Before the winter weather would leave us housebound for three months here in the Midwest, my family and I decided to take one last trip out west, to visit Yosemite National Park, right before Thanksgiving. We were in northern California to visit family and wanted to take the short trip to the Sierras to see one of our favorite National Parks. It was the first time any of us had ever visited Yosemite in the off season. It was so different in fact, that I wanted to share my photos as well as my overall impression of Yosemite in autumn.
Each season in the National Parks has a special magnificence. Autumn adds its own particular element to Yosemite. Since it was late November, most of the color change in the leaves had already occurred. There was very little of the mesmerizing golds, bright orange, and crimson colors that many associate with fall. Instead, what we saw in Yosemite Valley was a mixture of brown and green foliage, contrasted with the grey granite stone. Small glimpses of brighter colors popped up from time to time in certain areas of the Valley.
Sure, there were some bare trees among the evergreens, but not as many as we see here in the Midwest. Many of the deciduous trees of the Valley are oak trees (like California black oaks) that keep their leaves until spring, leaving a tan-colored leafed tree throughout the winter. These are marcescent trees, and the withered leaves linger until the spring when new leaves emerge and the old ones finally drop.
Being that we visited in late November, the stark contrast to a summer visit was extremely apparent. Sure, there were plenty of cars and people in the Valley, but nothing like the overcrowded summer months. Campsites are quiet since most people opt for warmer lodging, hiking paths are mostly to yourself, and the vast silence you can find not far off the trails is stunning.
When you’re in Yosemite in autumn, there will be many times that you’ll be the only person on a trail. During our visit, we realized our voices were carrying with the absence of so much sound. We could hear the birds and the wind’s rustle of the leaves. We even came across a male mule deer only a few feet from us. He completely ignored us and crossed the path we were on, and ventured back into the foliage.
Of course, the lodges and buildings of Yosemite during this time of year have their own special ambiance. When you spend the day in the crisp, chilly fall air, the coziness of the lodges is heartwarming. The fireplaces are lit, holiday decorations abound, and hot drinks are a prized possession. The Ahwahnee is especially beautiful this time of year.
The small bar and restaurant near the Ahwahnee’s entrance was filled with people trying to get hot drinks and alcohol. People gathered around the fireplace in the Great Lounge of the historic hotel. Cozy nooks and comfortable seating areas were filled with tourists soaking in the comfort of the Ahwahnee.
The soft ambient lighting and the quiet hush of conversation filled the air. A pianist sat at the baby grand piano, delighting the guests and visitors at the Ahwahnee.
Probably the biggest downside of visiting Yosemite in autumn is the lack of water. The waterfalls, lakes, and rivers are fed by the Sierra snow melt and usually by late summer, the park dries up. Driving into the park, the Merced River was bone dry. Bridalveil Fall was the only waterfall with any water that we saw during our stay, and it wasn’t much. Yosemite Falls was dry and there was no water in the pool at the bottom of the falls.
My family and I headed up to Mirror Lake, at the base of Half Dome. The lake was completely dry, which surprised us. According to the NPS Yosemite website, Mirror Lake is fullest in the spring and early summer due to snowmelt, and is often dry by late summer. Mirror Lake is often called Mirror Meadow in the late summer because of the dry lake bed and the new growth of grasses and small plants in the sandy lake bottom.
The lack of water may be a downside of visiting in the fall, but I didn’t mind it. I have visited Yosemite before when the waterfalls were rushing, the lakes were full, and the Merced River flooded. I enjoyed the seasonal change.
Yosemite in autumn can have very cold days and nights. It doesn’t warm up until the sun can get high enough to heat the Valley. There was no snow present in the Valley or on the higher peaks. However, we encountered beautiful, frosty mornings upon arriving in the park.
Keep in mind the days are shorter in Yosemite in autumn! (It’s easy to forget when you’re constantly amazed at your surroundings!) Don’t stay out too long without headlamps. Fortunately, we still had power to our cell phones and used the flashlights. We were surprised at how quickly the sun set behind the giant granite rock in the Valley. And when the Valley gets dark, it’s very dark!
When you visit anywhere during the off-season, expect fewer amenities. In Yosemite, there are fewer shuttle buses available, shorter store and restaurant hours, smaller staff, and less amenities in general. Just something to keep in mind if you plan on visiting at this time of year.
Visiting Yosemite in autumn was truly a delight! I definitely would recommend visiting this time of year if you’re looking for a different Yosemite experience. I appreciated the smaller crowds, quieter paths, and seeing the park during a different season. However, if you’re headed here for the first time, I’d recommend a spring or summer visit so you can experience the full majesty of Yosemite, its falls, and the mighty Merced River. Whenever you visit, just be sure to plan for enough time. Yosemite is an amazing place and definitely a park worth visiting!
For more information on Yosemite, click here to read a previous post on the park.