Yosemite National Park: Reviews of Travel Books and Maps

Our research led us to places like the summit of Sentinel Dome, where we saw this panorama framed by this lone jeffrey pine tree before it fell a few years later
The purpose of this page is to reveal to you the resources that we have used both prior to and during our trips to Yosemite National Park. We have reviewed such resources so we can convey to you which ones we thought were most useful as well as those we didn't find useful. Hopefully, this may better direct your information gathering efforts for your own trip...

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The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite [Overall Rating: 4.5/5]:
While this book wasn't waterfall specific, it did reveal to me how I should photograph waterfalls as well as other subjects to improve the pictures that I would take of the incomparable Yosemite. In fact, the book not only educated me about which subjects I could focus on, but it also told me where I should be to take the photographs as well as when to do it.

It was because of this book that I acquired more specific information about the firefall phenomenon at Horsetail Falls and acted upon it back in 2006 (before it became a crazy "special event") as well as gained a better appreciation for timing visits to photograph rainbows and waterfalls together. On top of that, I also learned how to take reflection photos as well as make other subjects more interesting that we might otherwise have overlooked without this book offering me ways to look at aspects of Yosemite that I previously never considered.

Indeed, this book was an invaluable resource that I would take with me on just about all of our Yosemite trips ever since I got this book before 2003. Of course, the book also gave me some photographic pointers on technique as well. So all in all, I could understand the high Amazon reviews as I felt it was well deserved. I highly recommend this resource.

Yosemite Road Guide [Overall Rating: 4/5]:
This was an old guide that Julie possessed even before we were going out. I happened to chance upon it at home one day (don't exactly recall how or why) and it turned out to be one of the most important guides about Yosemite that we would ever use! I find it hard to believe that this book is out of print because the fact of the matter is that it's probably the most thorough and relevant guidebook about the roads in Yosemite National Park even though it first came out in 1942 and we possess a reprint of it that dated from 1989. Despite its age, the information contained within were still relevant and it probably provided us with a bit of Yosemite's history to boot!

First off, the book is divided into main roads throughout the park. And these drives were all keyed to physical roadside markers that are pretty subtle and easy-to-miss until we started looking for them thanks to this book. In fact, I was amazed at how well-keyed it was as some pullouts or spots of interest that we would otherwise ignore all of the sudden became interesting (again thanks to this book). We also found alternate viewing spots for our favorite waterfalls that happened to be near the roads thanks to this book as well. The drives covered included the Wawona Road, the Big Oak Flat Road, Yosemite Valley, Tioga Road, and Hetch Hetchy among others. Every mile of these roads were revealed and it even stated how far apart each roadside marker was in relation to each other or to each key landmark at each end of the roads.

While most of the road markers were there, we did notice quite a few of them weren't. I guess that's to be expected when you have a guide this old and the park inevitably goes through changes (maybe from re-routing of roads or from fires burning the wooden posts). Nonetheless, I truly felt like we were using a historical resource that not only made me appreciate the history better (e.g. eerie and haunting old pictures of Hetch Hetchy Valley before being flooded). And despite the guide's age, we still rely on it when we return to the park even though I've gone through this guide enough times to know what just about all of the roadside markers were about as well as their approximate locations!

I can't recommend this book enough, and it just goes to show you that some resources direct from the Yosemite Association might actually be way better than anything else on the market even though it might not be on Amazon.

The Complete Guidebook to Yosemite National Park [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
While this guide contained a bit of information pertaining to the various parts of the park, I was more drawn to the writeup about the park's history at the back of the book. I felt most of the stuff contained throughout the guide could be learned from park literature as well as other guides, but I thought it was the history writeup towards the end where the book shined. In fact, that book helped to shape in my mind how the park came to be as well as all the key historical figures involved and the roles they played. By the time the Ken Burns documentary came out about National Parks in 2010, I was already mostly familiar with their presentation about Yosemite's history simply by reading through this book's history section.

After flipping through the guide part of the book, I saw that it contained pretty standard stuff though the layout juxtaposing park service maps with the blurbs appeared that it would be very helpful to those who only had this guide to go on for exploring the park. The book itself was written in a respectful way as it doesn't advocate blazing your own trail for some "discovery" like some other guidebooks (e.g Schaffer's book on California Waterfalls). Again, I guess that shouldn't be surprising considering it's a publication associated with the Yosemite Association.

