More gushing adjectives have been thrown at Yosemite National Park (Web: www.nps.gov/yose ) than at any other part of California. However excessive the hyperbole may seem, the instant you turn the corner that reveals Yosemite Valley, you realize it's actually an understatement – this is one of the world's most dramatic geological spectacles. Just seven miles long and never more than one mile across, it is walled by near-vertical three-thousand-foot cliffs, streaked by tumbling waterfalls and topped by domes and pinnacles that form a jagged silhouette against the sky. At ground level, grassy meadows are framed by oak, cedar, and fir trees; deer, coyotes, and even black bears are often seen. Tourists are even commoner, but the park is big enough to absorb the crowds: you can visit at any time of year, even in winter when the waterfalls ice up and the trails are blocked by snow, and, excepting summer, the valley itself is rarely overcrowded.
Yosemite Valley was made by glaciers gouging through the canyon of the Merced River: the ice scraped away the softer granite leaving soaring cliffs. The lake that formed when the glaciers melted eventually silted up to create the present valley floor. Native Americans lived here in comparative peace until 1851, when the Gold Rush settlers of the Mariposa Battalion trailed the Native Americans into the foothills and beyond, becoming the first whites to set foot in Yosemite Valley. The native community was soon forced out to make way for farmers, foresters, and tourists. Thanks to the campaigning work of naturalist John Muir, in 1864 Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were set aside as America's first protected wilderness. A Scottish immigrant who traveled the entire area on foot, Muir spearheaded the conservation movement that led to the founding of the Sierra Club, with the express aim of preserving Yosemite. In 1913, the construction of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley just north, to provide water for San Francisco, was a setback; but the publicity actually aided the formation of the present National Park Service in 1916, which promised – and has since provided – greater protection. Park entry costs $20 per vehicle, $10 per pedestrian or cyclist, and is valid for seven days. Bus passengers get in free.
Encompassing almost 750,000 acres and 1,169 square miles, the majority of Yosemite National Park is designated as wilderness area. Yet most visitors will find themselves in three relatively developed areas of the park: Yosemite Valley, Southern Yosemite, and Northern Yosemite.
Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Village
The true center of the park is Yosemite Valley. This is where busloads of visitors gawk at the world-famous views of the massive granite monoliths carved from the Valley's walls. The Valley is also home to Yosemite Village, where the bulk of Yosemite's services and facilities are found.
The first stop for most visitors is Yosemite Village, nestled along both sides of the Merced River. Driving into the Valley by car is acceptable, but once you are there, park staff encourages you to leave your car in the day parking lot (no charge) and hop on one of the free shuttles. In fact, many roads in the east end of the valley banned private traffic to create a system of one-way roads for the shuttles and allow for extensive biking and walking trails.
A natural starting place on any visit to the park is the Valley Visitor Center , located in Yosemite Village. Explore the shops, the Yosemite Museum and the Indian Village . Medical services and National Park Service headquarters are located here as well. From this point, you can take the shuttles to The Ahwahnee , Yosemite Lodge , Curry Village , Happy Isles and Lower and North Pines campgrounds.
While it may be tempting to spend your time exploring the buildings and lodges, remember that you are in one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world. Easy walks, short hikes and more strenuous climbs open up breathtaking sights including Yosemite Falls , Mirror Lake and Vernal Falls . There are excellent guidebooks available in the Valley Visitor Center , which detail hikes for every level of experience.
Wawona and Southern Yosemite
Visitors are often pleasantly surprised at the relative quiet in the southern end of Yosemite National Park. From the amazing views at Glacier Point, to the charming historical village of Wawona , to the magnificence of Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the Wawona district is not to be missed.
Glacier Point , atop the sheer granite cliffs towering 3,200 feet above the Valley floor, offers breathtaking views of the entire Valley, and is especially popular at sunset. Check with the ranger about evening stargazing programs, and be sure to ask about the 'fire fall' tradition. The 16-mile drive up Glacier Point Road, past Badger Pass Ski Area, is somewhat hair-raising, but the views from the top never fail to impress.
The village of Wawona drips old-fashioned delights. The historic Wawona Hotel , built on the site of Galen Clark's original cabin, offers food and lodging with yesterday's charm. Duffers will enjoy the nearby gold course, originally built in 1917 and now the only links within the boundaries of a national park. Step back to an earlier time at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center , where park staff creates a living account of Yosemite's fascinating past. One of the true jewels in Yosemite's impressive crown is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. You can take an open-air tram through the Grove, or hike on your own. Some of the massive trees date back 3,000 years. Tuolumne Meadows and the High Country
The Yosemite High Country comprises almost two-thirds of the total area of the park, much of it wilderness. Access to this remarkable area is via the Tioga Road, which crosses the backbone of the Sierra Nevadas. The road reaches almost 10,000 in feet in elevation at its crest at Tioga Pass.
Not far from the park entrance on Highway 120 West is the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and O'Shaughnessy Dam . Sparking an environmental controversy when built in the early 1900s, the dam and resulting reservoir continue to slake the thirst of the city of San Francisco. The area provides fishing, hiking and backpacking opportunities year round.
Tioga Road bisects the park's rugged high county, and takes visitors to Tuolumne Meadows , a spectacular sub-alpine meadow ringed by peaks and granite domes, and the Sierra High Camps, a rustic enclave for adventurers that offers hot meals and warm beds for backpackers, rock climbers and hikers in season.
