A Fall Guide to Yosemite National Park

What's our favorite time of year to take in Yosemite's greens, golds, and soaring granite walls? This weekend.
November 28, 2015Words by Kylie FlyPhotos by Kylie Fly

When I was a kid, my grandma always had calendars hanging in every room of her house, each month boasting a different, monumental landscape — epic mountain peaks, frosted evergreens, golden meadows. For years, these places have become a measure of how I see beauty in the outdoors; even today, I still only consider certain landscapes to be "calendar-worthy." Fall in Yosemite National Park? Well, there's no question if that one is calendar-worthy or not. This park is a prime seasonal destination if you’ve got an autumn itch that just needs to be scratched. 

In my book, fall is the best time of year to visit Yosemite, when the golds and the greens contrast with the grey granite walls and muddy brown earth. Stretching over 1,100 square miles, more than 3.5 million people visit this national park every year, so consider yourself lucky that you're arriving just in time for full-fledged autumn, complete with fewer crowds to fight and incredibly changeable weather. (Pack for rain, snow, or shine — it’s all a part of the adventure this late in the season!)

My advice? Don’t hesitate to wake with the sun and explore Yosemite in solitude while the rest of the world sleeps. There are few people out at such an early hour, excepting one or two stray vehicles slowly putting by and a wandering deer munching on the grass. As the early morning fog drifts through the trees, hanging lazily onto the granite walls, it almost seems like it's agreeing there’s nowhere else you'd rather be.

I can’t think of a better way to wake up than in the canvas tents of Curry Village. Crawling out of the warmth of layered wool blankets and a heater humming in the air is a welcome way to begin each day during a Yosemite visit.

Curry Village, also known as Camp Curry, is a community originally built in 1924 and offers modern-day visitors their choice of cabins and tent cabins. This inexpensive lodging guarantees a cozier stay than in a tent, since therer's optional heating to stay warm during these colder months. Unheated cabins start at $39 per night, while heated cabins for the chilly at heart start at $49 a night. All heated tent cabins come with one double and two single beds, making it an ideal destination if you’re traveling with friends. Even better, you get to split the cost!

The Wi-Fi doesn’t quite reach this area, and you might have spotty phone service, so your best bet on getting connected is to visit the Curry Village Guest Services building to chat with other outdoors enthusiasts while you catch up on emails or social media. Curry Village is definitely the place to stay, and odds are you'll love it so much you’ll be coming back every fall with friends and make a tradition of it!

Some places in the world are so beautiful they should be downright illegal. Vernal Fall is one such place. Begin your hike at the Happy Isles trailhead (that's shuttle stop #16) in the eastern Yosemite Valley for spectacular views of two large waterfalls and the Yosemite Valley below. As you approach the falls, the roaring thunder of water crashing against rocks and spilling over granite walls grows louder and louder. Eventually you’ll be showering in the misty overspray of the 317-foot falls and get a crick in your neck from staring up at its grandeur.

The 2.4-mile roundtrip isn't too long, but the loop is strenuous enough that you’ll feel justified enough to check off cardio for the day — you'll gain 1,000 feet in elevation and be hiking for about three hours, after all (including some time to hang out at the top). For more happy trail blazing, continue up to the top of Nevada Falls for about 1.5 miles and 2,000-foot gain through rocky switchbacks via the Mist Trail. At this time of year, the water flow for both falls is low but steady.

If you’ve gotten enough of waterfalls (I have a hard time believing anyone has that problem), the Glacier Point hike offers a fantastic viewpoint above Yosemite Valley at an elevation of 7,214 feet and about 3,200 feet above Curry Village. It’s a great day hike, approximately 10 miles round trip in length, with incredibly rewarding views. Beginning at the Yosemite Valley floor, the Four Mile Trails follows a series of switchbacks through the valley and ends at a stunning vista overlooking the Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the high country.

Editors Note: Check with Yosemite rangers to see which trails, roads, and passes are open for the season. 

The Yosemite Lodge Food Court serves breakfast, lunch and dinner year-round with various options from hot breakfast, grilled foods, and pre-made salads to Italian pastas, pizza, and vegetarian entrees. There are grab and go picnic items available for you to snag before you hit the trails, and access to hot water and microwaves for your own fixings as well. It’s a great place to relax and grab a bite and tends to have cheaper options than many other places. Their cornbread muffins are ridiculously good, so be sure to give them a try with your chili or soup.

If you’re looking to save your money but want something a little more upscale than cafeteria food, look no further than the bar at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Not everyone wants to splurge on the dining room fare, but the bar offers great options at more affordable prices. Hearty bowls of chili and complimentary bread will fill you up and keep you warm. You can waltz in as you are, hiking boots and all, feeling comfortable and also have a great view of granite cliffs just outside the window.

It would take years to explore all of Yosemite, which is why I’ve put together a quick list of my top favorite sites to check off during your trip. From waterfalls right off the road to casual strolls through the meadow to stops along the way as you loop through the park, these are some spots you just can't miss. Time to get out there! [H]

Click the map to open it in a new tab, print out, and take with you on your Yosemite adventure


Map illustration by Nicole Varvitsiotes

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