The Essentials of a Yosemite Vacation

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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.

Stroll through a giant sequoia

Yes, "through." To draw tourists to the park at the turn of the century, promoters cut tunnels high and wide enough for stagecoaches in two towering giants in the Mariposa Grove of sequoias. One tree toppled in 1969, but the California Tunnel Tree remains standing. Sequoias are the world's largest living things known to mankind - and they are among the oldest. Some have stood for 3,000 years. Many people, overwhelmed by their majesty, compare the experience of viewing the sequoias to visiting an ancient European cathedral. No fee here to gaze and reflect for as long as you like.

Affordable lodging and dining inside the park

Camping is cheapest, but let's assume you prefer a roof over your head. The best place in Yosemite to stay is Yosemite Valley, the hub of the park. But summer accommodations are often sold out months in advance. So you may have to find a place for the night in the mountain and foothill communities near the park. I've scouted out plenty of options (all rates are for the 2000 summer high season).

As a budget traveler, your first choice within the park should be the canvas tent cabins (with solid wood flooring) at century-old Curry Village in Yosemite Valley, where I've stayed on several occasions. Set in a pine forest beneath a towering granite cliff, the village is comprised of 427 tents - enough so that last-minute vacancies sometimes are available even on holiday weekends. Each is furnished with two to five cots with full bedding, which means a family can share, although space is tight. The basic $43 fee is for two people; the charge for each additional adult is $6 and children under 12 are $3. An electric light dangles from the ceiling, a dresser with mirror is provided, and the tent door can be locked. You should sleep well in the cool night air (some tents have heaters), but canvas is thin and the wail of a child does sometimes echo across the night.

Several large rest rooms are scattered throughout the village, and separate bathhouses provide private hot-water showers and dressing rooms. A large woodsy-looking lodge building holds clusters of easy chairs where you can write postcards beside a roaring fire. If the Merced River proves too chilly, then jump into Curry Village's swimming pool (summers only). Free evening ranger programs and other entertainment are presented in the outdoor amphitheater. As for meals, you won't want to dine anywhere except at the Curry Village cafeteria, an architecturally attractive building with high ceilings and lots of wood paneling. At breakfast, a bowl of cold cereal and two slices of toast is $2.40. Add $1.15 for a large glass of juice. At dinner, an entree of fried chicken is $3.95; green salad, 35[cents] per oz.; and a glass of house wine, $3.15.

Other somewhat more expensive valley options include individual cabins with or without private bath at Curry Village or lodge rooms with bath at both Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge. Many Yosemite Lodge rooms open to magnificent views of famed Yosemite Falls, a five-minute walk away. A cabin without bath is about $60 a night for two; with bath, $75. A standard room with bath begins at about $92; deluxe lodge rooms start at $114. A second cafeteria at Yosemite Lodge offers a menu with prices similar to Curry Village's.

Elsewhere within the park, a riverside cluster of odd structures of canvas and concrete form what is called Housekeeping Camp, where folks without tents or recreational vehicles can go camping. These four-person shelters - with picnic table and a cooking area - rent for $43 a night. And in a mountain meadow well away from the sometimes crowded valley, the venerable Wawona Hotel (built in 1879) charges $94 a night for a room for two with shared bath. The hotel's restaurant is moderately priced. All park accommodations can be booked through Yosemite Reservations (559/252-4848).

Outisde the park

There is nothing quite so cheap - or so scenically situated - as the above-mentioned Curry Village. But White Chief Mountain Lodge (559/683-5444), a 23-room motel in the tiny town of Fish Camp near Yosemite's southern entrance (Route 41 from Fresno), comes close. "I'm not chasing a buck any more," says owner Wally Stovall, 76 and retired from the electronics business. "I'm just having a hell of a good time." And his prices reflect this. A motel room in the pine woods is $65 a night for two. At the lodge restaurant, $12 buys you an entree of rainbow trout served with soup or salad, a baked potato, and fresh vegetables.

Just down the hill, two-story streamside cabins (with full kitchen) at Owl's Nest Lodging (559/683-3484) rent for $110 a night for two people. However, four can stay for $140. Cook your own meals here or dine at White Chief Mountain. Owners Robert and Barbara Taylor have hiked many of the park's trails and can point you to hidden waterfalls only the local folks know about.

If you want something fancier, try Yosemite View Lodge (800/321-5261) in the town of El Portal just outside Yosemite's western entrance (Route 140 from Merced). The modern 278-room motel stands alongside the Merced River, which cascades out of the park in a frenzy of white water. The setting is gorgeous, and the rooms border on deluxe. Unfortunately, the cheapest accommodations ($109 a night for two) face the road. For a room with a balcony overlooking the river, the rate begins at $139. But everybody is welcome to use the heated river-view swimming pool and hot tubs. At the lodge's attractive restaurant, a platter of fried fish with coleslaw and batter-fried potatoes is about $9.

