy great amenities as well as unparalleled access to Half Dome, Mirror Lake and Vernal Falls.

The Ahwahnee: If you’re seeking luxury after a hectic summer and have money to burn, book a room at this historic hotel, a National Historic Landmark in the valley boasting a cavernous dining hall and crackling fires.

Yosemite View Lodge: For a mid-range option, this laidback 1970s-style lodge is located just outside the park’s west entrance on 140 and offers easygoing hospitality at the bar and river views; make sure to request a room with a balcony out back.


Yosemite is home to 750 miles of hiking trails, and although pine trees dominate the landscape, the park showcases the dazzling colors of fall in aspens, maples and dogwood trees.hugging a tree at yosemite

Mirror Lake Loop: Ease in with this chill five-mile nature walk along Tenaya Creek with abundant flora and fauna. Mirror Lake is the last remnant of a glacial lake that once filled the entire valley and offers near-perfect reflections of the surrounding cliffs.

The Mist Trail: It won’t have the splendor of spring, but Yosemite’s signature hike is still a must-do in the fall. The challenging, seven-mile rocky trail takes you up alongside both Nevada and Vernal Falls, where you can relax on giant rock slabs and watch the water tumble out of view.

Four-Mile to Glacier Point: If you’re feeling bold, trek from the valley floor to the south rim for the best views of the valley. Return the way you came for a quad-testing 9.6-mile journey, or catch the shuttle from the top.


In the afternoons when you’ve kicked off your hiking boots and are ready to recover, these spots never disappoint for relaxation and festivities.

Kick back: Grab a blanket and your binoculars, and while away an hour or two in lovely El Cap meadows watching the rock climbers. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagle sightings here, too.

Cocktail: Take a trip back in time to 1927, and sip on an El Capitini in a distinguished drawing room.

Soak: Need to soak those legs? If you’re heading west on 140 when you leave the park, schedule a pit stop at the Yosemite Bug Rustic Resort, where you can enjoy the spa, stretch in their yoga classes, have a bite in the bar and even spend the night all in a treetop setting.