IT’S HARD to be envious when you are in Yosemite National Park. Within earshot of a mighty waterfall and an uninterrupted view across a forested valley to Half Dome, one of the greatest sights in the natural world, there should be no tinge of jealousy.
Up there with your walking companions, a trusty and knowledgeable guide and acrobatic jays, soaring on the thermals in the clearest of air and the brightest of sunlight, there should be unbridled contentment. And, in truth, on our descent down the narrow, rocky trails from the Upper Yosemite Falls we were all buzzing with the rush of the great American outdoors.
Then we found out. The other group, which for a variety of reasons had turned their backs on the strenuous upwards climb and the panoramas made in Heaven to split off for a walk out across the flats, had encountered a bear.
No matter that it was just a little fella trying to raid a dustbin, it was a bear. When it comes to Yosemite bragging rights, the bear sighting is the ultimate thrill. Sometimes, being idle can pay dividends.
It’s impossible to be down for long in Yosemite, however. John Muir, the great Scottish conservationist, knew this when he cannily lured Theodore Roosevelt, who just happened to be the US president at the time, on a camping trip into the then wilderness in 1903. Muir, who emigrated with his family from East Lothian when he was 11, persuaded Roosevelt that he needed to support a network of national parks to preserve some of the best parts of the American landscape from development. Yosemite National Park’s sheer, undiluted, undeveloped beauty stems from that expedition.
Muir and Roosevelt’s campsite, in a meadow close to the crystal clear waters of the Merced River, is pointed out from the tourist train that snakes through the main Yosemite Valley every day. This is a tour that everyone can take but is no less awe-inspiring for that.
When the early morning sun glistens off the sheer granite face of El Capitan, sunglasses are required to spot the ant-like climbers with a death wish crawling up its 3,000-ft vertical face. The Sentinel rocks, across the valley floor, are no less impressive granite monoliths, and the high-level Glacier Point, accessible by road, has one of the best views of all.
For those who want to expend a little more energy, the park ranger service offers a variety of walking tours to suit all ages and abilities. Yosemite has serious long-distance hikes in its 1,200 square mile expanse through some of the world’s most inspiring landscapes. But most visitors stay in the Yosemite Valley for a couple of days and take walking excursions from there.
We chose to ascend the Upper Yosemite Falls (UYF) trail to the waterfall which tumbles hundreds of feet in a drenching spray over a cliff down to a pool below. You hear its power long before you see it as you scramble up through the silent woods. Halfway up is Columbia Rock, from where the view of the majestic Half Dome, with its 4,737 ft summit, is breathtaking. Steve, our affable ranger guide, entertained us with the folklore and the legends of how this granite goliath, once seen, never forgotten, was formed.
The UYF trail is a good workout – to reach the top is equivalent to climbing the Empire State Building twice.
Our companions took the low route through the pine woods – where they saw the bear – to the shores of Mirror Lake, an impossibly photogenic stretch of water, so still it reflects the looming Half Dome perfectly. Looking up from the base to the top of the Dome’s cliffs thousands of feet above is sure to induce vertigo.
It’s the timelessness of Yosemite and the solidity of its mountains that works its way into your bones. It’s the same feeling you get when you stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel, so perfect for its environment that its growth might have been organic.
The Ahwahnee was first built in the centre of the park in 1925 so that American tourists could enjoy Yosemite’s splendours in comfort. It is now a heritage site in its own right and the location is worth the expense of staying there. It’s a venerable old lady with the quirks you would expect from a building of its age with old-school staff serving up old-fashioned hospitality.
At night, guests well-fed and watered in the communal dining room, all white table cloths and chandeliers, are encouraged to head outside on to the lawns to take in the starscapes above in a sky unpolluted by streetlights. With only the sounds of owls hooting above the rush of the Merced, it becomes easy to understand how President Roosevelt was captivated by the sheer melodrama of the place.
Once in the park, it’s a difficult place to leave behind. There has to be a good reason, and just beyond the park boundary lies a treat.
Early evening brings a chance to tuck into barbecued ribs in the Western-style River Rock Inn on 7th Street in the small, cosy town of Mariposa while being regaled by an all-American band. Then washing it down is spectacular – just across the road at the Prospectors Brewing Company, which opened in 2011. In their barn-roof “contemporary” taproom decked out as a gold prospectors’ watering hole it’s possible to sample Pistol Whipped Wheat Beer, Bootjack Blonde, Long Tom IPA and its stronger cousin Longer Tom. These are ferocious tastes of rural California with the strength to match. Whether you retire to your suite in the Ahwahnee or hunker down in Yosemite’s log cabins, sleep won’t be far away.
• Trafalgar offers an eight-day Northern California itinerary for from £2,495 per person including land and air travel, seven nights B&B accommodation, exploration of Yosemite, Monterey and Carmel, dinner with wine in the Napa Valley and four other evening meals, VIP private airport transfers, included sightseeing and the services of a professional Travel Director throughout. Visit www.trafalgar.com/uk. For bookings 0800 533 5617. Flights available with United Airlines (www.united.com).