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Yosemite Valley

Most people come to Yosemite to see this giant study in shadow and light. In spring, after the winter snow begins melting in the high country, waterfalls encircle Yosemite Valley, shimmering like a diamond necklace. There are beautiful wide meadows, towering trees, and the ever-present sound of rushing water in the background. The great irony is that the original park boundaries, established in 1890, excluded the valley. In addition to the natural phenomena found throughout the valley, there are a number of historical attractions worth exploring as well.

Yosemite Valley contains three developed areas: Yosemite Village, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, and Curry Village. Except for the Ahwahnee Hotel -- which is about midway between Yosemite and Curry villages -- all the hotels, restaurants, and shops can be found in these areas. Curry Village (also called Camp Curry) and Yosemite Lodge offer the bulk of the park's overnight accommodations. Curry Village is near shuttle-bus stop nos. 13A, 13B, 14, 15, 20, and 21. Yosemite Lodge is served by stop no. 8. Both locations have restaurants and a small grocery. The lodge has a large public swimming pool, and Curry Village has an ice rink open in winter.

Yosemite Village is the largest developed region within the valley and is served by shuttle-bus stop nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 9, and 10. It is home to the park's largest visitor center and the headquarters for the National Park Service in Yosemite. The village also has a host of shops and services, including a grocery store, restaurants, the valley's only medical clinic, a dentist, a post office, and an ATM.

Check out the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery, a peaceful graveyard in the shade of tall sequoias, with headstones dating back to the 1800s. There are about 36 marked graves, identifiable by horizontal slabs of rock, some etched with crude or faded writing. There are some Yosemite history notables buried here, such as James Lamon, an early settler who was known for his apple trees -- they still bear fruit -- and who died in 1875. Pick up the self-guiding booklet at the visitor center.

Next door, you'll find the Yosemite Museum and the Indian Cultural Exhibit. Both attractions are free and provide a historic picture of the park, before and after it was settled and secured as a national treasure. The museum entrance is marked by a crowd-pleaser: the cross section of a 1,000-year-old sequoia with memorable dates identified on the tree's rings. The tree section was cut in 1919 from a tree that fell in the Mariposa Grove south of the valley in Wawona. The Indian Cultural Exhibit strives to explain the life of the American Indians who once lived here, and members of regional tribes regularly speak or give demonstrations of traditional arts such as basket weaving. The Yosemite Museum Shop is next door and sells books and traditional Indian arts and crafts.

The village of the Ahwahneeche (a reproduction of a real Ahwahneeche village) is behind the museum and the Indian Cultural Exhibit. The village offers a free self-guided walking tour accessible from the back door of the visitor center. This exhibit guides visitors through the transformations of the Ahwahneeche, the tribe that inhabited Yosemite Valley until the mid-1850s. The village includes a ceremonial roundhouse that's still in use.

The Ansel Adams Gallery (tel. 888/361-7622 or 209/372-4413; www.anseladams.com) sells prints and cards of images made by this famed photographer. The shop also serves as a small gallery for current artisans, with some of their works for sale.

Just a mile east of Yosemite Village on a narrow, dead-end road is the majestic old Ahwahnee Hotel. Take the shuttle bus to stop no. 3. It's worth a visit for anyone interested in architecture and design, but the rates start north of $500 a night in peak season, making it the most expensive lodging in any national park.

The Yosemite Valley Chapel is located on the south side of the Merced River, shuttle-bus stop no. 11. From the bus stop, walk across the bridge and to the left for just under a quarter-mile. Schedules for the worship services held in the chapel are posted in the Yosemite Guide newspaper and are available by phone (tel. 209/372-4831).

The LeConte Memorial Lodge is an educational center and library at shuttle-bus stop no. 12. Built in 1903, in honor of a University of California geologist named Joseph LeConte, the Tudor-style granite building hosts a number of free educational programs and talks, which are listed in the Yosemite Guide.

