Family Road Trip: Yosemite National Park and Highway 1

This is part 2 of my two week, no RV, family road trip, travelogue. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you’ll want to do that first!

May 28, Monday

The drive from Merced, CA to Yosemite National Park on 140 is a bit long, but the scenery is nice. Being Memorial Day, the park is rather busy and we end up using the same strategy we did yesterday at Sequoia NP of hunting down a spot to park our rental SUV near a bus stop and then riding the bus to get to other areas.

Yosemite is pretty big and varied, but the most popular part of the park is Yosemite Valley. Most of the pictures you see of the park are from this valley, it’s very dramatic with lush greenery and clear flowing rivers sandwiched between very tall and steep rocky walls.

And in my opinion the best time to come visit Yosemite is early in the season like this, when the snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada feeds numerous waterfalls that cascade down into the valley. The most well known of these is Yosemite Falls, which has an upper and lower falls. The upper falls can be seen from the road through the valley:

And a short hike from one of the bus stops allows an up-close look at the lower falls. This is my second time visiting Yosemite, the first was October of 2014 when I was traveling with Julie and we camped with the Casita high up in the mountains. That trip was also fun, but Yosemite Falls was completely dried up then. Today it’s flowing strong, and I get sprayed with mist when capturing this photo:

Another memorable stop along the bus route in the valley is El Capitan, an immense rock face that is very popular among serious rock climbers. Today there are two park service volunteers with strong telescopes set up near El Capitan, pointing out climbers currently attempting to summit it. It takes 3-5 days, yes DAYS, for people to make it to the top, and is an impressive achievement.

My mom has her binoculars with her, and besides the two groups the park service people have pointed out, she finds three other groups of tiny colorful specs on the side of the mountain. I can’t even imagine trying to sleep strapped to the side of a mountain in a little cot, and what do you do if it starts to storm? It is dangerous to attempt and people get injured and die every year. I can see why people have to pay and enter a lottery for a permit to climb El Capitan, that probably weeds out most of the amateurs that would hurt themselves.

Half Dome is another famous rock formation in Yosemite, and it boasts a “day hiking trail” that goes up to the top. I say day hiking trail in quotations because it’s 14-16 miles roundtrip with 4,800 feet of elevation gain, the last 400 feet along two steel cables that require you to pull yourself up with your arms as much as push yourself up with your legs. It’s like a more strenuous version of the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion National Park. And yes, it’s on my list. But not today!

Yosemite Valley also has a visitor center which is worth checking out, a little historical museum which sadly wasn’t open when we were there, several picnic areas and trailheads (I’m not doing much for hiking this trip because my parents aren’t as physically capable and we’re focusing on things we can all do together), and two different villages (Yosemite Village and Half Dome Village) that have visitor services like food, gifts, and lodging.

The historical museum

Yosemite Valley is a neat place and I’m glad we went and saw it, but it’s a bit too busy and commercial for my tastes. I prefer the more remote areas of Yosemite, which is tomorrow’s adventure!

May 29

Tioga Road (120), runs through the mountains end to end, bypassing Yosemite Valley and taking a more northerly route through the park up and over the mighty Sierra range down to Lee Vining and Mono Lake in the east. It’s where I camped in the park in 2014, and where I had my memorable snowy hike around Saddlebag Lake in 2016 that was immediately followed by a wildfire.

According to Google Maps, Tioga Road is still closed for the season. For people like me who grew up far, far away from mountains, it can be hard to imagine that a road might be closed due to snow in late May. But at these kind of elevations, snow accumulates heavily in the winter, and then it takes a long time in the spring and summer for warmer weather to move in and melt it all.

When my family pulls up to the entrance station into Yosemite today I ask about the state of Tioga Road knowing sometimes GPS apps get it wrong, and learn that it is, in fact, open. Yay!

There’s no bus route for Tioga Road, you drive it in your own vehicle and as I alluded to above, you can take an RV on it as it has multiple campgrounds along it – the more westerly ones open to all RV sizes (some with full hookups) and the primitive ones at higher altitude further east being for smaller rigs. Note that if you take an RV along the entirety of Tioga Road, the east side coming out of the mountains into Lee Vining has a section of 8% grade for six miles that runs along a steep drop off. I’d call it the second scariest mountain road section I’ve ever towed on, after 190 on the western side of Death Valley.

But it’s not nearly as scary with just a regular vehicle, and we don’t go that far today anyway. We see Half Dome from the other side where it looks significantly different from yesterday’s viewing:

And visit perhaps my favorite sub-alpine lake, Lake Tenaya, where we stop for a picnic lunch. This is my third time walking the shore of this lake (I even went swimming in it in 2016), and this time is no less impressive. The strong breeze today means we need to take care not to have our plates and food blow away, but the sun breaking through the clouds is warm and the jays make me laugh with their food-begging antics.

