My family and I took a wonderful summer vacation to Northern California in early August. Below is the itinerary and some highlights but it was broken up in three main areas: San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, and Lake Tahoe.
It was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it for families. I've been to San Francisco many times, so the real highlights were Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. But it was the kids first time to San Francisco, so they got a real good introduction. Yosemite really stood out for its stunning beauty. I'm happy to share the itinerary, more details, and/or answer questions any time if you're thinking of taking a similar trip.
Northern California from WaterTurtle Media on Vimeo.
Links to Pictorial Parts 1, 2, & 3 (you can click on any picture and scroll through for large images but you'll miss the captions if you do that):
Part 1 - Yosemite National Park
Part 2 - Lake Tahoe
Part 3 - San Francisco
- Early flight to San Francisco
- Rented bikes and rode from the Wharf area to the Golden Gate Bridge. Original plan was to ride all the way across to Sausalito then catch a ferry back to the San Francisco Wharf, but it was very windy and cold on the bay so we turned back when we got halfway across the bridge.
- Walked around the Wharf area (stayed in hotel there for one night) and took the kids to see the sea lions at Pier 39.
- Walked to dinner in North Beach (Little Italy). A lot of walking and biking in one afternoon/evening. Franchinos - great restaurant!
- Got up early and drove to Yosemite National Park
- Checked into Half Dome Village (in Yosemite Valley, and formerly called Curry Village). Large canvas tents with beds and wooden floors that has one light, but no outlets. Ours had 3 twins and 1 double bed....perfect for the 5 of us. Shared showers and bathrooms campground style.
- Started at Happy Isles trailhead in the Valley, and hiked the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls and top of Nevada Falls, and back down the John Muir Trail, then back to Half Dome Village (~8 miles).
- Drove to Glacier Point (unbelievable views), and started our hike there. Saw two different bears very close to Glacier Point. Hiked up to Sentinel Dome for the 360 degree views, then on to The Fissures and Taft Point, then back to Glacier Point (~8 miles).
- Stopped at the world famous Tunnel View overlook lot for the views.
- Stopped and parked alongside the Merced River in front of El Capitan and went for a swim.
- Needed an active rest day from all the hiking, so we rented bikes and had a casual ride around the Valley floor on the bike paths. Had lunch at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Then we rented rafts for an afternoon lazy float down the Merced River (3 miles).
- Checked out of Half Dome Village, and drove ~1hr to Tuolumne Meadows (which is on the way out towards Lake Tahoe anyway, Yosemite is a very large national park). Stopped there and hiked to Cathedral Lakes (~7 miles).
- Arrived in Lake Tahoe, stayed in a VRBO rental house in Kings Beach, CA.
- The family split up for the morning - I went mountain biking the Tahoe Rim & Flume Trails. Rented my bike at Flume Trails Bike Shop, took their shuttle up to Tahoe Meadows, and rode ~25 miles on both trails all the way back to the bike shop. Kris and the kids went to Squaw Valley while I was riding.
- Afternoon swim at Sand Harbor State Park.
- Didn't have a real plan except to drive around Lake Tahoe and do some exploring. Emerald Bay in South Lake Tahoe was very nice but we didn't stop there. Decided to go do another local hike - Horsetail Falls at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead (located on Hwy 50 south of South Lake Tahoe, hike was ~3 miles). Great swimming hole along the hike and another very large and beautiful waterfall.
- Had intended to go stand up paddling but it was windy, so we went for afternoon swim in Lake Tahoe between Sand Harbor and Hidden Beach. Found a nice spot blocked from the wind.
- Original plan was to go to Big Sur but there was a large wildfire in the area so we went with Plan B to explore Marin County north of San Francisco.
- Got up early and drove to San Francisco/Marin County. Went straight to Muir Woods National Monument but it was very crowded so we drove along Highway 1 near Muir Beach, and to Stinson Beach, then to Bolinas. Walked around the quaint little hippy surf town of Bolinas and its beach, then had late lunch there.
- Drove to the Golden Gate Bridge overlook.
- Dinner in Sausalito
- got up early and went to Muir Woods National Monument to beat the crowds.
- drove into San Francisco, rode the cable cars, lunch at Ghirardelli Square, walked around Chinatown.
