San Francisco: A Gateway to Yosemite National Park
Story and photos by Patricia Corrigan
Patricia is a journalist, photographer and book author based in San Francisco.
An easy road trip takes you from a world-class city to a top national park.
Food for thought: You’d need more than 13 years to visit every restaurant in San Francisco, even if you booked a table somewhere different every night. Great food is one of the many reasons to visit the City by the Bay, but after you’ve eaten your fill, walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, toured Alcatraz, shot selfies with the Painted Ladies, shopped at Union Square and neighborhood boutiques and stood on the edge of the continent, maybe you’re ready for something different.
How about a road trip?
The grandeur of Yosemite National Park lies 180 miles east of the city. The four-hour drive to the Big Oak Flat entrance on Highway 120 takes you past acres of almond and fruit trees, with plenty of farm stands selling fresh produce along the road. Or, aim for the park’s Arch Rock entrance on Highway 140, and you pass through Mariposa, the southernmost of the historic California gold rush towns.
Both routes bring you to Yosemite, some 1,169 square miles of breathtaking wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a soul-restoring place of massive granite cliffs, towering waterfalls and giant sequoia trees. Over a century ago, the writer and naturalist John Muir described Yosemite as “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”
Muir also wrote this about Yosemite: "None can escape its charms." Because I have always preferred the sea to mountains, I thought I might be immune to those charms. But when I first visited the park in 2005, I unexpectedly fell in love with all that granite. Seven years ago, I returned to Yosemite and was once again in awe of the magnificent U-shaped valley sculpted by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Granite Wonderland Just Ahead
On my recent visit, I opted to enter from Highway 120, stopping first in Escalon, about 90 minutes from San Francisco. The town is part of California’s Central Valley, which produces more than half the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States. The flat valley stretches about 450 miles from near Redding south to near Bakersfield.
Hula’s, a cozy diner right on 120, pays homage to Hawaii, one of the owner’s favorite destinations. Bougainvillea and birds of paradise grow outside, while inside, wall displays honor local student athletic teams. Among other dishes, Hula’s serves 24 different burgers plus fresh-fruit shakes. I can vouch for the juicy bacon cheeseburger and pineapple smoothie!
My next stop was Groveland, a California Historical Landmark that serves as the unofficial gateway to Yosemite. Groveland is home to historic hotels, shops and the Iron Door Saloon, said to be the oldest continuously open saloon in the state. On the road again, I wound through the verdant Stanislaus National Forest for about 30 minutes and then reached the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park.
Reasons to See Yosemite
Yosemite Valley, a mile wide and 7.5-miles long at an elevation of 4,000 feet, represents only 1 percent of the park but draws the bulk of its 4 million visitors each year. They come to see El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the continental U.S. They come to gaze up at granite cliffs that rise 3,000 feet, and then to look closer for the telltale bursts of color high on the rock face that indicate the presence of climbers’ hammocks or packs.
They come to sit beside the Merced River, which descends from the Clark Range and over Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls to make its way through the valley. They come to observe the Steller’s jays, hike mountain trails, bike through pine forests and ponder the important role that meadows play in the ecosystem.
They come to fish in Hetch Hetchy’s reservoir, to traverse the Tioga Road into the High Country and to see Tuolumne Meadows, the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada. Some come to meet the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, about an hour’s drive from the valley and home to more than 500 trees, some up to 250 feet tall and 2,000 years old.
Due to a three-year closure for restoration, Mariposa Grove was closed on this visit, but it reopened shortly afterward on June 15, 2018. But on my last trip in 2011, I stood transfixed by the poignant sight of harsh lightning scars on some of the ancient trees, which still stood tall and proud.
Take the Tram Tour
In the valley, I stopped at Tunnel View, a stunning vista that showcases El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall and Half Dome. I also made the hourlong drive to Glacier Point, 7,214 feet above sea level and 3,215 feet above Yosemite Valley, to view the surreal landscape of snow-capped mountains in May, the intimate view of Half Dome and a golden eagle’s-eye view of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel below.
