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Online Extra
January 2005

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Yosemite: The Ultimate Natural High

Yosemite Online Extra
Photograph by Henryk Tomasz Kaiser, Transparencies Inc.

Once inaccessible, Half Dome is now a favorite destination for visitors, who climb cable-lined trails to reach its rounded summit.

By Samara Schwartz

During a hike through Yosemite National Park in 1922, renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams wrote a letter to his future wife, Virginia Best:

"Any 'news' in the ordinary sense would be an insipid blur of thought—I would much rather send you some little hint of mood—something that echoes, though ever so slightly, the primal song of the wilderness—the whisper of silver winds in the lonely forest—the hollow chant of falling waters."

Solitude in Yosemite often seems like romantic nostalgia to its roughly four million annual tourists, many of whom flock to the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas with cameras in hand, eager to capture the same sites that hushed Adams when he first visited the park as a teenager in 1916.

More than 90 percent of tourists confine their visit to Yosemite Valley, the mile-wide (two-kilometer-wide), seven-mile-long (eleven-kilometer-long) canyon that boasts spectacular views. These sights include the 87-million-year-old granite Half Dome, at 8,842 feet (2,695 meters) perhaps the park's most recognized landmark; Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America; and El Capitan, the world's largest granite monolith and a favorite destination for avid rock climbers.

But the valley comprises less than one percent of the park's 761,266 acres (308,000 hectares), an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. For visitors willing to escape the noisy crowds and souvenir shops either for a day hike or a week of camping, opportunities to experience the wilderness as Ansel Adams did are as plentiful and as varied as the park's natural treasures.

Where to Start

Stop by Yosemite's visitor centers for information on activities and to purchase books and maps for planning your adventures. The Valley Visitor Center in Yosemite Village is a good place to launch your trip. Also check out the nearby Yosemite Museum, including its Indian cultural exhibit,  and the Ansel Adams Gallery, which offers photographer-led tours. Reenactors tell the park's story at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, located in Wawona to the south. The Mariposa Grove Museum provides an inside look at the giant sequoias.


What to Do

Backpacking and Hiking
More than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) of trails wind through the park across its varied terrain, offering spectacular views of wildflower meadows, waterfalls, and forests. You can learn more about easy treks, classic routes, and challenging hikes from The Complete Guidebook to Yosemite National Park (Steven Medley, Yosemite Association, 1997).

Rent a bicycle from Yosemite Lodge (year-round) or Curry Village (summer only) and take in Yosemite Valley. The 12-mile (19-kilometer) loop of paved trail leads you through breathtaking vistas, including a gleaming view of Mirror Lake.

The only naturally occurring game fish in Yosemite is the rainbow trout. All other native populations were eliminated during the last Ice Age. Species that have been introduced, such as brown trout and brook trout, are abundant. Stream and river fishing begins on the last Saturday in April and runs through November 15. A valid California fishing license is required.

Horseback Riding
Three stables offer a variety of horseback tours. Beginners can retrace the path of Wawona's early pioneers with a two-hour ride along a historic wagon trail. Experienced riders can tackle an all-day, 18-mile-long (29-kilometer-long) ride from the stable at Tuolumne Meadows, at the park's eastern end, to the tumbling rush of Water Wheel Falls.

During the summer months navigate the Merced River, where the rapids reach Class III difficulty after El Capitan, or kayak the calm waters of Tenaya Lake.

Rock Climbing
An international mecca for rock climbers, Yosemite is perfect for the experienced climber. Most climbs in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows involve scaling smooth glacier-polished granite and provide a high challenge. But the image best associated with Yosemite rock climbing is probably that of people clinging to El Capitan and sleeping in slings during their multi-day ascent.

Wildlife Watching
Yosemite boasts more than 300 species of mammals, with black bear and mule deer as two of the most common. After hunting nearly decimated the California bighorn sheep population in 1900, their numbers are growing today in the Tioga Pass. At night, campers may hear a chorus of howling coyotes, accompanied by the deep hooting of the endangered great gray owl.

The park hosts more than 240 bird species, including the Steller's jay and Clark's nutcracker, which both enjoy snatching bits of food from campers. Tourists looking skyward may catch a glimpse of a bald eagle or a golden eagle.