There's also miscellany in the very back of the book concerning things like motels, restaurants, NPS Reservation System, etc. I'd imagine most of this information could be easily outdated, but I guess it helps to know which businesses have stuck around after all these years. All in all, it's a capable guide though I liked it best for the background information you don't often find elsewhere in other literature about Yosemite.

California Waterfalls (Foghorn Outdoors) [Overall Rating: 5/5]:
For Julie and I, this was the book that started it all. It was the source we used to hunt down waterfalls locally in Southern California before expanding to other parts of the state. It became the primary guidebook for our spontaneous local trips on the weekends, and it didn't take long before the book became quite wrinkled and dog-eared from extensive use. Needless to say, we have to credit author Ann Marie Brown with jump starting our obsession for waterfalls around the world.

This thick nearly 500-page book (we have the second edition and only got the fourth edition in 2014) covers most of the accessible waterfalls throughout California. Although it's in lackluster black and white and not all chapters have waterfall photos in the second edition, Brown's descriptions have spunk and her maps are adequate to get oriented (though you'll still want to supplement them with topographic maps).

She divides the books into regional chunks of the state. Obviously, we focused more towards the back end of the book which was concentrating on Southern California. However, we also used the book for most of our Southern and Central Sierras excursions (especially concerning Yosemite) as well as for those in the Big Sur area and Bay Area as well. For each of the waterfall writeups, she had quick summaries containing at-a-glance ratings, access & difficulties, elevation, and best season. Then, she went right into the descriptions along with select photos. In other words, the book had all the relevant information we needed to seek out our own waterfalling adventures in the state.

In the latest edition of the book that we have, it looked like they took out the ratings (maybe because it's so subjective and prone to controversy), but I personally appreciated the fact that she made her opinion known based on her own experiences. In any case, there were a few more waterfalls in there that weren't in the second edition, but I could see they really tried to keep the production costs down by really tightening all the writeups together and limiting the amount of whitespace. So it was possible to have one waterfall writeup end and the next one begin on the same page. Otherwise, most of the descriptions looked pretty much the same as the 2nd edition.

All in all, we continue to use this resource, especially when seeking out new unfamiliar waterfalls. Admittedly, we've covered most of the higher rated ones locally, but that doesn't mean we can't be surprised with previously overlooked ones as well. In fact, she catalogs more than 200 of them so there's plenty of room to discover more. And despite some of its shortcomings (we did spot a few incorrect directions or trail advice; e.g. her Cedar Creek Falls writeup near Ramona advocated going to its top instead of a safer path to its base), we still view this book both with sentiment as well as with practicality. Therefore, I had no trouble giving this book our maximum score.

The Definitive Guide to the Waterfalls of Southern and Central California [Overall Rating: 2/5]:
We picked up this book (authored by Chris Schaffer) because it promised to reveal other waterfalls that our second edition of Ann Marie Brown's book didn't have. However, this book mainly focused on the central and southern parts of the state. Nonetheless, we intended to use this book as an alternate source, especially if we were in the mood for something different than what was revealed in the Brown book.

The book was also in full color as well as contained lots of photos, which made it a little livelier. However, once we started using the book in the field, that was when we noticed many problems. Among them were the lack of useful maps, bad directions, and the tendency for the book to devote whole chapters to waterfalls that I'd argue don't even count as waterfalls. So we not only had to flip through a lot of pages that we knew we wouldn't even entertain visiting, but we were led to a few wild goose chases concerning some of the other waterfall writeups in the book.

Then, as our mood started to sour on this book, we started to notice other things that annoyed us. One was that this book seemed to try to be like the Ann Marie Brown book but better as opposed to having its own fresh approach and voice. It was almost as if it was reproducing Brown's work or that it tried very hard to show much many more "waterfalls" she missed. There was also this attitude throughout the book as if it was ok to bushwhack and blaze your own trails towards waterfalls (e.g. the Salmon Creek Falls writeup near Kern River and the Three Chutes Falls in Tenaya Canyon writeup come to mind). Not only was this hazardous (and something we really had to watch out for when following the book or else risk injuring ourselves), but it essentially encouraged people to degrade Nature in the name of the thrill of bagging a previously "undiscovered" waterfall.

