The national parks have been called "America's Best Idea" by plenty of notables, including, most recently, Ken Burns in his excellent PBS series. I'm inclined to agree. It's worth thinking about what would have happened to these places if they hadn't been protected.

Can you imagine the Everglades would still be relatively intact if left to the vagaries of local politics and the twin destroyers of developer greed and the sugar industry? Surely Olympic National Park would have been logged, with ancient trees torn down in the name of short-term profiteering like they have been elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Maine's Acadia would have had some lovely resorts set up for the super-rich on top of Mount Cadillac.

Thankfully, these glorious spots are not only protected, they are open to all Americans — because they belong to us. 

An old bridge along Tanaya Creek in Yosemite National Park:

An old bridge along Tanaya Creek in Yosemite National Park. It's not as dramatic as some of the vistas we saw, but memorable for the quiet gurgling of the stream below. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

That's not just lip-service; there is something profound about standing at the top of Vernal Fall at Yosemite National Park like I did a few weeks ago, looking around at the random bunch of people sunning themselves after the arduous climb, and realizing that this spot belongs to each of us just the same. 

Yosemite National Park, which is still 95 percent wilderness, is the place where the idea of a national park started. Galen Clark and a group of advocates got President Abraham Lincoln to protect the valley in 1864, and later John Muir led for the expansion of protected lands beyond the valley, encompassing surrounding valleys and forests. 

And so, as the national parks service gears up for its 100th anniversary, I checked out where it all began on a three-day trip to the famous Californian park. (Yes, this was my first visit!)

half dome yosemite

I took this picture of Half Dome with my iPhone on my way to breakfast. That's how great the views are throughout the valley in Yosemite. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

The first thing to understand about Yosemite is that it's impossible to capture in photographs, even though you've probably seen thousands of images of the waterfalls, Half Dome, El Capitan and the valley view. I know I have, from iPhone shots to Ansel Adams, but Yosemite is on a whole other scale, one that I'd argue not even Adams' photos can explain.

When you're in the valley, where the visitor centers, lodgings and food are located, you feel as if you've been miniaturized, because the granite cliffs around you are just. so. huge. Waterfalls are correspondingly gigantic — even the light in this valley is different, as the sun is blocked in a way that is nothing short of peculiar. Even my non-visual, never-takes-a-photo partner remarked on the strange, beguiling light.

A rainbow at Vernal Fall, along one of the park's most popular hikes.

A rainbow at Vernal Fall, along one of the park's most popular hikes. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

For some people, the combination of vertiginous rock faces and diluted light is a little ... spooky, and I mean that in the most positive way. It's not often, once you're a grown-up, that you experience the physical world in such a radical new form, and it can feel like some kind of betrayal of how you understood the world, since it forces a new perspective. But it's precisely this feeling of getting out of your own skin that is one of the reasons exploring the natural world can be so exciting. Buttons you didn't even know you had get pushed!

In short, you have to see (and hear, and feel and smell) this national park for yourself. 

The giant walls of granite everywhere at Yosemite made me feel very small! (Photo: Starre Vartan)

The giant walls of granite everywhere at Yosemite made me feel very small! (Photo: Starre Vartan)

While you might think of national parks as backcountry wilderness (and of course there is plenty of that), I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable Yosemite was. There are all kinds of accommodations, food options from snacks to high-end dining, and plenty of stuff to do even if you aren't into hiking and camping. I was expecting to be "roughing it" and that's wholly unnecessary — unless you want to.

The cabins at Curry Village are comfortable and bear-proof!

The cabins at Curry Village are comfortable and bear-proof! (Photo: Starre Vartan)

Where to stay:

Tent camping either on the backwoods trails or at camps is available and the least expensive option. Next up, there's Curry Village, which includes more than 400 tent cabins, which are raised off the ground, and have simple bunk beds and waterproof canvas exteriors — bathrooms are separate. We enjoyed staying in the cute cabins at Curry Village, which have wonderful vintage details as they were built in the 1920s. (They have updated bathrooms, don't worry.) The cabins also include maid service, linens and towels, and they all have a front porch, perfect for morning stretches directly beneath the towering Half Dome.

There are also motel rooms at the lodge in Curry Village and nice mid-level rooms at the Yosemite Lodge. The Wawona Hotel offers Victorian-decorated rooms (each with their own veranda), and then there's the historic Ahwahnee, a gorgeous lodge built in 1925 complete with giant fireplaces, a wonderful dining room, and old-school, high-end charm in spades (including rooms with private or shared balconies). Whatever your comfort level, Yosemite's got options. 

