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Trip Report Spring Break in California: San Francisco, Yosemite and up the coast

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I spent the last two weeks of March visiting California. The first ten days or so I got to experience that incredible weather everyone from California has been bragging about all winter. It was indeed wonderful – bright blue sky, temps in the high 60s to low 70s. Unfortunately the last five days it rained a lot.

I spent the first week in San Francisco (well, actually I stayed in Lafayette, which is where my son lives, but I went into the city each day and did ‘touristy’ things while he went to work). Then my daughter (who is a grad student at UC Berkeley) and I went to Yosemite for three days, and then drove up the coast to Eureka (where my other daughter is living), with a quick stop in Napa on the way . (As of a couple months ago when the second daughter moved out there, I now have 100% of my children living in California – we are from New England. At least it makes for a nice place to go for vacation.)

The photos are here:
San Francisco - www.pbase.com/annforcier/california_-_san_francisco
Yosemite - www.pbase.com/annforcier/california__yosemite_national_park
Napa and the Coast - www.pbase.com/annforcier/central_california (this gallery includes photos from my last trip, two years ago including the coast south of San Francisco, which I didn’t do this trip)

Overall impressions – San Francisco’s setting is beautiful with all those hills overlooking the bay. I love water and bridges and you can’t beat SF on those two things. I know it’s ‘touristy’ but Fisherman’s Wharf area/Pier 39 with the sea lions, views, Hyde Street Pier, etc. is a great place and I enjoyed going there a few times. The downtown/financial district has some beautiful buildings, great shopping, nice ‘city center’ vibe. The hills and ‘stairway walks’/neighborhoods and iconic SF things like cable cars and murals were interesting. Golden Gate Park is lovely and some of the museums are pretty good (though, and I know this just my opinion, not as good as their equivalents in either NYC or Boston). Lots of gorgeous Victorian houses.

On the con side: the majority of the architecture is bland, bordering on ugly, the homeless population is the worst I’ve seen in a major city in decades, and the public transportation system lags way behind most cities.

BART is great for getting into the city from outlying areas (though most people visiting SF should and probably do stay in the city, I stayed in Berkeley and Lafayette so used BART daily) but other than the cable cars – which are slow and don’t run all that frequently – it’s mostly buses to get around. I did like the F street cars. After 6 days I figured out which buses were fastest but figuring out bus systems in any city is more difficult than a metro and buses are slower due to traffic. SF is not all that large as cities go but to get from one side to the other takes close to an hour on the bus and walking is slower than in lots of cities due to the hills. There are actually some very good websites (511.org) for figuring out bus lines, etc. but for some reason didn’t work properly on my iPhone (worked great on the computer, but of course I only had the phone with me during the day).

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    >> Lots of gorgeous Victorian houses.

    On the con side: the majority of the architecture is bland<<<

    How can that be???? I don't think the 8,000 Victorians are bland at all. If you spent a lot of time at the Wharf & downtown - I could see how you could came to that conclusion, however. The '06 earthquake/fire kinda wiped everything out downtown, & the Wharf was never nice, except for the Cannery & Ghirardelli Sq. Did you visit the Flood building downtown, Ferry Bldg, Spreckles mansion, Pacific Heights mansions along Broadway & surrounds, Presidio Heights, Presidio Terrace, St Francis Woods, Art Deco Marina, "Lovely Laidley", Union St shopping district?

    The homeless problem is getting worse every year. Most "in the know" people agree that it will not get any better in the near future.

    Stu Dudley

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    The Victorians are wonderful - I spent hours photographing them I though they were so pretty - and in fact had a hard time narrowing down the photos to a manageable number. And I also thought many of the buildings in the downtown district were very nice. Did you look at the photos? Obviously I thought there was tons of beautiful things in SF. But, as in any city, there are other buildings interspersed between the 'good' stuff and in SF I though those buildings were rather boring.

    Anyway, I really appreciated your help planning the trip, and as you'll see in the rest of the report, I made good use of a lot of your tips.

