Road Trip

Visiting Yosemite: A guide to grand touring the national park in a family-friendly SUV

Grand touring isn't dead. It's just different than it used to be.

Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Cruising up the coast of California in a Ford Mustang. Taking an RV full of family on a trip to explore the American West. Leaf peeping in New England while hopping from bed and breakfast to bed and breakfast in your family sedan. These are classic examples of U.S. road trips that do not feature a grand touring car.

Is the dream of grand touring dead? The advent of the EV and the popularity of the minivan and SUVs have not killed it. In fact, they've revolutionized it.

No longer do you have to cram six people into a sedan with your brother standing up between mom and dad in the front. You can tour in comfort in a modern SUV and still have as authentic an experience as you did in your childhood, perhaps better.

Autocamp Yosemite pond Airstream Autocamp Yosemite is a unique and luxurious way to "camp" near Yosemite.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Buckled into a thoroughly modern Honda Passport, this grand touring trip set off from Autocamp Yosemite, a resort made entirely of Airstream trailers, tiny houses, and small cabins, just as the sun was starting to shine the first light of morning. Headed seats, accurate navigation, and right-sized cup holders gave the beginning of the trip an optimistic note.

On the winding roads of CA 140, the Passport was relatively efficient and stuck to the road much better than the Honda Pilot would have. The sun continued to rise and touch the tree tops as the route wound its way over and around the Merced River.

2019 Honda Passport The Honda Passport is smaller than a Honda Pilot and bigger than a Honda CR-V.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Making it into the park before the sun has fully risen is not only a treat but a necessity if you want to beat the hoards of tourists that flock to the park's most famous sites, pushing into your space with their selfie sticks, cigarette smoke, and overstuffed backpacks.

Tunnel View Yosemite morning Tunnel View is one of the can't-miss spots in Yosemite National Park.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Start by winding your way up Wawona Road to the start of the Artist Point Trail and Tunnel View with an observation deck that requires no hiking to get to and a view that you've likely seen countless times before in pictures. El Capitan rises on one side as Cathedral Rocks grace the other. It's impossible to fathom exactly how big they are from the viewpoint, but no one leaves the spot unimpressed.

Continuing to head up the mountain, the Passport's V6 had no problem passing 5,000 and 8,000 feet as the SUV rose out of the famed Yosemite Tunnel. The turn up Glacier Point Road had the SUV pointing for, you guessed it, Glacier Point. Getting there early meant not being stuck behind busses and being able to easily cruise uphill while stopping for a bit of hiking and observation along the way. Pulling off for a walk on the Mono Meadow Trail is a must, but watch out for bears.

Mono Meadow trailhead 2019 Honda Passport Park at the tailhead at Mono Meadow for a scenic hike.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Back from the hike, the journey up the road continued to Washburn Point, where the Passport braved the crowded parking area, easily maneuvering into a tight spot near the far curb, setting up its occupants for a short walk to a viewing platform to see awe-inspiring views of the Clark Range and Sierra Crest rising up from the treetops, Illilouette Falls flowing, and the profile of Half Dome. It's one of the better selfie-taking spots in the park because of the angles of the scenery.

Yosemite National Park Washburn Point view Washburn Point provides a different view of Half Dome an surrounding hillsides. Be sure to visit in the morning before the parking spots get swallowed up by tourists.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Continuing further up Glacier Point road, easily passing 9,000 feet of elevation, the road ends at the Glacier Point parking area where the peanut-bladdered find relief in the numerous restrooms available. Parking is easier further down the row you travel. Spaces are narrow so making full use of the Passport's on-board camera system to ensure proper space sitting was wholly appropriate.

Glacier Point crowd Yosemite National Park Getting up to Glacier Point early in the day should be a priority for adventure seekers who don't want to deal with heavy crowds.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

From there, it's a short and slightly uphill handicap-accessible walk to the most spectacular view that Yosemite offers. Standing before the visitor on the observation deck are Half Dome and three waterfalls. The Yosemite Valley floor is carpeted with thick trees that mask the ant-sized cars winding their way to Yosemite Village. Space is limited and tourists are generally pushy, but be sure to leave time to have a moment to put down your phone or camera (or both) and just stand and take it all in. (And maybe thank Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir for ensuring that it is still around.)

