YOSEMITE VALLEY — November is a magical month in Yosemite Valley.
The wall-to-wall people are gone. There are no traffic jams and half hour delays. And — thanks to October rains — the Merced River is flowing more like mid-August than it is in the waning days of autumn.
I avoid Yosemite Valley like the plague in the spring and summer except as a starting point to hike out of the granite carved valley. My preference is the high country with its relative absence of people and what are more breath taking views both literally and figuratively.
But when Mother Nature is in wind down mode Yosmeite Valley is truly a pleasant place. Bright oranges and yellows of deciduous trees and shrubs provide a stark contrast to the green as well as the granite walls towering above.
Most trails leading up toward the rim are at least still partially open.
It’s tempting if you’re an elevation gain junkie like me to look upward, but why bother. This is one of the quietest months in Yosemite Valley so why waste it?
The daily highs are about five degrees cooler than in the Northern San Joaquin Valley making a casual stroll or short hike pleasant. The overnight lows are typically 10 degrees cooler making it sweater or hoodie weather in the waning hours of the afternoon.
While any place in the valley that you can make your way toward the Merced River is rewarding, there are two hikes that I cherish doing between the end of October and mid-December given snow in the valley at 3,966 feet doesn’t typically start hitting hard until the calendar nears January.
This is also a great time for drives into the high country and either short hikes from the road or — if you are more into that — aggressive day hikes to and from popular destinations that you can squeeze in if you start at the crack of dawn although pockets of snow will be an issue the higher you go.
As of Friday, Tioga Road (Highway 120 to Tioga Pass) and Glacier Point Road were open. They are subject to closure in snow. And once the snow really comes down, both close until spring. Keep in mind overnight parking has been prohibited on both roads — including all parking areas accessed from either road — since Oct. 15. That’s because overnight backpacking is discouraged this time of year due to changing weather conditions and a pullback of park staffing for the approach of winter.
Even so a drive to Glacier Point or to Tioga Pass is worth it due to the scenery. Plus once you reach Tioga Pass, there are a series of small lakes adjacent to Highway 120 that are extremely close to the road and are a joy this time of year with the sparse crowds. It is just under 3 hours to Tioga Pass from Manteca with fairly light traffic.
There are two hikes I prefer to do this time of year in Yosemite Valley.
MIRROR LAKE HIKE: The first is to Mirror Lake. You can walk to the trailhead from the Curry Village (or whatever they are calling it these days due to the naming rights lawsuit) parking lot or take the shuttle bus to stop 17.
From the bus stop it is 2 miles to the lake and back with an elevation gain of just 100 feet. You can extend your hike to 5 miles and loop around the lake.
While the spring and summer typically sees Mirror Lake with more water the October rains helped this year as did some snow higher up. Still, you will see why it is called Mirror Lake for obvious reasons. Even during heavier seasons for visitors Mirror Lake oozes tranquility. They are also the added bonus of looking up the base of Half Dome. You get to see Tenaya Canyon (a spot I have grown to love hiking up the strenuous Snow Creek Trail to North Dome), Tenaya Creek, Mt Watkins, and Washington Column among other scenic highlights.
The bottom line is the hike is relaxing and you don’t have to break a sweat to do it.
YOSEMITE VALLEY LOOP HIKE: If you want more of a hike, try the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail. It is 11.5 miles for the full loop taking most between five and seven hours along mostly level terrain with just a few hilly sections. The half loop is 7.2 miles.
The best place to start is the Lower Yosemite Fall shuttle stop 6. You can start anywhere but the reason I pick here is two-fold. The sun seems to hit things just right this time of year as you start heading west. Also if afterwards you want to grab a snack, browse the Yosemite book store or dine at a restaurant you can do so without moving your car.
From the shuttle stop head west along the bicycle path until you see the signs for the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail.
You will soon find out why the loop trail is a treat. Given it stays most of the time from roads, it offers the most solitude in the valley between high points such as below El Capitan and near Brideveil Fall and includes meadows and talus slopes at the base of granite cliffs.
The trail has sections that are dirt, rocks, old pavement and sand. It isn’t the best marked in places which is why the Park Service advises you bring a map or gran a simple day hiking brochure from the visitor center.
Those doing the half loop will cut across the Merced River at El Capitan and then head east along the southern edge of the valley back to Yosemite Village.
The entrance fee to Yosemite is $30 per vehicle for seven days. It does drop down to $25 for January, February and March when crowds are even smaller due to the winter.
One of the perks of being in the 209 is the ability to visit a world-class gem like Yosemite National Park within about a two hour drive that changes its appeal with each season.