Interview with an Insider: Yosemite National Park

When you talk about the national parks, you kind of have to talk about Yosemite. It’s a big deal. A designated World Heritage Site covering an area of almost 1,169 square miles, early accounts of Yosemite were key to capturing the public’s interest in protecting wildlife. And with an estimated 4.6 million visitors this year, that interest just keeps heating up. Yet, of those 1,169 square miles, 95% of the park's visitors never venture beyond the 7 square mile area that makes up the valley floor...so things are getting a bit crowded. Well, really crowded, to be honest.

So we decided to sit down with a real Yosemite expert to learn all about what everyone's missing out on at America's oldest park. Along with holding the title of Communications Coordinator for the Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau, Damian Riley has a deeper connection to the park. Born and raised in the area, Riley is himself a Miwok Native American - aka the very people who named Yosemite in the first place, and they've lived there for thousands of years.

When’s the best time of year to visit Yosemite? 

It depends on what you want to experience. Yosemite has 4 robust seasons and we’re open year-round. However, if you want all of that epic beauty without worrying about crowds, parking or lodging, we’d highly suggest coming in the fall or winter. Both offer stunning scenes that really few experience and there are days where you’ll feel like you have the entire park to yourself.

Where are your favorite hidden gems?

Well, we can’t give away all the secrets, but there are some amazing spots hiding in plain sight:

  1. Happy Isles – a small maze of almost marsh islands formed by the river flow from Vernal Falls just up the Mist Trail. Most pass it by (or don’t even know it’s there) but it’s a great place to just sit and meditate, watch the water, butterflies or the occasional coyotes that venture though looking for their next meal.
  2. Pohono Bridge – Located on the west entrance of the park and running along the Merced River, most people drive right by on their way to sites deeper into the valley. Complete with canopies of dogwood trees and natural water springs, the Pohono bridge area stays lush almost year-round.
  3. Directly behind the Visitors center sits the Native Ahwahnee Village. As you might expect, it’s a recreation of a native Yosemite Valley village. Taking in grand vistas are always fun, but taking an historical trip through the eyes of the original inhabitants will give you a much deeper understanding of life in Yosemite over the past odd thousand years.

What should people avoid doing when they visit?

  1. Feeding or disturbing wildlife. It causes major problems not only for the National Park Service, but also for the visitor experience as a whole. We want to keep wildlife “wild”. Approaching, feeding, or taking photos with any of the wildlife disturbs the delicate balance we maintain in sharing the natural ecosystem.
  2. Trash is a big concern, and we don’t just mean littering. In a place like Yosemite, you really need to be conscious of the amount of trash you bring into the park. Even something as simple as bringing your own reusable bottle can have a major impact on the volume of trash that builds up each year. Yosemite is considered a sacred place for a reason, and Mother Nature can’t do it alone; thousands of park volunteers and employees dedicate countless hours each year to preserving the valley.

For people on a budget, what's the best way to get as much out of Yosemite as possible?

There are a few ways:

  1. Think about taking YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System). These buses operate in and out of Yosemite to stops in the surrounding counties. They run several times a day, 7 days a week and save you the gas and entry fee to the park.
  2. Bring in your own food. Surrounding towns like Mariposa have grocery stores that provide a larger variety of choices for lower costs than what you’ll pay in Yosemite itself.
  3. Take a look at lodging options outside of Yosemite Valley. Again, Mariposa County – also part of Yosemite National Park – has tons of lodging options that typically cost far less, and some are only 20-30 minutes from the valley.

What's your favorite Yosemite story?

That’s such a difficult question ... My favorite stories usually come from the first-timers I meet on their way out. The look in their eyes is always the same – as though they’ve just come back from Narnia or Middle Earth.

Damian Riley is a professional photographer/videographer in the Yosemite Sierra region. Having traveled the globe for the past 15 years specializing in portrait and urban street photography, Riley returned to Yosemite to meld his passions – capturing the essence of both the people and the natural landscape of Yosemite National Park. Follow him on Instagram at @damianrileyphoto