Gluten-Free Travel Guide: Yosemite National Park
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Just wow! There is a reason that countless photographers, painters, and wilderness explorers have fallen in love with Yosemite. When you drive through the Wawona Tunnel and then catch your first glimpse of the valley’s grandeur at Tunnel View, you will instantly understand. The view of Yosemite Valley is dramatic and breathtaking. It is hard to imagine, but somehow, once you start exploring Yosemite National Park, it gets even better.
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The beginning of this decade increased our collective stress levels. Unplugging, getting outside, and connecting with nature anywhere is good for our mental and physical health. In Yosemite, all of this is amplified. I see it in the way my tween/teen children visibly return to a carefree version of themselves. I feel it as my own body relaxes and my mind stops ticking through the daily to-dos. Truly awe-inspiring views at every turn, endless trails, and spotty cell service all contribute to the tranquility of this timeless escape.
Tip: Visit Yosemite in late spring! In the summer, you can expect crowds and heat. In late Spring, the crowds are lower, the waterfalls are flowing, fire season has not started, and the weather is generally mild. Check the weather, though, as it does occasionally snow into May, and certainly, existing snowpack can remain at higher evaluations. Some of the roads, trails, and park services may not be accessible until very late spring. Even with these limitations, springtime is ideal for comfortably enjoying Yosemite National Park.
Whenever you decide to go to Yosemite, start your visit at the Official National Park Service website for Yosemite. There you will find the latest information regarding activities, closures, park entry requirements, and reservations.
Let’s get into it… where to stay, how to safely eat gluten-free, and what to enjoy on your Yosemite vacation!
Where to Stay
In Yosemite National Park lodging is managed by Aramark Destinations. The most upscale, by national park standards, is the Ahwahnee. In addition to Ahwahnee, options on the Valley Floor, include Yosemite Valley Lodge, Curry Village, Housekeeping Camp, and four campgrounds (Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, and Camp 4). Aramark offers other lodging options throughout Yosemite National Park, but my recommendation is to be close to the Valley Floor for your first visit unless you are an experienced camper, hiker, backpacker, or National Park enthusiast.
A vacation rental is a fabulous choice (and my personal go-to for national parks), if you are wanting access to a kitchen for celiac-safe food options (more about gluten-free food in a minute).
We stayed in the Royal Retreat booked on VRBO. The house was lovely, modern-but-blended-into-the-natural-environment, clean, comfortable, and well-stocked, and the hosts were a library of information about Yosemite.
If the Royal Retreat is not the right size for your crew, I recommend searching Airbnb or VRBO for Yosemite West Properties with air conditioning, if visiting during the summer or fall. A/C is self-explanatory, but why Yosemite West? Yosemite West is inside the National Park gates, which means you do not also need a park reservation to get into the park, and you will save time and avoid traffic every day of your visit, getting to the Valley Floor before the crowds. Depending on the exact location of the rental home within the Yosemite West tract, you will be approximately 25-30 minutes from the Valley Floor.
Gluten-Free Food in Yosemite National Park
As is the case with most National Parks, gluten-free food options are in short supply.
The Ahwahnee Dining Room is an amazing experience. The wall of windows, stretching up to the 34-foot, vaulted ceiling, connect today’s diners to the beauty of the park, just as they did nearly 100 years ago when the Ahwahnee was built. Check out my review of the Ahwahnee Dining Room, #5 on the BestLife’s list of the 6 Best Restaurants within National Parks.
Be sure to make an advance dining reservation.
The Ahwahnee Dining Room has a limited menu for all diners, so be prepared for a small selection of gluten-free options at each meal. I ordered the Ahwahnee Seasonal Salad and Miss E had the Ahwahnee Bacon Burger with fruit. The service was great, all of our cross-contamination questions were answered to our satisfaction, and everyone enjoyed the meal, the view, and the live piano music.
Groceries are limited inside the park, but the Village Store has a small selection of fresh, naturally gluten-free foods, as well as quite a few gluten-free snack items, like Brazi Bites Empanadas, Udi’s bagels and Kettle Chips.
The Sweet Shop in the Ahwahnee had a wall of pre-packaged treats with lots of sweet gluten-free options, including Siete Cookies, Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups, several varieties of Chocolove bars, as well as savory options, such as Simple Mills Crackers, Harvest Snaps & Hippeas.
Some vacations are perfect for gluten-free dining out (I’m talking about you, New York) and others are begging for you to make your own gluten-free food. Yosemite National Park is the latter. For us, a vacation rental made the most sense, since we are not campers.
A vacation rental makes it easy to start your day early with either a hearty or a quick breakfast. You will be in good company for lunch, as most folks, gluten-free or not, are packing a picnic and snacks for a day of exploring. Then, return to your cozy cabin for a simple, sheetpan dinner and boardgames.
If you opt for a vacation rental home, here are a few tips for safely making your own gluten-free meals:
- Groceries: Stock up at the Von’s in Oakhurst (40044 Highway 49, Oakhurst, CA) on your way to Yosemite. If you take advantage of Von’s Driveup & Go service, confirm that your order is complete before you leave the store. It will be difficult to find substitutes once you are in the park. Von’s $30 OFF DRIVEUP & GO™
- Picnic Lunches: For picnic lunches, separate individual meals in these Ziploc divided containers and then pack them into a cooler backpack for hiking.