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    My photos are basically my trip report (I shoot better than I write) but when I’m planning a trip I find it helpful to read how much you can ‘see’ in a day in trip reports, so while I’m not going to give a blow by blow of every second of my time, here’s a summary:

    Day 1: walked 9.9 miles – (actually started with a walk around UC Berkeley so the rest of this is from about noon on). Walked through North Beach (City Lights Books, Vesivios, etc.), lunch at Molinari Deli – which was wonderful and really did feel authentically Italian. Then we did some ‘stairways walks’ (I kind of put together a walk from the books ‘Stairway Walks’ with help from Stu’s notes – so thanks Stu for all your helpful info on this and the rest of SF) it included Montgomery Steps, Filbert Steps, Coit Tower, Washington Square, Valejo Street Steps, and Macondray Lane. I had just read a couple of the “Tales of the City” books which takes place on Macondray Lane so that was kind of fun to see. I sense it’s changed a bit in the 40 years since the books take place. Then we ended up down at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.

    For this trip I purchased a “City Pass” which includes a week of transportation (all MUNI including the cable cars) plus four major museums. It clearly did save money, and especially having the transportation pass was great as I didn’t really think about whether or not it was ‘worth it’ to take a bus or cable car versus walking. The pass includes either the Aquarium by the Bay or the Aquarium in Monterey. From everything I’ve heard that one is much better but as I wasn’t going there this trip I went to the one at Pier 39. I really don’t think it would be worth the admission price if you were to pay for that separately - it’s a very small aquarium – but since it was included I went and did enjoy it.

    Day 2: Walked 10.7 miles. My plan for this day was to first go to the Palace of Fine Arts. I had looked up on the MUNI website hot to get there – they give you several options and many of them include numerous transfers. I prefer to walk a ways rather thana taking several buses so I walked to where they said a bus going close to the Palace was. The bus stop was in Chinatown but when I got there I couldn’t find the stop (there was a lot of construction in the area, so possibly that was the problem). Anyway, I wandered around Chinatown for a while and then tried to decide how to get over to the Palace of Fine Arts, the MUNI site on my phone was no where near as helpful as it had been on the computer. I realized I was near California street, which has cable cars so I decided I’d take that as far as it went.

    I hopped off at the Grace Cathedral Stop. Very impressive for a cathedral in the US, especially in California. Actually looks like the 500 year old cathedrals in Europe. I got into a conversation with a German tourist who wanted to discuss the merits of this versus the ‘originals’ in Europe. It was interesting to hear her take on it. She was impressed with its size and overall appearance but disappointed in the art. I was impressed with its size and that it ‘looks’ like a medieval cathedral but disappointed that it’s made of concrete and not hand carved stone and that’s it’s really only 100 years old.

    Got another cable car to the end of the line and walked to Lafayette Park. Then walked around park and surrounding streets looking at Victorian Houses. While I was photographing one a man started telling me what it was like on the inside and how it used to be a major brothel and now it was worth 4 million. Then I walked down Union Street – lots of chi chi shops and restaurants – on my way to the Palace of Fine Arts which is just as beautiful as all the photos of it.

    When I was ready to leave I was faced with the transportation dilemma again – I really didn’t want to back tract to where my notes told me the bus was, and since I was ‘close’ to Marina Green, and it looked like that would be a pleasant walk I did that. Well it is very pleasant, and there were no hills, but it was a lot longer than it looks on the map to get to the Maritime Park which was my next destination. But the Maritime Park and Hyde Street Pier are beautiful and well worth exploring. I was starving by this time so went up to Ghirardelli Square for lunch. Lori’s Diner (there are at least two of them in SF) has a wonderful ‘classic’ burger that must have a thousand calories. I walked down Fisherman’s Wharf and detoured to the ‘Port Walk’ which is a quiet stroll around the docks and boats, away from the main drag of touristy shops. The sidewalk was crammed with tourists but just a few steps away it was just me and the seagulls – and a sealion who was fishing. Five minutes further on, at Pier 39 the rest of his sea lion friends were lazing in the sun. Included in the City Pass is an hour long boat ride on the bay and at this point I was too tired to do anything else. I love boats and this ride was great – fabulous views of the city skyline, close up look at Alcatraz and out under the bridge.

