Even during these trying Covid times, for most travelers, Labor Day signaled the unofficial end of summer. Vacations are over. Kids are back in school. It's the last bona fide summer holiday weekend and, from this point forward it's a slow, steady slide into the New Year.
Fall Equinox occurs around September 23rd each year. The sun crosses the celestial equator, from north to south, heralding the end of summer marking the official start of autumn. Days are getting shorter; shadows are longer; nights are cooler, and you can feel the change in the air. It's inspirational! It's also one of the best and most inspired times of year to visit Yosemite National Park!
When it comes to visiting Yosemite, fewer travelers visit in this off-season. Annually, millions of people throng to see the splendor of the granite cliffs, cascading falls, giant sequoias, and the grandeur made famous by the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams. During late spring and throughout the summer months, Yosemite is teeming with guests from around the world. There's more traffic and making lodging reservations, especially within the park, can be a challenge. Post-summer, the visitor tide ebbs, and the park begins an unhurried progression into a seasonal hibernation. Fewer cars on the roads in, out, and around the park, are definitely a big plus. The availability of lodging – at all levels – is much more attainable.
Autumn weather remains comfy with daytime temps warm enough for shorts and river sandals; nights can be chilly but cozy – even more so as the fall season evolves. Changes in temperatures and weather should be considered when packing. Better to err on the conservative side – the layered approach is usually best – and remember, rain and early snows are always a possibility; come prepared.
Yosemite Valley is famous for its colorful dogwoods – shades of pink and red; and California live oaks turn a golden amber color mid-October to November. Throughout the season aspens adorn themselves with seasonal hues. The onset of autumn colors can't be timed. Lengthening nights and colder temperatures signal the change. So in other words, later in the season is better but is no guarantee. In the solitude and calm of the autumn season, you can be assured that Yosemite will not disappoint even the most ardent leaf peeper. Look for the landmark blazing red sugar maple near Yosemite Chapel. Take Tioga Road along the Merced River for some of the best fall foliage photo-ops.
Visitors should keep an eye out for mule deer and coyotes, which are now seen frequently as they move from the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada down into Yosemite Valley. Bears should always be a concern – though not as frequently sighted. Do not leave any food or sunscreen, toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, gum, candy, and any other items that have a scent in your car. If camping, be certain to take precautions and use food storage lockers.
From Sacramento and foothill locations, you have easy access to one of California's most scenic byways, Hwy. 49. There's no better way to begin this fall foliage sojourn. As fall flourishes, sightings of color along Hwy. 49 are clearly an added attraction to this multi-hued escape. Also known as the Golden Chain Heritage Corridor, Hwy. 49 passes through charming and historic towns. Allow time to enjoy the sights and an occasional stop at towns along the way. Amador City, Sutter Creek, Angels Camp, Sonora, and others offer outstanding opportunities for shopping, sightseeing, and maybe a fresh-baked loaf of bread or a glass of wine. California's past lives on in these Gold Rush-era gems. If you choose to bypass downtown Sonora's two-lane traffic, a detour on Rawhide Road saves about 15-20 minutes of driving time. It's always best to travel with a detailed map as cell service can still be spotty.
Hwy. 49 has more than its share of twists and turns and slow-moving vehicles. Relax and enjoy the ride. Remember, getting there is half the fun. If you've never driven to Yosemite via Hwy. 120 you may want to avoid Old Priest Grade. This incredibly steep, two-mile stretch of road is not for the weak-of-heart. We love it and wouldn't think of going any other way, but never with a trailer or motor home! Think about staying on Hwy. 120 on the west side of the canyon. This will meet Old Priest Grade at the top. About a six-mile trek, the New Priest Grade bypass is longer and somewhat winding, but the stress-free ascent can easily accommodate trailers and motor homes as it's the preferred route for tour buses.
If heading down the "vertical” Old Priest Grade, make sure your brakes are in good working order.
Hwy. 120 passes through the Gold Rush-era town of Groveland, an excellent pit-stop or place to stay outside the park if that's your choice. The 3-diamond Groveland Hotel has been greeting guests since 1849. All the rooms have been completely updated and are twenty-first century fresh. The new Groveland Provisions Taproom & Bourbon Bar provides small bites and libations. The Iron Door Saloon claims to be the longest continuously operated drinking establishment in California. About 23 miles away is the Big Oak Flat entrance to the Yosemite National Park and you'll be required to purchase a $35 vehicle pass, valid for seven days.
Tip! Be sure to gas up before heading into Yosemite Valley. The last chances are in Big Oak Flat, Groveland, and Yosemite Lakes Road (Hardin Flat). There is another chance for fuel at Crane Flat inside the park. Yosemite Valley Shuttles are not running in 2021. Check schedules for YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System.