The Yosemite Un-List

Reading by the river.
Reading books next to rushing water. The best!

Part of the beauty of living in Yosemite is feeling like I have time. There is time to take a short walk to nowhere in particular, breathe deep, and (at the risk of sounding too hippy dippy) just be. I can walk a book out to the edge of a river and spend an afternoon reading without wondering if there was something else that I should have crammed in to my 3-day trip. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

And here’s the thing, there is no way to see everything in Yosemite in 3 days anyway. We moved here in 2003 full time, and there are still so many things that I haven’t seen yet, or want to visit again.

Why an Un-List?

I once worked for a guy who gave a memorable talk about how stressed some people can be by the time they arrive in the park. It could have been performance art, the way he did it. Elaborate stories of hours in the car, screaming kids, the line at the entrance gate, being hungry, lost, desperate to find a bathroom, and fueled by an incessant urge to see everything there is to see. The dramatic performance was meant to encourage weary employees to have some compassion for sometimes irate visitors, but it stuck with me as an example of the way not to do a vacation.

Tom recently came across a Quora question about what to do on a short Yosemite visit that brought this all back to mind. Many people suggested tightly planned itineraries – get up, see this, drive there, don’t miss that, make sure you whatever – trying to cram as much stuff into a short visit as possible.

They are great suggestions.

I also often have some ambitious goal for my weekend, but I remember the first time I came pounding down a trail, eager to cover miles, and saw a guy comfortably ensconced in his hammock by the river with a book and a small cooler nearby. He was less than a mile from the trailhead. There was no one else around. It looked absolutely idyllic. You can’t convince me that’s a less-legitimate way to unwind and spend time in a great national park.

Of course a Yosemite visitor is going to be disappointed if they don’t cross at least some of the iconic features and locations off their bucket list. Half Dome, El Cap, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls, Mist Trail, Glacier Point, Tunnel View, at least one of the groves of giant sequoia trees. Check, check and check. Still, here are a few more humble suggestions for a relaxed and fulfilling vacation time – suggestions that I remind myself regularly. They don’t have to take a long time – though they certainly can – and will add a note of richness and relaxation to a visit.

The List

Stop the car and get out.

I mean before even getting to the destination. I can be so guilty of getting tunnel vision when focusing on ‘that thing I want to do’ that I don’t stop the car to appreciate the beautiful things happening right around me in the moment. Yosemite’s winding mountain roads don’t have passing lanes, but there are occasional pull-outs along the side of the road so drivers can let faster traffic by. They are also great places to pull off the road in order to give something a little more attention.

Tom and I are really into flowers, and I remember surprising our visiting nephew once by ducking into a pull-out along the road to ooh and ahh over a pretty blossom, while ignoring the sweeping vista on the other side of the road. I suppose it’s all about what you find interesting.

Pro tip: Watch traffic and do actually pull off the road. Our winding roads are unfamiliar to most drivers, and many of those are distracted by the scenery anyway. In the winter, add in sometimes icy and slippery road conditions. Stopping in the middle of the road to admire the view can create a safety hazard, and not everyone is interested in that flowering tincture plant, so make sure you let them by.

Stop and smell the air

I remember visiting Yosemite back when we were living in the Bay Area, rolling down the window and being amazed at the pine-scented fresh air. The mountains smell amazing, especially in comparison to the city. In the spring, when the Azalea’s are blooming, you may sometimes also get a whiff of these large white flowers. Some of the Jeffrey Pines smell strongly of butterscotch/vanilla. That’s worth a pause to enjoy too.

Fragrant azaleas in Wawona
Fragrant azaleas in Wawona

Watch the Merced River go by

The legendary former NPS ranger, Carl Sharsmith, was once asked what he would do if he only had one day in Yosemite. His famous response: “I’d sit by the Merced River and cry.” I don’t know about the crying part but the Merced River part strikes me as a great option.

In the spring the river is cold, fresh from high country snow-melts, energetic and wild. In some places it crashes over rocks and makes a huge ruckus. John Muir would call it songful. In other places it’ll creep up the banks and eddy about in playful swirls. Later in the year, it’ll calm down and be a great way to cool off and escape the heat. I cherish the wildlife sightings around the river too – raccoons hunting for crayfish, or deer stopping by for a drink.

Pro tip: Don’t underestimate the power of the river, or how slippery wet rocks can be. Every year a few people are injured when they slip, or are swept away (this video always makes me tear up a little). Please be careful.

Take your shoes off

The Buddhist monk, Santideva observed:

But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.

I suppose the modern equivalent is covering the earth in Vibram, or whatever high-tech synthetic polymer goes into making modern hiking shoe soles. I’m not a barefoot hiker. My feet are too soft, and I love my hiking shoes. But I love the feel of bare feet in the sunshine, especially after hiking. Plus, it’s the precursor to cooling my feet in the stream, feeling the dirt between my toes, the warm granite underfoot, or pushing your feet into the sand by the river. I choose my spots carefully to avoid prickly scrub oak leaves and other pointy things on the ground, but maybe I just need tougher feet.