- Kitchen Essentials: Pack a Celiac Travel Kit with the following essentials:
- Aluminum foil – This is the single most important tool to keep you gluten-free in someone else’s kitchen. You can use foil on a sheet pan for simple sheet pan meals, toaster waffles, frozen pizza, grilled cheese, and more. Foil also serves as a barrier to use a contaminated grill. After keeping me safe from cross-contamination, my favorite part about the aluminum foil is the easy clean up.
- Flexible cutting board – to avoid cross-contamination from a cutting board at your vacation rental that surely has been used to cut more than it’s fair share of gluten-containing food.
- Frying pan
- Gallon Ziploc bags – work like a bowl for tossing veggies in olive oil for sheet pan dinners
- Can opener
- Salt, pepper, and favorite spice(s) – dispense into snack bags if you need to save space
- Gluten-Free Meal Planner: Get your free, printable, Vacation Rental: Gluten-Free Meal Planner from Go Gluten Freely, with sample meal plans, grocery lists, weekend and weekly meal planners, and optional additions to your Celaic Travel Kit.
Exploring the Valley Floor: Hiking
Hiking, we could start and stop there. The view is stunning with every turn… granite walls, towering pines and waterfalls. We enjoyed several Valley Floor hikes, ranging from easy to strenous.
Cook’s Meadow Loop and Lower Yosemite Falls Loop are both wheelchair accessible, flat, short hikes that take about 30 minutes. We extended both walks with some adventuring. We climbed fallen trees and rocks (NOT the rocks by the falls!), and we ran through an ankle-deep, still section of the VERY cold Merced river to a sand “island” near the Sentinel Bridge. Warnings: do not climb rocks by the falls, and depending on season and water flow, entering the Merced River may not be advisable. If in doubt, ask a Park Ranger about current conditions and safety.
Another flat, easy hike is Mirror Lake/Meadow, which is either a lake or a meadow depending on the season. Visit during late spring and early summer if you want to see water. In April, we found part water, part meadow.
The giant trail map outside the Welcome Center lists lists the Vernal Fall Footbridge hike as moderate. If you continue on the Mist Trail to Vernal and/or Nevada Falls, the trail is considered strenuous.
We went as far as the top of Vernal Falls, and it was worth the climb. The best view was the small rainbow facing the falls about 5-10 minutes from the top. As we started the stair portion of the trek just past the Vernal Falls footbridge, a thoughtful hiker coming down offered me her walking stick. It gave me a bit more confidence while coming down the wet stairs near the top of Vernal Falls, and I highly recommend finding one on your way to the Mist Trail.
If you want to explore beyond the Valley Floor, Yosemite Hikes has recommendations for hikes in the valley as well as throughout Yosemite National Park. The practical Yosemite Hikes trail index covers distance, elevation gain, crowd factor, scenery factor and difficulty.
The Yosemite Conservancy has wonderful programs led by folks passionate about their area of discipline, from naturalist walks to paint & sip events.
One of those program’s Experiencing Yosemite’s Night Sky with a Naturalist was amazing. It is hard to descibe the beauty of a tour of the milky way while surrounded by dimmly glowing granite and the sound of Yosemite Falls in the background. CJ was disappointed when I told him he was not allowed to buy the laser pointer the naturalist used! Register in advance. This program sells out, so sign up in advance.
The conservancy’s art activities include a daily art class taught by the artist in residence. We met the current artist (they usually rotate every week or two) at the Happy Isles Art & Nature Center for a brief watercolor lesson before she took us to the Merced River for plein air painting. The age is 12 and up, but I emailed in advance confirming that 11-year-old Miss could participate. She had no issue keeping up with the class. There are also art classes offered at Happy Isles for children ages 4-11 during June to August. Some of the classes allow drop-ins and others require advance reservations.
The Ansel Adams Gallery offers an In the Field: Smart Phone Photography Class. Class sizes are limited to 6 and they do sell out. Ask me how I know! Seriously, this class has amazing reviews and gets you creatively interacting with nature for three-hours. If you are interested in this class, don’t drag your feet. Register as soon as you know you are going to Yosemite.
In lieu of the sold out smart phone class, Miss E held her own “class”. Before we started the laid-back Yosemite Falls Loop, Miss E gave us a few internet-curated tips for smart phone photography in Yosemite. Her best tip, was “try out vertical images”. The natural environment in national park really begs for the vertical shot. We handed the kids our phones and they spent about 20 minutes capturing photos from unique perspectives.
On your way out of Yosemite National Park, if you are taking State Route 41, Historic Yosemite in Wawona is well worth a stop. Stroll across the covered bridge, once the only way into Yosemite, and explore a few historic cabins, shops and a jail.
Activity inspiration for biking, rafting, horseback riding, ranger programs, and more can be found at Yosemite Stay and the Things to Do section of National Park Service website for Yosemite.
I would love to hear your tips for Yosemite and especially eating gluten-free inside the park.
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