How to visit Yosemite if you have a chronic illness
Fellow Blogger Caroline from Functioning Tired shares with us her experience of visiting Yosemite with a chronic illness. Caroline suffers with Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome aka POTS is a form of dysautonomia, which means the autonomic nervous system has trouble regulating some key functions.
This photo is from 2017, on a trip to Yosemite, before having a chronic illness was even a thought in my mind. I think the thing that is sometimes hard to remember is that it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t sick when this photo was taken. I had just grown used to feeling bad, to the point that feeling ill was my “normal.”
I picked shorter hikes or views that we could just drive to because at this point I knew that I wasn’t physically able to do anything too strenuous. So when I picked a hike that was less than a mile long, I figured that I would be okay as long as I went slow.
This is a day that I will truly never forget.
Although this hike was less than a mile long, the elevation change was bananas and something I had not factored in to my planning.
I remember walking along this trail and feeling like my heart was going to literally explode out of my chest and someone would have to come drag whatever was left of me out of Yosemite National Park. I got so lightheaded and short of breath that I had to sit down 4 times on the way up, even though there was really nowhere convenient to stop on the trail.
Collapsed in the dirt trying to stay out of the way, panting and thinking to myself that if this is where it all ends for me, at least I’ll have a good view, the overwhelming feeling I felt for myself was not fear, concern, or dismay.
It was pure embarrassment.
I watched as multiple elderly people chugged on past me, seemingly with ease. I watched as people who appeared “unhealthy” and people donning flip flops skipped merrily by, all of them giving me a sideways glance.
This was a moment where I couldn’t put my blinders on and pretend that nothing was wrong, because it was so clearly not normal. A seemingly healthy 20 year old girl half passed out on the side of one of the most moderate hikes that the park had to offer, with people 3x her age giving her looks of pity on their way by.
I’ve never forgotten that feeling.
But I have finally, finally, been able to feel some sort of vindication for that sad and embarrassed girl laying in the dirt as I have been officially diagnosed with POTS.
My cardiologist told me that research has shown that the quality of life in POTS patients is comparable to those in congestive heart failure, which I 100% believe but also continue to be astounded about.
If you had asked me that day on the side of the trail, I would have said that congestive heart failure probably felt better than whatever was happening to me.
These days, however, I am able to live a relatively normal life. I am fortunate that my POTS is not severe enough that it prevents me from doing most daily activities. I am now able to plan around big events or realize that a 2 mile hike might just not be in the cards for me.
But the biggest thing that has come from my diagnosis is the knowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with my autonomic nervous system that prevents me from living like everyone else who passed by me that day.
And that is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.
General Tips for Visiting Yosemite When You Have a Chronic Illness
Consider staying in an AirBnB
This is actually one of my favorite tips for traveling with a chronic illness no matter what the destination is. I pretty much always stay in an AirBNB and am even comfortable paying a liiiiitttttle bit more for this type of lodging than a typical hotel.
Here’s why: traveling when you are chronically ill is exhausting. I know a lot of people who don’t really care where they are staying because they see it only as a place to rest their heads at night. But for the chronically ill, this probably isn’t the case.
When traveling, I usually just don’t have the energy to be out and about doing things nonstop. I inevitably need to take a break and factor in time to rest. However, resting in a hotel room always seems like such a killjoy. You’re confined to a small space, usually no access to food, and the experience is pretty standard.
What I love about staying at airbnb’s, however, is that many of them are so unique! This gives you the opportunity to make sure that wherever you are staying is its own experience. Staying in a really cool house definitely reduces my feelings of “I’m missing out on everything fun by sitting inside being exhausted and sick.”
Here is the airbnb I stayed in for my trip to Yosemite! Full disclosure: it is about an hour drive from the “middle” of the park where most attractions are. 50 or so of those minutes are driving through the actual park, it is HUGE!! We honestly enjoyed this better as the park seemed very crowded and food/amenities were expensive. We were able to get food at a local grocery store and it was sooooo quiet which was amazing after a long day.
This was a tip that I had read on a few blogs before I visited, and I am SO glad we listened to it.
Yosemite at 8 am = quiet, serene, majestic, peaceful.
Yosemite at 3 pm = crowded, hot, sensory overload x 100000, loud.
Trust me. The first option is much better. On the few occasions we were at the park later in the afternoon, my head almost exploded from sensory overload.
Bring adequate food and hydration
I really recommend bringing a small backpack (you can search hiking backpacks and just pick a cheap one) to carry some food and water.
There is not always access to this stuff in the park once you have ventured out, or it is just expensive.
We packed sandwiches, granola bars, water, and gatorade.
Find a map of the park and the shuttle and keep it with you at all times
Living with fibromyalgia, I am familiar with brain fog.
However, I was not prepared for brain fog to hit me while wandering a national park, leaving me walking in circles for what seemed like hours with no cell service and literally no idea where I was going. Don’t be like me.
Try to utilize the shuttles to limit how much energy you are using! The shuttle system map can be found here.
Yosemite operates 4 different shuttles:
- Yosemite Valley: throughout the Yosemite Village area (year‐round) and to El Capitan Bridge and Tuolumne Meadows (summer only).
- Wawona to Mariposa Grove: from the Wawona Store & Pioneer Gift Shop to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (summer only).
- Wawona to Yosemite Valley: from the Wawona Hotel to Yosemite Valley at 8:30 a.m. return trip leaves Yosemite Valley at 3:30 p.m. (summer only).