Beyond Curry Village at the valley's far eastern end is the Happy Isles Nature Center, shuttle-bus stop no. 16. Summer hours are from 9:30am to 4pm daily; it is closed fall through spring. The nature center offers exhibits and books about the varied animal and plant life found in Yosemite; it's a super place for children to explore. The park's Little Cub and Junior Ranger programs are held here as well. Happy Isles is named for the three nearby inlets labeled by Yosemite's guardian in 1880.

North of the Valley

Hetch Hetchy and Tuolumne Meadows are remarkably different regions located on opposite sides of the park. Hetch Hetchy is on the park's western border and can be reached by taking the Evergreen Road turnoff just outside the park's Big Oak Flat Entrance. Tuolumne Meadows is on the park's eastern border, just inside Tioga Pass, and is inaccessible by motor vehicle during the winter. (Tioga Rd. is the road that leads to the meadows.)

Hetch Hetchy is home to the park's reservoir, passionately opposed by the famed conservationist John Muir and reviled by environmentalists to this day. Many believe that losing the battle over the reservoir exhausted Muir and hastened his death. Muir passed away in 1914, a year after the bill was signed to fund the dam project. Construction on the dam began in 1919 and was completed in 1923. The reservoir provides San Francisco with drinking water; the dam generates a bit of electricity for the city as well.

South of Hetch Hetchy are two large stands of giant sequoias. The Merced and Tuolumne groves offer a quiet alternative to the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in Wawona. Both groves are accessible only on foot. The Merced Grove is a 4-mile round-trip walk that begins about 4 1/2 miles inside the Big Oak Flat Entrance. Although the trees here don't mirror the majesty of the Mariposa Grove, the solitude makes this a real treat for hikers. The Tuolumne Grove (about 25 trees) can be reached by a 1-mile hike (a 1- to 2-hr. round-trip).

To get into Yosemite's high country, go about 1 1/2 hours east along Tioga Road, which is closed in winter between Big Oak Flat and Tioga Pass. (You'll need skis or snowshoes to access this area during the winter.) This subalpine region is low on amenities, making it the frequent haunt of those who enjoy roughing it, but even cushy-soft couch potatoes can enjoy the beauty up here. Glistening granite domes tower above lush green meadows, which are cut by silver swaths of streams and lakes. Many of Yosemite's longer hikes begin or pass through here. There are some worthwhile sights here for anyone willing to venture away from the valley masses.

Olmsted Point, located midway between White Wolf and Tuolumne Meadows, offers one of the most spectacular vistas anywhere in the park. Here the enormous walls of the Tenaya Canyon are exposed, and an endless view stretches all the way to Yosemite Valley. In the distance are Cloud's Rest and the rear of Half Dome. To the east, Tenaya Lake, one of the park's larger lakes (and an easily accessible one), glistens like a sapphire.

About 8 miles east of Tenaya Lake is Tuolumne Meadows, a huge subalpine area surrounded by domes and steep granite formations that offer exhilarating climbs. The meadow is a beautiful place to hike and fish, or just to admire the scenery while escaping the crowds of Yosemite Valley. Facing the north of the meadow is Lembert Dome, at about two o'clock; and then working clockwise, Johnson Peak, at seven o'clock; Unicorn Peak, at eight o'clock; Fairview Dome, at ten o'clock; and Pothole Dome, at eleven o'clock. Up the road is the central region of Tuolumne, where you'll find a visitor center, a campground, canvas tent-cabins, and a store. Continue east to reach Tioga Lake and Tioga Pass.

South of the Valley

This region, which includes Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, is densely forested. A handful of granite rock formations dot the area, but they are nothing like those found elsewhere. En route to Wawona from the valley, you'll come across several wonderful views of Yosemite Valley. Tunnel View, a turnout accessed just before passing through a long tunnel along Wawona Road, provides one of the park's most recognizable vistas, memorialized on film by photographer Ansel Adams. To the right is Bridalveil Fall, opposite El Capitan. Half Dome lies straight ahead.