Formerly called the Ahwahnee Hotel, the high-end Majestic is one of dozens of lodging options that include cabins, tents, RV sites and wilderness camping. I booked a comfortable room at the Yosemite Valley Lodge, close to Yosemite Falls. Here too are an outdoor amphitheater for ranger talks and a shop that sells souvenirs and foodstuffs, including huckleberry-flavored licorice twists and bear-shaped ginger cookies.
The Lodge is the starting point for a two-hour, ranger-narrated tram tour of the valley, and I made a reservation. “The more you know, the more you see,” Ranger Emily Dayhoff said as we rode along, first catching just glimpses of granite cliffs and towering waterfalls and then enjoying unobstructed views.
Other guided tours can be booked at the lodge's activity desk, as can trail rides, river rafting and golf. Families that enroll kids 7 to 13 in the Junior Ranger program also stop at the Happy Isles Nature Center, a meeting place where youngsters can learn more about the ecosystems of the park. The valley also has a cultural museum, a visitor center, an art center and a shop that sells traditional Native American crafts. The Ansel Adams Gallery offers photography workshops.
Hungry? The renovated Base Camp Eatery at the Lodge offers a wide range of options, including a coffee shop next door. The Mountain Room provides upscale dining but, blessedly, imposes no dress code. My dinner started with tasty lobster beignets and culminated in a juicy, bacon-wrapped filet stuffed with herbed goat cheese. An adjacent lounge serves adult beverages and lighter fare. Elsewhere in the valley, you’ll find a deli, burgers, ethnic food, pizza and baked goods.
The road previously not taken appealed on the way home, so I exited the park at the Arch Rock entrance and followed the Merced River along Highway 140 to Mariposa. Founded in 1849, the town has 61 buildings on the Federal Register of Historical Places and celebrates its past at the Mariposa Museum and History Center Experience in Old Town.
The 1850 Restaurant, filled with fun farmhouse decor, served up a baked pretzel with mustard, a delicious grilled cheese with bacon and a side of sweet potato fries. At the Ridgeline Gallery & Gift Shop, I met a canine office manager that looked me over and went back to bed. “Originally, Mike was the greeter, but he’s shy,” joked Rebecca Sullivan, the shop owner.
At CostaLivos Mountain Gold Olive Oil, I sampled several olive oils pressed from the Costa family’s nearby groves and balsamic vinegars from Modena, Italy. “Kim’s Fantasy Combo,” an Italian herb-infused oil paired with “25,” an aged balsamic, is indeed a dreamy combination. I was sorry to miss dinner there, served Thursday through Saturday.
Once back in San Francisco, even weeks later, images of sun-dappled granite cliffs still linger in my mind — rock-solid memories of a remarkable destination.
RelatedView all articles
Read more stories about national parks.
Winter Wonderlands: 7 Road Trips in Our National Parks
From A (Acadia) to Z (Zion), national parks offer ideal destinations for a weekend trip or longer vacation.
A Different Side of Mount Rainier National Park
For the first time, a professional climber chooses to explore the lower elevations.
Cruising Washington’s Scenic Cascade Loop
The 440-mile drive pays homage to the state’s diverse landscape.
Utah's Scenic Byway 12 is a Masterpiece
The All-American road traverses slickrock and features a petrified forest, a beautiful waterfall and gourmet dining.
A Road Trip Through the Great Smoky Mountains
A national park and nearby parkway offer stunning views of the ancient Appalachians.
Acadia National Park Fuels Photography Passion
The only national park in the Northeast has stunning fall scenery and unique carriage roads.
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park
A road trip through the San Luis Valley promises otherworldly experiences.
Visiting Glacier National Park in Winter
Montana’s gem offers different rewards during the season of stillness.
San Francisco: A Gateway to Yosemite National Park
An easy road trip takes you from a world-class city to a top national park.
Zion National Park: The Intersection of Inspiration and Art
Utah's first national park spawns creativity in visitors.
Hiking to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon
Six family members immerse themselves in nature and attempt to bond.
