Yosemite National Park offers a feast for the senses: the sight of soaring granite walls defining the valley, the sounds of rushing water, the smell of lush meadows and forests, the touch of mist on your face as you stand near the base of a thundering waterfall. The landscape here inspired the writer John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams. It continues to inspire millions of visitors each year.
While most who come here restrict their visit to the compact Yosemite Valley — making the shuttle bus system a necessity — there are miles and miles of trails and tens of thousands of acres where you’re unlikely to run into another human being. More than 94 percent of the park is designated wilderness.
In an era when the wilderness was exploited for mining and ranching, people inspired by the special beauty of Yosemite acted quickly to preserve the landscape. The first recorded exploration of Yosemite wasn’t until 1851 when the Mariposa Battalion entered Yosemite Valley to drive out a Native American tribe known as the Ahwahneechee. President Abraham Lincoln, while wrestling with the Civil War in August 1864, signed the Yosemite Grant, giving Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California. The efforts of John Muir, who made his first trip to Yosemite Valley in 1868, helped lead to the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890.
Among the early guardians of the national park were African-American troops of the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry — known as Buffalo Soldiers — who patrolled the wilderness park around the turn of the 20th century to prevent poaching and illegal grazing, fight wildfires and oversee construction of roads and trails.
Things to do
Yosemite National Park is deservedly famous for its waterfalls that bring the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada Mountains cascading down to the valley floor. It is an easy stroll to the base of some of them. It’s just a half-mile roundtrip to Bridalveil Fall, where bringing a rain jacket isn’t a bad idea. It’s a little longer walk to get to Lower Yosemite Fall, but the payoff includes views of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.
More challenging hikes take you to Upper Yosemite Fall (pictured left), Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall.
Make the one-hour trip from Yosemite Valley to the south entrance of the park and Mariposa Grove, the largest stand of giant sequoias in Yosemite. Among the 500 giant trees are The Grizzly Giant, estimated to be 1,800 years old, and the California Tunnel Tree, cut in 1895 to allow a stagecoach to pass through.
At the end of the day — no matter where you’re sleeping — enjoy cocktails at the bar of the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel, where the wood-like facade is actually concrete stained to look like redwood.
Why you’ll want to come back
As spectacular as it is, there is more to Yosemite National Park than Yosemite Valley. The waterfalls are at full glory in the spring — April, May, early June — when parts of the park are still closed because of snow. Visit again in late summer to explore Tuolumne Meadows, a sub-alpine meadow beside the Tuolumne River circled by jaw-dropping peaks and domes.
Flora and fauna
Black bears can be something of a pest in Yosemite National Park where they break into cars to get to improperly stored food. The valley floor is also home to mule deer, coyotes and California ground squirrels. The high country is home to Sierra Nevada bighorn.
There are 1,450 kinds of wildflower in the park, including scarlet monkeyflower, meadow penstemon, subalpine paintbrush, Sierra butterweed and Gray’s lupine.
By the numbers:
- Website: Yosemite National Park
- Park size: 747,956 acres or 1,169 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 4,047,880
- Busiest month: August, 659,857 visitors
- Slowest month: January, 96,089 visitors
- What you don't know: The park has five waterfalls of 1,000 feet or more.
Inset photo of Upper Yosemite Falls: Genista/Flickr