Like many Australians, we didn’t really know where to start in planning our visit to Yosemite National Park. A lot of information we found online seemed to be more geared towards Americans, so here are some tips that I hope will help other international visitors make the most of their first visit to this gorgeous place.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Drive. Well, fly to the general vicinity, then drive. If you fly into San Francisco, it’ll be about a 4 hour drive, around 5 hours from Los Angeles, or 7 hours from Las Vegas.
HOW LONG DO I NEED?
It’ll really depend on how much you want to do – for a bit of a taste, 3 days is a good amount; if you want to do some camping and serious hiking, give yourself a solid week.
WHERE SHOULD I BASE MYSELF?
You’ll need to consider the time and money trade off when you decide where to stay. The closer you are to the park, the more accommodation tends to cost. But if you go with something cheaper, it may add on quite a bit of driving time to and from the park each day.
We stayed in the Yosemite Valley at the Yosemite Westgate Lodge – it took us around an hour to get to El Capitan, had a restaurant and laundry on site, and very big, comfortable rooms. If you’d like to camp within the park, head to the National Park Service website for more information.
CAN I PARK MY CAR IN THE PARK?
Absolutely – car parking areas are all well signed, and they have a free, eco-friendly shuttle buses to scoot you around between major sights. It’s best to check for road closures and snow chain requirements in winter online before setting off, too.
DO I HAVE TO PAY TO ENTER?
Yes – you can buy a seven day pass from USD $30.00 per car from the entrance gates situated on all the roads into the park. Basically, plug “Yosemite National Park” into your GPS and prepare to hand over $30 when you get close to the park.
WHAT FACILITIES ARE AVAILABLE?
If you head to he Visitor Center in the middle of the Yosemite Valley, you’ll find park staff to answer your questions, as well as a pretty impressive general store (souvenirs and food and groceries), bathrooms, a café, camping grounds and shuttle buses. When you’re out and about, taking your long drives through the park, you will be able to find toilets periodically, but fair warning: they’re drop toilets…
WHAT SHOULD I SEE IF I ONLY HAVE A FEW DAYS?
If you have limited time, I’d recommend the following…
Day 1: Drive to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and leave your car at one of the parking lots in the area. Between walking around and using the free shuttle, you’ll be able to see summits like the Half Dome, El Capitan, Eagle Peak and Sentinel Dome, walk along Tenaya Creek and the Merced River, maybe see some deer while you picnic at Mirror Lake, and check out the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center.
Day 2: Get into your car, stock up on snacks, and drive the Tioga Pass Road all the way up to Tuolumne Meadow and back. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes so you can hike around Olmsted Point, and pack a picnic lunch to eat on the shore of Tenaya Lake.
WHAT SHOULD I BRING?
• Sunscreen. Always. And actually use it!
• Sunglasses. When that sun hits white rock or reflects off the water, your eyes will thank you.
• Layers. Just because the day starts cold, doesn’t mean it won’t heat up. Light layers are your friends.
• Comfortable shoes you can walk all day on uneven terrain in.
• A backpack – you don’t need to be toting a handbag around here.
• A map. If you’re planning on hiking, you don’t want to rely on your phone – batteries die, signals are lost. If you intend on exploring, even a small map is a good idea.
• A water bottle and snacks. You can of course buy it all there, but it’s always much cheaper to BYO. Just remember to take all of your scraps with you, because bears.
Yeah, that’s a thing. All you really need to know is stick to the marked paths as much as possible, if there aren’t many other people around, make plenty of noise as you walk (they don’t like that), and when you’re done with your picnic, pick up any pieces of lettuce and ham that have dropped out of your sandwich, and dispose of all food waste in one of the many bear-proof bins you’ll find in the park.
How we ended up in the small town of Ketchikan, Alaska, literally 48 hours after the close of cruise ship season, is a story for another day. But being in such a small town at such a quiet time gave us the perfect opportunity to see it in peace and to meet quite a few locals on our way through. One of them recommended a visit to the Saxman Village, just out of the centre of town – we dutifully waited an hour for the one bus servicing Ketchikan and hitched a ride out to Saxman.
In tourist season, there are shuttles that head out there, and day tours – on arrival, you pay your entry fee, can follow someone around who can tell you about everything you’re seeing, and even get to watch some totem pole carving in action. We had missed tourist season, so we were on our own. The bus driver was kind enough to tell us when to get off and direct us to the correct street – luckily, because if not for her directions, there wasn’t much else to point us the right way. We walked up a pretty quiet and residential looking street, and found the totem poles guiding the way.