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    << She was impressed with its size and overall appearance but disappointed in the art. I was impressed with its size and that it ‘looks’ like a medieval cathedral but disappointed that it’s made of concrete and not hand carved stone and that’s it’s really only 100 years old. >>

    Minimal art because it wasn't a medieval Catholic Church to begin with, like in Europe. Only 100 years old because a famous earthquake wiped just about everything out and California is relatively "young".

    Enjoying your report, with both the pros and cons. Agree about the transit system and homeless situation.

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    >> Did you look at the photos?<<

    Yep - Lots of nice Victorians and other architectural "gems". Most downtown/office-space city architecture in the majority of US cities is rather bland. We're proud of our neighborhood architecture with all the Victorian, Art Deco, Beaux Arts, Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, mid-century, Tudor, Craftsman, Mission, variations of "modern" styles. Even a pre-Civil War fort. St Mary's Cathedral is certainly not "bland" - but one may not like it.

    Glad you made it to some of my favorite "corners" of the City/Bay Area.

    Stu Dudley

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    Day 3: Walked 8.5 miles I took the bus from the Powell St BART to Haight/Ashubry and did a walk around there – an interesting combination of 1967 and beautiful Victorian houses. There were a good number of hippie wannabes who were not even conceived in 1967 plus a smaller number of people who probably were around in the 60s and never moved on – all of whom were looking relatively spaced out and wearing a lot of tie dye. Then into the GG Park. It’s huge, I didn’t even cover half of it, but it certainly looks to be on a scale with the best of city parks. I checked out the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Garden and Stow Lake. I intended to go into the deYoung Museum which is included in the city pass, but the lobby was massively crowded – there were lines to wait on more lines – so I just took the elevator (free even without the city pass) to the observation floor. The Academy of Science, right across the large plaza, was very interesting and the aquarium there was better than the one at Pier 39. The guide books say it’s one of the largest museums of natural history but it didn’t seem that large but it did have an extensive aquarium, a planetarium, a rain forest and lots of little exhibits. And it’s café was pretty good too.

    I was now getting the hang of figuring out the buses. I took one to within a couple blocks of Alamo Square – yes it looks just like it does in all the post cards and in the opening bit of the old TV show ‘Full House’. Then another bus back to BART.

    Day 4 Walked 9.5 miles. I started the day at City Hall (absolutely beautiful building both inside and out). Then I walked through Tenderloin district (ugly as hell but I didn’t actually feel unsafe in mid-day and it wasn’t worth getting back on Bart for one stop). The calbe car turn around at the bottom of Powell Street had a massive line of tourists waiting to board. I watched for a while and saw that the cars were leaving mostly empty – I think most tourists want to sit or stand outside so no one was going into the inside space. So, following a hint I read somewhere, I walked a few blocks and then go on with no wait. Within a short distance some people got off and I was able to move to an outside seat. I took it to the bottom of Lombard Street. There were more tourists here than anywhere else other than Fisherman’s Wharf. But what great views. One block from the top of Lombard Street is the classic view of Hyde Street down to the Pier with Alcatraz out in the bay. I had to wait a long time for a cable car to come along to get the classic shot.

    Only two more blocks from there is the SF Art Institute which is in a lovely Spanish mission style building and has a Diego Rivera mural (and is free). I was now close to Fisherman’s Wharf again so went there for a seafood on sourdough sandwich. Then I took the F street car to the Ferry Building, then walked through the Financial District (Embarcadero Center, Palace Hotel, Crocker Galleria, Westfield Center - are all interesting architecturally).

    Then took a bus to Japan Town for dinner. My son and his wife really like this place but I found it less interesting than other areas, certainly less interesting than Chinatown. I’m sure there are some great restaurants around but the Japanese restaurant in my town is much better.

    Day 5 Walked 6.5 miles. In the morning we went up to Mt Diablo State Park, east of Lafayette. Nice views of the surrounding hills. As gorgeous as the area is, I will say that driving anywhere in this area involves driving on 10 lane freeways and/or through suburban sprawl. Proving that nowhere is perfect.

