Because this trip was a last minute decision, we waited until the week before to book a place to stay, meaning absolutely everything in the park was booked, including all of the camp sites (and there was no way I was going to stay in a tent anyway!). Our next best option, and literally the only thing available anywhere nearby, was Hotel Jeffery in Coulterville. The rooms were inexpensive, so we booked first, researched later. As it turns out, Coulterville is a historic old western town (apparently voted 4th best western town in the US?), and the hotel boasts equally historic clientele, including Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and John Muir. As I was reserving our room online, I saw that ghost detecting kits were available upon request (say what?!). The cherry on top...we were staying in a famously haunted hotel--home to 17 ghosts!
The famous haunted hotel
Excited to get this mini vacay started, we left on Friday night after we both got off work. The three hour journey from San Rafael to Coulterville took closer to 4 hours due to the dreaded Memorial Day weekend traffic and a surplus of drivers making poor choices. Multiple traffic accidents added to our wait times, and we even witnessed one happen right in front of us on the other side of the freeway. An SUV spun out and slammed its rear end into the divider; we thought for sure it was going to flip over the barrier and slam right into us!
Rolling up into Coulterville (population 201) at about 11:15pm was a surreal experience. The town itself is tiny, tucked away into an area accessed by nausea-inducing winding roads. The old western buildings looked eerie and desolate in what should have been a dead-silent night...except for the modern music blasting from the open saloon. It felt more like walking onto a movie set than anything else.
Right across from our hotel
Abandoned General Store
Because every town needs an organic bakery/fly shop!
The Magnolia Saloon is the oldest working saloon in California, and is attached to Hotel Jeffery. Since the hotel was closed, we checked in at the bar and were able to explore a little bit before getting settled. The saloon is decorated with all kinds of mounted animal heads and local historic artifacts, and the hotel itself is absolutely charming. They have a little visitors center that connects the hotel and saloon, filled with gold mining memorabilia, antiques, historic newspapers and postcards, you name it. Established in 1851, this three-story building with a wrapping veranda holds 22 guests rooms that are each decorated uniquely in fabulous antique furniture (no two rooms look alike). The floorboards are uneven in places and creak (just like in the house I grew up in...also historic), and our bathroom was located down the hall and around a corner (which took us a while to find). It reminded me a lot of Meadowlands at Dominican University.
Hotel Jeffery and Magnolia Saloon
Lobby of Hotel Jeffery
Inside the Visitor Center. That door connects into the Saloon.
Loving the old-school phone booth!
Our room was number 4, seen here on the left!
After a fairly restless sleep (no, there were no paranormal encounters, just two drunk locals keeping us up through the thin walls), we woke up early to get our start into the park. There was substantial continental breakfast (all gluten, of course) spread out on the bar in the saloon, and it was a very peaceful (but kind of creepy) breakfast as we were the only people even in the building. Out behind the saloon, they had a great patio area with fountains and rustic tables, a small flower garden, and even an old white cat who tried to
We are ready for adventures!
We learned the hard way that Coulterville is not, in fact, "just outside the park." Well, maybe in miles as the crow flies, but in terms of driving, it took us 45 minutes to get to the park entrance, and another 45 minutes to get into Yosemite Valley, of course all on narrow, windy roads. Our first stop was Bridalveil Falls, which was a short hike but absolutely packed with people. We began to miss the solitude of our morning meal as the flocks of tourists pressed in on us.
Best view of Bridalveil Falls was from the parking lot. Seriously.
Parking was a huge challenge throughout the day. I knew it would be busy in Yosemite on Memorial Day weekend, but I didn't anticipate the tiny roads and insanely congested traffic. We were lucky to only have to circle once at the Bridalveil parking lot to find a space. Later in the trip, we saw a line waiting to get in that went back for miles, holding up all of the traffic in that area of the park!
After Bridalveil Falls, we decided to make the drive down to Wawona to see the giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove. It was another 45 minutes (bleh) of twisting turns, but well worth the trip. Parking was a pain again, but we were lucky to find a spot up at the exquisitely lovely Wawona Hotel, which I would love to go back and stay at sometime.
Would have loved to have a drink on the lawn!
They had a free shuttle available to take people the additional 20 minutes to the sequoia groves, which we took advantage of but had to ride standing the whole way. The hike itself was not too intense, but very packed with tourists. After seeing the first main attractions (Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree) in the lower section of the grove, we decided to take the recommended "Lower Loop Trail" which met up back in the parking lot where we started. Fortunately for us, the trail was not very clearly marked...we actually went the wrong way and had to loop back. But the great part was, everyone else went the wrong way too! We were the only two people on the trail for most of the journey back, which enabled us to see some fun squirrels and birds going about their business without being scared off by the crowds.
In front of the Grizzly Giant
Bachelor and the Three Graces
California Tunnel Tree
After the hike, we checked out some of the other sights in Wawona, including the Pioneer History Center, where we could see old cabins and buildings including a blacksmith shop, bakery, Well's Fargo stagecoach station, jail, and covered bridge.
Stagecoach station in the village
Next we headed back to Yosemite Valley, with a quick stop at Tunnel View to take some photos of El Capitan and Half Dome. We had reservations at the Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room for dinner, and we wanted time to change into our more formal attire (dress code required for fancy dining!) and freshen up first. Unfortunately for us, the traffic was dead stopped for most of the trip. What should have taken us 20 minutes ended up taking an hour and a half! We changed in the car, and even then were late for our reservations.
View of El Capitan (left) and Half Dome (center) from Tunnel View
Up at Tunnel View
Photo doesn't do it justice...the waterfall looked RAINBOW!!
