MY SON, JOE, is the perfect kid: smart, funny, and so relentlessly health-minded that when I want to eat a peanut butter cup I have to do it in the closet, in the dark. Still, a couple of years ago he was mired in that early teen stage where nothing impressed him. Certainly not his father. And not anything else, because being impressed would not be cool.
So I took him to Yosemite. I figured that if any place in the world might knock the cool out of him, it would be the park John Muir called “the grandest of all the special temples of Nature.” Our first day there, we took the bus from Yosemite Valley up to Glacier Point, then hiked the cliff-clinging trail back down.
As we trudged down the switchbacks Joe was, initially, scared. He’d never been anyplace where in theory one could stumble on the trail and fall 1,000 feet. Then he forgot to be scared. He was too busy being awed. So awed that he let me take a picture of him with my iPhone — not, believe me, something he normally agreed to — with the valley luminous behind him.
That’s Yosemite. For well over a century, it’s dispensed guaranteed grandeur to millions of visitors — even hard-to-impress teens. Its magic demands strategy, however. With 1,169 square miles and 4 million annual visitors, you need to know where to go, and when. Here are the top five Yosemite experiences for 2017.
Celebrate Mariposa Grove
Yosemite’s biggest news is that iconic Mariposa Grove is set to reopen after a two-year, multimillion- dollar restoration. The park’s largest stand of giant sequoias, Mariposa contains 500 redwoods that include 1,800-year-old Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree, remnant of that era when park visitors thought they should be able to drive through anything. Funded by the park service and the Yosemite Conservancy, the project benefits both visitors and trees. Paved roads have been replaced by trails, a parking lot by restored sequoia habitat. A new shuttle service will take visitors to the grove from the park’s south entrance. Mariposa is set to reopen this summer: check the park website (nps.gov/yose) for updates.
See a Waterfall
After years of drought, Northern California finally got the kind of winter storms that blanket the Sierra Nevada with snow. That means spring snowmelt should enable Yosemite’s waterfalls to put on their most spectacular shows in years. In the valley, Yosemite Falls is easiest to see — a 1-mile trail leads to its base, and the ambitious can take a steep 7.2-mile (round-trip) trail to its top and back down again. Falls are at their splashy best in May and June.
Have Breakfast at the Majestic Yosemite
Last year, a fracas between park concessionaires removed the hotel’s historic name (that would be the Ahwahnee) and replaced it with the more generic Majestic Yosemite. But the 1927-vintage hotel remains as grand as ever, and its timbered dining room is among the most beautiful public spaces in the world. Weekend brunches are famous, but we like the simpler weekday breakfasts even more. Arrive when the dining room opens and you’ll have the morning majesty mostly to yourself. (If you’re the cautious type, you can make reservations through OpenTable or at 209.372.1489.)
Explore Hetch Hetchy
At the park’s western edge is its other great valley — Hetch Hetchy, described by John Muir as “a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite.” In 1923 O’Shaughnessy Dam flooded much of it to supply water for San Francisco. But Hetch Hetchy remains worth exploring, and it’s relatively uncrowded. One good destination: 1,400- foot Wapama Falls. Take Hetch Hetchy Road to its end at the dam; from here, a 5-mile (round-trip) trail leads to the falls.
Hike to Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point
That trail my son and I hiked remains among Yosemite’s classic treks. Take the hikers’ bus to Glacier Point ($25 for adults; reserve at any park lodging Tour & Activity Desk). Then hike back down to the valley — either on our route, known as the Four-Mile Trail (actually 4.8), or the 8.5-mile Panorama Trail.
WHEN TO GO
It’s the fourth busiest park in the country, and it’s most crowded in July and August. Go before Memorial Day or after Labor Day if you can. If you can’t, don’t despair. Spend less time in the valley and more time elsewhere, in Hetch Hetchy or in Tuolumne Meadows and other destinations along Tioga Road.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotels inside the park are the luxurious Majestic Yosemite (formerly the Ahwahnee) from $388; motel-like but attractive Yosemite Valley Lodge (formerly Yosemite Lodge at the Falls) from $223; the tent cabins at Half Dome Village (formerly Camp Curry aka Curry Village) from $129; and, near Mariposa Grove, sweetly Victorian Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona) from $128. Other options are in the high country: White Wolf Lodge and Tuolumne Meadows Lodge (both from $130).
Outside the park, in Groveland, near Yosemite’s western entrance, Evergreen Lodge (from $100) has 80-plus attractive cabins and cottages and a good program of guided excursions. Its sister property, Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite (from $390), is high-end, with luxurious rooms and a saltwater swimming pool. Near the park’s south entrance, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite (from $209) is attractive and has a spa.
Photos by Kenny Karst (Majestic)
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “The Grandest Temple.“