Many wows await Yosemite Park visitors
Following the hairpin-curvy road that snakes through Yosemite National Park, every turn elicited another “wow” moment. It was challenging to decide which view was best: dramatic overlooks across deep gorges, soaring mountains or some of the highest waterfalls in the country?
Suddenly, I found the answer. I spotted several people pointing binoculars at a cliff rising straight up from the valley floor, peering intently at — what?
It took me several minutes to pinpoint tiny dots of color on the precipice. Only after asking did I realize they were people climbing that seemingly insurmountable monolith, the massive 3,000-foot-tall granite formation known as El Capitan.
Wondering why anyone would take on such a challenge, I concluded that this colossal rock demonstrates why the word “big” is so apt when describing Yosemite National Park.
For starters, Yosemite sprawls over four California counties and is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Ranging in elevation from about 2,000 to more than 13,000 feet, the park supports a diversity of animal and plant life in vast valleys, clear lakes and rolling meadows, glaciers and groves of towering sequoias.
Highlights of the park
Given the size of Yosemite, and the fact that most people visit for a relatively short time, it’s challenging to take in all that the park has to offer. Several attractions appear on most people’s “must see” list.
Yosemite Valley is the natural backbone of the park, an almost mile-deep trough carved out by Ice Age glaciers. The Merced River meanders through the valley floor, while upstream, its powerful Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls are fed by melting snow.
Hiking trails range from short and flat to long and challenging. One alternative is the paved one-mile Mirror Lake Trail along the valley floor, which offers outstanding close-up views of Half Dome and other features.
One site I came upon provides a view of a microcosm of the best landmarks in Yosemite. Glacier Point, and adjacent Washburn Point, overlook Yosemite Valley, waterfalls, and Half Dome and Clouds Rest, two massive granite formations.
Half Dome is just that, a three-sided cupula with one sheer face that looks as if it has been sliced off by a giant knife. The tallest of eight other high peaks visible from Glacier Point is Mount Hoffman, which tops off at 10,850 feet.
An hour south of Glacier Point, Mariposa Grove is the largest cluster of Giant Sequoias in the park, home to some 500 towering trees.
Most noteworthy are the Grizzly Giant, which has grown to a lofty height of 210 feet during its estimated 1,900-to-2,400-year lifetime, and the California Tunnel Tree, which in 1895 was cut to allow vehicles to drive through it and retains that original opening in its trunk.
Off the beaten path
I also found worthwhile stops at interesting places that some people might miss in their rush to take in the park’s major sights. The little Yosemite Chapel, for instance, has been in continuous use since 1879 and offers a spectacular view of Yosemite Falls.
For those with an interest in history, the outdoor Pioneer Yosemite History Center, located just outside the park, displays structures that had important roles in the park.
One, a covered bridge erected in 1857 from timbers that still have its builders’ original markings, was once used by all Yosemite-bound traffic. Another, a Wells Fargo Office, operated as a stagecoach terminal and telegraph agency. A blacksmith shop was once the place to replace lost horseshoes and repair damaged stage coaches.
And if you wander over to a nearby cemetery, you’ll find intriguing headstones with nondescript identifications like “Pioneer Settler” and “Frenchman.”
The Pioneer Yosemite History Center is just one of many places near Yosemite that enhance a visit to the area. A number of attractions are grouped in Madera County, which provides easy access to the southern entrance into Yosemite. From ancient fossils to Native American culture to gold miners, there’s something to interest everyone.
Nearly 800,000 years ago, wooly mammoths, giant sloths and camels lived in what now is California. Prehistoric rivers washed some of their bones to a low-lying area, where they have been uncovered and are displayed at the Fossil Discovery Center.
The Sierra Mono Museum documents the Native Americans who lived in present-day Yosemite nearly 4,000 years ago. By the late 18th century, most of the region was populated by members of Miwok tribes and later by others, while Mono people occupied a large swath of territory nearby. Exhibits include tools, baskets, ceremonial items and intricate bead craft.
Miners, lumberjacks and ranchers were next to arrive, and to change the land forever. Discovery of gold in 1848 set off an influx of people into the territory.
By the time the Gold Rush ended seven years later, California had become a state, the Native American population had been largely decimated, towns were established, and farmers and ranchers arrived to feed the new residents.
The towns of Fine Gold and Coarsegold got their names from the precious metal found nearby, and you’ll find information about mining at the Coarsegold Historical Society and Museum. It’s located on property that was a horse-drawn freight wagon station, and the original adobe building is still in use.
With authentic Indian teepees, grinding stones, mining exhibits, another blacksmith shop and other outbuildings, this little gem of a museum can transport visitors back to earlier times.
Finally, there’s the Fresno Flats Historic Village, which captures the flavor of 19th-century life of settlers. Visitors can explore two fully furnished homes, one-room school houses, a jail and a log cabin which once sat along a stagecoach road.
These and other remnants of America’s pioneer history would be reason enough to visit the area. Throw in some of the most magnificent natural settings anywhere, and it’s no wonder that Yosemite National Park and its surrounding area are included on many a bucket list.
If you go
Most people who visit Yosemite go there May to October, so a fall or spring trip can avoid the biggest crowds. Fall color, winter snow and spring flowers add their own seasonal beauty. The national park is about a four-hour drive from both San Francisco and Sacramento.
A good way to see the park is by tour bus. Guided tours hit the high spots and avoid the hassles of driving and seeking limited parking space.
Accommodations within Yosemite National Park, which range from the luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel to canvas-walled tent cabins, often are reserved well in advance.
I stayed just outside the park’s south entrance at the Sierra Sky Ranch, which dates to 1875 and was the area’s first working cattle spread. Log walls and stone fireplaces are among touches that retain the feel of the Old West. Room rates begin at $120 (sierraskyranch.com).
As for dining, the Forks Restaurant overlooking Bass Lake is a throwback to times gone by, with prices to match. Chicken fried steak ($15) and a triple-decker club sandwich ($12) will leave room to enjoy ice cream pie, sundaes and other fountain specialties (theforksresort.com).
In contrast, the Elderberry House, ensconced in a French-style chateau, should be reserved for a special occasion. The sophisticated décor and impeccable service come at a price of $80 for a prix fixe three-course meal. My free-range lamb was perfectly prepared, and the melt-in-your-mouth espresso panna cotta provided the perfect ending to a memorable meal (elderberryhouse.com).
For more information about visiting Yosemite National Park, go to nps.gov/yose. For information about exploring Yosemite’s southern gateway communities in Madera County, visit yosemitethisyear.com.