The complete guide: Yosemite, one of California's most spectacular national parks

Immortalised in the black-and-white images of photographer Ansel Adams at 100' exhibition


Yosemite


So said pioneering conservationist John Muir in his travel classic,
The Yosemite. He went on: "Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes." Yosemite (pronounced yo-sem-itee) in California was the third national park to be established in the United States (Yellowstone was the first, Sequoia the second). And it was all thanks to a Scot.

Yosemite

So said pioneering conservationist John Muir in his travel classic, The Yosemite. He went on: "Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes." Yosemite (pronounced yo-sem-itee) in California was the third national park to be established in the United States (Yellowstone was the first, Sequoia the second). And it was all thanks to a Scot.

Muir first summered in Yosemite in 1869 and over the next 10 years it became his passion. After working briefly as a sheep herder he became so concerned that the area would be ruined by farming and the timber industry that he campaigned tirelessly until the state of California gave up its rights to the land. Yosemite was declared a National Park on 1 October 1890. And he didn't stop there. In 1903, Muir acted as guide to the then president, Teddy Roosevelt, using the time to discuss the protective measures he felt were still needed. They were largely implemented. However, his failure after a 12-year battle to save Hetch Hetchy, which once resembled Yosemite Valley complete with grassy meadows and sheer granite walls, from being turned into a reservoir in 1913 finally broke him. He died the next year.

Muir also founded the Sierra Club, which campaigned on environmental issues, the motto of which has been taken up and used by similar organisations worldwide: take only photographs; leave only footprints.

Yosemite, which is roughly oval in shape and 50 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west, covers 747,956 acres. Today it sees four million visitors a year.

Just a few. The most famous is Glacier Point in the southern section of the park, from where you can gaze across to Half Dome, Yosemite Valley spread out in miniature below you.

Yosemite's landscape rises eastwards from the semi-arid foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the distinctive granite domes and summits that have become the park's trademark. The sheer scale of the vast granite monoliths is breathtaking; the highest peak is Mount Lyell at 13,114ft. Most visitors head straight for Yosemite Valley which, at one-mile wide and seven-miles long and hemmed in by cliffs three thousand feet high, is where you'll find some of the most recognisable sights. Towering over the valley is the monumental Half Dome, literally sliced down the middle. El Capitan, a giant monolith, soars 3,593ft above the valley floor, while Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in the United States.

The dramatic landscape formation is the result of glaciation. Over the last million years at least three glaciers have growled through the area. The last receded about 20,000 years ago. Yosemite Valley was once a V-shaped valley carved by the Merced river until a glacier transformed it into a classic U-shaped valley. Terminal moraine then blocked the river's course and the valley was turned into a lake. It gradually silted up, creating a rich, fertile meadow, now bordered by black oak and covered in wild flowers.

Although in summer Yosemite Valley is teeming with visitors and traffic jams, you can leave the crowds behind quite easily. More than 94 per cent of Yosemite is designated wilderness. The high alpine Tuolumne Meadows, in the east, almost on a level with the tops of the mountains, give access to trails in Yosemite's wild back country. With panoramic views towards the saw-toothed Cathedral Range, this was one of John Muir's favourite spots. In the north there are numerous glaciated canyons while in the thickly forested south, near Wawona, you have another spectacle, the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove.

The sequoia, or sierra redwood, is the biggest living thing on earth (some weighing up to one thousand tons). In Mariposa Grove there are five hundred sequoias, some 3,000 years old. The Grizzly Giant is the largest tree in the grove and fifth largest in the world. The Batchelor and Three Graces stand near the path, while the Fallen Giant's claim to fame stems from a photo taken in 1899 of cavalry officers and their horses standing on top of the fallen tree.

Well, not the white man. Their history only dates back a hundred and fifty years or so. However, we're only talking thousands rather than millions of years now. The Ahwahneechee (a subtribe of the southern Miwok people) lived in Yosemite Valley with its sparkling waterfalls and pine forests, undisturbed for about three thousand years. Gradually, however, the white man pushed further into California's unexplored interior.