To its credit, we did visit Tahquitz Falls as a result of this book as well as referenced it to find the Pywiack Cascade in Yosemite. But other than that, the Brown book was way better at being that reliable guide we could count on. So it pretty much was relegated to the role of the alternate guide only when the Brown book didn't cover particular waterfalls or provide pictures. But even then, we had to be real cautious about following Schaffer's directions.

Day Hiking California's National Parks (Foghorn Outdoors) [Overall Rating: 4/5]:
This was another one of Ann Marie Brown's books that we had bought. The difference with this book versus the waterfall book was that instead of focusing on waterfalls, it focused on reasonable day hikes (where Ann Marie Brown says you get "more smiles per mile" than overnight backpackers). We've used this book to try out some non-waterfall hikes in places like Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National Park, Death Valley National Park, and even Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. Concerning Yosemite, we used it to summit North Dome and the Indian Rock Arch as well as summitted Sentinel Dome along with the fissures and sheer cliffs at Taft Point.

It was written in the same style as the waterfall book along with a star rating (out of a maximum of 5 instead of 10) and boom boxes summarizing the difficulty and approximate location before delving into the words eye description of the hike. Like with the waterfall book, I consulted it for ideas on possible hikes to do when planning a visit to a national park.

Out of curiosity, I did check out the descriptions of some of the waterfall hikes that happened to be in this book. Not surprisingly, there were some recycled material in there. That said, this book was supposed to cater to a different market perhaps (not ones focused on just waterfalls), and to that end, we found this book to be pretty useful since waterfalls don't always flow year round.

These days, it looked like this book is no longer in print as it's a pretty competitive market for hiking guides focused just on national parks (seems like Falcon Guides have cornered this market). Nonetheless, we're not giving up this book as there's plenty of excursions to do in a national park (especially Yosemite, which also seemed to be one of Ann Marie Brown's favorite places as it is ours), and we'll continue to wear out its bindings, pages, and covers as long as we find it both useful and a good read...

Topo! California (National Geographic) [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
I bought this product way back in the early 2000s not long after Julie and I decided that waterfalling would be our thing when it came to going on adventures and excursions in the state.

Back then, it seemed like this was the only map product of its kind that let us look at California with such detail at an incredible 1:24k scale with raster-based superpositions of scanned maps put together and digitized into this software. In other words, we were able to see down to the level of walking trails, campsites, bathrooms, and even specific buildings. And this level of detail was for the entire state, which I guess would justify the $100 price tag. So needless to say, we used this product extensively for both trip planning before our trips as well as trip logging both during and after our outings.

We used this map for almost all of our local excursions in the Southern California area, but we also found use for it regarding the state's National Reserves like Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Point Reyes, and more. We also found use for it for places like the more remote parts of our National Forests. In one instance, it even made me realize that I had failed to make it all the way to Waterwheel Falls during a Glen Aulin backpacking trip as the map had indicated that I had only made it to LeConte Falls! It was that precise!

So to make a long story short, this was our de facto map resource as it had probably gained the most use of all of our map products that we own.

But with all the benefits that we were getting from this map product, there were also plenty of drawbacks. The most glaring one was the really kludgy interface that made it a real chore to try to use our GPS for real-time tracking, or even try to annotate the map for figuring out routes and marking them before even going on the excursion itself. They had follow-up products for purchase to try to address this, but they turned out to be buggy and not very reliable (thereby a waste of time and money). So as it was, the map's functionality was frustrating at best, especially when the more functional Garmin MapSource products started becoming more prevalent later in the decade.

There were also smaller faults like a mistake in identifying Tueeulala Falls in Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite, but those were really few and far between.

The bottom line is that this map product was excellent for hiking and backpacking (or at least planning for them), but was terrible for in-the-field navigation or track and waypoint management. We didn't have much to go on besides this product at the time, but as the years went by, I can see we might just ditch this product and go for the Garmin Mapsource product of the Western US down the road (especially if they contain just as much info as this Topo! product itself, which I'd imagine would be derived from USGS Surveys)...