May 31

Yesterday was a travel day, we left our hotel in Merced early to scoot across the central valley over towards the coast. This morning I wake up in Watsonville, CA, and we travel up Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) into San Francisco.

Traffic in San Francisco isn’t horrible all things considered, and because we’re going south to north, we don’t have to pay a toll crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. On the other side, we stop at the H Dana Bower Rest Area where I snap this photo.

Why is it called Golden Gate Bridge when it’s red?

Highway 1 is just, cool. There are frequent amazing views of the coast, which in general is much rockier and steeper with a very different flavor for the east coast.

In many places along its length it’s very twisty with a low speed limit and without many pullouts, which doesn’t make it a great road to take an RV on. In fact in sections there are 35 feet length vehicle limits. Camping is also very expensive along the coast with few if any legit, free boondocking options. There are a couple spots that people sneak under the radar, but it’s not something you could do for a long stay. For these reasons, I’ve only taken my Casita along two short, little stretches of Highway 1 and I had no desire to do the whole thing with Cas, but hearing the itinerary my parents planned out for this trip and learning we’d be traveling along Highway 1 for a good stretch made me happy.

We stop for the night at a hotel in the small town of Fort Bragg, right on the coast. And yes our room does have an ocean view, if you stand in the perfect spot at the window and squint your eyes a little, hah.

Up next: Redwood National Park and Crater Lake!

* * *

Also up today is the video travelogue for Grand Canyon, Keyesville, and Yosemite. Yes, the YouTube channel is finally caught up with the blog!

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At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.


  1. Ken Canada on July 12, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    In your travels do you pan for gold using a gold pan?
    You never know…..RICH?

  2. Elisa on June 18, 2018 at 11:50 am

    Exquisite photography! Looks like its been a fantastic trip!

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:13 pm

      It sure was Elisa! Thanks.

  3. Frank/Diana on June 16, 2018 at 8:13 pm

    Very nice description of Yosemite. We live 15 miles from the parks South entrance, YOU NAILED IT.

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:13 pm

      What a beautiful place to live! Thanks Frank and Diana.

  4. Deborah Knight on June 16, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    One of these days our paths will cross. We camped at Isabela Lake, spent a week in King Canyon National Forest, visiting both Sequoia and Cedar Grove (so pretty). Monday we meet part of our family in San Francisco and take them to Yosemite.

    Actually, if you stay ahead of us, we’ll know where to go and what to see. Thanks for the great posts.

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:12 pm

      You’re quite welcome Deborah. I didn’t start writing these travelogues until I got back from the trip so in real time I’m already done with the road trip and back in the Casita, but I’m glad you’re finding them helpful. I bet your family will love Yosemite!

  5. Debbie Granger on June 16, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    Love your blog, Becky. CA is my state. The strait into the bay was named the Golden Gate in 1848,,,thus, the bridge is simply
    named after that ‘gate’ to the bay. The bridge opened in May 1937 I was one of 250,000 who crowded shoulder to shoulder on the
    bridge on its 50th anniversary. The weight of the people actually flattened the bridge. 500,000 more folks on either side were
    denied entry due to the weight of the people already on the bridge. It was quite a big deal! Pictures of the crowds were amazing.
    The color is International Orange and the painting is always ongoing.

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:10 pm

      What a fun history lesson, thanks for sharing Debbie. 🙂

  6. Armchair Traveler on June 16, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    It’s called the golden gate after the California gold rush. Actually, California is the golden state.

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:09 pm

      Thanks for sharing!

  7. Norm H. on June 16, 2018 at 10:10 am

    Two weeks ago my DW and I were in the Mendocino/Fort Bragg area where we had honeymooned almost 42 years ago! Highway 1 was as exciting, beautiful, and challenging then as now. There are sections of it I have driven in a 32 ft. motorhome. I much prefer enjoying it in a car or SUV.
    Thanks for sharing your family journey. It is good to know that many happy memories are still being made in areas we have loved so much. Peace.

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:08 pm

      What a beautiful story Norm, I’m glad you two got to go back and experience it again!

  8. Jeff Pierce on June 16, 2018 at 9:25 am

    I have to believe the family was suitably impressed with Yosemite. Your pictures show it off nicely with waterfalls still flowing.

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:07 pm

      Yes, the waterfalls were great!

  9. Debby Saunders on June 15, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    Hiking to the top of Half Dome is awesome. I have done it twice.

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:07 pm

      What an accomplishment Debby. Looking forward to my day. 🙂

  10. Rosalea on June 15, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    It’s called Golden Gate Bridge because the channel into SF Bay from the Pacific is named that. At the time of year when the sun sets directly in that spot, it’s easy to see why! PS, the bridge’s official paint color name is Industrial Orange. I knew none of these things either until I moved there, and wondered the same! LOL

    • Becky on June 18, 2018 at 4:06 pm

      I knew if I asked someone would have the answer. Thanks Rosalea!

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