Eveline Harvey

Eveline Harvey is nzherald.co.nz's travel editor.

California: Springtime in Yosemite

Eveline Harvey is awed by the splendour of the United States' Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park's Nevada Fall. Photo / Eveline Harvey
Yosemite National Park's Nevada Fall. Photo / Eveline Harvey

I'd read the stories of course, the ones about hapless tourists falling victim to all manner of holiday disasters because they blithely followed the instructions of the electronic voice emitting from their GPS devices. I just never thought I'd be one of them.

Yet, there we were, less than 20km from our Yosemite Valley destination, with night closing in, when snow began to fall.

I knew the Tioga Pass, a section of the road our device had directed us to, was closed for a good part of the year due to its elevation, but everything I'd read before embarking on our journey - and, indeed, the stream of traffic heading in the same direction as us, reassured me we'd have a hassle-free trip.

The snow flakes didn't bode well, I concluded as we approached the park's northwestern entrance, but we pulled up confidently at the toll booth nevertheless and smiled hopefully at the woman in charge.

"You got chains?"

No, we didn't.

"Well, you can either go and buy some at the next town back... or you'll have to detour south and take the 140 into the park."

We tried not to look too dejected when we learnt upon further inquiry that said detour would add two hours to our trip. There was nothing for it but to change the album on the iPod and drive back the way we'd come, before heading south, where the snow flakes had given way to a persistent drizzle.

Our second attempt to gain access to Yosemite was more successful. The national park's entrances are manned 24 hours a day and we were greeted cheerfully by the man at the booth as we finally rolled in around 9pm.

He sympathised over our unexpected detour, saying a storm that had blown in from Alaska was to blame and assured us our planned route would ordinarily have been fine in late May.

Much has been written about this national park's spectacular scenery and the delights of arriving in the valley in spring but it was dark and we were knackered after our extended drive from San Francisco. Hitting the hay was the only thought on our minds.

We found our way to the valley's Housekeeping Camp, where we'd pre-booked a unit and - after figuring out by torchlight how to safely stow our food in the bear-proof locker outside - settled down for the night.

The Housekeeping Camp's units, while a step up from camping, are not entirely enclosed: they consist of three concrete walls and a canvas roof. A canvas curtain encloses the front entrance, which opens onto a covered patio area. Still, accommodation in the park can book out many months in advance so we were grateful for the shelter.

During the night the wind picked up and rain hammered down as we hunkered down in our sleeping bags.

Despite the lack of a door, we were taken aback at how cold it was when we woke the following morning. Until, that is, my husband poked his head beyond the canvas curtain and announced: "It snowed last night."

So it had. The storm had passed through the valley and left in its wake a light dusting of powder.

If arriving in the dark had robbed us of those stunning first impressions most people have of Yosemite, getting our bearings as clumps of snow melted from the branches of blossoming dogwood trees was magical in its own way.

We spent the day tramping around the valley floor and craning our necks in an effort to take in the remarkable scale of the landscape surrounding us. On every side, immense granite monoliths, left behind when glaciers carved out the basin we were standing in, reached to the heavens.

Nowhere was this more impressive than at the base of one of the park's most famous rock faces, El Capitan. All day long, intrepid climbers scale its lofty height and if you glance up at night you might even see pin pricks of light emanating from the hanging tents of the especially hardy folk who choose to overnight on the cliff face.

An unannounced shower of pebbles, ice and rocks sent us scurrying away from the base of El Capitan and back towards the Merced River, which meanders its way through the valley.

There was a treat in store first though. As we walked along the path leading away from the rockface, there was movement in the scrub off to our right. Stopping for a closer look we spied a bear foraging for grubs under the bark of a fallen tree. We knew, of course, that bears were in the area, but speaking with other travellers that morning we'd been assured sightings hadn't been that common of late, so we weren't certain we'd be privileged enough to see one.

Our second day in the park dawned clear and sunny - perfect weather for an assault on one of the valley's most popular day walks: the loop hike to Vernal and Nevada falls.

We opted to tackle the 10.5-kilometre route clockwise, which meant getting a drenching as we trudged up the steep steps of the aptly-named Mist Trail en route to the first of the falls - the Vernal.

On the flipside however, we had plenty of time to dry off in the sun as we climbed ever higher and the astounding views from our lunch spot at the top of Nevada Fall were more than worth the exertion required to get there.

As we stretched out on the granite slabs with our sandwiches, Yosemite's full grandeur played out in front of us: its stupendous waterfalls crashing through the pine forest to the magnificent valley far below.

Back at camp that evening, we found ourselves sitting around a toasty fire with our Housekeeping Camp neighbours from San Francisco. The area around Yosemite Village may only be a tiny part of this vast national park, but it's a great spot to get your bearings during a first-time visit.

As we shared stories and nips of cinnamon whisky with our new-found friends, I was already planning a return visit to this enchanting place.

NEED TO KNOW

When to go: Yosemite National Park is open year-round, though parts of it are subject to seasonal closures. Most people visit in spring - when the waterfalls are in full flow - or summer, but it's beautiful in all seasons.

Getting there by public transport: The park is best approached from the United States' west coast. Amtrak offers bus connections from San Francisco and Los Angeles into the valley, while Greyhound buses can get you as far as the city of Merced in the San Joaquin Valley. From there, you can jump aboard a Yarts (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) bus.

Getting there by car: Yosemite is several hours' drive from the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, so make sure you allow adequate time to get there. If you're approaching from the northwest of the park, you can take highways 120 or 140. From the southwest, take Highway 41. Entry to the park from the east is via US 395 and Highway 120 but is generally only possible between the months of June and October. It pays to always check the latest road conditions before setting out though, so you're not caught out by unseasonal snow storms.

Where to stay: There are accommodation options in the towns of Mariposa and El Portal, both of which lie on Highway 140 west of Yosemite Village, however to make the most of your time in the park it's a good idea to investigate the accommodation options run by DNC Parks & Resorts within the park's boundaries. These places are popular and reservations open 366 days in advance, so make sure you get in early if you're considering a stay.

If you're after a less pricey alternative, try booking a site at one of the park's 13 campgrounds, four of which are located in Yosemite Valley. Some of these need to be reserved up to five months in advance, while others are available on a first-come, first served basis.

Where to eat: Self-catering is a popular option for many of those staying in the park and there's a store in Yosemite Village where you can stock up on supplies. There are also a number of eateries at Yosemite Village and a pizza place at Curry Village.

Keeping the wildlife at bay: The black bears that inhabit the park can and will break into vehicles and campsites if they smell food. For this reason, all scented items (including toiletries) must be kept in the bear-proof storage lockers dotted around the park.

Further information: See nps.gov/yose.

Eveline Harvey paid her own way to Yosemite.

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