    I then took BART into the city and visited the Mission – I had intended to see both Clarion and Balmy Alleys. Clarion Alley is very close to the 16th Street Bart station. The fact that the entire block is lined with murals is interesting, but I didn’t think they were really any better than the murals elsewhere in the city. And they really are all over SF. On the way from Clarion Alley to Mission Dolores I noticed another striking building which turned out to be the local high school. The mission is small and cute and simple which contrasts nicely the adjoining Basilica.

    The bus I needed was right on the corner and came within five minutes. Took it (changed once with a short few block walk) to the Legion of Honor but had to walk the last ½ mile up hill. There are nice views of the GG Bridge from there, but it’s further in the distance than I had thought so not really the best place to actually see the bridge. The museum itself is not that large – well not compared to the Louve, the Met, London or even Boston Fine Arts museums, but there were a few galleries of interesting paintings, a few Monets, one or two Renoirs. Really only took less than an hour. There is a bus that goes directly there and it was waiting when I got outside, after a few minutes the driver, who apparently had been taking a break, appeared and I took it down to Geary where I could get the #38 bus.

    Day 6 Walked 6.9 miles. I took the BART to the Powel St stop and checked out the Westfield Center – it’s just a large mall but a really nice one, with two interesting domes, architecturally a very nice building, especially compared to your average suburban mall. From there I took the bus (actually two) to the Golden Gate Bridge. I walked part way over the bridge, then hiked down under it. The area is part of the National Park System and there were numerous signs/plaques/exhibits about the bridge, and miles of hiking trails with views of the bridge. Down on the beach under the bridge people were surfing.

    Then I took buses back to Union Square where I took the elevator up to the 36th floor observation deck. Great views. I had read about this in a guide book but sometimes these ‘hints’ don’t work out to be doable. This one was. The elevators are not near the reception desk so no one gives you a second look. The 36th floor looks like it’s mostly a function space, so if something had been going on I suppose it would not have been possible, but it was empty so I had plenty of time to check out the great views.

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    Thanks for reporting back on your trip--I recall your planning process. It's always nice to hear how the trip actually worked out.

    Despite the boring buildings and inefficient transportation, you came up with some gorgeous pictures and saw quite a lot of the city--good for you. What a nice set of photos! (BTW, #487 in the San Francisco set is the Palace, not the Sheraton Plaza.)

    Re: your comment on Japan Town ("less interesting than other areas"), I highly recommend the free SF City Guides Japan Town/Fillmore Jazz District walking tour--it delves into the history of the neighborhood and gives an excellent perspective on what has happened to it and the people who lived there over the years (and focuses on more than just the plaza).

    Ditto for the Mission murals. There are indeed wonderful murals throughout the city; the free SF City Guides and the Precita murals ($) tours give wonderful insights into the people behind some of the many classic and newer murals of the Mission district.

    Thanks again for your pictures and report.

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    YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK - Yosemite is, of course, gorgeous. I think you need to have three things go right: sunshine, the waterfalls flowing, and not too crowded – in order to have the ultimate experience. And we did. The weather was perfect – bright sunshine and temps in the seventies (the average high for these dates, late March, is 59). As beautiful as Yosemite is, with grey skies and low clouds the experience would be greatly diminished. What makes it extraordinary are the 4000 foot granite rock faces and the huge waterfalls – if you couldn’t see them it would just be a pretty park of trees and rivers. So the second thing is the waterfalls need to be flowing. I suppose if you live nearby it would still be worthwhile to visit as it such a lovely area, but if I were planning a long distance trip with seeing Yosemite as one of the main reasons, I would definitely want to go when the falls were flowing and many of them slow or stop completely by mid summer. And the third thing is to go when the crowds are not terrible. It was not considered high season when we were there (several things were still ‘closed for the season’) yet the parking lots were mostly full and there were a good number of people around on most of the trails. It was not bad but I could certainly see how the experience would be much different with traffic jams, unable to find parking, and crowded trails. I think there’s a fairly small window when all these come together and I fell really lucky we had it.

    The drive from the SF area is straightforward – lots of different highways, gradually going from ten lane to two as you go east, but google maps on the phone were right on. We were starting from Lafayette so a good bit shorter than if you were leaving from SF itself. We made it to Merced in two and a half hours with one stop for gas. Decided to have lunch at ‘Happy Burger Diner’, which was reasonably good but apparently very popular as there were tons of people. As we got close to the park we were driving along the Merced River – the hills on the other side of it were ablaze with little yellow flowers, and the redbud trees along the river were in bloom and it was just beauatiful.

