Yosemite exposed

Some landscapes are so astonishing they defy artistic capture. Steve Connor explores Yosemite National Park in California, the inspiration for the work of photographer Ansel Adams

Standing on the floor of the impossibly beautiful Yosemite Valley in northern California, it is hard to see why the ancient American natives who lived here for thousands of years called it Ahwahnee (Aa-waa-nee), or "place of a gaping mouth". Only when you climb to the dizzy height of Glacier Point, some 3,200ft above the valley floor, does it all become clear.

Standing on the floor of the impossibly beautiful Yosemite Valley in northern California, it is hard to see why the ancient American natives who lived here for thousands of years called it Ahwahnee (Aa-waa-nee), or "place of a gaping mouth". Only when you climb to the dizzy height of Glacier Point, some 3,200ft above the valley floor, does it all become clear.

Viewed from one of the many mountain ridges that surround Yosemite, the valley in its entirety emerges through the mists and immensity of this most dramatic of landscapes. What you see is clearly the open jaws of a snoozing giant.

The massive, fleshy lips of the surrounding mountains unfurl to reveal jagged vertical spikes of solid granite set like tombstone teeth around the vast and empty void of the U-shaped valley, which falls in breathtaking leaps to the tiny drizzle of the Merced River below. The Ahwahneechee, the people who first inhabited Yosemite Valley 7,000 years ago, must have thought they had found paradise when they saw this huge fissure in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Draped in sweet-smelling pine forests and glistening with a myriad waterfalls, the valley harbours its best-kept secret, a flat and fertile floor where American black oaks and their nutritious acorns grow abundantly in splendid isolation.

Yosemite Valley is so enclosed geologically that few if any non-natives knew of its existence before the 1850s. After gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills in 1848, thousands of prospectors rushed to the mountains, coming into bitter and murderous contact with the local natives. One of these tribes was the Southern Sierra Miwok. The first documented account of the valley was in 1851 when soldiers from the Mariposa battalion accidentally stumbled across it while chasing a band of Miwok braves who had rustled a few horses.

Before the arrival of the white man, the Miwok fished, hunted deer and small mammals and harvested the precious black oak acorns which they pounded into flour and baked in wicker baskets filled with hot stones. So valuable were these acorns that the Miwok used them as currency to trade with the nearby Paiute people. Yosemite acorns must have once been the talk of the Sierra.

Black oaks still grow in Yosemite, alongside various species of pine, although there is nothing much left of the Miwok presence save for a mock Indian camp tucked behind a small museum of native culture in Yosemite Village. Half a mile down the road stands the present-day Ahwahnee, a statuesque hotel built in the 1920s on a spot that must be a contender for the most beautiful hotel location in the world. The interiors are worth seeing, an engaging fusion of Art Deco and native American designs. Its granite façade and fake timber beams (they are actually painted concrete because of fire precautions) allow the hotel to blend in surprisingly well with the granite cliffs and the surrounding pine forest .

As soon as Yosemite was "discovered", its outstanding natural beauty was immediately recognised. The first party of tourists arrived in 1855, just four years after the Mariposa battalion ventured into the valley. A stagecoach road and regular service from the nearby port of San Francisco brought more potential prospectors, sightseers and settlers. The valley was soon in danger of becoming too popular for its own good.

Mercifully, Yosemite had its guardians, among them a Scottish émigré conservationist called John Muir. He spent his first summer in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, and thereafter the preservation of the Yosemite became his mission in life. Ever the politician as well as the original Outdoor Man, Muir acted as personal guide to President Theodore Roosevelt when they camped for three days in Yosemite in 1903. Three years later, the state of California ceded its rights to Yosemite, and the valley and its surrounding wilderness were granted coveted National Park status, fulfilling Muir's dream of long-term preservation.

Be warned: midsummer on the valley floor can be congested, and it's better to visit Yosemite out of season. Spring or early summer bring the sight of waterfalls in full flow but it can be cold. Late summer and early autumn are dry and surprisingly balmy during the day. The short, cold days of winter are more than brightened by the magic of an ice-decorated landscape smothered in a duvet of snow.

To visit Yosemite Valley in any season is to be assaulted on all sensory fronts. My first impression was the overriding smell of pine, which was so strong that I assumed it could not be a natural essence. The colours and dimensions of the landscape are staggering, and you get a feeling of womb-like protection from the cliffs that surround you on all sides. If it wasn't for the sheer scale of the valley floor, it might feel claustrophobic.

All around are granite edifices of truly monumental stature. Half Dome, a massive pudding of rock that has been literally sliced in half by a passing glacier, is perhaps the most quizzical. But the daddy of them all is El Capitan, the biggest granite monolith in the world.

Three times higher than the Empire State Building, "El Cap" is an unbelievable piece of natural sculpturing which runs perpendicularly from the valley floor straight up to the heavens. When I first glimpsed its looming presence through the needles of 100ft pines on a crystal-clear day, I assumed the dark shadow I could just see through the foliage must be a looming storm cloud.

