Our guide, park ranger Karen Powers, could be a stand-up comedian.
She punctuates her narration about the history of Yosemite National Park with one-liners and personal anecdotes as we ride through the valley in an open-air tram. She also tells stories of interesting and eccentric characters who came to this geologically spectacular landscape before and after Abraham Lincoln designated it as the country’s first protected wild land.
That was 150 years ago June 30. Happy birthday, Yosemite.
“So you can thank Abe, among other things, for this beautiful place,” Powers says.
Our tram stops at the Tunnel View turnout so we can take in the iconic view of the vast and wondrous Yosemite Valley. Whether it’s your first or 50th viewing, this panorama is breathtaking and seemingly unreal — like a backdrop for a souvenir photo.
But it’s genuine, alright, as are the other wonders of the park — the fast-flowing Merced River; the granite walls favored by climbers; the other-worldly, crimson snow plant that has just emerged from the rich spring earth.
It’s been at least two decades since my husband and I visited Yosemite. Of course, not much has changed geologically speaking. Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks and Glacier Point stand pretty much as they have for the last bazillion years. It is the visitors who are changed by the park’s soaring peaks, stunning canyons, giant sequoias, granite monoliths and delicate dogwood.
Later we lunch in the dining room of the venerable Ahwahnee Hotel — something we’ve wanted to do for years. The 34-foot-high beamed ceiling, floor-to-ceiling windows, elegant chandeliers and table linens all contribute to the room’s grandiosity.
The hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic places, was built in the mid-1920s using 1,000 tons of steel, more than 5,000 tons of stone and 30,000 feet of timber — all of it hauled over crude mountain roads. The purpose of the enduring materials was to avoid destruction by fire, a fate suffered by so many other grand hotels of the time. Its interior elegance was to attract affluent patrons sympathetic to the National Park System.
For a post-lunch hike, we choose a popular trek (don’t expect solitude) to the 620-feet high Bridalveil Fall. It’s up all the way but worth it. We get close to the top but forego the last few feet in order to stay dry. Go to the end and you get really wet.
This 3-mile-plus hike is our last hurrah for the day. We return to the beautifully rustic, welcoming lobby of Tenaya Lodge, just outside the park’s south gate.
The next morning, the fireplace in our room is the perfect corner to wait out a rain storm (imagine!) that soaks the earth and clears the air. I am disappointed to miss a nature hike, but at 5,200 feet, the temps are in the mid-30s. Hanging by the fireplace is an excellent Plan B.
Elsewhere in Tenaya Lodge, it’s a beehive of activity, especially during this third week of April when families are on spring break. They fuel up on the restaurant’s generous fresh breakfast buffet in the Sierra Restaurant. Think whole-grain cereals, yogurt, lusciously large, sweet strawberries, pastries and croissants, waffles and bacon. The staff is attentive to my gluten-free needs; I get eggs scrambled in a separate pan and even gluten-free toast and pancakes.
Tenaya’s spa is conveniently located on the lower level (no fighting the elements to reach Nirvana). My 90-minute massage explains why the beautifully appointed spa is named Ascent. To borrow from the writings of naturalist and wilderness advocate John Muir, for whom Yosemite Valley was heaven, my massage caused my “cares to drop off like autumn leaves.”
In spring and summer, Tenaya’s activities office offers something for everyone: hiking, a climbing wall, archery, indoor and outdoor pools, whitewater rafting, bicycling, fishing, picnics and more. Burn some calories during the day so you can treat yourself to an exquisite meal in the Embers Restaurant. Executive Chef Frederick Clabaugh and staff are more than eager to accommodate any special dietary needs.
We decide to go out big, so following our superb rack of lamb with polenta, we give in to Bananas Diablo. It is so named because the cloves that punctuate the spiraling, flaming orange peel glow red “like the devil’s eyes.”
For information: Yosemite National Park www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm or call 209-372-0200 (press 3 then 5); Tenaya Lodge www.TenayaLodge.com or call 801-559-4965; Ahwahnee Hotel www.yosemitepark.com/the-ahwahnee.aspx or call (801) 559-4884.