It's a shame that Ansel Adams was never really sold on the virtues of colour photography, because I'm not entirely sure that his black-and-white landscapes ever quite managed to capture the full, breathtaking extent of the sensory bombardment that awaits a visitor to Yosemite during the months that locals call the Fall.

For a brief period that starts in early September, when leaves start to turn, and ends when the first dump of snow shuts the winding Tioga Road, by which you access the national park's eastern highlands, there can scarcely be a more gorgeous place on earth than this famous corner of California's Sierra Nevada.

To Adams, who first set foot there in 1916, Yosemite's unique landscape summed up the infinite majesty and promise of the American West – and his pictures of its huge walls of granite, endless forests and staggering vistas reflected in mirror-still alpine lakes showcased the untapped possibilities of the photographic art form.

To you or I, Yosemite's charms are these days an open secret. As a World Heritage Site, half a day's drive from California's two biggest cities – San Francisco to the west, Los Angeles to the south – the park, which measures roughly 1,190 square miles, welcomes almost four million visitors each year. That equates to roughly 11,000 people a day, which in turn makes for truly awful traffic jams. But head there after the chaos of holiday season, when crowds have thinned and the climate is less hospitable, and you will sometimes get a sense of the peaceful seclusion Adams must have felt when he first clicked his shutter on the face of El Capitan or Half Moon, the great walls of rock that are the subjects of his best-known landscapes. As you hike a secluded trail, or cast a fly at a wily trout, the modern world seems like another country.

The place to stay is Yosemite Valley, the park's spiritual heartland, accessed via one of the world's most scenic sections of road. If you can afford it, take a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel, a historic (and historically expensive) pile near the eastern end which over the years has hosted everyone from the Queen and Prince Philip to JFK and Charlie Chaplin. If you can't afford it, rent one of the National Park Service's wooden huts. Or for the full outdoors experience, camp.

There are endless trails to walk, peaks to conquer and waterfalls simply to gawp at. If you're into rock-climbing, or want to learn, then the Valley can be loosely described as a mecca. In the evenings, a setting sun turns the cliffs golden, and you can see the hardiest climbers bedding down for the night in tiny bivouacs, which dangle over impossible precipices, hundreds of metres above the valley floor.

Like all the best destinations, Yosemite's greatest charms are often harder to find, however. A couple of hours' drive north of the Valley, along winding roads lined by mighty trees in autumnal bloom, is Tuolumne Meadows, a sub-alpine expanse of grassy fields, broken up by occasional granite peaks and domes. Here, where the air is thin (you are at over 8,500ft), is unspoiled backcountry. The trails are empty, and stretch for days.

Whenever I hike along the Tuolumne River, which meanders prettily through these uplands, I think of the words Adams used, in perhaps his most famous quotation, to describe Yosemite. The park, he said, is "always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space". He was speaking the language of cliché, perhaps. But the place lives up to it.

Guy Adams is Los Angeles correspondent of The Independent