By Will McGough
This year Yosemite National Park celebrates its 150th anniversary, and although it wasn’t the country’s first national park, it was the first time the Federal Government had ever set aside a piece of land for preservation when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864. It’s overwhelming to think about what it would have been like back then, to ride in on horseback before the roads were paved and it became a highly-touted tourism destination.
There’s nostalgia in those thoughts, for sure, but today’s reality is not that far off thanks to the incredible work done by our nation’s National Park Service. I’ve been to a lot of parks, coastlines, and open spaces in my life, but my visit to Yosemite was the trip that made me truly appreciate what an outstanding job our country does at preserving its natural landscapes, even centuries later.
Driving in from the west via California Highway 120 and snaking down toward the valley floor, I can understand what it means for beauty to appear in death. Sprinkled among the green pines are the brown, dried-out and dying trees which fell victim to the Rim Fire in August 2013. Though depressing within the big picture, and a representation of the reality that is California’s current drought, it’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing fall in a forest of evergreens, creating a contrast that, from a distance, becomes beautifully reminiscent of the autumn harvest.
However, it wasn’t the fall season. It was late winter/early spring. The time had recently changed to extend the days, the breaking weather igniting the shoulder season in which the snow starts to melt, the waterfalls begin to flow, and the valley floor comes out of hibernation. It’s this time of year when visitors find themselves pleasantly caught between the low and high seasons.
During the summer, lines to enter the park can be up to an hour, and the valley floor is flooded with cars and people in every direction. This was not the case during my visit thanks to the fact that the snow remaining at higher altitudes, light-jacket nighttime temperatures, and the on-going school year kept out most of the crowds and campers, making March and April two of the most ideal months to visit the park.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt smaller in my life upon arriving at the valley floor, the pine trees stretching up all around me and the falls cascading down the walls of the canyon. There are several entrances to the park, and regardless which you take, you will inevitably be funneled down to the “valley loop.”
Be sure to get a map and familiarize yourself with the major landmarks before entering. This will help you play your cards right. Because the valley road is a one-way loop that can take 20 minutes to complete, you’ll want to be aware of the lookouts, viewpoints, and trailheads so you don’t end up driving around in circles and backtracking.
The most infamous overlook and an absolute must-see is the Tunnel View just to the west of the valley loop (clearly marked on any Yosemite map). The view you get down the valley is the most encompassing of all and includes the floor’s pine forest, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. El Capitan, or El Cap, is a granite face that rises 3,000 feet at its tallest point and features some of the most iconic and challenging climbing routes in the world. The unmistakable Half Dome is arguably Yosemite’s most recognizable rock formation and is named for its profile that is flat on one side and round on the other.
Once you see them all from a distance, you can visit them individually for a closer look. The hike to Half Dome is challenging—about eight miles one way, via the Mist Trail—making its summit all but inaccessible for the casual visitor. Luckily, most of the Park’s other major landmarks are easily approached. Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest in the world, is a short and flat quarter-mile stroll that takes you through a towering pine forest to its base. It is made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet).
While first-timers will want to spend most of their visit on the valley floor, an area that gave me my most memorable experience within Yosemite was Mariposa Grove, which sits at the southern-most end of the Park. The grove is home to about 500 giant sequoia trees, which grow to a height of 250 feet with a 25-foot diameter. The oldest trees in Mariposa Grove are approaching 3,000 years old. And if you’ve never seen them in person, you’ll want to make it a top priority, as these are some of the largest living things on Earth.
A two-hour valley floor tram tour can help you get familiarized with the major landmarks and the Park’s history. Tours cost $25 and depart at 10 and 11 in the morning, and 1 and 2 p.m. daily from Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. I highly recommend it for first-time visitors, or anyone looking for a swift history lesson.
“It was a quick but inspiring way to get an overview of the park and understand the options for exploring them more fully on our own time,” said Nancy Stevens of Connecticut, who, along with her husband, decided on a March visit because of the reduced crowds. “Our guide was very knowledgeable of Yosemite’s beginnings and the geology that we were seeing in the valley.”
Want help capturing the Park’s beautiful scenery? Then pay a visit to the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village and participate in a free camera walk. The tour offers tips on framing, composition, and lighting for shooting Yosemite’s landscapes. It’s offered Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 9–10 a.m. If you want to take it a step further, sign up for a four-hour class that follows in the footsteps of Ansel Adams and receive help recreating his infamous shots (Tuesday and Saturday, 1– 5p.m, $95).
There are also two-hour valley moonlight tram tours ($25) available through the Lodge at Yosemite Falls the days leading up to a full moon each month.
There are countless places to camp in the Park, but when it comes to sleeping somewhere more comfortable, you have two options in Yosemite Valley: The AAA Three Diamond Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and the AAA Four Diamond Ahwahnee Hotel. There are other possibilities a little further out from the valley floor, such as the Wawona Hotel on the way to Mariposa Grove, but I recommend staying in the valley because it provides better views, a shorter commute to the Park’s attractions, and a more epic atmosphere.
The rustic Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is named for its location at the base of Yosemite Falls, which is visible from multiple points on the property (but not necessarily the rooms) and is without question the major perk/amenity of the stay. Although it does offer a proper restaurant, a cafeteria and casual bar are where most guests eat their meals. Lodge Rooms are slightly bigger than Standard Rooms and have patios, a feature that makes sense when staying in a national park. Family Rooms and Large Bunk Rooms are great for families traveling with children because they have bunk beds in addition to two queens or a king.
As the AAA Four Diamond rating suggests, the Ahwahnee is an upscale accommodation, known for its architectural blend of Native American, Art Deco, and Middle Eastern influences. Located adjacent to Yosemite Village, the hotel gives guests views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point and features large public spaces with stone fireplaces, tapestries, stained glass, and a wood-like façade that is actually made of concrete to protect the building against fire. The Ahwahnee Dining Room is the park’s flagship fine-dining experience, where an extensive wine list compliments dolled-up game meats.
Travel advisory: National Park lodging properties book up solid at least nine to 12 months ahead of time. Discuss your options with a knowledgeable AAA Travel Agent.
Although most of the celebration of the Park’s 150th Anniversary lies in your appreciation of its still shining landscape, be sure to brush up on its history during your visit. Through the remainder of 2014, the Early Land Preservation Exhibit will walk you through the events from the creation of Yosemite to today, including letters on early land preservation and 19th century landscape history.
“The setting aside of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for preservation was truly the motivation for the entire national park system that we know today,” said Scott Gediman, park ranger at Yosemite National Park. “Americans, and people worldwide, marvel at our amazing national parks, and we’re thrilled and honored that the idea started right here in Yosemite.”
Will McGough is a writer focused on all types of travel, from swimming with pigs to parties in ice hotels. He writes about his travels on his blog, Wake and Wander, which you’ll find on Facebook and Twitter (@wakeandwander).