Without the option of a tour guide, we were glad to find a plaque outlining the background of Saxman:
Tlingit Indian Village, established 1894, is named for school teacher Samuel Saxman, one of three men lost Dec of 1886 while scouting for a new location for people of Tongass and Cape Fox Villages. Totems here, comprising world’s largest collection, including poles moved from Pennock, Tongass, and Village Islands, and from Old Cap Fox Village at Kirk Point. Many are poles restored under federal works project directed by the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 1939.
Husband and I both had an interest in the Native American totem poles before the visit; he adores the art work, and I love the stories and myths that go with them (I’d highly recommend Tlingit Myths and Texts, Recorded by John R. Swanton for a solid collection of these stories), so we were really stoked to be able to see them in person, and all alone. The colours are simple, just red, white, black and teal, but that’s all they need. And the reasons for carving the totems are as varied as recording a momentous event to shaming someone who had committed a crime. But they were all incredibly detailed and beautiful.
The clan house, the centre of the village, was magnificent. The façade is decorated with a tri-coloured beaver, the clan’s crest. Traditionally, the clan houses housed several families from that clan, and also doubled as a clan function centre, and in tourist season, it is opened to the public. We just got to enjoy it from the outside, which was pretty magnificent, anyway.
After spending a bit of time walking around and staring up at the enormous totem poles, it looked like it was about to start raining again. We made our way back to the bus stop and hoped it wouldn’t be another hour wait – as luck would have it, the bus saw us coming and waited for us so we’d have a ride back to town.
Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us not from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about Mardi Gras. Before our last trip to New Orleans I’d read a few books about it and seen some documentaries, but there was still a lot I didn’t understand. So we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…
WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.
GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…
– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.
– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.
– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.
AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!
OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.
Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.
The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.
It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…
Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…
For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…
– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.
– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.
– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.
– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.
Yosemite is a beautiful park, and the big drawcard sights are every bit as impressive as you think they’ll be. The Half Dome and El Capitan are imposingly gorgeous, and the little museum and cemetery are well worth the look, too, and I’ll certainly get to those.
But everyone goes to the Yosemite Valley to see those, so after a day there, we thought we’d take the path less travelled and drive the Tioga Pass Road and see what the other side of the park had to offer.
With a bit of help from my beloved Sygic Travel app, I plotted a path from our accommodation at the Yosemite Westgate Lodge to the Tuolumne Meadows, and saved the spots we liked as we went… here’s the map we ended up with (not quite to scale, but the approximate distances between each stop are marked in there!):
It’s a delightful drive, and so easy to do by yourself. We did this drive, with all our stops, in about 5 hours – if you’re a hiker, though, you might want to leave more time.
Stop 1: Buy your pass
This was the entrance closest to our accommodation, so if you’re planning to stay in the same spot, just roll on up, pay your USD$30 for a week’s visit, take your pass, and roll on through! Keep your receipt, because you’ll need to show it again on your way out.
Stop 2: The sheer rocks
This really took us by surprise; we pulled over so I could take a photo, and ended up scrambling up the rocks a way, just because we could. Fantastic view, several squirrels, and just fun to be crawling around out there! Be careful pulling over because as there isn’t a carpark, just a little space on the side of the road.
Stop 3: The little lake
I don’t know what it’s called, but this little lake just comes out of nowhere, and there was no one else around so we had it all to ourselves. There’s a little inlet to pull your car in, then take the faint path leading down to the water.
Stop 4: Olmsted Point
Holy wow this place was incredible! Plenty of space to park your car, and a few trails if you want to hike. Take the path marked about 300m to the viewpoint, and find yourself basically at the top of the world, surrounded by granite and pines.
Stop 5: Tenaya Lake
This place is perfection.. the water is so clear you can see straight to the bottom, and the rocks are high and flat enough to picnic on, which we did. There were a few cars about, but still few enough that we could pick a spot on the water to relax on our own.
Stop 6: Tuolumne Meadow
This was the highest point of our day trip, at an elevation of just over 8500 feet. A big, flat, wide open meadow, with the river running through it. Again, lots of parking available, but such a big area that we didn’t see anyone else around until we were walking back to the car.