This was our first time in Yosemite. And we were told that Spring is an ideal time to visit – with the mighty waterfalls filled to the brim by the melting snow and the abundance of wildlife this time of year. We assumed the days would be filled with sunshine (warm at lower elevations) but cooler at higher elevations with the the tops of the mountains still covered with snow. However we soon discovered that the weather this time of year in Yosemite is highly unpredictable.We had never been hiking in Yosemite before, so we went with a recommendation to stay near Groveland – one of the closest communities to Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat Road entrance on Highway 120. But a few weeks before we were to visit, we were informed by the resort that the entrance to Yosemite Valley was shut! How disappointing to be so close yet so far from the valley floor.
The valley floor boasts some of the best trails in the park, sheer granite summits like Half Dome and El Capitan, and features the tallest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls. But California had been battered by storms all winter and the highways and roads into Yosemite from the West entrance were in poor shape. We were sorely disappointed but after careful thought, decided to visit anyway. We didn’t want to give up seeing a different side of Yosemite we would otherwise not see if we had only focused on visiting the valley floor. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the Tuolumne and Merced Giant Sequoia groves were still open; there was plenty to do for the duration of our two full days.
We kept checking the weather reports to make sure that we were dressed appropriately. We knew that we were staying at an elevation of at least 5000 ft and that it was a good few degrees colder than the Bay Area so decided to dress warmly. But nowhere in our research did it mention hiking through snow. There was snow on the tops of the mountains – but we weren’t planning to go that far up. Without knowing what to expect, we threw everything in the boot of the car including flip flops, swimsuits, hiking boots, thick woolly sweaters and even some shorts for good measure! Something for all the seasons and you know what? We weren’t disappointed!
When we first arrived at our resort, there was snow on the ground and a definite chill in the air. It looked like it had snowed the day before but the sun had come out and much of it had already melted away. We shivered around the fireplace, excited and daunted by our upcoming hikes, and wondered whether we had brought enough to keep us warm.The next day, we woke up to blue skies and ground that was clear of snow. What little snow there was the day before had melted away in the night and the morning took on a decidedly warmer feel. Not knowing how long the blue skies would last, we decided that our first hike would be at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and O’Shaughnessy Dam; these provide water to the 2 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even though they weren’t the tallest in North America, Hetch Hetchy housed the Wapama Falls, where you could literally walk across a bridge under the falls. If the spray was strong enough, you could take a natural shower.
The drive to Hetch Hetchy was longer than expected as more roads were shut for repairs. We didn’t mind though as the views of the granite cliffs were simply stunning. We couldn’t keep our eyes off them which made it challenging to drive. When we arrived, the temperature was much warmer then anticipated and we were soon stripping off layers of clothing. We walked across the dam which featured an amazing view of the waterfalls. The mountains were on one side of the trail and the reservoir and on the other with a sheer drop from the dam to a river below.To start your hike at Hetch Hetchy, you climb through a long, dark, damp tunnel in the rocks. It is approximately a mile to reach to the first waterfall. The trail is easy to medium and ideal for beginners (suited my hiking skill level perfectly). As it was spring, some parts of the trail were muddy and others overrun with water; waterproof hiking shoes or boots are highly recommended. Along the way, the temperature became warmer and my feet and hair (damp from the waterfall spray) dried quickly. By lunch the sun was overhead, and we had stripped down to our t-shirts. We located a pretty spot for lunch featuring a view of the surrounding terrain. We would have gone for a swim if time permitted.
“Summer” had arrived. We sat lounging in the sun, recovering from our morning hike. It was a pretty easy hike and in total we took about 5 hours from start to finish. Because we had an 8 year old in town – we chose not to hike around the entire reservoir. But we could easily have done so if we didn’t have to leave.
The next day, the weather wasn’t so forgiving. It was dark and grey, as if autumn was approaching. As we began hiking it was already drizzling cold rain. We were all depressed about the bad weather. It seemed as if winter was on its way again. But we decided to press on.
This time we headed out to Tuolumne Grove, home of the giant sequoias including the infamous Dead Tunnel Tree. The winds had picked up and we were bundled up in winter clothing. I put on my hat and gloves. We shivered in the car and cranked the heat up.
We entered Yosemite National Park at the Big Oak Flat Road entrance on our way to the Tuolumne Grove; we drove 8 miles in, with the elevation climbing to over 6000 ft. The rest of the road was shut but we fortunately we were able to drive as far as the Grove. The higher we climbed, the more snow we saw piled up along the sides of the road. Eventually snow started falling at about 6300 ft. By the time we arrived at the car park, it looked like winter never left: everything was covered in a blanket of white. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We laughed with incredulity and kept touching the snow to make sure it was real. Every which way we turned, there was snow all around. It wasn’t “bad” weather after all!Our hike down to the entrance of the Grove was covered in snow and ice, but just as we arrived at the entrance, the sun came out and we heard the drip-drip-drip of snow melting (For the second time on this trip, I wished I had waterproof hiking shoes). Birds appeared and the ominous clouds retreated. The floor of the forest was bathed in sunlight. Spring was on its way again. The snow soon gave way to pine needles. We shed our outer layers as we munched on our snacks. After an hour of exploring the giant Sequoias, we decided to hike back up to our car, moving from spring to winter once more. This hike took a little over three hours and we experienced three seasons.
So that is the unpredictability of visiting this time of year; we had four seasons in two days at Yosemite. We were thrilled and awed by it all and even though we didn’t make it to Yosemite Valley we couldn’t have been more pleased with our trip. We will definitely be returning again to explore more parts of this wonderful American National Park.