Glacier Point Yosemite National Park guide key sign The National Park Service has installed these helpful signs to show visitors what they're seeing. The space around them is often crowded so take a quick picture then move and use the image on your phone to help you navigate.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Before you leave, use the restroom again. There are several, often overlooked options available so check for the shortest line.

The trip back down Glacier Point Road to the Yosemite Valley isn't nearly as long as it seems when driving the other direction. By now, it's likely near lunchtime, but before heading to The Ahwahnee for lunch, stop on the way back down near Bridalveil Falls where roadside parking is generally easy to find and the views are, once again, spectacular.

The Ahwahnee's dining room isn't as fancy during the day as it is during the night. This gives parents dressed in hiking clothes the opportunity to sit and dine in the historic hotel without the obligation of staying at the hotel and wearing a dinner jacket.

The Ahwahnee dining room Yosemite National Park The historical Ahwanee dining room is a must-stop. It has tasty cuisine at prices that aren't outrageous.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Continuing after lunch, the rest of the day relies more on your patience and the time limits of daylight rather than the availability of sights to be seen. Skip the urge to circle for a parking space near the Visitors Center and instead cruise for an hour along Big Oak Flat Road and head east on Tioga Road. When touring with little ones, this gives them an opportunity to take a 45-minute or so nap that can be used to your advantage later in the day.

Pull-off points with unique views are abundant along this road the further you travel. Don't forget your camera and perhaps think about leaving the heated seats on if you're hopping in and out of the car in the cooler months (read: not June or July but most other times of the year).

Olmstead Point Half Dome Olmstead Point is on the other side of the park from Yosemite Valley and worth the trip. Here, Half Dome is in the distance.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

If your shoes have sufficient grip and you're still feeling up for some hiking, don't miss a stop at Olmstead Point where the terrain looks nothing like what you'll see in other parts of the park but the view shows off the back side of the terrain you saw earlier in the day from Washburn Point. Proceeding down the road, the stone encroaches and it's easy to think of what the terrain must be like on the moon.

Venture even further east to Tenaya Lake, a peaceful respite that provides the opportunity to sit and marvel at calm true-blue water away from mobs of tourists. That's also a good turnaround point, where you can head back to the Valley to take advantage of the waning afternoon crowds to see some of Yosemite's most popular features including the El Capitan Meadow, Valley View, Yosemite Chapel, and Yosemite Falls.

Tenaya Lake Yosemite National Park Tenaya Lake is a peaceful respite away from the hustle and bustle of Yosemite's more popular attractions.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

While a stop at the Yosemite Visitors Center provides some historical context for your visit, if you're looking for souvenirs, the best place to go is the Village Store.

Souvenirs in hand, it was now nearly dark on the Valley floor, and it was time for these travelers to point the Passport back to AutoCamp. The two-row SUV had served as a trusty steed - reliable, comfortable, and easily maneuverable. Those aren't the characteristics that shoppers frequently look for, but it's something that they remember when it comes time to get their next vehicle. Though not a traditional grand tourer, the Passport provided a grand level of touring capability.

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The 2020 Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a capable and luxurious SUV.

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

What does an SUV's level of capability mean to you? Does it mean more towing, hauling, or people carrying? How about its off-road prowess and its ability to get you home when the weather turns nasty? For most of us, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two things. Many buy SUVs for their ability to carry larger loads, but there's an occasional need to get dirty in the woods.

That's where our list comes in. We've rounded up 15 of the most capable SUVs on the market today. We grabbed some for their all-out off-road capabilities, but others were chosen because they can get you home no matter the weather. Yet others were added because of their ability to carry people and tow heavy trailers. Here's our list of the most capable SUVs of 2021, in no particular order.

Land Rover Defender

Land Rover Defender Photo courtesy of Land Rover

Make no mistake, Land Rover is a luxury brand, but many of the automaker's vehicles are legitimately capable when the pavement ends. The Defender returned in 2020 after a two-decade hiatus, armed with several selectable off-road driving modes, a surprisingly plush interior, and two ultra-capable engines. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque and the mild hybrid-equipped 3.0-liter inline-six makes 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. Towing numbers are strong too, as the Defender can trailer up to 8,201 pounds in certain configurations.

