A High Sierra Beauty
No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” wrote naturalist John Muir whose efforts led to the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890. Most of the millions who converge in high season on this temple of nature head for the awesome beauty of the mile-wide, 7-mile-long Yosemite Valley, the park’s “Main Street,” cut by a river and guarded by sheer granite cliffs and domes that rise 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Avoid the park’s notorious summertime people-jams by exploring the backcountry—the wilder 95 percent of the 750,000-acre domain, roughly the size of Rhode Island.
Most of the park’s natural attractions have become icons of the American landscape, immortalized by the photographs of Ansel Adams. Who doesn’t recognize the bald image of Half Dome, Yosemite’s 8,842-foot trademark peak? Or El Capitan, the largest single granite rock on earth, rising 350 stories from the valley floor (twice the size of the Rock of Gibraltar) and drawing rock climbers from all over the world? The magnificent Yosemite Falls are the highest on the continent at 2,425 feet. The cascade—divided into Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet)—is at its most dramatic in spring and early summer, but dries to a trickle by the end of summer.
Hiking is a favored activity in the park, with 800 miles of trails that can be covered by horse, mule, or on foot. One of the most popular is the moderately strenuous Mist Trail, offering a close-up view of 317-foot Vernal Fall and the filmy, 594-foot Bridalveil Fall. For those who prefer to remain in the car, 1% miles of paved roads will get you to Glacier Point for spectacular views of the valley below. In Mariposa Grove, a refuge of 500 massive sequoias, the 2,700-year-old Grizzly Giant is believed to be the oldest.
Yosemite Valley’s 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel, named after the Native American inhabitants of the park (in whose language “Yosemite” means “grizzly bear”), is the perfect park accommodation, and one of the national park system’s most prestigious. A showpiece of stone and native timber, its views are heart stopping. Inside, decorative motifs reflect Ahwahnee Indian crafts, while the massive chandeliers look as if they were meant for a castle, and the fireplaces are large enough to walk into. Guests and nonguests alike can take lunch in the cavernous dining room, whose 25- foot windows frame the park’s best assets.
South of Yosemite, Erna’s Elderberry House and its exquisite 19th-century-style guest house, the Château du Sureau, offer European sophistication, gracious service, and an air of romance you don’t expect to find in such a tiny hamlet. Ema, the Viennese-born virtuoso chef (and ebullient proprietor), is so inspired by the local market that she changes the menu almost daily, creating French-influenced meals that draw foodies the way El Capitan lures rock climbers.