Garmin MapSource Topo! US 24k West Topographic Coverage for Washington, Oregon, California, and Nevada [Overall Rating: 5/5]:
After getting over the wastefulness of buying quite a few states of the National Geographic Topo! CD-ROMs and then going out and getting this product, it didn't take long before I realized just what I was missing from those older maps that we had bought. Not only did it contain a similar level of detail (though I'm not sure if it had all the place names that the NatGeo Topos had or if they were just as many but in different places), but it also had that full functionality of trip logging and planning that I came to appreciate about the MapSource softwares that the NatGeo products had seriously lacked.

I was especially impressed to see the level of detail that included default waypoints for pretty obscure places such as the Bunnell Cascade in Yosemite, specific forks of rivers or creeks, and of course peaks or other landmarks. Even the diving board atop Half Dome was waypointed as well as spring locations. Just the fact that these points were clearly waypointed meant that if I searched for them, I'd find them. That was a bit of a roll of the dice with the NatGeo software.

So even in an age of GoogleMaps where there might be plenty of disjointed waypoints and tracks from random bloggers, hiking clubs, business, and general info providers, this map is still necessary to get the rest of the USGS info that otherwise wouldn't find its way onto Google. And for that reason alone, that makes this product very valuable. I know that little by little, these map products are being phased out, but I really hope that they stick around for a little while longer so I can buy up the other regions of the USA (or other countries for that matter) before such info is lost for good.

I know from seeing Amazon reviews that quite a few people have trouble with getting the product installed or used, but I can't say I've had terrible difficulty in getting up and running with each MapSource product I have. Perhaps what's more annoying is having to enter serial numbers or license info and connecting with there server, where I fear one day I might get stuck having to re-install it only to find out that I can't communicate with their server anymore (thereby rendering the product useless even though I bought it).

I noticed on the US 24k West product, even though it had a sticker with the serial number on it, I was never prompted at the install. So perhaps that already did away with this? I don't know. But nonetheless, until the product is rendered useless, I still contend this is the most useful map product out there and only lags behind GoogleMaps in that the place name search may not be as extensive, flexible, nor up-to-date...

Hiking Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (Falcon Guide) [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
I have a fairly sizable collection of Falcon Guides concerning mostly the National Parks west of the Rockies. This book happened to be one of the books that concerned Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which I tended to think of going to when I wondered about alternatives to the incomparable Yosemite Valley.

It turned out that like the other Falcon Guides, it provided a non-nonsense approach of accompanying each hike writeup with at least one simplified trail map, a boom box containing important summaries of the entire hike in a nutshell (like elevation profile, highlights, milestones and landmarks, best months, difficulty, trail length, etc.). Then after getting through that wealth of information, it then delved into a straightforward description of the hike.

Truthfully, most of the short day hikes were either covered in the Ann Marie Brown Day Hiking book or they were straightforward enough to just follow the signs at the National Parks along with free literature that also contained short trail descriptions and maps. Thus, the real value to a book like this would be the more involved long distance treks and overnight backpacks. And that was where I either would read about those descriptions to brainstorm or even fantasize about dream backpacks "one of these days" or retrospectively read about such a backcountry adventure that we have done just to see if we properly did it or if might have missed out on something.

So given its limited usefulness for someone like us who don't normally do long treks like this as a family, I had to give it an average rating until we put this book more to use in the field. That said, there are opportunities to do so such as a Mt Whitney Summit, which is very popular, or the Evolution Valley/Goddard Canyon backpack that I've always been wanting to do but realize it's very long and demanding and may not be feasible as my body continues to age.

So in summary, author Laurel Scheidt has done some pretty extensive trip logging and research, and there's no doubt that she knows what she's talking about. Chances are that if I ever do go on any of the long hikes or off-the-beaten path trails that aren't in our existing library of books, then I'll definitely go back to this guide...

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As opposed to trip planning resources or field guides where I have reviewed resources that can help with planning out an itinerary or managing through an excursion, the following writeups pertain to resources that are more of educational value.

