Birthday weekend in Yosemite National Park

Last weekend was truly a special one. It was my first visit to Yosemite National Park, a place I’ve been dying to visit since moving to California 3 years ago. After failing several times to find campground reservations over the last few years, Rene’s sister scored a few hotel rooms right in the Valley, and Joe and I spontaneously came on board. Also it was both mine and Rene’s birthday on Sunday – what better way to celebrate?

Day 1 – Exploring Yosemite Valley + sunset drive + birthday celebration

The night before, Joe and I stayed in a hotel outside of the park, so we got an early start the first day. Funny enough, Rene and the rest of the group all scored lottery tickets to Half Dome – it’s a bucket list opportunity and I was so happy for them! That left me and Joe to explore on our own the first day which was a huge blessing since we wanted to take it easy and get to know the beautiful Valley.

First, we spent the morning getting our bearings at Yosemite Valley. The Valley is pretty tourist-y, and for a reason since it’s so beautiful – there were tons of camps/dining stops/visitor centers within the tall trees and huge meadows.

First up, we attempting the Lower Yosemite Falls trail. It was a very short trail and when we got to the falls…womp, it was completely dried up. That’s wildfire season for you!

Lower Yosemite Falls

Given the surrounding fires, the Valley was a little hazy and very dry. Joe had been to Yosemite before and it was definitely different compared to his past photos where everything was lush and green. Nevertheless I still loved the area and appreciated Yosemite’s different scenery at different points of the year.

wildfires in california

After we got our fix of the immediate sites, Joe and I decided to attempt one substantial hike for the day. We embarked on the Mirror Lake trail, which featured a lake that apparently had beautiful reflections of the tall mountains in the early Spring (it was dried up in the summer).

The trail started off immediately with gorgeous views of the tall rocky formations, which really is the unique part of Yosemite.

hiking in yosemite

The trail was flat and shady and weaved through the forrest. We had the tall mountains peaking out next to us and it was quite a site.

active couple

When we got to Mirror Lake, it was a pretty surreal site. The entire lake was completely dried and it was pretty trippy standing right on the bottom of the sandy lake. The rocky mountains were SO tall and beautiful, and it was breathtaking looking up at them…I felt so small.

dry mirror lake
yosemite cliffs rocks

We finished up the hike, ate some snacks, and then killed some time before checking into our hotel. I napped on a log and Joe climbed around the rocks like a monkey 🙂

At 5pm, we checked into our hotel and took the best shower of my life. The hotel was pretty basic, but the selling factor was it’s central location right in the Valley. After resting for a bit, we grabbed dinner at the dining hall and ate in our little private backyard…Joe and I joked how the Valley felt like summer camp :).

dinner in the woods

After dinner, we still had lots of energy and decided to go for a sunset drive through the Valley. I was inspired by the orange/pink hues starting to peak through the rocks; there were still several sites we hadn’t seen, and what better time to explore than golden hour?

The drive was absolutely gorgeous. The tall rock formations we saw in the day were completely different at sunset. At one point, we look to the right and Joe pointed out El Capitan! This is one of the most famous spots for elite rock climbers, and the inspiration for the movies: Free Solo and The Dawn Wall. Looking up at El Capitan, I was in awe and couldn’t believe these talented climbers could climb up!

el capitan

We drove along and every other turn we “ooo” and “ahh”-ed and the sites. We stopped at a reservoir and took in the beautiful reflection of the mountains.

sunset at Yosemite

The last stop to our evening drive was driving up to Tunnel View. It was a gorgeous viewpoint from up top, which was new since we spent most of the day at ground-level. It was perfection.

driving at sunset

I’m SO glad we decided to go for our evening adventure because the drive truly rounded out my first day. I had my “a-ha” moment seeing Yosemite at sunset and found a deep appreciation for the park.

At night, the rest of the crew got back to the hotel and we caught up on our days. Their Half Dome hike took 14 HOURS! I was so impressed. We kicked back over some beers and games of fish bowl. The perfect end to a memorable birthday. ❤

Day 2: Vernal Falls Hike

After a night of drinking, I was surprised how great I felt the next morning. Joe and I took it easy and ate breakfast, followed by packing up our hotel room and spending one last day in the park.

Joe and I had a lot of energy while the rest of the group was dead from Half Dome yesterday, so we switched places and me and Joe set out for a more strenuous hike, Vernal Falls, which is 5 miles round trip and super steep.

The trail started off pretty chill. Immediately we had views of small streams of water which set the tone for the entire hike. While yesterday was filled with dust and dryness, this part of the park was lush and green – it was refreshing to breath in the crisp mountain air.

The first part of the hike was uphill on this narrow path. Joe and I have very different hiking styles. Joe likes to sprint up the hill, stop for a few seconds to catch his breath, and then jet off again. Whereas I take very short and slooow steps, and I don’t like to stop. Net-net I’ll usually catch up to him and we end up at the same place 🙂

The views along the path were unreal. Unlike yesterday when we were looking up at the mountains, this time we were actually ON the mountains and we could see the intricate rocks up close as well as the sweeping views. It took my breath away.

The next part of the hike was a bunch of steps leading to the waterfall. They got pretty steep and it was definitely a hamstring work out.

Finally we made it to Vernal Falls! It was so vast and colorful (there was even a rainbow). It’s usually more full with water other parts of the year, but I thought it was still so beautiful. I was honestly just glad to see water and life in Yosemite in the midst of wildfire season. 🙂

Vernal Falls

After a photoshoot at the falls, we continued hiking and made it all the way to the top of the falls. Then we headed back on the John Muir Trail which was actually my favorite stretch of the whole trip. There was barely anyone on the John Muir trail and we basically had it to ourselves. We kept hiking up in elevation, and it was cool getting so close to the top of these huge rocks, which looked so daunting from ground-level. Every few steps there was a different view to soak in. We would take a photo, just to walk a few steps and get a different, more breathtaking angle.

After making it to the very top, it was time to head down. Is it just me or is going down-hill harder than going uphill sometimes? We made up so much elevation that it was definitely a trek to go all the way down the mountain. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the 360 views and the fresh mountain air one last time before saying goodbye to the park.

Afterwards, we had some lunch and drove back to SF. It felt so good to sit in the car after that hike. Overall I feel so refreshed and grateful we made it out to Yosemite. Two days before the trip, we weren’t sure if we were going to make it because of the wildfires, but Rene was super encouraging and I’m SO glad we took the plunge and came out!

I’ve done birthday trips a few times and they are hands down my favorite way to spend a special day. The whole trip was filled with exploration and adventure, and these feelings I have while traveling truly capture the essence of happiness. Plus getting outside of my SF-COVID-bubble was overdue and I’m coming back feeling like a different person. 🙂

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