Yosemite 101

The park's history, getting there, when to go, and what to see

The park's history: The National Park was born here. On June 30, 1864―with the nation still fighting the Civil War―President Lincoln signed a bill establishing a preserve in California’s Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. For the first time in human history, a natural landscape was set aside so that a nation’s citizens could explore it, have adventures in it, and revel in its beauty.

Take one look at Yosemite Valley―say, the classic first glimpse from Tunnel View Overlook―and you understand why Lincoln did what he did. There’s no more spectacular scene than this glorious green indentation in the gray peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

Getting there: Yosemite lies 195 miles east of San Francisco, 175 southeast of Sacramento, and 90 miles northeast of Fresno. The main gateway towns to Yosemite are El Portal, on California 140 just west of the park; Mariposa, also on 140 30 miles southwest from El Portal; Groveland, on California 120 west of the park; and Oakhurst, on California 41 south of the park. The entrance fee is $20 per vehicle.

When to go: Yosemite is a four-seasons park. Summer is the busiest time, with highs in the 80s and occasional thunderstorms. Fall offers warm days, cool nights and fall color. Winter brings lows in the 20s, considerable snow at higher elevations and lesser quantities in the valley. Spring is gorgeous, with blossoming dogwoods, splashing waterfalls and highs in the 60s. To beat the crowds (more than 3.8 million people visited in 2012), go anytime other than Memorial Day through Labor Day. Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road (beyond Badger Pass ski area) are closed in winter, but otherwise the park is wide open, and beautiful, year-round.

Beat the crowds: If you have to go in summer, the park’s free buses are key. Just park once, then shuttle painlessly to all the Yosemite Valley attractions. Or drive to the less-crowded high country. Tioga Road, generally open from late May to mid-November, brings the High Sierra close to your window. Hop out at Olmsted Point and make the short walk to a view of Tenaya Canyon and the towering backside of Half Dome. Shuttle info: yarts.com.

What to see: Yosemite is a big park―nearly 1,200 square miles―but most visitors spend most of their time in Yosemite Valley. It’s worth all the attention. Over a dozen waterfalls–at their most bountiful in spring―splash here, including the highest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls, at 2,425 ft. Upper and Lower Yosemite, Bridal Veil, Vernal and Nevada are the best known, but you’ll find your own favorite. Half Dome and El Capitan lure world-class climbers, artists and photographers. In summer you can slip in a raft and bob down the Merced River.

But don’t neglect the other less-traveled parts of the park. North of the valley, Tioga Road leads into Yosemite’s high country, including verdant Tuolumne Meadows, and offers some of the park’s best hiking. South of the valley, Glacier Point Road leads to some of the park’s most amazing views, Wawona retains an easy, 19th century charm, and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees enshrines the giant sequoias that helped earn Yosemite its fame.

First-time essentials: Hike to Yosemite Falls (which usually dries up mid-August), stick a toe in the Merced River, and take a meal, or a room, in the 1927 Ahwahnee hotel, which has views of Half Dome, Glacier Point, and the Royal Arches. Or simply bask beside the huge fireplace in the Great Lounge. Hint: The Ahwahnee Bar offers riveting views, as well as an inexpensive, kid-friendly menu.

The park's influence: Yosemite has human history fully as fascinating as its natural history. It has inspired magnificent architecture in the Ahwahnee, among the grandest of the national park hotels, stunning art in the landscapes of painter Albert Bierstadt, eloquent photography in the works of Ansel Adams. It shaped the life of America’s most famous environmentalist, John Muir. We’ll let Muir have the last word on the place he loved: “Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed.”

For more information:
National Park Service; 209-372-0200 or www.nps.gov/yose
DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite; (209) 372-1236 or www.yosemitepark.com
Yosemite Association; www.yosemite.org
The Ansel Adams Gallery; www.anseladams.com
The Yosemite Fund; www.yosemitefund.org
The Yosemite Store: www.yosemitestore.com