First Timer in YosemiteDrive in via 120 and make a stop in Groveland, CA. This is a perfect place to stop, about an hour and a half from the valley floor. If you are looking for a spot to rest your head, then go no further than Hotel Charlotte. Originally opened in 1921 and located in the heart of Groveland, Hotel Charlotte is the perfect historic inn to complete any trip to Yosemite. It is within walking distance of most places in Groveland. There is also a restaurant and bar in the hotel, Fork & Love, that has a wonderful menu and a very friendly staff. Try the fried chicken with sweet potato mash, brussels sprouts, and hot sauce. I start the day off with a coffee in the hammock garden at Mountain Sage Coffee. This unique place features a coffee bar, art, clothes, and jewelry shop, and a plant nursery. Everything is made locally and it is run by the sweetest staff. I order an iced green tea latte made with local honey, and it just may be the best, most refreshing one I’ve had. The Iron Door Saloon is a must-stop in Groveland. It is the oldest functioning saloon in all of California and is a great place for a fuel up by grabbing a beer at the bar and chat with all the locals; you just may meet the old sheriff, Sheriff Mikey, a regular at the Saloon. They have some great local beers on tap. The food is pretty great, too. I order the chicken fingers with french fries and a side of ranch, and I am not going to lie…they taste amazing! The fries and tenders are hand breaded and not greasy, and the ranch is perfect. Some nights feature live music or karaoke. Also, be sure and try your luck at throwing a quarter on the ceiling: twist it up in a dollar bill and shoot it up – it just may stick! There is also a ‘Rattle Snake Tail’ competition currently going on. My first stop in Yosemite is Hetch Hetchy. Unfortunately, there had been a rock slide earlier that morning so vehicles are not allowed the entire way to the reservoir, so I go as far as I can I go. It’s amazing looking down into the reservoir, but I wish I could see the whole thing! There is a hotel located on the road near Hetch Hetchy that has a dining room as well as small cafe – great place to stop for a quick fuel up. Coming in to the park from Groveland, use the Tioga Pass entrance. Tioga Pass closed during my visit due to snow so I go straight into the valley. Driving into the valley I was speechless. All of the cliffs and colors. The leaves were all at their peak of change – bright yellows, reds, and oranges. I don’t recall ever seeing such real, raw, natural beauty. I continue on, driving beside the Tuolumne River with gorgeous golden leaves falling all around and the trees making a beautiful arc across the road, and then I see it. The most majestic site – I get chills from the power and excitement cascading down from Bridalveil Falls, surrounded by giant granite cliffs. It is so magical, I can feel the energy running through me, thirsty for more. And it is only the beginning.Next comes Half Dome, one of the most dominating sites in the Valley. Almost every where you go, just look up there it is: a giant rock that is literally in the shape of half a dome. Then on to Yosemite Falls which are both flowing freely. On the end of my hike to the lower falls, I turn back around and look up: there they are. Both upper and lower falls rumbling down the cliff. El Capitan is up next, watching the climbers make their way up the intense face. As I finish my loop around the valley I make one final stop, and enjoyed what would soon become my favorite view: El Capitan and the Three Brothers. I’ve always heard no trip to Yosemite is complete without a visit to the historic Awahnee Hotel, now known as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Dinner is the best time to go, just be sure to look your best! Grab a drink at the bar then roam around outside taking in the splendor of nature and the hotel. Then head back inside to warm up by the two giant, walk-in fireplaces. For dinner, try and get a table by a window, preferably in the alcove. That is where the best views of the dining room are, and outside of course! The food is delicious, and the service is even better. It is truly an unforgettable experience one must not miss out on when visiting Yosemite. Other areas of the park include Glacier Point and Wawona. Glacier Point is a seventeen mile drive up a slow, narrow road, but the views are more than worth it. See Half Dome in all its glory, surrounded by the waterfalls of Yosemite. Continue south from Glacier Point and arrive in Wawona, home of the Big Trees Lodge. Arriving here, you just may feel as if you’ve been whisked away to summer camp, or Dirty Dancing. This time of year is a great time to go! The leaves are changing, the weather is perfect, and the park is a lot less crowded. The falls are also more likely to be flowing – which is a rare site and one of the most glorious in the park. There are many hikes found throughout the valley – from simple to extreme. Bikes are available for rent at Yosemite Valley Lodge, and are a great way to spend the day exploring the valley. Most of the time is spent looking up, eyeing the high cliffs and waterfalls, but don’t forget to look down around you. Animals are everywhere in the valley. As much as I have learned from this first trip, I seriously cannot wait to go back and learn more. After all, this is the place made famous by The North Face: "Never Stop Exploring."

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