Yosemite National Park, which sits 170mi (274km) outside San Francisco, California, is a playground for naturalists. Read on to learn which hike to take, how to complete it and where to go for an end-of-trail treat.
There are more than 200 set trails in Yosemite National Park. But if you only do one in your life, make it the Half Dome. Rated one of the most dangerous climbs in America, the Half Dome hike is not for the faint of heart. However, the 10- to 14-hour journey can be conquered if you prepare well.
Before you set off, you’ll need to get a permit through an online lottery to summit the last stretch of the mountain. Peak season runs from mid-May to early June through to Columbus Day in October. Many choose to do a day trip while others prefer to spread the journey out across a few days to better take in the scenery and adjust to the 4,800ft (1,463m) elevation gain.
The distance covered depends on your starting point, spanning anywhere between 7mi and 23mi (11km and 37km). You’re bound to meet wildlife on the trails, which could include black bears. Safety and proper food storage practices – especially at night – are vital.
Day trips often begin in the early morning on the Mist Trail, known for having otherworldly waterfalls and raging rivers. If you’re backpacking, camp overnight in Glacier Point and wake to views of the statuesque mountain. From there, hike toward the base of Half Dome and stay the night in Little Yosemite Valley, swim in the river and rest before the big climb.
On the day of summit, reach the permit-only base known as Sub Dome. There, scale a granite staircase to the heavens. The greatest thrill, however, is the final 400ft (122m) vertical ascent to the top. The heart-pounding last stretch involves gripping two steel cables attached to the mountain. The climb tests the physical strength, mental prowess and boot tread of even the most seasoned hiker.
A few fatalities have occurred, but the National Park Service advises that with adequate water, food, footwear, patience, gloves and common sense, hikers can make it up and down safely. At the journey’s end, you’ll understand what the National Park Service means when it says Yosemite is “not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra.”
One way to finish a great hike is with a delicious bite. Find end-of-trail bliss at Happy Burger Diner, where aching muscles and raging appetites are soothed.
“All I can think about as I hike those last miles is banana milkshake, banana milkshake, banana milkshake. I start tasting it,” said Tom Hillman, 59, of Fresno County, who summited Half Dome for the 46th time in September 2015. “It’s the best reward after a long trek and the best way to refuel.”
The old-school diner is located outside the national park in Mariposa and is said to have “the largest menu in the Sierra.” Fans drool over hand-churned milkshakes, garlic fries and juicy burgers. The affordable menu also features a domestic and specialty beer and wine selection and gluten- and dairy-free alternatives to most dishes.
The stop is decked with retro albums for an authentic diner feel. The dress code is casual, and most patrons arrive just off the mountain or from a campsite.
“We have some regulars that will even drive all the way from San Jose just for our tuna melts,” said a Happy Burger Diner staff member.
Breakfast is served from 5.30am to 11.30am and lunch and dinner are served until 9pm. The venue offers free wifi and a computer, charging stations for dead cell phones, three TVs, a complimentary meeting room, a patio with games, a play area for kids, souvenirs, discounts for hikers over 55, and free morning coffee and tea for veterans and their spouses. Pets can roam in the outdoor doggy dining area. Tour buses and large groups are welcome, and the restaurant accepts all major credit cards. Call ahead if you wish to picnic.
Keen to visit Yosemite National Park without having to plan your own itinerary? You can explore the highlights, as well as several lesser-known spots, on Culture Trip’s specially curated seven-day Northern California tour.