The Cessna 172 tilted its wings, gained altitude and headed east into the mountains. There were just three of us on board the tiny plane, beetling along through the Californian skies and getting bucked by air currents as the Sierra Nevada reared up ahead. The entire horizon was massed with sculpted white peaks. “Here’s Yosemite, folks,” said Marty, our unruffled pilot. “Let me know if you want me to slow down so you can open the window and get some clear-air views.”
Banner image credit: istockphoto.com/lucamoi
I’d never opened a window on an airborne plane before. Or a grounded one, for that matter. It turns out that even on a sunny day in spring, it makes you very cold, very quickly. The reward came in the form of an unhindered bird’s eye view of one of the most famous spreads of land in the United States. Yosemite Valley is a stupendous sight, a cataclysmically beautiful corridor of giant waterfalls and hulking cliffs. I huddled into my jacket and stared out, my face getting buffeted by the wind as the plane wobbled past the granite bulk of Half Dome. It was a while before I shut the window.
Half Dome. Image credit: istockphoto.com/shkonst
More than 5 million people visited Yosemite National Park last year, a figure which broke all previous records. Almost half of them arrived over the three months of June, July and August. There were times over the summer when the traffic delays topped two hours – and that was just to get into the park. Even President Obama and his family came calling for a couple of days, arriving by helicopter into a park full of bathroom queues and overcrowded tour buses. In Yosemite, peak season arrives with a vengeance.
Yosemite crowds. Image credit: istockphoto.com/EddieHernandezPhotography
It’s all a far cry from the park’s early years, when Scottish-American naturalist John Muir was famously instrumental in securing national park status for this 3,000km² swathe of glacial wilderness. The first recorded visitor statistics date back to 1906, revealing that over the calendar year a combined total of 5,414 people entered the park – what an experience they must have had.
Recapturing the feeling of utter isolation that many of them would have felt is still a possibility if you time your trip right and you’re prepared to hike away from the main trailheads. Even in eastern Yosemite Valley itself – the unrivalled focal point of the park and in many people’s eyes the over-riding reason to visit – you’re far from obliged to deal with severe congestion, even if genuine seclusion might be a pipe-dream. The golden rule, of course, is to avoid the summer months.
Yosemite Valley. Image credit: istockphoto.com/MariuszBlach
We came in March. Having first taken the aforementioned scenic flight, then thawed out our hands and feet, we took the more conventional step of driving into the park at ground level. The mountains were dizzying and the waterfalls were in overdrive. The valley floors were coated in a soft, pillowy green. The slopes in the ski area – a collection of pistes squirrelled away among the red fir forests above the valley – still had a nice coating of snow but were being used only by classes of local schoolchildren. And the heavy crowds? Not yet in attendance.
We got up early the next morning and drove up to Tunnel View for 8am. It’s a spot that gives arguably the classic Yosemite panorama: the majesty of El Capitan, the high cascade of Bridalveil Falls, and the widescreen enormity of the valley. It’s one of the top tourist magnets in the park. The morning was crisp and bright, with a yellow sun climbing over the horizon and setting the scene alight. I counted the other people up here with us. There were nine.
Tunnel View. Image credit: istockphoto.com/julof90
In the restaurant at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, which fills with peak-season bookings months in advance, our garrulous waiter took us through the lunch menu dish by dish. “I’m what you’d call an honest kind of server,” he said, leading us through a series of hoagies, cheesesteaks and pastrami plates. “I’m not trying to schmooze you on the upsell.” He also had time on his hands. The dining hall, a grand cavernous space framed with huge sugar-pine roofbeams, was more than half-empty.
We had just three days in and around Yosemite, a blink of an eye in which to soak up a national park roughly the size of Rhode Island. It gave the opportunity to fit in plenty – from snowshoeing and hiking to sunset-viewing and a committed but ultimately fruitless attempt to spot bears – but inevitably left us wanting more. How could it not?
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Image credit: Yosemite Hospitality
It struck me as we drove back across the state that while on the Cessna flight I hadn’t noticed any vehicles in the valley – not a single bus or parked-up car. Maybe it was the tree cover. Maybe I just hadn’t been looking. Regardless, I know what the priority will be for any return trip: heeding the advice given to us by the ranger up in the ski area. “Yosemite is heaven,” he’d said, adjusting his wide-brim hat and speaking in the tone of the well-informed. “Just so long as you steer away from summer.”