Yosemite: The Complete Guide

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I'm so pleased to share the second of our four book reviews/author interviews with extraordinary writer and photographer James Kaiser. Last week, we shared his Complete Guide to Joshua Tree. See our reviews and author interviews with his next two books, Acadia: The Complete Guide and Grand Canyon: The Complete Guide (winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Full-Color Travel Guide and the Independent Publisher Award for Best Travel Guide) in the next two weeks.  We've also interviewed James Kaiser, about travel writing, photography, and more. 

Yosemite: The Complete Guide is a gem. Kaiser's hallmark is the extensive research he does into an area - and we are rewarded here, with in-depth information on geology, ecology, and the history of the area. Yosemite National Park boasts the highest waterfall in North America (Yosemite Falls), most famous vertical rock face (El Capitan), and largest organisms of all time (giant sequoias). Upon reading this guide, however, you'll see that Yosemite shines in areas both large and small, popular and off-the-beaten-path - from Yosemite Valley to Half Dome; from Clark Range View to the Pohono Trail.

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

As with all of Kaiser's guidebooks, you'll be stunned at the photos. Kaiser has the eye for scenic landscapes, and he captures them so well. In all seasons, Kaiser shows us the beauty of the park. From the tiny person and tent on Dewey Point, engulfed in oversize landscape (pp. 214-215) to the steeply descending Half Dome cables (p.8), these photos do share the essence of Yosemite National Park. I dare you to look at the photos and find a favorite - because they are ALL remarkable.

Readers also learn about adventures you can have in the park - including hiking and backpacking (over 800 miles of trails!). Kaiser lists hiking basics, wilderness permits, winderness centers, weather concerns, mosquitos, guided hikes, backpacking rules, bear rules - and gives guides to the best hikes in Yosemite, with maps! Rock climbers will also find much here (and did you know, they constitute 5% of the annual visitors to Yosemite?). If you're not THAT much into the outdoors, and prefer a bed, there are five High Sierra Camps located along a 47-mile hiking trail. These are run by a lottery, so plan ahead if this is your choice. Kaiser also shares details of winter sports and river rafting (one of my favorite activities!) in this book.

Kaiser's list of basics is complete, indeed. From how to get to Yosemite to how (and when) to get around Yosemite, this book has all the details. Kaiser lists a plethora of lodging options, from hotels and lodges to campgrounds within the park to options outside of the park.

You'll learn about glaciers and how the landscape was formed; the plants and animals in the park (such a wide variety!); and the cultural history of the area, from the Miwok Indians to the Ahwahneechee Indians, from the European expansion to the Gold Rush, from soldiers to artists (including my favorite, Albert Bierstadt), from writers (naturalist John Muir) to photographers (Ansel Adams).

The latter half of the book is taken up with excellent information - detailed notes on where, how, where to stay, what to eat, the sights to see, maps, and more. It's the advice of an expert, and is much appreciated.

We sat down to talk with James Kaiser, about Yosemite: The Complete Guide. Here's what he had to say...

Please tell us about Yosemite National Park ...

Yosemite National Park is located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, about three hours east of San Francisco. It's one of America's most famous national parks because it's home to some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. Yosemite Valley is the most famous part of the park, and it's home to over half a dozen magnificent waterfalls. Above Yosemite Valley lies the High Sierra, an alpine wilderness that's home to some of the most dramatic hiking in the U.S.

You reference park rangers - how can visitors best utilize their knowledge?

Park rangers are amazing sources of knowledge, and free ranger programs are offered in all national parks. Topics include everything from nature and science to history and native culture. Calendars of ranger programs can be found at park visitor centers or on park websites.

What are your top recommendations for things to see/do in Yosemite?

Yosemite Valley is the highlight of the park. Although it's only seven miles long by one mile wide, it's packed with amazing mountain scenery—three thousand foot vertical cliffs, two thousand foot waterfalls. It's just spectacular. As John Muir once wrote of Yosemite Valley, it's "as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures."

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley

How did photographer Ansel Adams and his work influence the park - and your own work?

Ansel Adams is the world's most influential landscape photographer, and his best work was done in Yosemite. He was able to captured the immensity and majesty of the park in a way that no one had done before—and few have accomplished since. His work is bold and powerful, yet he employed a subtle, technical finesse to achieve his results. The more I study his work, the better my photography becomes.

How can visitors best take care of the park?

Yosemite Valley is incredibly popular, which means that congestion can be a problem in the busy summer months. The best way to minimize your impact is to park your car and explore the park on foot, on bike, or using the park's free shuttle system.

How is Yosemite constantly changing? What will our children see - is it timeless, or will they see a difference?

Barring some massive natural catastrophe, Yosemite will look pretty much the same for generations. That said, there are thousands of rockfalls each year. Most are minor, but a few big ones carve out subtle changes in the landscape. Geology is an ongoing process. Erosion carved out the spectacular scenery we enjoy today, and it will continue to sculpt it in the decades to come, but on a relatively small scale.

Are any of the lakes swimmable?

There are dozens of swimmable lakes in Yosemite, especially at the higher elevations. Of course, many are frigid, even in August, but nothing feels better than a cold plunge in a pristine mountain lake after a long, sweaty day of hiking!


Thanks so very much, James, for your insights. As with all of your guidebooks, we highly recommend Yosemite: A Complete Guide to our Wandering Educators.

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All photos courtesy and copyright James Kaiser