Your family’s summer Yosemite National Park trip is well-intentioned and stupid.
By Kyle Magin
Unless you’re pulling a mid-week visit and staying in the high country—which, let’s be honest, is only satisfying and/or possible for your most granola/well-funded/unemployed friends—you’re visiting the world’s most-visited national park with everyone else who has a weekend free this summer, which means literally everyone.
You’ll sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic if you’re coming in from one of the Western approaches. Your car will overheat at the least opportune moment if you’re climbing up Tioga Pass from the desert to visit from the Eastern Gate. California is obscenely dry, so the wildfire smoke will probably obscure your view across the famous valley and all the waterfalls dried up yesterday.
You’ll stare at somebody’s rear end as you climb single-file up Half Dome and try your best not to die on the way down.
Visiting Yosemite during traditional summer break is like hitting the bathroom at halftime—it’s only for chumps, and there are a lot of chumps in this world.
Listen, I love Yosemite. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been—the sights are spectacular, the weather is usually within a degree or two of perfect, the visitors are usually in happy moods and the hikes are rewarding in the most literal sense of that word; every turn unveils a treasure. It’s the world’s climbing Mecca. An early-morning dip in Tenaya Lake restores the spirits and a walk through the Wawona grove of Sequoia trees is spectacularly humbling. If you can only visit there during summer; fine, whatever. Do what you have to do. But, if you have any choice in the matter, stay the hell away and come back in September or book a trip out for May.
But, since all of us need to untether from the hustle and bustle of life every once in awhile, let’s take a look at some good summer alternatives:
Yellowstone National Park
Why trade a park with 3.9 million annual visitors for one with 3.5 million annual visitors? Easy: Demographics. Yosemite’s backcountry visitors count for about 5 percent of its total visits—about five times what you’ll find in Yellowstone. It’s accepted wisdom that your typical Yellowstone visitor isn’t going further than a mile or two down any given trail. Contrast that with Yosemite, where you’re daily
finding people who skied down from Mammoth and are finishing out an 8-day hike by walking down the Nevada Falls trail. Isolation is available in spades in Yellowstone, where most are content to see the geysers, stop on the side of Lamar Valley for a few shots of the bison herd and stay in an improved campground overnight. Now, the front of park amenities are just as packed, if not more in Yellowstone than Yosemite.
But, the backcountry is there for the taking—you’re sharing 3,400 square miles with 41,000 other people over the span of five months, and odds are you’ll only have to see a few of them.
Lassen National Park
I’m going to piss off a lot of Northern Californians by telling you about Lassen, because when the crowds get too onerous in Yosemite, it’s where solitude-seekers head. About 3.5 hours north of Reno, Lassen is
centered around its namesake volcano—Lassen Peak—and a cluster of other magma-spewers in the Golden State’s far north. After good snow years—not 2015—you can ski and ride the 10,400-foot peak clear through the summer. There are wild geothermic features throughout the park and hikes through ancient-looking volcanic terrain that’s at turns prehistoric and downright spooky. Lassen annually logs a tenth of the visitors Yosemite does yet has most all of the same features—pristine alpine lakes, stellar hiking, panoramic views and most of the same wildlife. The flaky, volcanic rock isn’t good for climbing, but for non-climbers it’s a fair trade when the crowds overrun Yosemite.
Ruby Mountains National Wilderness
Part of the problem with Yosemite is ease of access—it’s within 5 hours of four million-plus population cities and a gaggle of 250,000-800,000-person cities. The Ruby Mountains, on the eastern side of Nevada, don’t have the same problem. Just south of Elko, Nev. (pop. 18,000), the Rubies are another sort-of-secret outdoors lovers in Northern California, Nevada and Utah try to keep under wraps. Tall, knife-edged peaks sculpted by glaciers are lousy with crystal-clear lakes and the absurdly-scenic Lamoille Canyon.
The lush range is even more remarkable for its contrast with the profoundly dry desert surrounding it in every direction. Come for the hikes, the fishing, or the wildflowers and skip the crowds.
Sequoia/Kings Canyon national parks
Sequoia and Kings Canyon (SEKI, in the parlance of the Patagonia set) are two contiguous national parks just south of Yosemite, but they’re managed as one park, because up yours for asking questions. SEKI’s visitor count is less than a half of Yosemite’s annual tally. The parks have some of the most famous high country and backcountry in America—huge granite monoliths, the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S. (Mt. Whitney) and giant stands of Sequoia trees which are the tallest in the world. Sound familiar? The parks exist in a very similar elevation profile and the same mountain range as Yosemite. You’ll find all the same wildlife, great granite climbing and hiking of no less renown than the John Muir trail.
If you want to stand ass-to-elbows and shuffle along paved trails in your brand-new technical gear, by all means, head to Yosemite (hope you booked your lodging last November.) But if you want room to breathe, a high country lake to yourself and freedom from the crowds you’ll find at home, get off the well-beaten trail up the Merced.
Photos Courtesy: Kyle Magin