Yosemite without the crowds

You’ve seen the postcards, admired your friends’ vacation photos. Ever wonder why everyone has pictures of the same places from the same angles? The showy celebrity of the US national park system, Yosemite hosts millions of visitors each year, and most flock with camera in hand like paparazzi to the same knockout - though elbow-to-elbow - attractions. If you’re looking for a more secluded outdoor experience, take note of these Yosemite destinations where you won’t be blinded by flashbulbs, jockeying for a clear view or standing in someone else’s camera frame.

View of Upper Yosemite Fall and the Yosemite Valley. Image by Ray Bouknight / C BY 2.0 View of Upper Yosemite Fall and the Yosemite Valley. Image by Ray Bouknight / CC BY 2.0

Granite domes

After years of dicey human traffic jams backing up on the anxiety-inducing Half Dome cables, the park now requires advance permits for this iconic yet grueling 17-mile hike. But other panoramic granite domes await freewheeling walk-ups. Folks with commensurate stamina can summit neighboring Clouds Rest, which hovers above Half Dome and hosts a fraction of its humanity. From Yosemite Valley, take the Tuolumne Meadows hikers’ bus to high elevation Tioga Road and trek one-way from Tenaya Lake, walking the same distance but sparing yourself a few thousand feet of sweaty ascent from the Valley. Or for a more modest commitment, survey the park’s superstar pinnacles and frothy waterfalls from the polished knob of Sentinel Dome, an easy walk from Glacier Point Road.

Colossal trees

For a stroll through towering ancient trees, the less-visited giant sequoia stand of Tuolumne Grove is a tranquil counterpoint to the impressive though crowded Mariposa Grove. Located in the Crane Flat area, it’s a short downhill to explore two dozen mammoth-trunked wonders that rocket to the sky. Saunter through the walk-through stump of Tunnel Tree, a 30ft diameter specimen that had already died before a passageway was carved out for cars in 1878. Kids can frolic in the hollow belly of a fallen giant and examine its intricate and now-exposed root system.

Tunnel tree in Tuolumne Grove. Image by Ronnie Macdonald / CC BY 2.0 Tunnel tree in Tuolumne Grove. Image by Ronnie Macdonald / CC BY 2.0

Gushing waterfalls

Springtime’s snowmelt brings on Yosemite’s epic waterfall season, when the Valley’s packed rim to rim with appreciative spectators. In out-of-the-way Hetch Hetchy, near the western Big Oak Flat entrance, ramble 2.5 miles along the edge of the scenic reservoir to the powerhouse whitewater cascade of Wapama Falls. Two footbridges traverse the pummeling spray, and hikers can cool off with views of the submerged valley - the controversial source of San Francisco’s water - framed by the granite landmarks of Kolana Rock and Hetch Hetchy Dome. Just don’t cross when the water’s raging high and risk getting swept away. Between there and the trailhead, gaze up at the seasonal ribbon of graceful Tueeulala Falls.

Classic lodging

When it to comes to historic luxury, the combination of soaring ceilings, cavernous stone fireplaces and ponderous wooden beams of the 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel have no rival. But shouldn’t the definitive Yosemite overnight be outdoors amidst the sounds of grazing deer and birds greeting daybreak? At Yosemite’s five hike-in High Sierra Camps (established between 1916 and 1961), backpacking becomes downright lavish. Guests arrive to tent cabins with real beds, prepared family-style meals, and the opportunity to slough off trail dust under a hot shower. There’s a price tag for this indulgence (and a lottery for the limited number of accommodations), but it’s pocket change compared to a night at the Ahwahnee.

Lake May seen from the Mt Hoffman Trail. Image by au_ears / CC BY-SA 2.0 Lake May seen from the Mt Hoffman Trail. Image by au_ears / CC BY-SA 2.0

Evocative lakes

In spring or early summer, the masses troop out to Mirror Lake to photograph its picturesque reflections of Mt Watkins and Half Dome. If you visit later in the season, the basin has dried up to a sandy meadow and you’ll be left wondering what all the fuss is about. Off  Tioga Road, scores of sapphire lakes beckon eager lake-baggers throughout summer and fall. A wildflower meadow buffets Lukens Lake, a brief jaunt near White Wolf. A bit farther north, the shallow boulder-dotted basin of Harden Lake warms up enough to invite summertime splashing. And for the full-on alpine experience, the 2.5-mile round-trip to  dazzling May Lake, at the base of 10,850ft Mt Hoffmann, boasts far-reaching vistas including Cathedral Peak’s gothic spires and the unmistakable knob of Half Dome.

Originally published August 2012.