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Yosemite is one of those places where leaving your car behind and using the shuttle bus service is a blessing. No worries and easy viewing for everyone, including the driver, who usually can't enjoy the scenery because of crowded roads, especially in summer. Relax and enjoy, at least for the sightseeing. You can reattach your umbilical cord to the family car later on, when you want to keep moving and going somewhere else. While here, be sure not to miss Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Mirror Lake and Olmsted Point, the Big Four of all sites within the park.

Yosemite is big, at 1,169 miles (about the size of Rhode Island), 94% of which is designated wilderness. A tiny bit of this, the Yosemite Valley, attracts 95% of all visitors to the park, but this is also where the most fabled attractions are. The name of the park, ironically enough, comes from that of a tribe US soldiers forced away from the area in 1851.

The park is about a 3½hour drive from San Francisco or 6 hours from Los Angeles. If you're flying in from far away, you might want to try the Fresno/Yosemite Airport, about 90 miles from the Wawona entrance to the park.

Highlights

Be sure to stop first at one of the visitor centers. The biggest is the Valley Visitor Center, with lectures, ranger programs, bookstore and more, in Yosemite Valley village. Nearby is the Wilderness Center, with plenty of information about Mother Nature. Up in the high country, there's also the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center. Data on the park is also available at the Wawona Information Station and the Big Oak Flat Information Station.

Of course, you want to view all the famous highlights of the park. Here is my handful, in addition the Big Four mentioned earlier on:

  • From El Capitan Meadow you get the best straight-on view of El Capitan and of Cathedral Rocks, too. Best to stop here on your way out of the valley.
  • The Tunnel View is best for those framed pictures of El Capitan and Bridalview Fall, among other vistas offered. Check it out at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel along the Wawona Road (Highway 41).
  • Glacier Point and Badger Pass: Up here, you get a marvelous view of the valley, Half Dome, and the High Sierra. Just 30 miles (about one hour) from the valley, at road's end, after which there is a short walk to Glacier Point The road is closed from about November through early May or maybe through June.
  • Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia Trees, 36 miles (one hour) south of Yosemite Valley, near the park's South Entrance. Since the road here is not plowed in winter, it's closed to car travel from November through April.
  • Just across the river from the Wawona Hotel is the pioneer Yosemite History Center, a collection of historic buildings, open all year.

Activities

There's plenty to do. Start with auto touring, and for the actively minded, add backpacking, biking, bird watching, camping, fishing, hiking, horseback (and mule) riding, rock climbing, water activities (including rafting) and winter sports. Check out the Yosemite Guide (on the official website) for all regularly scheduled activities. The DNC Parks & Resorts, a concessionaire at Yosemite, also offers bus tours. Among tours offered are a Grand Tour, a Valley Floor Tour, Tuolumne Meadows Tour, Glacier Point Tour, Big Trees Tram Tour and a Moonlight Tour.

Golfers may want to try out the Yosemite Golf Course, which says it is one of the few organic courses in the country and a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

Rangers

There are regularly scheduled ranger and interpretative programs, mostly in summer. Details of these, and nearly every other kind of info about the park, can be found on Yosemite Guide, which is published on the park's website several times a year,

New in 2009

The Tioga and Glacier Point Roads are closed until approximately late May, due to snow. From July 25 through August 7, you can attend the Yosemite Institute Summer Field Research Program, and get college credit for it, too. It is led by Dr. Adam Burns, the institute's Field Science Project Manager, and includes an 8-day backpacking adventure in the Yosemite wilderness.

Entrance Fees

You pay $20 per week for your car and all its occupants, so you can come and go for seven days. If you are on foot, or arriving on horseback, bicycle, motorbike or on a non-commercial bus, it's $10. The federal passes such as America the Beautiful and Federal Recreational Lands annual passes ($80 per year) are good, too, of course.

Visitors

There were 3,431,514 visitors here in 2008, says the Park Service, making it the third most-visited national park that year. (The Great Smoky Mountains, with over 9 million, and Grand Canyon, with over 4 million, were first and second, respectively.)

Lodging

You can stay overnight at a luxury lodge such as The Ahwahnee or in simple tent cabins. Check out www.yosemitepark.com/accommodations or visit www.yosemite.com for commercial lodging in areas surrounding the park.

Contacts

The official contacts for Yosemite National Park are: www.nps.gov/yose or tel. 209/372-0200.

One of the park's official concessionaires is the Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, whose website is www.yosemitepark.com.

The nonprofit Yosemite Association sells books and helps out at the park through its volunteers. Contact them at www.yosemite.org or 209/379-2646.

A good commercial site is www.yosemite.national-park.com.