First to approach from Wyoming in the west were fur trappers. It's thought they penetrated as far as Tuolumne Grove, as records show that they came across giant sequoias. It was gold, though, that signalled the end of Yosemite's isolation. The gold rush began in 1848, and by the early 1850s prospectors were inching into the Sierra Nevada foothills. The gateway towns of Mariposa and Groveland became important settlements. In 1851 the first skirmishes took place between the new settlers and the native tribes. The Mariposa Battalion was dispatched to deal with natives who had raided some of the outposts. Pitching camp in the valley they named it Yosemite, mistakenly thinking that this was the native name. (Yosemite actually means "some of them are killers".) A second expedition captured the chief, Tenaya. The remaining Ahwahneechee were exiled to reservations in California's central valley and the gatecrashers took over Yosemite in force. It was only another four years before a stagecoach route was established and tourism arrived in the area.

Hiking, biking, swimming, you name it. Yosemite is also one of the premier rock-climbing destinations in the United States. One of the most famous climbs in the world is The Nose, scaling the near-vertical El Capitan. The Yosemite Mountaineering School (001 209 372 8344, www.yosemite-mountaineering.com) offers rock-climbing courses and backpacking tours.

If you don't mind being shepherded around in a group you could join a guided tour such as the four-hour Glacier Point Tour taking in most of the most famous sights and costing $29.50 (£19) adults, $16.50 (£11) children. Buses leave from Yosemite Lodge (001 209 372 1240) three times a day.

In Yosemite Village (in Yosemite Valley) you'll find the Visitor Centre where you can check out a couple of short films, displays on wildlife and rock formation and pick up maps. Next door is the Ansel Adams Gallery and nearby the Yosemite Museum (which focuses on the Native American heritage), and the Indian Village with its reconstruction of a Miwok settlement. The Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery is a peaceful spot where some of the first settlers are buried.

But it's hiking that most people come to Yosemite for.

That depends what you're looking for. With 800 miles of marked trail there's a lot to choose from, ranging from flat walks around Yosemite Valley to wilder hikes away from the hordes in the back country. You can either strike out on your own or, if you prefer, join a guided hike. Yosemite Mountaineering School (see above) offers a range of group walks for all abilities. From Yosemite Valley, the Mist Trail is a two- to three-hour three-mile hike taking you up to Vernal Falls. An easy option is the trail to Mirror Lake (Half Dome is reflected in its glassy waters) then on to Tenaya Canyon. For a more strenuous hike you could trek up to Half Dome, a 17-mile round trip taking the best part of the day. One of the most popular hikes from Glacier Point is the easy trail up to Sentinel Dome where you can see to the park boundaries. The gnarled remains of a Jeffrey Pine at the top features in one of the most popular Ansel Adams photographs.

Mule deer, chipmunks, marmots, squirrels brush rabbit, and raccoons. In some areas there are rattlesnakes, coyotes and bobcats, while in the forests you might also come across a mountain lion – although sightings are rare. Black bears are also native to the area (the last grizzly was killed in 1895) and can cause problems in the park – breaking into cars or foraging around the campsites. A number are shot each year after becoming too reliant on human food. It is now mandatory to store all food properly, for example in metal bear boxes provided in campgrounds. There's even a Bear Management Team on hand in case of any problems (001 209 372 0473).

The Badger Pass Ski area, 22 miles from Yosemite Valley, offers downhill and cross-country skiing and snowboarding from Thanksgiving to Easter. In fact, the Badger Pass Ski Area, opened in 1935, was California's first ski resort, established when the National Park Service was trying to attract as many visitors to Yosemite as possible. The ski school itself was established in 1928 and today provides 85 acres of pistes. There are 25 miles of machine-made cross-country tracks for beginners and 90 miles of marked trails. The Glacier Point Winter Lodge, a traditional timber-and-stone chalet with views over Yosemite Valley and Half Dome is the perfect place to bed down (it can sleep 20 dormitory-style). To enrol in downhill or snowboarding classes call 001 209 372 8430, for cross-country classes call 001 209 372 8444. For accommodation call 001 559 252 4848 or check out www.badgerpass.com. For 24-hour ski conditions call 001 209 372 1000; for road conditions call 001 209 372 0200. If you don't ski, there's snowshoeing and outdoor ice-skating in Curry Village.

In a rustic tent cabin or a luxurious historic hotel. Make sure you book ahead, however, as from June to August campgrounds and hotels fill up fast. In Yosemite Valley there is the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp. The Ahwahnee is the luxury option, open year-round, and this year celebrating its 75th anniversary with a programme of events and packages including Twenties-style tea dances. The hotel opened on 14 July 1927. With its granite façade, beamed ceilings, giant stone hearths and Native American motifs it blends into the surrounding landscape. Famous guests have included JFK and the Queen. Rooms start from $402 (£263).

