Off-season Yosemite is kinder, gentler experience

No Crowds

National parks in California are some of the most beautiful in the country but anyone who has tried to visit Yosemite National Park in summer will almost certainly agree: things are starting to get a little crowded. One wonders if the pioneers who had the foresight to set aside these scenic lands would be appalled at the sight of hundreds of tour buses plying the park’s narrow roadways.

The good news is that Yosemite is just as breathtaking during other times of the year and, while sometimes still busy, the “off-season” Yosemite offers a much greater chance to distance yourself from the thousands of other nature-lovers who have come here for peace and solitude.

Our “fall colors” trip to Yosemite in mid-October was a case in point. The roadways weren’t as crowded, accommodations were easier to get and there were long stretches along some hiking trails where we actually felt quite alone.

But Yosemite is one of the most popular national parks in the country, so there is no escaping the tour buses or the flat-bed trailer tramways that take visitors on guided tours throughout Yosemite Valley. From what we could tell, fall is a prime time for international tourists – the groups of people we encountered while visiting waterfalls and other Yosemite sights were speaking German, Spanish, Russian – just about everything except English.

Still, the fall is a quieter time to visit Yosemite, and the crisp air along with the kaleidoscopic colors of changing leaves add a certain sense that you’re truly out in the elements. Roadways are still bare yet it’s not hard to imagine that, in a few weeks, the snow will turn this spectacular landscape into a winter wonderland. Temperatures change quickly as the sun goes down, reminding you that these natural attractions are several thousand feet above sea level. Attire changes from shorts and tee-shirts to winter clothes in a matter of minutes.

We drove into Yosemite along Highway 120, a fairly direct route through the scenic foothills east of Modesto. Gradually rising in elevation, this two-lane country road takes you through such fascinating towns as Groveland. This is one of the California gold rush towns that grew and prospered in the mid 19th Century with the discovery of gold nearby. Like many other early California mountain towns, this one was one part saloons, one part bordellos and one part local homes and businesses.

It’s only fitting that Groveland is home to the Iron Door Saloon, California’s oldest continuously operating saloon. A museum and historic jailhouse are worth a visit, and places like the Hotel Charlotte offer accommodations and hearty meals in buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places. Since Groveland is only 26 miles from Yosemite, many visitors choose to make this their base of operations while making quick daytrips into the park.

By the time we reached Groveland we were in the thick of the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada and, from there, it was a quick and scenic climb into the park itself. The Sequoia forests and scenery didn’t just start at the entrance to the park – these special vistas were evident well before we approached the park boundaries and visible in every direction. Then we were at the park – just $20 a carload for some of the most spectacular sights anyplace in the country.

It’s not far from the Highway 120 entrance to the Yosemite Valley where we soon were enjoying grand views of the rock walls that have made Yosemite so famous. It’s not hard to see why Yosemite is considered to be the “Crown Jewel” of the National Park System – the towering granite cliffs are the result of earthquakes, glaciers and other forces that have been at work here for millions of years. In all, the park encompasses about 1,170 square miles of pristine forests, waterfalls, and alpine lakes, but visitors are most awe-struck by these walls of granite that dwarf their surroundings.

Soon after entering the Valley we encountered Bridal Veil Falls, one of the park’s most famous sights and easily visible after an easy 10-minute walk from the parking lot. The runoff during the fall season undoubtedly is less than in the springtime, but even the relative trickle of water cascading down the sheer rock cliff was impressive. Visitors couldn’t help but be tempted by the stair-step rocks leading to a closer view of the falls – even though a sign offers a stern warning that “fatalities have occurred” climbing on these sometimes slippery rocks.

Further down the road, there it was – El Capitan – perhaps the most famous of the park landmarks, and a stunner the first time you view it up close. Even during our off-season visit, dozens of cars were parked alongside of the road while their occupants stood by staring upward at this 4,000-foot rock wall. It was difficult to imagine people actually climbing El Capitan, but they do. As they say, each to his own.

And so it goes when you’re visiting Yosemite – a different spectacular sight every few minutes as you drive throughstands of Sequoia or Pine trees, stopping at trailheads to walk even further into the wilderness where you cross babbling brooks and enjoy numerous sightings of wildlife such as the Western Gray Squirrels, Golden Eagles or Peregrine Falcons.

A lot of visitors to Yosemite keep it really simple and pitch tents for $5 a night – which, of course, is only for the hearty as late fall and winter temperatures settle in. For our fall weekend visit, we chose the Tenaya Lodge, an impressive oasis of luxury located just a few miles from the park’s south entrance on Highway 41. The four-diamond, 244-room Tenaya is one of several hotels and lodges located throughout Yosemite National Park.

This unique lodge is located in thick forests high in the Sierra – 5,288 feet high to be exact — and is a short drive from the famous old-growth Sequoias in the park’s Mariposa Grove area. The resort is set up to be a vacation getaway unto itself and boasts many of the amenities you would find at a fine golf or beach resort. There’s no beach here, of course, but there is an 18-hole golf course along with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, saunas, steam rooms, and various spa services.

A Yosemite vacation based at the Tenaya Lodge is much more than just sleeping at the Tenaya – the lodge offers many activities designed to show you Yosemite from several different angles. For example, there are guided horseback rides and day hikes, as well as mountain bike trails and, in season, white-water rafting.

One activity that caught our attention is called “geocaching.” This is where hikers and mountain bikers are encouraged to find various hidden caches by using a GPS unit supplied by the hotel. Guests can book a hiking or mountain biking package that includes the GPS and other necessary equipment.

Regardless of whether you take organized tours or just explore the Yosemite wilderness on your own, an off-season visit to this “Crown Jewel” of national parks is bound to be rewarding – and just a bit quieter than the beehive of activity that summer Yosemite has become.

At a Glance

Where: Yosemite Park is in Northern California, about 90 miles east of Fresno and is accessible from Highway 99 by taking Highway 120, Highway 140 or Highway 41.

What: Yosemite National Park is considered the “Crown Jewel” of the National Park System and is one of California’s most popular tourist attractions. The variety of scenery and numerous natural attractions can be explored for days, even weeks.

When: Year-round, although some lodgings are closed in winter, and roads can be treacherous. Recommended times to visit are fall and spring when there are fewer visitors, yet natural beauty abounds. You can also find seasonal or year-round hotel jobs at parks like Yosemite.

Why: Yosemite National Park offers a wide variety of scenic and natural attractions for all ages.

How: For more information on Yosemite National Park, phone 209-372-0200 or visit www.nps.gov/yose/. For more information on the Tenaya Lodge, phone 877-322-5492 or visit tenayalodge.com.

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