To Yosemite and home

Yosemite can take a lifetime to explore, but you can also enjoy even a short visit to the park

The next morning, we spot a hawk soaring in the same direction we're driving, following steep State 120 into Yosemite National Park. Coming in by the park's eastern "back door" early in the day, we avoid the backup of cars often found at the west-side entry kiosks. But in late spring or summer, you have to face one reality: Yosemite will be crowded (3.5 million people visit the park each year).

There are ways to avoid the herd. Expend even a small amount of energy ― hop on a bike trail or take a hike or a horseback ride ― and you'll leave the crowds behind. Cars are a hassle in the valley; park yours at your lodging and hop on the free shuttle buses to visit major destinations like the Glacier Point trailhead and Lower Yosemite Fall (and its new loop trail).

Over breakfast with Kathy Langley, concierge at the Ahwahnee hotel, we get more ideas for making the most of our time in Yosemite Valley. My first question: What should we do if we have only a few days here? "You should sit by the river and cry," Langley says, laughing. "That's what John Muir said."

This nearly 750,000-acre park, encompassing groves of giant sequoias, alpine wilderness, and the granite-bound valley, can take a lifetime to explore. Still, Langley adds, "even on a short trip, you can create lasting memories."

Over the next few days, we follow Langley's suggestions: Rent a bike (we wheel throughout Yosemite Valley, spotting birds, meadows, waterfalls). Ride a horse and see the park just like early visitors did (my companions decline, but I take a spectacular guided ride into the high- country portion of the park known as Tuolumne).

Langley's last tip gives our trip its big finish: Take the bus up to Glacier Point, then hike down to the valley. So on our last day, we stand at Glacier Point (elevation 7,214 feet; opens late May) and gaze out over one of the earth's greatest panoramas: Half Dome, Basket Dome, and Liberty Cap shine in the morning light. Vernal and Nevada Falls are going like fire hoses. "Nice," says Bob, master of understatement. We prepare to head down the Four Mile Trail, which snakes 4 3/4 miles to the valley floor. Bob notes that the trail descends 3,220 feet, "or the equivalent of more than two Empire State Buildings." Yikes.

But the hike down turns out to be a real trip topper ― not for the faint of heart (or knees), but an experience these hikers would never trade. I cap the day by finding my bliss: a swim in the cool green waters of the Merced River, where golden flecks sparkle on the sandy bottom.

Over dinner that night in the grand Ahwahnee hotel, Mary Kay, Bob, and I recount highlights of our journey. "The trip just builds and builds," Mary Kay says. "Each day you see something more amazing than the day before." Over subsequent glasses of Merlot, we become somewhat effusive, and somebody compares the trip to a symphony, each movement building in drama, with Yosemite as the journey's powerful crescendo. We walk out of the Ahwahnee as a sliver of moon rises over the valley, and we all stop and stare, transfixed.