Sunset from the Sunset Bluff near our house in Yosemite West. Takes a bit of effort to get here, but so nice!

Lie down

There are so many good reasons to actually find a place where you can lie down! I have memories of hiking or climbing with wise friends who would combat foot-soreness during the breaks by finding a place to lie down and put their feet into the air. This really works, and I don’t try it often-enough.

Even when my feet aren’t sore, lying down provides a different perspective on trees and cliffs. It can take a little bit of effort to find a really comfy spot, but it’s always worth it.

Another great benefit of lying down… napping! I love napping.

Pro-tip: If you aren’t comfortable sitting on the ground, find a log, or bring a blanket, mat, hammock, or bouldering pad (read portable 6 inch thick mattress, for those who don’t know what that is).

Have a morning cuppa tea outside.

This is probably going to sound weird, but I didn’t really discover hot drinks until this last winter following a prolonged sore throat. I just wasn’t a coffee or tea person, and even a good cup of hot chocolate would be viewed with suspicion, but tolerated for the sweetness. Still, even for me, there is something vaguely romantic about cradling a hot drink and watching the world come to life. Best of all, everyone else is still getting ready indoors so the beautiful places are quiet and mostly empty for a while.

Now that I think about it, you wouldn’t even have to go to a special tea-drinking, scenery-watching spot to soak in the benefits of this practice. Stepping out onto the patio or deck in front of our house in Yosemite would set a wonderful tone for the day. And having a bite to eat, meditating, drawing, or just sitting would all be great substitutes for hot drinks.

Venture out in the morning and evening hours.

This is really the same as the morning tea idea, but without the tea, and maybe without the sitting. Especially during the summer months the morning hours are just magic. The weather is cool and comfortable, and great for hiking, climbing or other activities as well as tea-sipping. It’s a perfect time to get a jump start on everyone else.

Once we had some renters traveling from PA who wanted to experience the iconic sights but without the legendary Yosemite crowds. We advised them to stay on east coast time during their trip, and get out early. They really took the advice to heart! They were early risers anyway, and so they were pulling out of the driveway before 8am east coast time to start their hikes. No surprise that at 5am California time they got out in front of everyone else on the trail and had it to themselves until mid-day when they were headed back to the car.

Setting an early alarm can be tough, but it’s worth it! I tell myself that if I want to I’ve earned that mid-day nap.

Mornings are my favorite, but getting outside in the evenings is a pretty closer runner up. The popular sunset spots are all going to be …popular, but they are still quieter than mid-day, and the temps cool off again too.

Upper Yosemite Fall during sunset.
Upper Yosemite Fall during an amazing sunset.

Look up at the stars

Glacier Point is probably the most popular star-watching destination in the park because it’s relatively high, has a wide field of view, and you can drive there. On special Star Party dates during the summer, regional astronomy organizations have traditionally set up telescopes up at Glacier Point and are generous with sharing their knowledge about the night sky and let you peer through their scopes. I’ve really enjoyed these star parties and recommend them. Yosemite Naturalists also offer more regular star programs and these have also been a complete delight with stories about constellations and more.

But star watching doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair. Just take a moment to poke your head outside before you go to bed. Our neighborhood isn’t perfectly dark, but I still stop and stare up into the night sky on occasion just because they are so bright. Spend a few minutes to let your eyes adapt and you’ll often be able to see the Milky Way.

Pack a lunch and lots of snacks so you can eat outside someplace quiet.

There are several lunch options in the park, but guess what, they’re really busy around lunch time. I like to have to have lunch out on a trail somewhere, but even if you’re in the most populated part of the park, you can just find a quiet little eddy in the main flow of people and enjoy your lunch in peace. Maybe find somewhere to sit down by the Merced River, with your shoes off and your toes in the sand.

Stop moving for a whole minute and listen

If you can’t bring yourself to sit or lie down, and you love sleeping in, try to just stop for a whole minute someplace quiet, close your eyes and turn on all of your other senses. When he was doing the Valley Floor tram tours as a ranger, Tom would sometimes have the driver cut the tram engines on the Valley Floor Tour in a quiet spot to give people a chance to do this. For many, it was a favorite highlight of the tour.

Pro tips for finding quiet spots: Get up early. Stay out late. Visit during the winter. Seek out the less popular trails and places – though keep in mind, the popular places are popular for a reason.

I told Tom I was thinking about this list of un-list items, and though I wanted to get after a long weekend hike, he reminded me of it a couple of times. We slept in, got a late start, took a nap in the sun, and still managed to get in 16 miles over rough terrain with a few thousand feet of elevation gain. It was a pretty awesome day, even if we didn’t cross anything off the big bucket list.

There are probably other un-list times that I’m just not thinking of right now. If you have any additional suggestions for wonderful little things that wouldn’t necessarily make a bucket list, but are still wonderful and worth doing, please share.