Ford Expedition

2020 Ford Expedition King Ranch

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The Ford Expedition is big in all the right places and has the tech, comfort equipment, and driving dynamics to be a supremely useful people-hauler. The turbocharged 3.5-liter engine produces 400 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque, and available four-wheel drive makes the Expedition a real beast in bad weather. The Expedition can tow up to 6,000 pounds.

Chevrolet Suburban

2021 Chevrolet Suburban

Photo courtesy of Chevrolet

The Suburban is one of the longest running nameplates in the automotive business, and for good reason. Chevy keeps making the big SUV better every year, and the newest 2021 model is a marvel of luxury, tech, and capability. With available four-wheel drive and three powerful engine choices, the Suburban can tackle harsh terrain and bad weather with the best of them. The base engine alone is a 355-horsepower 5.3-liter V8, and on top of that there's a 420-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 and a 277-horsepower 3.0-liter diesel. With body-on-frame construction and powerful V8 engines, the Suburban can tow up to 7,800 pounds.

Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

It's tempting to consider the Bronco Sport the "baby" Bronco, but that's not an accurate description. While it's true that the Bronco Sport is smaller and less capable than its Bronco counterpart, the Sport has some real terrain-conquering tricks up its sleeve. Two engine choices are on offer, which include a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder that makes 181 horsepower and a 245-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. On top of that, the Bronco Sport brings selectable terrain modes and standard all-wheel drive. The Bronco Sport shows its size most openly with its towing stats, which land at up to 2,205 pounds.

Jeep Grand Cherokee

2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee Photo courtesy of FCA US LLC

You can have your Grand Cherokee in several different flavors, from basic to luxurious to rugged. The Trailhawk model hits a sweet spot in the lineup, with a mostly reasonable price tag, four-wheel drive, a solid 295-horsepower 3.6-liter V6, and trail-rated off-road capabilities. The Trailhawk can also be upgraded with a 360-horsepower 5.7-liter V8. In some configurations, those engines can help the Grand Cherokee tow up to 7,200 pounds.

Dodge Durango

2021 Dodge Durango

Photo courtesy of FCA US LLC

The Durango isn't an off-road monster, but it can hold its own in towing up to 8,700 pounds and can haul several people in the process. Dodge offers the Durango with four engine choices, from a tame 295-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 to a rowdy 710-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter V8. No matter how you order it, the Durango can be equipped with four-wheel drive and can carry up to eight people.

Honda Passport

2020 Honda Passport Photo courtesy of American Honda Motor Mfg. Inc.

The Honda Passport takes many of the things that buyers love about the Honda Pilot and applies them to a smaller, more rugged package. The Passport has shorter front and rear overhangs for better off-road driving angles, selectable terrain modes, and a capable 3.5-liter V6 that makes 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Despite its relatively small stature, the Passport can pull up to 5,000 pounds.

Toyota 4Runner

2020 Toyota 4Runner Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

It doesn't get much more legendary than Toyota's 4Runner. The SUV is long overdue for a major overhaul, but it's still got the goods to deliver a solid off-road or bad-weather experience. Power comes from a 4.0-liter V6 that makes 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. The 4Runner can also be ordered with full TRD off-road regalia, which includes special paint colors, wheels, and rugged gear like skid plates and transfer case guards. Its V6 engine allows the 4Runner to pull up to 5,000 pounds.

Lexus GX

2021 Lexus GX

Photo courtesy of Lexus

If you need a side of luxury with your rugged SUV, the Lexus GX brings it, bigtime. The GX is built on the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado platform, which contributes heavily to the Lexus' abilities off-road. Under the hood, there's a 4.6-liter V8 that makes 301 horsepower and 329 pound-feet of torque connected to a six-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive. The GX can tow up to 6,500 pounds.