Yosemite valley floor

Yosemite's valley floor is home to several huge meadows that are ideal for reading, napping, or playing games. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

What to do, non-hiking edition: 

Here's just some of what you can do at Yosemite if you're not a hiker:

  • Have a picnic or read in a giant natural meadow while the tremendous cliffs surrounding you change color with the light and a waterfall (that's upper Yosemite falls in the image above) keeps things moving. It's just a joy to experience so much space.
  • Ride a bike on paved trails for miles. You can rent bikes there or bring your own.
  • Take a photography class through the Ansel Adams Gallery. There are short, free camera walks and longer classes at reasonable prices. 
  • Stargaze: Sit outside on a clear night and be blown away by the intensity of stars and the moon — or if you don't want to sit, take a starlight stroll. My partner Simon and I took a post-dinner walk for a half an hour, looking up the whole time — paths are paved and starlight was plenty to see by, so we didn't even need our flashlight. (There's also a stargazing tour if you want to know what you're looking at.) 
  • Or take a night prowl with a park expert and explore all the nocturnal life in the park.
  • Go on a mule ride over to Mirror Lake (for beginners) or avoid the major cardio workout and take a mule ride up to spectacular Vernal Falls. 
  • There are numerous fireplaces in the park's various public areas if you want to cozy up by one to read, write or take a nap. 
  • Or, just sit by a stream and meditate, or play cards with a friend. 
Great hikes: 

If you want to get your hike on, Yosemite has an impressive variety of short- and medium-length day hikes. I'm pretty sure I managed to see each of the five major vegetation zones the park is home to, including chaparral/oak woodland, lower Montane Forest, upper Montane Forest, subalpine zone and alpine on the three hikes we did. Each of these hikes is excellent, and a great way to see different types of terrain, although there are, of course, many more hikes within and outside the valley. 

The easiest hike we found was to Lower Yosemite Falls. It's not too far from the road and an impressive sight — maximum bang for minimal hoofing — on your day of arrival if you have some daylight hours left.

The trails of Yosemite are remarkable well kept

The trails are Yosemite are remarkably well-kept and everything is signed and trails are easy to follow. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

The second day, we did the short, easy hike to Mirror Lake, which beautifully reflects Half Dome that looms over it, and then we kept going along the Mirror Lake Loop trail along Tanaya Creek, which was mostly flat but absolutely gorgeous with bridge crossings and views of Half Dome all along the way. 

Day three was our most challenging hike, but we had bluebird skies and lots of sunshine to inspire us. The hike to Vernal Fall is uphill the whole way (a 1,000-foot gain), but there are so many beautiful spots to take a rest that you can make it as easy or as strenuous as you like. The last bit is very steep, and there are railings and stairs built into the rock, but the climb is very much worth it — a spectacular vista awaits, and that's in addition to seeing the falls, which you have been climbing next to, from the top! Instead of going back the way we had come, we continued to hike up to Clark's Point for more terrific views, including Nevada Fall and then we came down a much-easier mule trail, a route I would recommend. 

The Ahwahnee's dining room is a stunner, and the food is no less impressive.

The Ahwahnee's dining room is a stunner, and the food is no less impressive. (Photo: DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.)

Where to eat: 

We never ate at the same place twice during our visit, and the high level of the food (from the gourmet tea and snack selection to the excellent menus at the sit-down locations) was a more-fun-than-expected part of our trip. It's especially satisfying to enjoy all sorts of great snacks and meals when you're spending so much time outside getting exercise. 

The first night we enjoyed pizza with veggies and beers at the Pizza Patio (heated with lamps) on a porch in Curry Village. The next day we had a fantastic fresh lunch (I had a big salad; my partner had the fresh, local trout) at the Ahwahnee's beautiful dining room, which boasts tons of natural light thanks to absolutely gigantic windows. That night, post-hike, we had a local, organic dinner at the Mountain Room restaurant at the Yosemite Falls Lodge. For breakfast, the coffee corner at Curry Village offered real lattes and house-made build-your-own-oatmeal. There are also food courts, delis, and the truly impressively stocked Village Store, which had fresh organic produce, frozen and fresh foods, all sorts of personal care items, as well as a pretty awesome selection of souvenirs! (I walked out with a stuffed bear, a pair of Yosemite socks and a pint glass.)

I appreciated that both the food and lodging, which are managed by the Delaware North company, have serious green cred. Just a few of the "Green Path" initiatives include sourcing seafood and fish according to Monterey Bay Aquarium standards; organic and local produce; engaging in green purchasing (so office supplies are made from recycled materials, for example); electric cars and hybrid busses, and a vehicle that runs on waste vegetable oil from the park's kitchens; and a serious commitment to waste reduction throughout the park. 

mule deer

Most animals at the park are incredibly tame, like this mule deer which wasn't going to let our through-hike disturb her browsing. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

Celebrate the National Park Service's 100th anniversary with the #FindYourPark campaign and celebrate National Park Week from April 18-26. You can fan Yosemite on Facebook and follow Delaware North on Instagram. But whatever else you do, and whatever time of year, just go see it for yourself. You won't regret it.

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

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