Granite, Water and Light: Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley [Overall Rating: 4/5]:
When I realized that there was this book about Yosemite's waterfalls (more specifically about those in or near the valley), I immediately tried to find a way to procure it. It turned out that I had to buy the book used because it had appeared to be out of print at the time I got it in the mid 2000s and that the book was last published in 1983. In any case, I wondered whether this book would help complete my survey of all of the waterfalls of Yosemite (let alone Yosemite Valley).

Once I got the book and browsed through as well as read it, I realized that I was not only getting a run-of-the-mill survey of the notable waterfalls in the central area of the park, but I was also getting a lesson! Being that it was a Yosemite Natural History Association publication, that wasn't surprising. Indeed, I was not only getting the geological history as well as the history of each waterfalls' discovery as well as things written in the past about it concerning how it impressed upon the people back then. So as a result, this history lesson (especially the human history part of it) helped me further appreciate the key historical figures of not only the waterfalls themselves but also the park as a whole. It also surprised me how even something as specific as waterfalls could have had a key influence in the chain of events that ultimately resulted in the federal preservation of Yosemite as a national park.

In addition to the usual reverence to the beauty of waterfalls, I was also learning some of the Native American names for them, the specific geological quirks that gave rise to each waterfall, the behavior of the watercourses giving life to the falls, and some statistics. Moreover, the photos included in the book were memorable because many were from very unusual spots that I'd imagine would not be publicly accessible from a relatively safe trail or path. So I was getting some sense of the possibilities of how people have experienced the falls in the past and how that contrasted with how we tend to enjoy them now.

Bottom line is this short book was definitely worth the read on the educational value alone. It's definitely not a guide, but it's almost more in line with how I'd imagine a ranger talking to some inquisitive mind about a particular waterfall being seen....

The National Parks: America's Best Idea [Overall Rating: 4.5/5]:
I watched this documentary when it was first shown on PBS, and then I watched it again on Amazon Prime. I came to realize from watching some of Ken Burn's other documentaries that his works have a certain nostalgic quality about them. And in this hefty series chronicling the first governmental act of setting aside land for public recreational use back in 1864 to the state of the National Parks System to this day, Burns definitely delivers on not only the nostalgic front but the historical and educational fronts as well.

Indeed, I found myself being very educated regarding other things besides the obvious beauty that National Parks possess. So I came to learn about and appreciate the principles behind the National Parks as well as how much of a struggle it was to even define what the National Park idea means as it has evolved through the years. I also learned about the historical context behind each environmental struggle (from the post-Civil War attitudes of government to the impact of the Great Depression as well as the world wars) and how it took heroic acts of everyday people to save such places from exploitation or even to be reminded of some of America's shameful aspects of its history.

I think Burns really struck a chord with the humanity aspect of National Parks from the anecdotal stories told by the guests to the acted voices of historical figures based on historical manuscripts and accounts. In fact, I think it was this humanitarian angle that differentiated this documentary from most other Nature documentaries that tended to focus on the science or act more like a park brochure.

And to further belabor the history aspect of this documentary, I also came to appreciate that this history lesson was done in a way that really personalizes the history and relating it to our everyday experience. It almost forced me the viewer to really empathize with the people at the time and do a self-evaluation in terms of asking the question, "What would I have done when faced with similar circumstances?"

Anyways, I'm including this product in the product reviews of this page because they pretty extensively cover the central role that Yosemite National Park has played as both the place where John Muir became inextricably intertwined to the environmental cause as well as Stephen Mather and Horace Albrights creation and administering of the National Park Service from which many lessons were learned through the years that Yosemite was first used as a recreational place for the public. That said, I was also getting the whole context of how Yosemite fit in with the rest of the National Parks throughout the country discussed in this documentary. Indeed, sometimes you have to look at the whole to better appreciate what's going on locally, and I truly think that's where this documentary excels.

As for the cons, there were quite a bit of recycled visuals. And I could see why some people were upset at this documentary as it did appear to be a somewhat lopsided indictment against those in favor of exploitation (though you could argue that an economy whose rules reward exploitation over conservation is the real culprit). But all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary and would highly recommend it to anyone who cares about our National Parks, and especially how they came to be.

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