The Ahwahnee Hotel itself is gorgeous and very upscale. The dining room is very much like a Native American version of Harry Potter, and the food matched the setting. We started with brussels sprouts made with bacon, and then I had a French onion soup while Todd had coconut and lobster bisque. For entrees, I had prime rib and Todd had lamb. It was positively amazing food, and we were so stuffed we couldn't even find room for dessert...so naturally we ordered the Ahwahnee chocolate truffles to go!
Enjoying some wine with dinner
Love the chandeliers in this room!
Our bellies full, we took a stroll down a path through a meadow that was lined with privately owned cabins. The sun was just beginning to set, and the top of Half Dome was glowing golden. A nice lady was sitting out on her front lawn as we passed and came up and offered to take our photo since the scene was so perfect and we "looked so great." But as the sun goes down, the bugs come out, so after observing a family of deer cruising through the meadow, we headed back to start the long drive back to Coulterville.
The second day we headed out even earlier to the park to try and beat some of the traffic. We found a great parking spot at the Curry Recreation Center, which is where we needed to go to rent a raft. Rafting down the Merced River was the greatest highlight of our trip. The 3 mile trip is pretty calm, with a few spots with mini "rapids," but is easy to navigate for even inexperienced rafters like myself.
Beautiful view from the raft.
Our new favorite phrase: "I wish we were rafting right now!"
You can stop at any of the sand bars or beaches for a picnic or a rest, and you can get fantastic views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and other great sites from the comfort of your raft. Plus there were tons of fish, birds, and baby ducklings to keep us entertained. I could have stayed out there all day!
After our rafting adventure, we decided to take advantage of the extremely efficient free shuttle service the park offers and head to the Ahwahnee for lunch. We ate at the bar this time, and had tasty blended drinks and delicious sandwiches, followed by pie that I had been craving the night before but couldn't fit in my full belly!
Once we were much too full (yet again), we jumped back on the shuttle and checked out the Visitor Center. This was also definitely worth the stop. They have fantastic exhibits on the history of the park, plus a great little museum with local Native artifacts, the Ansel Adams gallery, and a Native American village you can walk through. The art historian in me gives a nod of appreciation to these exhibits.
Posing with John Muir
After our cultural enrichment, we headed out for the hike to Lower Yosemite Falls. Again, it was insanely crowded. One thing I loved about the park is that there are kind of no rules...they let anyone really go anywhere, which I think is great as long as people are respectful of where they are. This is also annoying when trying to take photos because you can't get any good ones without dozens of people in them. At the waterfalls, people would climb up the rocks to get as close as possible, way beyond the designated viewing point. And it's totally fine with the rangers. This is great if you are feeling adventurous, but obnoxious if you are playing photographer.
Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls
Trying to get some decent photos
Climbing around in some rock crevices
Our next excursion was to drive out to Glacier Point to get some sunset photos. We picked up some sandwiches and kettle chips from the Village Store, and got an early start out to Glacier Point so we would have plenty of time. Good thing we planned ahead because we had the joy of sitting through a 90+ minute delay! Because parking at Glacier Point was full, they closed the road and detoured everyone into the Badger Pass parking lot (obviously closed for summer) and had a very strict system of waiting to let people up to Glacier Point until others had left. Once it was finally our turn to go, we raced the clock to try and make it in time for sunset, getting stuck behind literally the SLOWEST driver on the planet. In his defense, these are the most narrow and twisty roads we had seen, but we were on a time crunch! He had a line of 10 or 15 cars crawling behind him, unable to pass. I don't know if I've ever seen so many people experiencing shared road rage like this before.
We made it to the top just as the sun was setting, so we were able to get in some breathtaking photos. You could see all of the Valley below, including a little tiny Ahwahnee Hotel, and where our car was parked by the green rafts. The views of Half Dome, the Sierra Nevadas, and the waterfalls from up there can't even be described. As it grew dark and the stars popped out, you could see the lights dotting the sides of the cliffs where rock climbers and hikers were camping, and even a couple dots of light right on top of Half Dome! We stargazed under a moonless sky, using a cell phone app to identify different planets and constellations, and even got to wish on a shooting star.
Half Dome and the Sierra Nevadas
View from Glacier Point
Yosemite Valley, as seen from Glacier Point
Awww, look at the little tiny Ahwahnee!
The drive back to Coulterville that night was the worst kind of chore. We rolled in after midnight, exhausted and sore, our successful trip complete. The next morning, we slept in late and headed home before noon to beat the weekend traffic returning home. I think I never want ride in a car again.
My final thoughts on a fantastic trip/recommendations for future excursions:
- Stay inside the park! Everything is so spread out inside Yosemite as it is, you will do tons of driving no matter what, so keep it to a minimum by staying at one of the hotels in the Valley.
- Try and do main attractions like waterfall hikes as early in the morning as possible to avoid the crowds.
- Use the free shuttle service because parking totally sucks.
- Bug spray!!
- Absolutely everyone ever should raft down the Merced River. It is so peaceful and gorgeous, and is the ultimate Yosemite experience.
- Bring snacks because food is expensive and the wait to eat is long.
- Just because an attraction is popular doesn't mean it's the best. My favorite things were the ones with the smallest crowds.
- I didn't realize how many international tourists come to Yosemite. It makes sense, but it still surprised me. If I was an international tourist visiting California, I would think more along the lines of visiting LA, San Francisco, ocean beaches, etc.
- Use the lack of cell phone service to really live in the moment and connect with nature.
Hopefully coming up soon: Yosemite in winter! :-)