The Essentials of a Yosemite Vacation
A top favorite in national parks is also a top location for inexpensive vacations
A great many people - and you can count me among them - will tell you that Yosemite National Park in California is the most beautiful place in America. Towering granite walls. Cascading waterfalls. Majestic groves of giant redwoods. My eyes are dazzled and my spirits soar every time I go.
But what many people don't know is that this premier vacation spot - a park everybody ought to see (in my opinion) at least once - ranks also as one of America's best vacation bargains. You can travel on the cheap here knowing that in terms of nonstop scenic views and hearty outdoor fun you're really going first-class.
So what makes Yosemite such a good deal?
Both inside the park and outside it in neighboring communities, good, comfortable lodgings in appealing mountain settings are quite reasonably priced - although you may have to book early (like right now) to get the best buys for the popular summer season. In Yosemite Valley itself, the bustling heart of the park, you'll find an unusual village of canvas tent cabins that provide rustic but otherwise cozy accommodations for just $40 a night per couple (plus tax). I don't know of a better lodging bargain anywhere - and yet you aren't really roughing it here. Equipped with electric lights, these tents are a far cry from camping. You even get fresh linens, and a crew of housekeepers tidies up. The hot showers are just down a pine-shaded path.
I return to Yosemite almost every year for serious hiking. More than 800 miles of marked trails-some of them easy, many of them strenuous - trace the huge, ruggedly mountainous park. That's plenty enough to fill anyone's vacation, and unless I factor in the cost of a sturdy pair of boots, I don't spend a penny. But even nonhikers can enjoy full days of no-cost or low-cost fun. Awestruck visitors spend hours watching daredevil rock climbers slowly ascend El Capitan, a sheer, 3,000-foot-high granite rock wall towering above Yosemite Valley. It's a great show, and it's free. Many folks are content simply taking in the majestic views on sight-seeing drives or easy strolls.
I first visited Yosemite as a teenager, when my parents moved to the nearby town of Merced. The park captivated me, and I'm eager now to share my enthusiasm for it. I'll show you where to stay, where to eat, and where to play - all on a budget. Unlike many parks, Yosemite is open year-round. Summer is the busiest and most expensive season; winter is much quieter and cheaper. Which is better? Each season has its appeal, and I'll help you decide which is for you.
Having fun - Yosemite style
On a recent visit to Yosemite, I quickly jotted down two dozen interesting and rewarding things to do for free. I don't have space here to list them all, but the point is that this park will keep you busy - whether you stay for a day or a week. In Yosemite, the thrills are real; at a theme park, you pay big money simply for simulated excitement. Here are four of my favorite no-cost adventures that many guides overlook:
Climb the Mist Trail
One of the most spectacular - and scary - day hikes in America, the three-mile (round-trip) trail out of Yosemite Valley ascends countless steep stone steps alongside thundering Vernal Falls, which plunges 317 feet. As you climb, the powerful falls seem almost near enough to touch; their roar drowns any conversation. But watch your step; a stumble could tumble you over a precipice. Often a rainbow forms at Vernal's base, created by the billowing, cloudlike mist that gives the route its name. If a breeze is blowing, the mist is apt to drench you. Tote lunch in your day pack (fruit, trail mix) and picnic at the summit while you rest - and dry off.
Frolic on the Merced River
Once the Merced makes its dramatic leap over Vernal Falls, the river quiets down. Adventurous souls can float it on inflatable mattresses or inner tubes (you provide). Or you can rent family-sized rubber rafts ($12.75 per person). The rental fee pays for a shuttle ride back to the launching site. Otherwise you walk, as I recently did - a hike of a mile or two depending on how far you float. Sandy beaches along the river's winding path invite swimming or simply napping under the sun. The Merced is formed by Sierra Nevada snow melt; by midsummer the water warms up some but is never above 55 degrees.
Take a lesson in outdoor photography
Thursday through Sunday mornings year-round, the Ansel Adams Gallery hosts a free 90-minute walk and photography class presenting Yosemite through the camera's eye. For years, Adams captured the valley's unusual beauty in his now very expensive black-and-white photos. You don't have to buy a print; just use those on exhibit as examples of what you might achieve. Similar photography walks are offered Monday through Thursday by Yosemite Concession Services, the organization operating the park's lodgings. Hours and location of these and other day and evening programs (most for free) can be found in the Yosemite Guide, a seasonal paper distributed at the Yosemite entrance gates.