    We had reservations at Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal. When I made the reservations months in advance, there was still availability at the ‘In Park’ Lodge at the Falls. But it was just about exactly twice as expensive and the cancellation policy was worse, and I wanted the option to cancel with as little cost as possible if the forecast was terrible. I had read lots of conflicting things about how ‘far’ away the hotels in El Portal were. Well, it’s about 100 feet from the “Yosemite National Park” sign. Another 3 minute drive to the entrance booth. Then it’s a pleasant, pretty 10-15 minute drive to the first sight, Bridalveil Falls. Then maybe another 10-15 minutes to Yosemite Village, and then another 10 to the furthest place you can drive in the valley. So all in all if you were to drive straight from the hotel to the far end of the valley it would be over a half hour, but you’re there to see the whole valley, not to just get to the far end. So I think Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal is a great place to stay to visit the park. The rooms are huge and nicely furnished including a kitchenette with stove, microwave, fridge, dishes, etc, large flat screen TV. Internet was $10 a day so we didn’t bother with it. There are several pools and two restaurants, we only tried the Pizza one and it was adequate, certainly not great. There’s a tiny convenience store with milk, juice, etc. We paid $110 a night.

    We got to the hotel a little after two but the room was ready (two other people trying to check in were told their rooms were not ready till 3). We just dropped our bags and then drove into the park and stopped at Bridalvale Falls. The parking lot was essentially full and people were creating their own parking spaces. Someone pulled out and we got a space, then it’s a short five minute easy walk to the base of the falls. Which actually does look like a bridal veil. Then we took the turn off for Tunnel View, about a five minute drive heading towards the road that goes south. Tunnel View has a couple of parking lots (mostly full) and offers the classic view of the valley spread out in front of you with El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall all visible. Interestingly it looks like the whole valley is just trees, from here you cannot see the river (or the road) at all.

    We drove back into the main part of the park and parked near Sentinel Bridge (this small parking lot was almost empty) and walked out into Cooks Meadow for a while. Beautiful views here of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, the river. We stopped at the store at Yosemite Village, which is a quite large supermarket as well as souvenir/tee shirt, sweat shirt shop to get food for breakfasts and picnic lunches. Definitely geared towards people who are camping or picnicking so lots of good stuff to choose form.

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    Day 2 in Yosemite, Sunday. We had breakfast in the room and then drove into the park and first went to the Ahwahnee Lodge where we got second breakfast and contemplated making a reservation for dinner but couldn’t decide on a time so figured we’d stop by later in the day (but then never did). It's certainly not cheap but not outrageous either. The menu had entrees from $20-30 or so.

    We did the lower Yosemite Falls Hike which is fairly short and easy, more of a walk than a hike with great views of both upper and lower falls (though to see them both at the same time it’s better from out in Cooks Meadow).

    Then we drove to the “Trail Head” Parking lot which turned out to be off to the side of Happy Isles to do the Vernal Fall Hike. It’s only about a mile each way, but quite steep. It’s not too bad as far as the bridge from which you can see the falls, but after that it gets steeper and the last bit is stairs with iron handrail and is quite wet with mist, even in this drought year. Probably would not be great for people with fear of heights issues as it’s a fairly steep drop off to one side. The trail continues up even more steep very wet steps to the very top, and then on to Nevada Falls, but we didn’t go that far. Back down part way we stopped for a picnic lunch. As far as we went and back took a couple hours and was pretty strenuous.

    Back down to the trail head we saw the shuttle bus was just coming so we hopped on for one stop to Mirror Lake stop. Then it was still about a mile walk to the lake, but pretty flat/gentle incline. The lake is very ‘mirror’ like– lots of great reflections. Parts of it were more ‘pond’, ‘puddle’ or ‘meadow’ than lake but still fabulous. This is another thing that apparently dries up by summer but was, I thought, one of the most beautiful parts of the park so I’m really glad I was here in the spring. People were saying that in a non drought year the lake is much bigger, but by August most years it’s just a few little ponds. We walked back to Happy Isles to where the car was. passing several deer who were so accustomed to humans that they didn’t even bother to get off the path.

