It may not be as empty as last year, but the pandemic precautions have opened up a once-a-generation opportunity.
By Maria De La O
When I saw that Yosemite was going to limit guests to 50% capacity this summer, I set my phone alarm and got ready to make a day-use reservation as soon as slots became available. I then booked an extra room for a good friend from NYC and insisted he fly out with his tiny poodle, Pebbles, for what I promoted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Our base for 2021? A motel outside the park’s southern gate, the Queen’s Inn by the River, in Oakhurst. We loved it—and the East Coaster was suitably impressed. We can’t wait to go back for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing this winter!
The Good Stuff
Fewer people In 2020, Yosemite Valley was extraordinarily empty due to the pandemic. But as promised, 2021 is also quite quiet, operating with a reduced-capacity reservation system, so that meant that the normally crowded valley floor was hikeable. While there still was an abundance of guests, trails and facilities were kept to a manageable level.
Hidden swimmin’ hole Turns out that the southern part of the park—both within and outside the gate—boasts numerous swimming holes fed by the mountain snowpack. After following somewhat confusing directions from a San Francisco friend and an Oakhurst local—“don’t jump off the cliff, my brother broke his ankle that way!”—we found a trailhead behind the famous luxury hotel, Tenaya Lodge. After a flat one-mile hike, which unfortunately passed through some burned-out wilderness where fire had come dangerously close to the resort, we found the icy creek and two people wading in the water. Following the creek up, the creek widened and opened up into a bona fide swimming hole.
Although the creek didn’t have a strong flow, it was too much for poor 8-lb. Pebbles. She got caught by the current and began moving quickly downstream! Luckily, she was wearing her leash and I was able to grab it in the nick of time. After that, we quickly made our way back to the car. Not only was this place a hazard for small dogs, we needed to be on time for our horseback ride!
A horse is a horse? My buddy from NYC, Stuart, and I booked a two-hour ride from Yosemite Trails. (The child passed on the giant beasts.) After a 20 or so minute refresher course on the basics of riding, we set off on our ride, which traversed forest, creeks, and steep and dusty mountain trails. The guide was professional and the horses docile. (Each one was an experienced female, although mine was named Hugh.) The last horse Stuart rode was in Iceland, so he was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t able to go beyond a walk with these horses. (Come to find out that the horses native to Iceland are not only smaller than American horses, but they have their own way of locomoting, with two extra gaits besides walk, trot, and gallop, called the tölt and the flying pace.)
This family-owned stable had lost all their structures to recent fire, so all bathrooms and buildings were clean and new. Yosemite Trails stipulates that all riders be 7-years-old or above, and everyone is required to wear helmets and the provided cowboy bandanas, which are free for guests to keep, to keep both viruses and dust out of lungs.
Quail and bunnies and chipmunks and squirrels, Oh my! Our motel room faced oak scrub that provided abundant habitat for all manner of little creatures. The strangest creature among them was the otherworldly white squirrel, which I at first thought was an albino. After further discussion, however, we came to believe that the squirrels were simply evolving. Just as squirrels in New York City are nearly black because of dirt and soot, these squirrels seemed to be turning white to blend in with the dry brush of the surrounding environment.
Pool pass! After a particularly grueling hike, Stuart and I decided to avail ourselves of the four-star spa facilities at Tenaya. When I booked, I inquired if spa services included use of the Tenaya pool. And yes, upon our spa check-in, we were provided with key passes to the pool area—complete with kiddy pool, regular pool, adult pool, jacuzzi, and adjacent drink bar. We gave our passes to my wife and our daughter, and they enjoyed the pool while we enjoyed a masked rubdown. A perfect afternoon for all.
No bears! Disappointingly we didn’t see any more large animals than we’d seen on previous visits. Meadow deer only.
Live music Our Oakhurst motel, the Queen’s Inn by the River, featured live music at the outside wine bar until 10 every night. (The website says music is on Saturdays, but we enjoyed music three out of the four nights we were there.) That would have been great if we didn’t have a young sleepy child with us—my daughter tends to hit the wall at 9 or 9:30 pm—but as it was, our kid couldn’t sleep until the hits from the 70s, 80s, and beyond wound down. Still, it was fun to watch the local boomers get down and dirty, and the bands weren’t half bad.
Snakes! During our first night’s music fest, a woman was bitten by a baby rattlesnake, but the band didn’t miss a beat. As Stuart summed up, “A lady was bitten by a snake, and nobody gave a [bleep]!” The ambulance rolled up as I stood at the bar, and I heard the gossip. The snake had allegedly “jumped up” and bit her, and it was a worry because supposedly babies shoot more venom into their victims, as they cannot “control” their venom. (An idea later disproved according to my Internet research.) Unfortunately, the poor woman still ended up in the ICU.
The barkeep told us that rattlesnakes are a recent phenomenon in the area. Because the weather in California has been so warm and dry due to climate change, the snakes are moving up into the higher Sierras. Needless to say, we treaded more carefully through the scrub after the snakebite incident.
Good to Know
No shuttles The park isn’t running any shuttle service this season because of Covid precautions. So if you’re lucky enough to visit Yosemite this year, you’ll be hoofing or biking it. Thus, instead of a quick tram ride up the hill to see giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, we had a four-mile roundtrip hike with elevation. The kid was a trooper though. (Note that cars displaying a disability placard can drive all the way to the tram arrival area, at the entrance to the sequoia grove.)
Timber! Speaking of Mariposa Grove, you won’t be able to use the wooden boardwalk through the giant sequoias for the foreseeable future. During a storm back in January, two massive trees fell across the path, so the only way through the forest here is along a paved road.
No $3 flip-flops Stuart thought he got a bargain when he picked up some rubber sandals at the Oakhurst Rite-aid. Sadly, he didn’t make it across the parking lot before they fell apart. If you forget any sandals, sneakers, or athletic supplies, be sure to pop into the Big 5 sporting goods store in town; throw a rock in this burg and you’re bound to hit an amateur athlete, most likely a climber. The Big 5 has everything you’ll need.
They pull in the sidewalks after dark! The evening we arrived in Oakhurst, we raced madly around town to find a restaurant that was still open after 9pm. Plan your dinner, or you may just end up going hungry—or driving 90 miles to Mariposa.
Good for Next Time
Choo-choo We wanted to go on the old-fashioned railroad through the trees at the Sugar Pine hotel in Fish Camp, but we just couldn’t get the timing right. On our list for the next visit!
Maria De La O – July 2021
Magazine editor. Documentary filmmaker. Copy expert. Mother. Traveler. Maria brings it all to the pages of ROAM.
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