The forces that created El Cap and the other granite monoliths of Yosemite were truly colossal. Geologists say that Yosemite ­ the "incomparable valley" ­ is a textbook example of a glacier-carved canyon. At least three of these monsters must have slid back and forth through this valley during the past million years.

The last one receded about 20,000 years ago to reveal the classic U-sided landscape we see today. Walking around the forest floor you can still see the remnants of this geological event in the shape of huge, solitary stones ­ glacial moraine ­ plonked on the valley floor as if part of some fairytale giant's rock garden.

With the last glacier gone, the terminal moraine formed a natural dam and Yosemite became a giant lake. This eventually silted up and its nutrient-rich bed became a flat, fertile meadow that soon gave way to forests, a process that is still taking place today. Higher up the valley, an occasional expanse of water known as Mirror Lake is in the early stages of the same process. In late summer, when many of the waterfalls have dried up, you can walk on the lake's bed, with Half Dome as a dramatic backdrop.

With such stunning scenery it is little wonder that Yosemite has been a rich source of inspiration for painters, photographers and poets. Many of the early portrayers of Yosemite, such as Thomas Hill, emphasised the spectacular drama and geological marvels of the landscape with a natural realism.

Religious artists, notably Albert Bierstadt, began to depict Yosemite with biblical fervour. It became the New Eden, a kitsch comparison prone to cliché. Not surprisingly, some serious painters at the end of the 19th century began to shy away from Yosemite. Many thought that the valley's beauty was simply unpaintable.

A new generation of artists in the early 20th century, however, continued to be drawn by the valley's magnetic beauty. Chiura Obata, a Japanese immigrant to California who taught art in San Francisco and painted richly impressionistic watercolours, visited Yosemite for the first time in 1927 and was hooked. Curiously, that same year another young San Franciscan artist was in Yosemite, this time carrying camera equipment instead of brushes and paints. Thanks largely to his early love affair with Yosemite, Ansel Adams was to become one of the greatest American landscape photographers of the 20th century.

Adams took photographs of Yosemite from every conceivable angle, and at every time of day and season of the year. His enthusiasm for its natural beauty was unquenchable. His photographic excursions were more like outdoor endurance tests than artistic endeavours. He once climbed up to Half Dome loaded down with a Korona View camera, two lenses, two filters, "a rather heavy wooden tripod" and a dozen glass plates.

Adams's centenary was last year and an exhibition of his work is currently on tour for two years. It began in his home town at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will arrive at the Hayward Gallery in London on 11 July. For those who haven't seen Yosemite for themselves, Adams's photographs give perhaps the best impression of its ethereal majesty.

Like Adams, Muir, Obata and countless others before me, my trip to Yosemite began in San Francisco, a five-hour drive across the great Central Valley of California. (Muir noted that the Central Valley has two seasons, spring and summer. Spring begins in November with the first rains and ends in May when every blade of grass on the rolling hills is burnt to a crisp.) San Francisco provides a scintillating contrast to Yosemite and is one of the few American cities that can boast a rich artistic history.

Adams's family home was in San Francisco's Sea Cliff district, which is still a plush neighbourhood overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Sea Cliff, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo and where the actor Robin Williams lives, is set away from the city centre and worth a visit ­ you might even get a friendly taxi driver to give you a little tour.

For art lovers, San Francisco is not short of excursions. The Museum of Modern Art probably has the most complete collection of contemporary art on the West Coast. The city also has an impressive collection of more historical works, from 15th-century tapestries to late French and Italian Impressionists and a large Rodin collection. These are all housed within the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, built with the sugar-cane fortune of the philanthropist and art collector Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.

If you decide to visit Yosemite, give yourself at least two or three days in San Francisco first. The vibrant cityscape with its many distractions will only serve to sharpen your appetite for the more naturalistic pleasures to come. The gaping mouth of Yosemite will taste like a mellow cognac after the fizz of San Franciscan champagne.

The Facts

Getting there

British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) flies direct from London Heathrow to San Francisco from £314 return or £258.80 if you book before 25 February.

Being there

Steve Connor stayed at the Park Hyatt San Francisco with Hyatt Hotel and Resorts UK (0845 758 1666; www.hyatt.com). Double rooms start from $235 (£156) per night, plus 14 per cent tax. Details of the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park cabins, tents and other accommodation in San Francisco is available from San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau ( www.sfvisitor.org) and Yosemite Concessions Services ( www.yosemitepark.com). Avis (0870 60 60 100; www.avis.co.uk) offers a week's car hire from San Francisco airport for around £160, including basic insurance.

Further information

Send a cheque for £2.50 (p&p) made out to ABC California, PO Box 35, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4TS. Also, The Destination Group (0207 400 7073 or go to www.travel4less.co.uk) is one of the UK's leading long-haul, tailor-made specialist tour operators, with a wide range of special offers and late deals on flights to and car hire in California.

The photography

The Ansel Adams at 100 exhibition, which includes this photograph of El Capitan, right, opens at the Hayward Gallery (0207-960 4242; www.haywardgallery.org.uk) on 11 July and runs until 22 September.

Ansel Adams at 100 is organised by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and made possible by hp

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