Generally, when people visit Yosemite National Park, their goal is to experience the spectacular scenery and see at least some of the Park's world-famous sights. Lots of people take tours, many come in cars for the day, and others camp and backpack for several days. The focus here is truly more on adventure and exploration than on food. However, after a few hours or days in the mountain air, you are sure to get hungry.
Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Village
The most interesting, elegant, and perhaps the best of all choice is the old Ahwahnee Dining Room . This huge, vaulted, elegant room is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea. The menus vary with the seasons and in the evening you must dress in something more elegant than shorts and T-shirts, but you will experience a taste of the original park both in dishes and decor. The Yosemite Lodge Food Court . Visitors will not have to wander very far in the Village to find some sort of restaurant or snack bar.
Wawona and Southern Yosemite
Three restaurants are in the park, but outside of the Valley. On the east side, you can have breakfast and dinner at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Restaurant (make reservations for evening meals); its prime rib and New York steak dinners are highly praised and sought after by hungry hikers.
Off Highway 41 is the Wawona Hotel Dining Room . Like the hotel, the room is full of light and airy ambience. The food has a good reputation for both quality and quantity. Breakfast is bacon or sausage and eggs, or French toast; lunch is a buffet that changes with the seasons and often includes local fresh vegetables and herbs. At dinner, you will find some amazing delicacies including Indian Tom's South Fork Trout or crackling roast duckling.
On the west side of the park, along Highway 120, is the White Wolf Lodge Restaurant . Open for breakfast and dinner, its casual dining room serves the usual bacon and eggs for breakfast and has a dinner menu that changes with the season—most days offer dinner specials that can include fish, chicken, beef, pasta or vegetarian dishes. The portions are large; the quality is excellent; and, the staff is happy to share 'secret vantage points' within the park.
Outside the Park
Variety abounds as you travel to and from the Park. If you are coming from Lee Vining, you will find several casual and fun places there, like Niceley's Restaurant , Bodie Mike's Barbeque or a top-drawer Tioga Lodge Restaurant on Mono Lake. Keep in mind that the eastern side of the Sierra often gets heavy snow in winter, so your selection during those months may be limited due to road closures.
Mariposa is an interesting little historical city on the southwest side of the park. You can enter the park on either the south or west side from here. Here you will find Gold Rush charm and the upscale Charles Street Dinner House where you will want to wear something a bit more formal than shorts and T-shirts. Midpines is in between Mariposa and the west entrance of the park and Recovery Bistro & Cafe .
Oakhurst is another area that is south of the park that offers a variety of dining choices. It also has some gold rush influence. Castillo's Mexican Food which has the look and feel of a real Mexican cantina. You can have great scones, coffee, and ice cream, as well as regular meals at the casual Yosemite Coffee and Roasting Company .
First-time visitors to the park will want to venture to all three districts: Yosemite Valley, Southern Yosemite and Wawona, and the Tioga Road/Tuolumne Meadows region. Exploring by car is advisable, considering that the terrain can be rather harsh.
Lower Yosemite Falls In Yosemite Valley, stop into the Visitor Center , then head to Bridalveil Falls and Lower Yosemite Falls . Browse the collections at Ansel Adams Gallery and the Indian Cultural Exhibit , then dine at Mountain Room Restaurant .
Mirror Lake See the Valley by shuttle , with stops at Yosemite Lodge , Happy Isles and Mirror Lake . Don't forget to check out The Awahnee village and stay for dinner.
Mariposa Grove Explore the little village of Wawona . Enjoy breakfast in the Wawona Hotel 's gorgeous dining room . Stop into the Pioneer Yosemite History Center , a living museum dedicated to showcasing life in Yosemite's early days, then wander the Mariposa Grove .
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Have breakfast at Yosemite Lodge Food Court before heading north. Explore the secluded Hetch Hetchy Reservoir , the massive O'Shaughnessy Dam and the education-oriented Parsons Memorial Lodge . Enjoy dinner at nearby Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Grill .
Golden Chain Theatre Just outside the Park, to the south, you'll find the Grimmer Gallery and the Timberline Gallery , both showcasing local art. Nearby is the Golden Chain Theatre , which provides family-friendly entertainment. Dinner can be found at Jackalope Bar and Grill or Tenaya Lodge Sierra Restaurant .
Arranging a professional tour or two is a good idea when exploring the park and surrounding areas. Yosemite offers many interesting hiking, train and bus tours to suit your needs.
Hiking Tours Exploring Yosemite Natural History ( +1 209 379 2324/ http://www.yosemite.org ) High Country Wildflower Hikes ( +1 209 379 2324/ http://www.yosemite.org ) Twilight Strolls ( +1 209 372 0200/ http://www.yosemitepark.com ) Grand Yosemite Adventure ( +1 209 379 2321/ http://www.yosemite.org ) Ostrander Lake Fall Backpack Adventure ( +1 209 379 2321/ http://www.yosemite.org ) Y explore Yosemite Adventures ( +1 800 886 8009/ http://yexplore.com )
Bus Tours Yosemite Valley Shuttle System ( http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/bus.htm )
Train Tours Yosemite Sugar Pine Railroad ( +1 559 683 7273/ http://www.ymsprr.com/ )