Written by Donna McCrohan Rosenthal
Glaciers carved Yosemite's magnificent geologic features about one and a half million years ago. President Abraham Lincoln set it aside as federal land in 1864. Naturalist, conservationist, advocate, and author, John Muir, eloquently argued to preserve it for future generations in the late 1800s.
From El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world, to Yosemite Falls, the highest in North America, to its pines, cedars, giant sequoias, lush meadows, and abundant wildlife, Yosemite's 1,889 glorious square miles in the heart of the Sierra Nevada prove that Muir had the right idea.
The valley accounts for about 7% of the park. It plus Tuolumne and the high country appeal on many levels. Do you like sightseeing and photography? Sports? Art? Food? Then read on. Yosemite offers all that and more.
See It–Snap It
The National Park Service does not just make it easy to take in the most popular sights; they encourage it with valley floor tours and free shuttles, particularly during summer months when cars all but choke the roads. Additionally, YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transit System) has buses in and out of the park, from Merced and Mariposa through Yosemite and, in summer, to Mammoth Lakes and the eastern Sierra.
For a first stop, try the Visitors Center in Yosemite Village. The free movie The Spirit of Yosemite, various displays, and a helpful staff explain options and opportunities.
Photographers rarely have to do much to achieve good pictures, but the best images capture magic—a full moon event or shadows on the snow. According to Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster, author of "Four Seasons of Yosemite," who revisited the same tree on three different weekends to catch the turning leaves precisely as he envisioned them, "You have to watch and wait, go back and photograph familiar things over and over again."
Go For It
Sports enthusiasts love Yosemite and surrounding terrain for its hiking, white-water rafting, horseback riding, boating, kayaking, guided spelunking, rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and ice skating. Backpackers have to have permits to stay the night or hike the Half Dome cables area, and the permits—obtained through a lottery—vanish fast, although a new two-day advance lottery by phone or online gives last-minute planners a second chance.
Rock climbers don't need permits; they do wear helmets to protect themselves from falling debris. If you'd like to climb but don't know how, Yosemite Mountaineering can teach you; the "Girls on Granite" program operates exclusively for women. Some avid fans don't climb but instead relax with picnic lunches on the valley floor and observe as others scale the heights.
Bicycles are allowed on paved paths but not trails. Dirt bikes and off-road vehicles are forbidden. Street-legal motorcycles may go anywhere an automobile can go. You can fly through the air and pan for gold at Ziplines and Adventure Park between Yosemite and Mariposa.
Calling All Artists
The incomparable beauty that attracted Ansel Adams continues to draw artists and photographers. They stay, share their talents, and ensure a culturally rich community, with the result that Mariposa, southwest of the park, has a community theater, active amphitheater, Mariposa Symphony Orchestra, "Music on the Green" every Friday night during the summer, and a lengthy roster of festivals. On Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day during peak hours, a free trolley around town enhances the Mariposa Experience while relieving the pressure on Yosemite Park.
Tummy Time–Sleepy Time
You can eat well, from affordably to elegantly, both inside and outside the park, with the greatest selection available during the summer. Yosemite Lodge has a food court and restaurant. Degnan's Deli and the Village Grill are within walking distance of the Yosemite Village Visitors Center. The Ahwahnee Hotel serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a sumptuous Sunday brunch. Its Vintners’ Holidays in November includes seminars, meetings with winemakers, and a gala dinner; the Chef's Holiday in January culminates with another gala dinner, and the utterly unique seven-course Bracebridge Dinners in December combine an extraordinary feast with a stunning pageant. Outside the park, the rustic Bug Resort always has at least some vegan and vegetarian dishes. Mariposa's upscale Savoury's pleases palates with Steak Diane and other favorites.
Yosemite lodging ranges from camping and heated and unheated cabins to the upscale Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and the AAA four-diamond Ahwahnee. The four-star Tenaya Lodge is located in Fish Camp outside the south gate by the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. The rustic Bug Resort, formerly a Boy Scout Camp, has dorms, private rooms, tent cabins, house rentals, and a spa.
Pick your Season
Whether for bus frequency, adventures, or dining choices, much depends on the season. Horsetail Fall on El Capitan looks like cascading fire when the sun sets during a two-week period in February. The dogwoods begin to bloom in late March and early April.
Wildflowers generally follow in March, April, and May. From late spring to early autumn, show up at the back porch of The Ahwahnee for twilight strolls. In the summer, raptors fill the skies, admired by throngs of tourists in the valley below (although the high country tends to escape summer crowding); temperatures often reach the 90s, prices rise, and rooms become scarce. Many falls dry up in the summer during low-water years. Summer full moons mean wondrous Moonlight Tours.
Closed buses traverse the valley floor in the in the fall, winter, and spring but are open-air in summer months. To avoid summer traffic hassles, ride a bus, or go in the evening or early morning.
Extremely time-sensitive: The California State Mining Museum in Mariposa might soon succumb to state budget cuts. If it does, the official collection of the State of California and the largest state mineral collection in the U.S. will go into storage. To the west of Yosemite, in Jamestown, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park—home of the "Movie Star Locomotive" that appeared in hundreds of movies, TV shows, and commercials—faces state-budget-cut closure as well. Both will probably be spared, but to play it safe, see them while you can.
If you brave the wilderness, find out exactly what tools and supplies you require to be prepared. For less challenging situations, don't forget mosquito repellant and water. For cold weather, have tire chains in case it snows. For your camera, bring a tripod, and unless you travel with a cleaver or circular saw, remove your extra memory card from its nearly impenetrable packaging before you head out.
You might encounter one or more of the park's 300-500 black bears. If you store food properly in bear boxes (not merely locked in your car), you should have no trouble. On the other hand, don't approach them. They're not pets.
By car, drive the 99 to the 140 to arrive by way of Mariposa, or the 99 to the 41 to enter through Oakhurst. Or ride the Amtrak train to Merced, then transfer to a YARTS bus. Park admission is $20 per vehicle, good for seven days, or free for YARTS passengers, bicyclists, and walk-ins.
For more information, rules about pets, and to schedule visits to hard-to-reach places, check out nps.gov/yose or phone 209-372-0200, TTY 209-372-4726./p>
photos courtesy of Kenny Karst, DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
Article appeared in our 29-2 Issue - June 2012