Jeep Wrangler

2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392

Photo courtesy of FCA US LLC

There's almost nothing about the Jeep Wrangler that doesn't scream rugged capability. The SUV's appearance has barely changed since its inception, and it's only gotten more off-road abilities in recent years. The latest model is available with a plug-in hybrid system or with an ultra-powerful 6.4-liter Hemi that puts down 470 ponies. The Wrangler shouldn't be the first choice as a towing vehicle, however, as it's only capable of pulling up to 3,500 pounds in certain configurations.

Toyota Land Cruiser

2021 Toyota Land Cruiser

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

As long as you don't mind spending more than $80,000 on a Toyota, the Land Cruiser won't disappoint. It's got a 5.7-liter V8 that produces 381 horsepower to all four-wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. That's in addition to almost unstoppable off-road capabilities and a tow rating of up to 8,100 pounds.

Nissan Armada

2021 Nissan Armada Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan's big-boy SUV, the Armada, just got a major refresh for the 2021 model year. The truck got ten more horsepower, more torque, and plenty of new tech and comfort features. The 5.6-liter V8 now puts down 400 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque. In addition to that, the Armada manages luxury-level ride quality, ultra-capable four-wheel drive, and a towing capacity of 8,500 pounds.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class

2020 Mercedes-Benz G-Class

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

It should be no surprise that one of the most expensive SUVs on the planet is also one of the most capable. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class, also known as the G-Wagen, is a boxy off-road monster that owes its prowess to its origins as a military vehicle. The truck's twin-turbo V8 pumps out 416 horsepower, while the Mercedes-AMG G63 is powered by a 577-horsepower twin-turbo V8. Both models get several off-road-friendly features and the standard G-Wagen can even tow up to 7,000 pounds.

Kia Telluride

2020 Kia Telluride Photo courtesy of Kia Motors

Get past the brand name, and the Telluride is one of the best SUVs on sale today. It sports a 291-horsepower V6, an eight-speed automatic transmission, and eight inches of ground clearance to keep things tidy off-road. The big Kia can also tow up to 5,000 pounds.

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The 2021 Honda Rebel 1100 is a new addition to the Honda powersports lineup.

Photo courtesy of American Honda Motor Co., Inc

The Honda Rebel 1100 is a new addition to the company's Cruiser family, joining the Rebel 300 and Rebel 500. It's more powerful and pricier than its Rebel stablemates. The bike was designed with a "relax and excite" theme, which is meant to appeal to a variety of rider types.

It has a best-in-class power-to-weight ratio. The motorcycle is powered by a 1,084cc twin-cyclone engine. That's the same power plant that is in Honda's African Twin. Honda offers the engine with an available dual-clutch transmission (DCT) that allows for automatic or manual shifting. Operators can change gears via handlebar-mounted buttons. They can also choose between Standard, Sport, and Rain drive modes.

2021 Honda Rebel 1100

Photo courtesy of American Honda Motor Co., Inc

Antilock brakes are standard. Cruise control is available.

"With the evolution of cruiser culture, today's rider demands a motorcycle that expands on the capabilities that have traditionally been possible in the segment," said Lee Edmunds, Senior Manager of Powersports Marketing for American Honda. "The all-new Rebel 1100 fits the bill, providing cruiser customers with technologies—including DCT—and riding experiences that were previously unavailable in the category. It's truly a motorcycle for the modern cruiser rider."

Riders sit at seat height of 27.5 inches with the engine allowing a 35-degree bank angle. The bike's suspension includes a 43 millimeter conventional fork with a cartridge-type damper, and twin Showa shocks with piggyback reservoirs, while the front brake has a monobloc, four-piston, radial-mount caliper with a floating rotor.

Models equipped with the DCT weigh just over 500 pounds.

2021 Honda Rebel 1100 

Photo courtesy of American Honda Motor Co., Inc

Buyers can customize their bike thanks to the company's roster of accessories that range from minimalist to touring-focused equipment.

The 2021 Honda Rebel 1100 is scheduled to arrive at dealerships in January. Purchasers can choose from a Metallic Black or Bordeaux Red Metallic paint job. The Rebel 1100 with a manual transmission sells for $9,299 while the DCT version has a starting price of $9,999.

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