There arguably is no national park that better showcases geology than Yosemite National Park.
Sure, Arches National Park offers the most elaborate rock architecture to be found anywhere on this planet, and Grand Canyon National Park has that incredible gouge. But stand before Half Dome or El Capitan and you can't help but marvel. Climb the Mist Trail up past Vernal and Nevada falls, walk about the granite domes that constantly draw your eye as you drive the Tioga Road, or gaze down upon the Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point and you are mesmerized by the geologic display.
That said, Yosemite is really two parks. One is the Yosemite Valley, the other is everything else outside the valley.
Yosemite Valley is the park's heart. Through the middle of the valley floor flows the Merced River, which leaps out of the high country via Nevada and Vernal falls. Stand on the valley floor and with, little effort, you can glance Half Dome, El Cap, and Glacier Point. It's a magnificent setting, one that easily explains why John Muir, and more than a few landscape painters, was drawn to it.
But a good portion of the valley also has been taxed. Since Buck Beardsley and Stephen Cunningham opened what charitably could be called a hotel, with an accompanying log-cabin store, along the Merced River a bit east of Sentinel Creek back during the spring of 1857, development on the valley floor has flowered into a microcosm of urbanized sprawl. There are deli's, food courts, restaurants, campgrounds, ice rinks, motels as well as the palatial Ahwahnee Hotel, tent cabins, photography shops, bike paths, and medical clinics. There's even a fire department.
Of course, there's also rich climbing history here, from the funky (and historic) Camp 4 climber's camp that's off away from Yosemite Village proper to El Capitan, the most famous climbing wall in the United States.
To find Yosemite's soul, though, you have to head to the High Sierra. After touring Yosemite Valley, drive up onto the Tioga Road and savor the clearer, cleaner air, the horizon-stretching vistas, the Sierran marvels.
At Olmsted Point you can gaze back towards the valley and see Half Dome rising like the prow of a ship. Across the road from the point you can scamper up onto a football-field-sized (or larger) granite mound in which tenacious junipers have somehow forged a root-hold in the granite's cracks. Climb to the top, a task easily done, even for youngsters, and the views sate the soul.
Farther east lies Tuolumne Meadows with its myriad hiking trails, coursing creeks, and thick, coniferous forests. Head down any one of these trails and you'll likely find vistas that will drain the breath from your lungs, solitude that's hard to imagine in the 21st century, and loops of hiking trails that tie together camps of tent cabins that make it easy to experience and enjoy the Yosemite backcountry.
While Congress tossed about hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars this past week in an effort to staunch the blood-letting on Wall Street, did anyone else stop for a minute and think what good work could be done if even $10 billion were tossed the way of the National Park System?
True, the gyrations on Wall Street are far-reaching, particularly for those near retirement. But what value should we place on America's natural and cultural heritage? And really, wouldn't you feel better if your tax dollars were being spent on preserving the national parks, not bailing out greedy bankers and investment companies?
Some folks swear by Housekeeping Camp, though it's a tad too rustic for me. Others love Camp Curry, which is extremely crowded and noisy and lacking in bathroom facilities. While most are impressed by the sheer presence of The Ahwahnee, there are relatively few who can afford its rates, which run hundreds of dollars a night.
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls lands somewhere in the middle of those options. The rooms, the newest of which I'm told date to the late-1960s, are comfortable but could use some TLC. The room I stayed in recently had two full-sized beds, not queens; a bathroom sink whose faucets were losing their finish; a well-worn tub and shower unit with hot-and-cold faucets that were reversed, and; a window that wouldn't open. True, it had a flat-screen television and Wi-Fi, but for $213 a night (tax included)....
One of the restaurants in the National Park System that I've found to be highly consistent is the Mountain Room at Yosemite. I've eaten there several times in recent years and the meals have always been exquisite.
During my recent trip to the park I had seared diver scallops in a smoked corn chowder that was truly delicious. The only problem was that the chowder was a bit thin, which would have been fine if there was some nice crusty bread to soak it up with.
That said, the folks at the Mountain Room Lounge need to rethink their salsa. There's absolutely no heat to it and it's too runny.
If there's a more glorious season than early fall to be in Yosemite, I'm not sure when that is. The bugs are gone, the temperatures perfect for hiking, and the crowds (outside the valley) non-existent. True, the waterfalls are either relative trickles or non-existent. But really, if you've already experienced Yosemite Valley in spring or early summer when the runoff's at full throttle, make your next visit in the fall.