- Turned in rental car and stayed in hotel close to the San Francisco airport, flew out very early the following morning (Day 10) back to NC.
Monday, August 15, 2016
I normally would not have traveled to Yosemite National Park the first week of August, as that is probably the most crowded time to go. But that was literally the only time all five of our family could travel together all summer. Yosemite Valley was quite crowded as expected but it wasn't too bad. Once you got going on a trail, the crowds lessened considerably. Except for Vernal and Nevada Falls which still had a lot of water, the waterfalls were just a trickle this time of year. The best time to go see the waterfalls is in the spring as the snow melt really gets going.
We drove to Yosemite National Park from San Francisco early the morning after flying in and immediately checked into Half Dome Village (formerly called Curry Village due to a recent and controversial change in contractor services). I reserved our tent over six months in advance. I got some good advice from a couple of friends about what hikes to take and this guide here also really helped. There is a ton of great info out there about Yosemite hiking. I did a lot of research and planning to prepare for these hikes.
After we checked in, we went for a late afternoon hike. We took the Valley shuttle one stop over to the Happy Isles Trailhead and took the Mist Trail up to Vernal Falls, and onwards to the top of Nevada Falls (at which point the crowds really thinned out), then back down the John Muir Trail to the Valley, and back to Half Dome Village. This was approx 8 miles roundtrip.
The trail to the top of Vernal Falls
The staircase to the top of Nevada Falls
We saw a rattlesnake thanks to some other hikers who pointed him out to us. He was right next to the trail - check out that rattle.
Top of Nevada Falls
That is the back view of Half Dome (top left), Liberty Cap in the middle, Nevada Falls to the right - this is the view from the John Muir Trail.
The next day we drove 1 hr up to Glacier Point. Tip - in summer, go early so you can get a parking space. From there, we hiked up the Pohono Trail up to Sentinel Dome for the 360 degree views, then on to The Fissures and Taft Point, then back to Glacier Point. This was approx 8 miles roundtrip.
We saw two different bears very close to Glacier Point. This was the second one we saw (a young brown haired black bear). He was up the hill from us as we were hiking. Right after I took this pic, he found a bees nest in the ground and started digging into it. Those bees let him have it and he took off down the hill trying to shake off the bees. He crossed the trail in front of us, leaving a big trail of dust behind. We had to wait a little while to let the bees settle down before continuing on the hike.
That is the world famous El Capitan wall to the right
For perspective, Kris is at the upper right of this fissure - check out how big that crack is.
Taft Point - the Valley floor below and El Cap to the right. Yes, that is someone standing at that ledge.
This makes it look like the kids are looking at a big painting. These pictures don't do this place justice.
Half Dome and Yosemite Valley
You can see Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls to the right
My best Ansel Adams impression
Tunnel View - you can barely make out Bridal Veil Falls to the right. Its apparently a real gusher in the spring. El Capitan is on the left, and that is Half Dome in the very back in the distance.
El Capitan from the Valley floor
a post hike swim in the Merced River in front of El Cap
The next day, we rested (and called it an active rest day) by renting bikes for a casual ride on the nice bike path around the valley floor. We stopped at several spots and did some exploring.
The historic Ahwahnee Hotel (now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel)
Yes, that is a deer in front of the kids on the hotel grounds. He clearly wasn't afraid of people.
The Ahwahnee Hotel interior
The dining room - we had a nice lunch here
Yosemite Falls, just a trickle in late summer, normally a big snow melt gusher in the spring
We rented rafts that afternoon for a fun lazy float down the Merced River
These are the tents at Half Dome Village. Very basic - wooden floors, one light, no outlets, and each tent had its own safe, some shelving, and a bear box (where you store food and anything with a scent). They have a strict policy around this. Our tent had 3 twin beds and one double bed. It was fun for three nights, but we were ready for bigger digs after that.
Our last day in Yosemite, we left the Valley crowds behind and drove 1 hr to Tuolumne Meadows (on the way out to Lake Tahoe), another beautiful area of Yosemite. It was less crowded here. We stopped and hiked the John Muir Trail to Cathedral Lakes. Approx 7 miles roundtrip.
Lower Cathedral Lake