Yosemite's ancient treasures

Autumn may be the best time to experience the sights at this spectacular, 125-year-old national park.

This October, 1,169 square miles of some of the world’s most spectacular rock formations, waterfalls and ancient trees will be celebrated as California’s Yosemite National Park turns 125.
Geologically, Yosemite is much older than that—by about 10 million years. Vertical uplift along the Sierra-Nevada created the mountains. Beginning a couple of million years ago, glaciers as deep as 4,000 feet began sculpting the canyons, and grinding and polishing the granite. Over these rocks spill thundering curtains of tall, narrow waterfalls, including 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls, the highest in North America.
In April, I toured Yosemite for the first time in several years. Among the dark fragrant groves of cedar, fir and sequoia, the white pedals of flowering dogwood filtered the morning springtime light. It was splendid. But autumn may be Yosemite’s finest season. The great American photographer Ansel Adams indelibly captured the splendor. “Yosemite Valley, to me,” he said, “is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
When you visit, be sure to stop at the charming little Ansel Adams Gallery, adjacent to the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center. The family of the revered artist has operated it since 1902.

In June 1864, with the Civil War raging, President Abraham Lincoln found time to sign legislation that gave Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa grove of ancient sequoia trees to the State of California “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.” Then, in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the law making Yosemite the nation’s third national park.
A third president played a role in protecting this extraordinary stretch of the central Sierra-Nevada mountain range in 1903, when naturalist John Muir invited Theodore Roosevelt to join him on a camping trip there. With environmental ethos and the meaning of national park status still being worked out, Yosemite was being degraded by the cutting of priceless old trees for profit and the overgrazing of meadows by domestic sheep. Roosevelt grasped the threat and ordered Yosemite returned to Federal protection. The abused land began to heal.
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us,” Muir said, “making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
Yosemite National Park (209-372-0200, nps.gov/yose) is about a three-hour drive east of San Francisco. You can also fly into Fresno Yosemite International Airport (longest runway, 9,539 feet), which is an hour from the park’s south entrance.
Two hotels offer spectacular views of the mountains and waterfalls. Ahwahnee, a National Historic Landmark built in 1927, has first-class accommodations and dining. Yosemite Lodge—near the park’s eastern entrance—is larger, less expensive and more family-oriented, with easy day hikes to waterfalls. For the adventurous, there are 69 tent cabins with beds, fresh linens and showers at gorgeous Tuolumne Meadows—8,720 feet in elevation and the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra range.
A private company operates Ahwahnee, Yosemite Lodge and Tuolumne in cooperation with the National Park Service. For reservations go to yosemitepark.com or call (801) 559-5000.
Other lodging options include Little Ahwahnee Inn, an elegant chateau in Fish Camp, California, near the park’s south entrance; Tenaya Lodge, a larger hotel constructed in the classic rustic Sierra style, also in Fish Camp; and the recently updated Evergreen Lodge, just outside the park’s west entrance.

Thomas R. Pero is publisher of Wild River Press and the author of two books about fly fishing.