After the under-18 set heads back to school and the swarm of summer visitors slows, Yosemite National Park welcomes some of the most comfortable weather of the year. Aspens and cottonwoods turn from green to gold, meadows are dotted with milkweed pods spilling their silvery strands, and a peaceful splendor invites you to relax.
"Yosemite seems to take a breath in fall," says Tom Medema, the park's Interpretive Operations chief. "Things slow down, the weather cools―it's almost like the park is getting ready for its own hibernation."
Before the Yosemite winter comes, take a long weekend to see the best of what the park has to offer. Three days are a perfect chunk of time to explore the park's three main areas: Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite Valley, and Wawona. Plan to stay in the valley―it's central to everything, and reservations are easier to come by at this time of year.
Day 1: Friday
Spend the afternoon at a cool 8,600 feet in Tuolumne Meadows, an hour and a half north of Yosemite Valley. Tioga Road/State 120 usually closes by early November because of snow, so this month is your last chance to explore the area before spring.
Get on granite. The short climb to the top of Pothole Dome provides an ideal vantage point for taking in Tuolumne Meadows. From the pullout on the north side of State 120 at the western edge of the meadows, look for a winding granite path that leads first into a grove of pines and then up the gently curving rock face. The 0.5-mile trip to the top takes less than 20 minutes and is easy all the way.
River walk. The Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River is on the other side of State 120 from the meadows. A meander along the river, really more like a gentle stream this late in the year, reveals quaking aspens and tall, golden grasses. Trails extend for more than 8 miles up the canyon; make an out-and-back hike of any distance.
Follow the sun. On the drive back to Yosemite Valley, you'll pass several well-known landmarks, including Tenaya Lake (an easy, 2-mile out-and-back hike begins at the south end of the sandy beach and runs along the south side of the lake) and Olmsted Point, where Half Dome feels so close you can almost reach out and touch it. For dinner, the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls Food Court ($$; 209/372-1265) has burgers, pizza, and spaghetti, and it generally remains open until 7 p.m.
Day 2: Saturday
Spend today in Yosemite Valley. There's no need for a car; rented bikes and the valley's free shuttle will get you everywhere you need to go. Find a shuttle map in the free Yosemite Today newspaper, available at all park entrances.
Grand hotel breakfast. The Ahwahnee dining room ($$; reservations recommended; 209/372-1489) serves the valley's best breakfast. Afterward, stop by the concierge desk to inquire about free history tours of the hotel, usually offered at least once a day on weekends.
Famous footsteps. Reserve three days ahead for a photographer's walk of Cooks Meadow, along the Merced River, offered through the Ansel Adams Gallery (tours 9-11 Tue, Thu, Sat; free; www.anseladams.com or 209/372-4413). Get tips on taking better pictures, and find out where Ansel Adams set up his tripod to snap some of the valley's famous views. Or follow the path of such Yosemite heroes as Royal Robbins with a beginning rock-climbing class from the Yosemite Mountaineering School (from $117 for a 6- to 7-hour class, reservations recommended; in Curry Village; www.yosemitepark.com or 209/372-8344).
Picnic among the aspens. Sentinel Beach, just off the Valley Loop Drive at the south side of the valley, is one of the prettiest spots for a picnic and a great place for wading in the Merced River. Pick up lunch at the Village Store (209/372-1253), in the heart of Yosemite Village.
Two wheels, good to go. Exploring the valley by bike is a rite of fall. You can rent comfy SoCal-style cruiser bikes in Curry Village ($24.50 per day; 209/372- 8319; bike rentals also available at Yosemite Lodge, 209/372-1208). Heading north and west from Curry Village, ride along 12 miles of paved bike paths, past the Merced River and Swinging Bridge, taking in the dry, golden meadows and craggy black oaks. The valley's famous waterfalls have slowed to a trickle or disappeared entirely by now, but you can see black streaks of lichen on the granite where the rush comes in spring. "When the falls go dry, we like to say Yosemite Falls becomes Yosemite Walls," jokes the park's Tom Medema.
Dessert before dinner. As the afternoon fades, ride over to the Mountain Room Lounge at Yosemite Lodge to roast your own s'mores on their indoor firepit (s'mores kits $3 at the bar). The Mountain Room Restaurant ($$$; www.yosemitepark.com or 209/372-1274), just steps from the lounge, is an elegant choice for a fall dinner.
Spot climbers. October is usually a prime month for big-wall climbers on El Capitan (stop at pullouts along the Valley Loop Dr. at the southwest end of the valley). Watch them in action during the day (bring binoculars), or spot the twinkle of climbers' headlamps on granite by night.
Day 3 Sunday
Spend a few early-morning hours in the valley, then drive south to the Wawona section of the park.
Lazy or adventurous? Splurge on the Ahwahnee's Sunday brunch buffet (brunch $32, $16.50 ages 5-12; Sun only, reservations recommended; 209/372-1489), then decide whether you're in the mood for a hike or a rest. The trailhead for a 3-mile out-and-back hike to Mirror Lake is behind the hotel. Or pick up the Sunday paper at the Ahwahnee Sweet Shop and settle down by the fire in the Great Lounge (nonguests are welcome in all public spaces at the Ahwahnee).
Road-trip to the big trees. Leave the valley by late morning to get to Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. At the grove, you have two choices for exploring: a narrated, open-air tram tour ($8.50 per person; 209/372-1240) or a meandering, self-guided hike. Unless you're completely pooped, the hiking option is a more intimate experience. The massive, 209-foot-tall Grizzly Giant is an easy 0.8-mile hike from the parking area, and the Fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree is a moderate 1.5-mile hike past the Giant.
Victorian spirit. Four miles from the Mariposa Grove is the cheerful white-clapboard Wawona Hotel. Check out the circa-1918 golf course (free to stroll, $18.50 to play nine holes; 209/375-6572), the oldest in the Sierra. Have trout for dinner in the hotel's pleasingly retro main dining room ($$$; 209/375-1425), followed by gooey pine nut pie―fuel for the drive home.