Halfway between Yosemite Valley and Wawona is Glacier Point Road (closed in winter past the turnoff to Badger Pass Ski Area), which runs 16 miles to spectacular Glacier Point. From the parking area, it's a short hike to an amazing overlook that provides a view of the glacier-carved granite rock formations all along the valley and beyond. At this point you will be at eye level with Half Dome, which looks close enough to reach out and touch. Far below, Yosemite Valley resembles a green-carpeted ant farm. There are also some pretty sights of obscure waterfalls that are not visible from the valley floor. Glacier Point has a geology hut and a day lodge for wintertime cross-country skiers. The day lodge morphs into a gift store/snack shack during the rest of the year. Glacier Point and the lodge are accessible both on foot and by bus.

Continue south on Wawona Road to reach Wawona, a small town that runs deep with history, located 30 miles from the valley. It was settled in 1856 by homesteader Galen Clark, who built a rustic way station for travelers en route from Mariposa to Yosemite. The property's next owners, the Washburn brothers, built much of what is today the Wawona Hotel, including the large white building to the right of the main hotel, which was constructed in 1876. The two-story hotel annex went up 3 years later. When Congress established Yosemite National Park in 1890 and charged the U.S. Army with managing it, Wawona was chosen as the Army's headquarters. For 16 summers, the cavalry out of San Francisco occupied the camp and mapped the park. When Yosemite Valley was added to the park after the turn of the 20th century, the cavalry picked up and relocated to the valley.

Near the Wawona Hotel are Hill's Studio and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. The studio keeps sporadic hours that are hard to pin down but are listed in the Yosemite Guide. This is the former workspace of noted 19th-century painter Thomas Hill; Hill painted a number of award-winning landscapes, including some recognizable ones of Yosemite.

The Pioneer Center offers a self-guided walking tour of cabins and buildings that were moved to this site in 1961 from various locations in the park. Each building represents a different period in Yosemite's short history. During the summer, National Park Service interpreters dress in period clothing and act out characters from the park's past. To reach the center, walk across the covered bridge. An entertaining 10-minute stagecoach ride is offered during the summer for a small fee.

Nearby, the Mariposa Grove is a stand of giant sequoias, some of which have been around for 3,000 years. They stretch almost 300 feet tall, are 50 feet in circumference, and weigh an average of 2 million pounds. The 500 trees here are divided into the Upper Grove and the Lower Grove. The easiest way to see the trees is from the open-air Big Trees Tram (tel. 209/372-4386 for reservations) that runs May through October. Cost is $25.50 for adults, $24 for seniors, and $18 for children; kids 4 and under ride free. Trams leave from the Mariposa Grove parking area; call for current hours. A guide provides commentary during the trip, which lasts about an hour and 15 minutes. The tram makes regular stops at the Grizzly Giant, Wawona Tunnel Tree, and Mariposa Grove Museum. It's worth hopping out and walking around as often as possible. Just take the next tram back. All of the area is also accessible on foot. It is an uphill walk to the upper grove, 2.5 miles each way.

The Grizzly Giant is the largest tree in the grove. At "just" 200 feet, it is shorter than some of its neighbors, but its trunk measures more than 30 feet in diameter at the base. A huge limb halfway up the tree measures 6 feet in diameter and is bigger than many of the "young" trees in the grove.

The Wawona Tunnel Tree had a tunnel 10 feet high and 26 feet long cut through it in 1881. Thousands of visitors were photographed driving through the tree before it toppled under the weight of heavy snow during a storm in 1969. No one saw the tree fall. Another tunnel tree, the California Tree, had a tunnel cut in 1895 and still stands near the Grizzly Giant, beckoning visitors to walk through it.

The Mariposa Grove Museum resides in Galen Clark's first building. It was last refurbished in 1981 and is usually open from late spring into the fall from 10am to 4pm daily, featuring various exhibits. Books and educational materials are also sold here from late spring into fall.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.