Winter Activities
More than 350 miles (560 kilometers) of ski trails await winter-weather enthusiasts. The gateway to many of these trails, including 25 miles (40 kilometers) of machine-groomed track, is Badger Pass. California's oldest ski resort, it offers cross-country trails and downhill facilities for skiing and snowboarding. Visitors can rent equipment and take lessons through the Cross Country Center and Ski School, adjacent to Badger Pass.

During full moons, ranger-led snowshoe walks are conducted from Badger Pass. Crane Flat and Mariposa Grove also offer ranger-led snowshoe walks. And a favorite winter sport becomes unforgettable when Yosemite Valley visitors ice skate within view of Half Dome and Glacier Point.


How to Get There

By Car
Yosemite is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco and a six-hour drive from Los Angeles. The park can be reached via State Routes 41, 120, and 140, which feed into its western and southern entrances. Be sure to check on road access, because the five entrances operate on different schedules year-round and may require tire chains between October and April.

If you plan to chart your trip with an online map service, use Yosemite's zip code 95389 as your destination. "Probably the folks who drive up from Wawona and the Mariposa Grove have the best initial view," observes Robin Will, author of Beautiful Yosemite National Park, "although there is no such thing as a bad view here."

By Bus and Train
In spring 2000 the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) launched a regional bus service that provides transportation for visitors who park and lodge in nearby Merced, Mariposa, and Mono counties. Amtrak and Greyhound patrons can access YARTS in Merced. For ticket information visit Amtrak offers trains every morning from Oakland to Merced, where passengers transfer onto buses bound for Yosemite Valley.

By Air
Fresno-Yosemite International Airport is the park's closest major airport. Located 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the Wawona entrance via State Route 41, it is serviced by several airlines. United Express Airlines flies into Merced Airport, 73 miles (117 kilometers) from Arch Rock, Yosemite's western entrance. Inquire at the airports about the availability of bus service and rental cars.


When to Go

Yosemite National Park is open all year. So when is the best time to visit? It all depends on your interests and what you'd like to see.

Tourist season is at its peak between June and September, and Yosemite is in full bloom with wildflowers. Fall provides a quieter glimpse of the park's grandeur, particularly in mid-October when the fiery hues of maples, black oaks, and other deciduous trees offset Yosemite's abundant unchanging evergreens. At Badger Pass snowfall averages more than 25 feet (8 meters) annually in the High Sierra, perfect for alpine or cross-country skiing or ranger-led snowshoe walks among the white-frosted sequoias. And as warm weather melts the snow, waterfalls throughout the park spring to life, making May and early June the prime season to enjoy them.


What to Bring

Your packing list depends on your agenda. Scaling El Capitan's 3,593-foot (1,095-meter) wall or hang gliding from Glacier Point requires equipment different from what you would need on a brief walk to Mirror Lake or to the Vernal Fall Bridge, two easy hikes from the valley floor.

At the very least, bring a pack with water, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellant, and a first aid kit. A camera, flashlight, binoculars, map, and compass are also good to have on hand.

If you decide to embark on an overnight hike in the 95 percent of the park that is designated wilderness, check out to make sure you have everything you need, including a free wilderness permit—required for all overnight stays—and a bear-resistant food storage canister.


Where to Stay

When 42 visitors—Yosemite's first documented tourists—journeyed into the park in 1855, they spent their nights beneath the stars. As Yosemite's popularity mushroomed, entrepreneurs recognized that many visitors wanted to enjoy the comforts of home while touring the park. They built hotels—some of which remain today—such as the lavish Ahwahnee Hotel and the Wawona Hotel, which hosted President Theodore Roosevelt.

More than a century later, similar lodging options are available. Visitors can make reservations up to 366 days in advance for accommodations ranging from rustic cabins to four-diamond elegance by going online and logging onto Consider spending the night in one of the park's 13 tent and RV campgrounds. Reservations aren't required at all campgrounds but are highly recommended, especially from April through September. Visit


How to Get Around

Entrance Fees
An annual Yosemite pass costs $40. A weeklong automobile pass for $20 is available, and a $10 individual pass covers bus passengers, bicyclists, and people on foot.

Shuttle Service
Complimentary bus service runs all year throughout the Yosemite Valley. From spring through fall, a free Wawona-Mariposa Grove shuttle transports tourists to the giant sequoias, and a summer-only shuttle runs throughout Tuolumne Meadows. For a fee, hikers eager to reach Tioga Road and Glacier Point can reserve a seat on special buses.


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