Enter a mile-long tunnel bored through the granite walls guarding Yosemite Valley. Emerge from darkness into the light of the grand vista that continues to enchant millions of visitors each year. El Capitan, the patriarch of the valley, immutable Half Dome, and the Merced River snaking through an emerald green meadow come into view. People from around the globe gather here to take stock of what John Muir described so lovingly in his book My First Summer in the Sierra. Muir took Theodore Roosevelt into this high country where they spent time around a campfire beneath shimmering star-studded nights. The experience convinced Roosevelt that Yosemite should be protected; he gave it National Park status in 1906.
So many people were endeared to the park that a shuttle service was established to take them to trail heads and points of interest. Shuttle stop maps are issued at the entrances to the park and a newspaper of current park activities is available at the visitor center. Stow your car at one of many lots and take advantage of the easy-to-navigate shuttle system.
I was surprised to learn that Yosemite Valley was a 35-mile (one-hour) drive on a winding mountain road from the south gate entrance to my room at the Tenaya Lodge. Tenaya offers all-day tours in an open-air safari vehicle that travels to all the high points in the massive park. This saves time trying to figure things out and leaves the driving to your competent guide. Tenaya lodge is an all-inclusive high-end resort with hot and cold pools, a complete spa center, and several eateries.
If you are planning to hike the infamous Mist Trail (Stop #6), go there early in the morning. It is a steep ascent for about a mile sweetened by a breeze wafting off the charging waters of the Merced River. This intermediate trail involves 600 rock steps that lead to the base of Vernal Falls, a powerful rush of water sliding over a granite lip high above. Enjoy its rainbow sprays and swirling bowls of foaming water.
The second leg of the trail deposits hikers at Nevada Falls. Brave hearts who want to climb Half Dome veer off this path to the John Muir Trail. By noon, the sun is intense and the air dry, requiring hikers to carefully hydrate.
There are hikes in the park for all fitness levels. Mirror Lake (Stop #17) is a great destination if you are looking for serenity and solitude. It is a short, easy trail that crosses Tenaya Creek Bridge then follows the creek to Mirror Lake. Nearby is the majestic Ahwahnee Hotel built by Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service in 1927, to entice wealthy Easterners. He knew that if the park was not profitable, it would not be preserved. Sip a cool drink on the patio of this elegant establishment overlooking a vast meadow framed in towering rock buttresses.
Halfway between the famous valley and Tenaya Lodge, a snaking road through a thick forest takes you to Glacier Point with a vista of unrivaled beauty. At the Washburn Overlook, Half Dome dominates the scene with three waterfalls and mountaintops spreading to eternity.
From Glacier Point itself you overlook the verdant valley 3,000 feet below. Numerous trails fan out from Glacier Point, but the Panorama trail rides the rim for more stunning views.
Recently refurbished trails throughout the not-to-be missed Mariposa Grove of ancient sequoia are accessed by shuttle at a parking lot just inside the south entrance to the park. Here is a chance to breathe deeply the tranquility of the forest and admire the nobility of these giants that have withstood fire, flood, and the intrusion of mankind for thousands of years.
I found my moment with nature on an easy three-mile loop near the historic Wawona Hotel built in 1897. I was the sole traveler on this path shaded by towering pines and sequoias tracing a lush meadow. Persimmon-tipped willows framing the meadow spoke of fall just around the corner. In spring, the meadow is awash in wildflowers.
In an attempt to bring nature closer to their guests, Tenaya Lodge owners are building a complex of cabins with decks overlooking Big Creek. The scent of pines is in the air and birdsong is your wake-up call. They are excited to offer two-bedroom cabins at very competitive pricing. The clubhouse with a restaurant will be completed by spring of 2020. In the interim, they provide shuttle service from the Explorer cabins to the main lodge, so guests have easy access to all amenities.
In John Muir’s time (1890), Yosemite was being used for pasture land for sheep and cattle, what he dubbed “locusts with hooves.” Campers were leaving the flotsam of mankind behind and littering the valley with trash. Muir made it his mission to restore the valley to its natural splendor. His is a testimony to what one person can do to save our wilderness areas from the abuses of human activity.
With an administration that is actively overturning environmental protections and opening protected lands to grazing cattle, mining, fracking, logging, it is time for each of us to stand up and fight to protect our planet.