Yosemite National Park, 180 mi/290 km east of San Francisco, is one of the most sublime and beautiful places in the U.S. Those who have seen the park's natural wonders captured in the photographs of Ansel Adams—the soaring heights of Half Dome, the rugged outcroppings of El Capitan—will find that these structures are every bit as massive and awe-inspiring when viewed in person. If there is one site in California that rates as a place to see before you die, this is it.
Yosemite's beauty does come at a price: crowds, especially in summer. Whether inching along the Yosemite Valley's overtaxed vehicle lanes or trudging up over-peopled trails, you'll see the difficulty of getting away from it all in such a place as Yosemite. Park officials are considering closing Yosemite Valley, where most of the main attractions and all the services are located, to car and RV traffic and simply busing people in, but in the meantime, the cars keep chugging through, and services are strained by it all. A good start to addressing this problem is the free shuttle-bus service throughout the eastern portion of Yosemite Valley, which is available year-round.
A wilderness experience in the valley itself requires work and planning these days. Getting one of the first-come, first-served campsites in the park is next to impossible—especially in the summer—but reservations for camping and lodging in the Yosemite Valley's Curry Village can (and should) be made several months in advance.
If you're not camping, the most popular places to stay in Yosemite Valley are the historic 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel, a six-story study in luxury built of native stone—the immense, vaulted dining room could accommodate King Kong; and the popular Yosemite Lodge, which has motel-style units. Near the park's southernmost entrance, set amid lush meadows in summer, is the Ahwahnee's smaller cousin, the somewhat rustic but classy woodframe Wawona Hotel, where some rooms still feature brass doorknobs, push-button light switches, steam radiators and clawfoot bathtubs.
Outside the park, there are a variety of accommodations within an hour's drive. One of the largest and closest is Marriott's Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, a luxurious resort complex 2 mi/3 km from the southern entrance to the park. Just a little farther on is the Hotel Jeffery in Coulterville, which started as a Mexican dance hall during the gold-rush days.
Within the valley, look for the familiar formations of Half Dome and Cathedral Spires. El Capitan is the largest pure-granite outcropping in the world and has absolutely sheer walls. Other points of interest include Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls and Bridalveil Falls (the waterfalls are most impressive in the spring, when melting winter snow cascades from above). Outside the valley, be sure to visit either the Tuolomne Grove or Mariposa Grove of sequoia redwoods. The largest tree, the Mariposa Grove's Grizzly Giant, measures more than 25 ft/8 m in diameter and is at least 2,700 years old.
To avoid the worst of the commotion, move up and out of the valley, where more than 750 mi/1,208 km of hiking trails lace alpine meadows and canyons.
Getting away from the busy roads is also a good idea: This 1,190-sq-mi/3,080-sq-km park is best seen by doing a lot of walking and hiking at Glacier Point, Waterwheel Falls and the Tioga Pass. If the Yosemite crowds get to be too much, it's always possible to retreat to Bass Lake or intriguing Gold Country towns just west, including Oakhurst and Mariposa.
Recreational possibilities include bicycling, horseback riding, swimming, snow skiing and other winter sports. Although the Tioga Pass Road and Glacier Point Roads are closed in winter (the former usually remains closed until at least May) because of heavy snow, Yosemite is a year-round destination and a popular venue for cross-country skiing and even a bit of ice-skating in the valley.
Despite the crowds, you're still likely to spot deer and coyotes in the park, and sightings of (smarter than average) black bears are also possible, though less likely.
Note: Bears that do make their presence known are usually after food. Therefore do not, under any circumstances, leave food—or even food containers—in your car at any time. Some Yosemite bears have been known to tear off entire door panels just to get at the goodies, posing a danger to cars, people and, ultimately, to the bears themselves: These bears must often be destroyed. Needless to say, park rangers are adamant that visitors refrain from feeding the bears or any other wild animals, and visitors who leave food in their cars can be fined. Encouraging dependence on human handouts is not an act of kindness. Be sure to use the provided bear lockers even for day hikes.
Before leaving Yosemite, make a stop at the Ansel Adams Gallery, a gallery and gift shop offering photographic workshops and exhibiting some of Adams' wonderful black-and-white photos of the park—these intricately detailed photos helped bring Yosemite to the world's attention. The gallery offers camera walks, photo classes and five-day intensive workshops. http://www.anseladams.com.
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