    We took another walk out into Cooks Meadow and spent some time watching rock climbers on El Capitan. Or should I say trying to watch them since we couldn’t see anyone. Several people with binoculars were pointing out to the rest of us where the climbers were, but most of us couldn’t make them out. But even though we couldn’t see them, it still amazes me that people could actually climb that thing. Then we went to the store and got some post cards and ice cream.

    We had cell reception at Mirror Lake and Yosemite Village but not anywhere else.

    Day 3 Yosemite – We checked out of the hotel around 9am and drove to Yosemite Village where we got another second breakfast which we ate sitting in the sun watching the falls. Then we checked out the Visitor Center which really has quite a lot of interesting displays and photos, and the Ansel Adams Gallery. We took another walk out into Cooks Meadow and got some great views of both the upper and lower Yosemite Falls and of Half Dome reflected in the Merced River.

    We left around 11:30 and got to Tunnel View around 12. Then it’s an hour on a very, very windy road to Mariposa Grove. Very windy and steep in places – its’ an elevation gain of over 2000 feet from the valley floor. We got one of the last parking spaces in the grove parking lot. We had a picnic lunch and then walked the less than a mile each way walk to the lower grove. Lots of giant sequoias including the largest in Yosemite, Grizzly Giant, and California tree which you can walk through.

    We left the park a little after 3pm so we had just over 48 hours there. This was about the perfect amount of time for us. We saw all the ‘highlights’ at a leisurely pace, going back to some of them a couple of times. One of the park rangers at the Visitor Center told me the average amount of time visitors spend there is 4 hours. That seems pretty ridiculous – obviously in that amount of time all you can do is essentially a ‘drive by’. And you could spend days, weeks even, hiking around the park. But 2-3 days was good, especially since at that time of year we didn’t have the option of going to Glacier Point or over Tioga Pass or Tuolumne Meadows.

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    Oh my goodness; what a great detailed report. Thank you. I have been researching for months and haven't found detailed times as far as how long it takes for example from the main road(from San Francisco ) to the tunnel view switchback, so thank you. We unfortunately are going when we'll have to deal with (2) of the negatives you mention: crowds, and decreased water flow. We are headed up mid July. With school aged children, there aren't too many options. We will also be heading out from San Francisco. One of my concerns is if we'll have enough time to do a loop of the valley floor (stopping for just the roadside attractions not hiking yet) before we drive to our rental in yosemite west? You mention that from your hotel to the furthest point in the valley floor was over 1/2 hour; so would it be safe too say taking traffic into account and a few stops that the loop can be done in say 2 - 3 hours? This is just to get a feel for where things are and acclimate a little to the area. We'll be back the following day for the Vernal falls hike. Can't wait to keep reading your report. Thanks again.

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    Great report isabel.

    mabella101: The drive from Yosemite Village to Yosemite West takes about 35-40 minutes (it is a bit farther than from El Portal where isabel stayed).

    For your loop - I'd park in the Village and take the shuttle buses around. 2 to 3 hours would give you a nice taste and 3 hours would be time enough to jump off the shuttle at a few places to explore a bit.

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    Even in the summer at the height of the season, I am amazed at the lack of people in some areas of the Valley. When coming into the Valley on the one-way loop road that goes around the Valley, past the Bridalveil Falls turn off, keep an eye out on the left for parking pull outs for an area called Leidig Meadows. Here you can park and walk via pathways and raised wooden walkways out into the center of the Valley. I love to stop and do a very slow 360 degree turn and soak it all in. Many folks drive right by this and miss it. I think it is my favorite spot in the Valley...even in the summer.

    There are also trails that go down to the Merced River and follow it for a ways and wind through the dogwood trees. There aren't a lot of people on these trails either, especially the parts that are on the north side of the river and further from the Lodges and the Visitor Center.

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    Thanks for the tips woody & Janis, will keep these in mind. Isabella any plans on sharing the coastal part of your trip? We're undecided what to do with 2 days after yosemite, so I'll definitely be looking forward to your reply.

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