Curry Village in Yosemite Village was established in 1899 as Camp Sequoia, offering accommodation for just $2 a day including a hot meal (half the price of a standard hotel room). Today Curry Village has hotel rooms ($112/£73 during the summer), cabins with and without private bath ($92/£60 and $77/£50) and canvas tent cabins ($54/£35). Housekeeping Camp, with double canvas rooms sleeping up to four people, open April to October, costs $56 (£36.50).

Yosemite Lodge, near the base of Yosemite Falls, was built on the site where the US cavalry was once based while the park was under its protection. Dating back to 1915, it has 245 rooms costing $112 (£73) during the summer.

In Wawona, just inside the south entrance to the park is the Wawona Hotel, an old Victorian white clapboard hotel.

During the summer, in the High Country you can stay in canvas cabins in Tuolumne Meadows Lodge ($59/£39), and cabins ($88/£57.50) and canvas cabins ($55/£36) at White Wolf Lodge. There are also five camps with cabin accommodation in the High Sierra. During the winter the Glacier Point Ski Hut is open. To book accommodation in Yosemite call 001 559 252 4848 or visit www.yosemitepark.com.

There are four entrances to the park. However, during the winter the eastern approach via Tioga Pass (9,945ft), is closed due to snow (it re-opens late May/early June depending on the weather). Because of changeable weather conditions the National Park Service requires drivers to carry chains from late autumn to spring (you can rent them on the approach to the park or buy them inside the park gates).

Highway 41 from Fresno takes you to the South Entrance of the park, a journey of 94 miles which takes about three hours. From the gate it's about an hour to Yosemite Valley. From San Francisco, 200 miles away, Highway 120 takes you to the Big Oak Flat Entrance in the west. It's a drive of about four and a half hours to Yosemite Valley. From the north, Highway 140 brings you in from Merced (80 miles from Yosemite Valley). This is the lowest route, rarely requiring snow chains.

Because of congestion within the park, especially around Yosemite Valley during the summer, drivers are encouraged to leave their cars in towns outside and travel into Yosemite by buses operated by YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System; 001 877 989 2787, www.yarts.com). If you arrive by bus the park entrance fee is waived. Park entrance costs $20 (£13) per vehicle, valid for seven days; $10 (£6.50) if you're on foot (or bicycle, motorbike or horse). A Yosemite Pass, valid for one year, costs $40 (£26), or you might want to invest in a Golden Eagle Pass, valid in all the national parks for a year and costing $50 (£33).Once inside the park, there are a number of shuttle buses to transport you around.

From the UK, one of the best ways to visit the park is as part of a fly-drive package. Bon Voyage (0800 316 3008/ www.bon-voyage.co.uk) offers a 14-night itinerary with two days in Yosemite from £749 per person including flights to LA and car hire but excluding accommodation. The company can also tailor-make itineraries.

For more information

The Yosemite Concession Services Corporation ( www.yosemitepark.com)operates most of the accommodation, facilities and activities within the park.

A love affair with nature captured on film

Ansel Adams, one of the most famous landscape photographers of the 20th century, was inspired by the breathtaking scenery in Yosemite. Born in San Francisco in 1902, he first visited the area when he was 14, clutching his new camera, a Box Brownie. He spent the next 50 or so years documenting and exploring the landscape in all weathers. His black-and-white photographs, such as "Clearing Winter Storm" and "Jeffrey Pine", have become the most recognisable images of the park.

Adams' photographs were nothing short of revolutionary. He introduced the idea of photography as art, and in 1940 was appointed vice-chairman of the new Department of Photography by New York's MoMA (Museum of Modern Art).

He took on commercial work to pay the bills, and eventually agreed to a deal to turn some of his images into postcards and calendars. In 1979 he received the ultimate accolade – MoMA put on an exhibition of his work called "Yosemite and the Range of Light".

Adams was also an ardent conservationist and was instrumental in the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1932. He died in 1984, and in his honour a mountain was named after him in Yosemite – Mount Ansel Adams – and a large area south of the park proper was declared the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

To mark Adams' centenary, an exhibition of his work is currently on tour for two years and will arrive at the Hayward Gallery (020-7960 4242; www.hayward-gallery.org.uk) on 11 July. The "Ansel Adams at 100" exhibition runs until 22 September.

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