Road Trip to Death Valley National Park
Beginning in Las Vegas, the ‘Death Valley Rally’ includes beautiful vistas and unique stops.
Petrified Forest National Park Keeps Its Secrets
Geologists, paleontologists and other riddle-solvers will enjoy spending time at this Arizona treasure.
Road Trip to See Waterfalls in Tennessee
A loose travel itinerary allows discoveries around every turn.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Utah's national parks are beautiful during the day and turn to a magnificent spectacle at night.
Celebrate the Seasons at Yosemite National Park
From roaring waterfalls to colorful trees, the park is a year-round spectacle.
Chasing the Light in Joshua Tree National Park
College friends reunite in a desert wonderland with a deepened appreciation for each other.
Road Trip from Denver to Glacier National Park
A trip from Denver to Montana shows off the vast and varied scenery in the U.S.
Cold Weather Photography Tips
Protect your gear and yourself from freezing temperatures.
A Traveler's Tribute to Trees
The drive from Olympic National Park to San Francisco features spectacular views of towering forests.
Road Trip to New Mexico’s White Sands National Park
Visit the Southwest’s most otherworldly natural attraction.
Road Trip Through Northern California
A world traveler reconnects with her California roots.
Cades Cove Drive is a Trip Back in Time
Visit log homes, churches and other buildings from the early 1800s on a relaxing 11-mile road trip.
Yellowstone National Park in Winter
During the cold-weather months, the park offers spectacular scenes of wildlife.
Explore Dry Tortugas National Park on a Day Trip from Key West
The remote area in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime spot for snorkeling and diving.
Blown Away by Oregon’s Volcanic Legacy
Mount Hood, Smith Rock and Crater Lake are high spots of the state’s interior.
Hot Springs, Arkansas, is a Relaxing Getaway
Hot Springs National Park features Bathhouse Row and the first brewery in a national park.
Visiting Washington's Olympic National Park in the Offseason
An autumn camping trip offers serenity and easy social distancing.
Family Fun Along California’s Majestic Mountain Loop
Three national parks in three days makes a great getaway.
Driving California’s Majestic Mountain Loop
Two Californians explore three national parks in their home state.
Road Trip to Dark Sky Parks in Utah
A father and daughter bond while photographing the Milky Way.
Five National Parks Near Los Angeles
All the destinations are beautiful and within a day’s drive.
Grand Teton National Park – The Ultimate Summer Getaway
Sharing one of Wyoming’s scenic gems is particularly satisfying.
Plan a Road Trip to a National Park Near You
Exploring wide-open spaces now makes perfect sense.
Exploring Isle Royale National Park, “The Good Place”
Minnesota’s North Shore All-American Scenic Drive leads to a prime wilderness experience.
Quality Time at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
A western Colorado gem remains almost hidden until you’re there.
Washington’s North Cascades National Park - Washington and Oregon
Outdoor enthusiasts revel in this remote park’s opportunities for adventure.
Road Trip to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
The iconic bridge is stunning, and our newest national park offers much more.
Mountain Road Trips for Every Season
Drive scenic routes to snowy slopes and popular peaks.
Big Bend National Park
Solitude and stunning vistas prevail in one of America’s least visited parks.
The Loneliest Road in America
The 409-mile drive across Nevada features sand dunes, hot springs and plenty of social distancing.
Saguaro National Park Drive Features Unique Beauty
The iconic saguaro cactus is a symbol of the Southwest.
Road Trip to Indiana Dunes National Park
Just a 50-mile drive from Chicago, America’s 61st National Park has much to offer.
Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Love family embraces winter in Colorado to experience a new adventure.
National Park Tradition Renews Family Ties
After suffering loss, a lifelong traveler reconnects with relatives and creates lasting memories.
Start A Reservation
Enjoy fast and easy car rental bookings from Enterprise Rent-A-Car at one of our 7,200 branches in cities, airports and neighborhoods near you.Reserve Now
Don't miss an excuse to hit the road: our latest offers delivered to your inbox.Sign Up