Awe-inspiring beauty like Yosemite’s doesn’t come cheap: You pay for it with cash and with crowds. But there are ways to ameliorate that. To start, avoid the hordes of summer tourists by going in the shoulder months. April and May are the perfect time to see the national park’s gushing waterfalls (nps.gov/yose).
At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest, but getting up close to it couldn’t be more convenient—an easy, mile-long route takes you right up to Lower Yosemite Falls (though if you want to continue to the Upper Fall, it’s several miles more and a 3,000-foot climb). You can also see 620-foot Bridalveil Falls practically from its parking lot. The more hidden Vernal Fall is only 317 feet of vertical drop, but there are several reasons why you should make this your main hike: namely, the lovely Mist Trail, which meanders along the Merced River and right up into the spray, and the perfect resting spot, Emerald Pool, just above the fall (where you should be very careful). If you’re still raring to go, you can continue on to Nevada Fall, which makes for a seven-mile round trip. Reward yourself afterward with dinner at the Mountain Room Restaurant at Yosemite Lodge (yosemitepark.com)—make your reservation for sunset and ask for a table with a full-on view of Yosemite Falls. Though it’s more affordable than the grand dining room at the Ahwahnee, the food is just as fresh and tasty, especially the fish specials (if they’ve got mahi-mahi, take it). Likewise, you can get a bit of the grand, rustic feel of the Ahwahnee for less money by staying at Tenaya Lodge 30 miles away, just outside the park’s south entrance and very close to the famed Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Tenaya’s got its own oversize roaring fireplace in the lobby, a heated pool and scads of guided activities including nighttime tours to see the “moonbow” at Yosemite Falls during springtime full moons (Apr. 9, May 9 and June 7), when the combination of water and light create a lunar rainbow—a rare sight you’re unlikely to forget.
From top: Tenaya Lodge’s rustic lobby (deer head included); trail sign; Yosemite Falls.
Tenaya: James B. Doss; Deer: Ryan Lane; Yosemite Falls: Courtesy of DNC parks and resorts at Yosemite inc.; trail sign: Jordan Breckenridge