Five Days in Yosemite – A Valley Primer

“Too-tock-uh what?” my 8-year old asked, looking up at Yosemite’s El Capitan.

The hiking guide said the word again: “Tutokanula—it means inchworm.”

We had inched our way to the midpoint of our first hike in Yosemite National Park, and our guide Sam (that’s right, Yosemite Sam) explained that the Euro-American settlers and the native Miwok peoples who inhabited the valley had opposite ideas for naming the famous monolith. The newcomers called it The Captain, but the native name for it is “inchworm.”  The 7,569 foot granite cliff was, in legend, the site where a humble inchworm helped rescue a bear cub when all the other animals’ flashier strengths and talents proved useless. Humility and perseverance were the message, not mastery. One foot—one inch—in front of the other.

An Adventure in Senses

using senses

My own cubs were thirsty. Hiking the 8-mile Valley Floor Loop in 90 degree heat had taxed all of our perseverance and served up healthy doses of humility, but exploring Yosemite Valley first on foot, rather than by tram or tour bus, was a way to get close to the details of the flora and fauna, and to feel the immense power of the landscape at the same time. We explored the smooth holes worn in boulders where Miwok women had ground acorns for thousands of years. We learned to tell Pondersosa pines and incense cedars by their bark, and traced a relief map of the surrounding topography with our eyes closed. We stopped to wade in the ice-cold Merced River in view of Yosemite Falls.

Traversing the Valley Trails


Five days in Yosemite is a complete re-education in the human place in the large and small, and the best way to do it is by hand, foot, and tush. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, and rock climbing were ways to keep the kids close to the miniscule and still get the sweeping view of the grand scale. Hiking guide Sam also explained that the national park’s name comes from a mistake: “Yosemite,” the phrase the Miwok called out to the arriving settlers to warn them about the bears, means “there are killers among us.” The older name for the place is “Ahwahnee,” meaning “wide mouth,” an apter name for the open valley that encompasses so much.


When feet get tired from walking, bikes for all ages can be rented at several locations on the Valley floor, which has many miles of paved bike trails. An expedition on horseback gave a different view, a slow ramble through pine woods to Mirror Lake. For kids over 12, rock-climbing classes provide safe, well-coached experiences with the immensity of the valley’s famous granite cliffs. (Here is James, age 13, climbing his first spire, the 700 foot peak “Little Sister.”)

Finding Our Rhythm

IMG_6056Seasoned by a few days of exercise in the open air, we took one more long hike on our last day in the park—the breathtaking Panorama Trail. Bus service to Glacier Point, high above the valley, allowed us to begin a long descent within view of Half Dome and the westerly expanse immortalized by Albert Bierstadt’s 1865 painting “Looking Down Yosemite Valley California.” The 9-mile hike follows sloping switchbacks to Illilouette Falls, continues with a stretch of hard climbing along the Panorama Cliff and a traverse to the top of Nevada Falls, then descends rock staircases along the Mist Trail. We needed gummi bears and several rounds “The Ants Go Marching” and “99 Bottles of Beer” to get us through, but the Panorama Trail reveals Yosemite in its splendor, and we arrived euphoric, filthy, and exhausted at Happy Isles.

We marched the kids over nearly 20 miles of trail, and covered at least that many cycling and riding. Yes, there was complaining, but there was also amazement and awareness. Keep moving, stop whining, find your rhythm, think of a song, look up: this was the advice I gave my kids in Yosemite, and it might be all I ever need to say.

Planning Your Trip

When you go, consider camping in one of the parks bustling and centrally located campgrounds, which have great amenities and lively family programs, or stay at the iconic and fabulous Ahwahnee Lodge, where you can take tea in an Adirondack chair under the cedars and the shadow of Half Dome while the kids kick a soccer ball on the lawn.


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