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

Sunset

The next morning, we spot a hawk soaring in the samedirection we're driving, following steep State 120 into Yosemite National Park.Coming in by the park's eastern "back door" early in the day, weavoid 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 eachyear).

There are ways to avoid the herd. Expend even a small amount ofenergy ― hop on a bike trail or take a hike or a horsebackride ― and you'll leave the crowds behind. Cars are a hasslein the valley; park yours at your lodging and hop on the freeshuttle buses to visit major destinations like the Glacier Pointtrailhead and Lower Yosemite Fall (and its new loop trail).

Over breakfast with Kathy Langley, concierge at the Ahwahneehotel, we get more ideas for making the most of our time inYosemite Valley. My first question: What should we do if we haveonly 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 giantsequoias, alpine wilderness, and the granite-bound valley, can takea 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 abike (we wheel throughout Yosemite Valley, spotting birds, meadows,waterfalls). Ride a horse and see the park just like early visitorsdid (my companions decline, but I take a spectacular guided rideinto the high- country portion of the park known as Tuolumne).

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

But the hike down turns out to be a real trip topper ― notfor the faint of heart (or knees), but an experience these hikerswould never trade. I cap the day by finding my bliss: a swim in thecool green waters of the Merced River, where golden flecks sparkleon 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 buildsand builds," Mary Kay says. "Each day you see something moreamazing than the day before." Over subsequent glasses of Merlot, webecome somewhat effusive, and somebody compares the trip to asymphony, each movement building in drama, with Yosemite as thejourney's powerful crescendo. We walk out of the Ahwahnee as asliver of moon rises over the valley, and we all stop and stare,transfixed.

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