- Tuolumne Meadows: from Olmsted Point to Tioga Pass (summer only).
Definitely use these!
My favorite chronically ill friendly places to see in Yosemite
*Disclaimer: everyone’s abilities are different and therefore you should do your own research and make an educated decision about if these sights are feasible with your health conditions. I am only able to share my own experiences and cannot guarantee that everyone who is chronically ill will find these places to be accessible.
Glacier Point was hands down my favorite spot in Yosemite. I could have stayed here for hours and hours. It was so breathtaking and beautiful that it almost did not seem real!
We chose to do this very early in the morning, and we drove up to Glacier Point. I will warn you that this drive is NOT for the faint of heart. You have to drive around very steep twists and turns that are literally just the edge of a huge cliff and no barriers or anything. I was nervous as hell, but I just went very very slow and I didn’t feel unsafe or anything, just a little scared. I wouldn’t try it if there was even a centimeter of ice or snow still on the ground though.
From the parking lot, you can walk right up to Glacier Point. There’s not really any hiking even involved with this, which I appreciated!
I have read that this parking lot can fill up very quickly, so if you aren’t planning on arriving very early in the morning then I would probably take one of the shuttles.
Distance: 1 mile (1.6 km) loop
Elevation gain: Approximately 50 ft (15 m)
Time: 30 minutes
This hike is short and easy. It has spectacular views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. This was probably the longest hike that we did (in terms of distance), and it did not overwhelm me as it was very flat and easy to walk along. The view of the waterfalls at the end were awesome!
We weren’t originally planning on stopping at Bridalveil Falls, but we were going past it and there were some empty parking spots so we decided to stop. This is a VERY easy hike! I really don’t even believe that it is .5 miles. The only thing to note is that it might have been a little slippery, as you do get splashed by the waterfall.
Distance: 0.5 mi (0.8 km) round trip
Elevation gain: Approximately 80 ft (24 m)
Time: 20 minutes
Tunnel View (H3)
This spot can get crowded with tour buses and cars, but still makes the list of top places to see. You can pull over to the side and cross the road to look out and see views of Yosemite Valley, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, and El-Capitan.
It involved no hiking at all, we just had to pull over and walk across a road. This is definitely an easy one!
The Mariposa grove was closed for construction when we visited in 2017, which I was very bummed about. However, we did drive past it on our way into the park every morning. I definitely would have had the Mariposa Grove on my list if it had been open!
If you want to check out the Mariposa Grove, I recommend the Big Trees Loop Trail. This hike is rated as easy, being only 0.3 mile (0.5 km) and an estimated 30 to 45 minutes.
Some other hikes to consider depending on your abilities
Vernal Falls Footbridge
Distance: 1.6 mi (2.6 km) round trip
Elevation gain: 400 ft (120 m)
Time: 1-1.5 hours
*Note that if you are looking it up, this hike is different from the Vernal Falls Hike! You are only hiking to the base of Vernal Falls for the footbridge.
I’ll be honest, the Vernal Falls Footbridge kicked my butt. I thought that it would be challenging myself a little because it is rated as a “Moderate” hike, but this is the hike that I really thought I was going to die on (see my story at the top of this page if you forget).
For me personally, the view was not worth it because I felt like complete crap after. However, like I said before, there were numerous elderly people who were going along this hike with no problem, so I think it really depends on the individual. I have POTS in addition to fibromyalgia, and I think this hike really made my POTS symptoms worse. However, this is definitely the most difficult hike included.
There is a little lodge area right after the footbridge where you can sit for a while, which I had to do. The squirrels here were like nothing I had ever seen before! I know this sounds ludicrous, but it was the absolute craziest thing I had ever seen. Apparently so many people feed them that they just have no fear of humans, so while I was sitting on a rock snacking, a few just walked right up to me. Like, touching my foot. I was stuck between awestruck and terrified!
Tuolumne Meadows: Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge
1.5 miles (2.4 km) round-trip; 1 hour
We did not get to hike Tuolumne Meadows since we ran out of time and chose to hike Mirror Lake instead. We had a lot of trouble finding where the Mirror Lake trail started and to this day I’m not even sure if we were on the right path, but we never did find Mirror Lake and eventually gave up because we were tired and it was a bit of a hard walk.
I wish we had chosen Tuolumne Meadows instead as I have heard it is very peaceful and serene! Along this hike you can see Soda Springs, which are small springs filled with carbonated water.
Some Final Notes about Visiting Yosemite While Chronically Ill
Most of the sights that I included were not overly strenuous for me, but everyone is different! However, I wouldn’t let your chronic illness deter you from visiting this breathtaking national park. Yosemite is definitely my favorite place I have ever visited, and the beauty there is unlike anything I have ever experienced.
Here is the link to Yosemite’s Accessibility Guide for additional information about their accommodations
In addition, Yosemite also offers guided bus and tram tours. I couldn’t find information about if there is any hiking involved in these or if they are strictly bus tours. However, before my visit I called the customer service number listed on Yosemite’s website in regards to something I was confused about, and they were extremely kind and helpful.
I hope that this information is helpful for planning your trip to Yosemite! Despite multiple chronic illnesses, I always try to find ways to enjoy traveling and see the world. I know that you can too!
Author Bio : Caroline is the blogger behind Functioning Tired, a comprehensive resource for navigating your twenties with a chronic illness. She provides the best insights to the most critical questions facing young spoonies: from dating to doctors appointments to depression and more.
All images provided by Functioning Tired