More distant from the park, the two attractive Sierra foothill communities of Oakhurst (Route 41) and Mariposa (Route 140) offer a wide choice of well-priced lodging and dining options. I suggest staying in either town only if you are planning a one-day trip to Yosemite. Though each is only about 50 miles from the park, the driving time into Yosemite Valley can stretch from 60 to 90 minutes one way. To see the best of Yosemite without retracing your path, enter the park from the Oakhurst entrance and exit to Mariposa, or vice versa.

The overhanging balconies along Mariposa's main street are a legacy of its gold-mining days. In both towns, you'll enjoy a view of pine-covered ridges. All the motels are well kept and boast swimming pools, and most provide a complimentary continental breakfast (ask when booking).

In Oakhurst, try for the Ramada Limited (800/658-2888), about $95 a night for two; Oakhurst Lodge (800/OK LODGE), about $78; and the Comfort Inn (800/221-2222), about $90. The Comfort Inn offers a 10-percent-off coupon for dinner at the neighboring Jade Gazebo Restaurant, where the special Mandarin Chinese Dinner is $6.95. For western-style grub, the Sierra City Grill (outdoor balcony dining) treats you to a full dinner of barbecued pork spareribs, roasted potatoes, ranch beans, salad, and marinated red cabbage for $11.95.

In Mariposa, I recommend the Best Western Yosemite Way Station (800/528-1234), $79 a night for two; the hilltop Miner's Inn Motel (888/646-2244), about $68; and the Comfort Inn (800/221-2222), $59 and up. At dinnertime, head for the Gold Rush Grill, a family restaurant atop an Old West saloon. For light diners, the broiled chicken breast dinner is $11.95. If you're just back from a strenuous hike, maybe the rib eye dinner ($14.95) is what you're looking for.

Yosemite roads

Most Yosemite visitors drive to the park. The nearest large airport is in Fresno, about 105 miles from Yosemite Valley. The city is served by most major airlines. But you might be able to get cheaper fares into San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose - all roughly 200 miles away. The Yosemite Entrance Pass is $20 per car, good for a week. Seniors 62 and older can buy a lifetime Golden Age Pass to all national parks for $10, which also admits everybody else in the group.

To save on the cost of a rental car (particularly solo travelers), travel to Yosemite by bus, departing from Fresno (spring into fall) or from Merced (year-round). The round-trip fare from Fresno is $48, with afternoon pickup at the airport or Amtrak station. From Merced, the round-trip fare is $38, with five daily pickups from the Amtrak station. Get schedules from VIA Yosemite Connection (888/727-5287).

Once in Yosemite Valley, explore by foot (a gentle 13-mile trail circles the valley), bicycle ($20 per day rental), or by the free shuttle bus linking Curry Village, the Visitor Center at Yosemite Village, Yosemite Lodge, and the Happy Isles gateway to the Mist Trail. In summer, tour buses carry you into the high country. Your best budget bet is the trip up to Glacier Point, a lofty perch where the bird's-eye view of the valley 3,000 feet below is spectacular. Buy a one-way ticket ($10.50) and save the return fare by hiking back down to the valley. Depending on the trail you pick, the distance is either five miles (steep route) or eight miles (gradual). For other tours, call the Yosemite Lodge Tour Desk (209/372-1240).

Pick your season

The crowds thin, prices drop, and heavy snows close the high country above Yosemite Valley from autumn into late spring. May is usually the best month to see the falls flowing at their fullest; Yosemite Falls often diminishes to a bare trickle by August. Early autumn, when summer's heat abates, is prime time for hiking. And winter yields its own special beauty. The valley's walls are etched with snow, and giant icicles form alongside Vernal Falls.

But winter is also the time for cold-weather sports - downhill and cross-country skiing, ice-skating, and snowshoeing. And it's the season for real bargains. At Yosemite Lodge in winter, the weekday room rate ($78 a night for two) includes complimentary chairlift tickets at Badger Pass ski area - and a free shuttle bus ride to get you there. Down in Oakhurst, the Oakhurst Lodge is willing to negotiate winter prices, says owner Don Olsen. In summer, Olsen has no trouble booking full at $78 a night, he says; in winter, figure on paying about $50 for the same room. Confirmed bargain-hunters can even shave six bucks off the price of a Curry Village tent cabin ($34 a midweek night for two).

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