There are nearly three million acres protected in the portion of the Sierra Nevada that includes Yosemite National Park. The valley floor offers one perspective on this vast and diverse territory, and a drive through the High Sierra offers an entirely different landscape. There are lakes and meadows and dramatic rock formations worthy of moonscapes to capture attention, all before wending back to the classic view over the valley. Within the past few days, the face of El Capitan has been changed by rock slides; every minute captured in Yosemite is once in a lifetime.
We chose to visit Yosemite after Labor Day, hoping to miss heavy summer traffic. I assume we did that, but it’s hard to know; it seemed packed to us. There is shuttle bus service in Yosemite Valley to ease congestion issues, without which one can imagine total gridlock. September brought other issues with it as well: there was record-breaking heat, vistas were smokey, fires blocked access to Glacier Point Road, water in streams and waterfalls diminish in the fall, and there were bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. I’m sure that visitors who hike into back country have a much richer experience of the park than we did, and probably even see more wildlife than the mule deer who walked unperturbed past photographers (look closely…).
Nonetheless, we felt like we didn’t miss a thing. We saw classic Yosemite, beginning with the Valley floor which sits beneath the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. We visited Inspiration Point four times, but were able to see Bridalveil Fall from that location only once. Didn’t matter; it’s all still gorgeous, and early in the morning, before the hordes descended, was best.
The Majestic Yosemite
When arriving into Yosemite National Park through the Arch Rock Entrance on El Portal Road, one is not sure what to expect. There were hints of grandeur along the way, but we were arriving at dusk and wanted to get to our hotel, saving the park overview for later.
We had booked the necessary “near to a year” in advance for The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee, (the name given to Yosemite Valley by the Ahwahneechee people, its first residents. At present there is a trademark dispute over the name, which sort of explains the new Majestic identification.) First opened in 1927, it is thought to be the National Park system’s premiere hotel, not close to our usual choice for sleeping space, but it was our anniversary. Good excuse.
The hotel sits at the base of granite cliffs, and as large as it seems, it is small in relation to its surroundings. If you can force yourself to leave the dining room or patio, a walk to the river is a wonderful way to start the morning.
The anticipated 4 hour drive from Sequoia National Park to the south entrance of Yosemite National Park was nearly doubled by detours caused by fires. We had booked several nights in the southernmost part of Yosemite, anticipating park excursions from that location, but were thwarted by fires, and restorations in the sequoia groves which closed them to visitors. As is often the case, initial disappointment turned to its own kind of pleasure.
Big Trees Lodge, known until 2016 as The Wawona Hotel, is a National Historic Landmark, and is loaded with Victorian-style charm. The cottage complex where we stayed was built in 1876-77, and retains the big porches and large lawns that encourage lounging without agenda. Fires had been raging for several week quite close to the nearby town of Wawona, and we could smell the burn and see pink-tinged skies. At night, very tired firefighters came to the hotel to eat quickly, sleep lightly and rise early to refuel their trucks at the bottom of the driveway. There were signs of appreciation for their efforts in nearly every yard in town, acknowledging them as the heroes they are.
We spent our last morning there walking to The Pioneer Yosemite History Center, constructed as a small frontier town. The smokey morning mist provided a lovely setting for imagining frontier life as extremely pleasant, unlike its certain reality.