“Look out for the bears,” the hiker said as he passed Judy and me during our hike in Yosemite National Park last September.
“A mom and her two cubs are eating acorns in a tree,” his companion added. “You have to walk right under them.”
My sister-in-law and I looked at each other and smiled. We were halfway down a four-mile trail that descends from Glacier Point, and seeing a bear was high on our “wanna-do” list. But walking underneath a mother bear and two cubs? We weren’t sure we wanted to get that close to nature. On the other hand, we certainly didn’t want to turn around and hike back up the trail. Feeling like intrepid explorers, Judy and I continued down the trail to face the bears.
This was the final day of our back-to-nature girlfriend getaway in one of the world’s most unique playgrounds. For years I’d heard about Yosemite from friends who are outdoor enthusiasts and seen images of its granite formations in Ansel Adam’s remarkable photographs. But it wasn’t until I arrived here that I really got what it is about Yosemite that’s so extraordinary.
Simply put, the park offers twelve hundred square miles of scenery that truly takes your breath away. Whether you’re touring the valley floor, where the Merced River winds past massive granite walls and wildflower-studded meadows, or standing seven thousand feet up in the air on top of Glacier Point, this region is a tranquil oasis in a world where big box stores are spreading like a terminal disease.
In fact, when you view the vista that spreads before you atop Glacier Point, you might even think you took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on the moon, not in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s a haunting, desolate landscape that transports you in mind and spirit to a different reality.
Turbulence at the earth’s core helped create this masterpiece, a process that began 500 million years ago when the Sierra Nevadas were submerged beneath the sea. In time geologic processes—sedimentation, compression, subduction, and intense heat from deep within the earth—resulted in magma that rose to the surface, returned underground, cooled, and eventually turned into granite.
Fast forward a few thousand millennia to the Ice Age, when glaciers advanced into a valley cut by the Merced River and began carving out the bedrock. When temperatures rose fifteen thousand years ago, the bottom of the valley became a lake. Eventually sediment displaced the water, creating the flat, picturesque valley floor visitors see today.
With granite walls rising up in every direction, the valley, roughly seven miles long and one mile wide, feels cozy to me in spite of its immensity, like a giant’s living room, a hiding place from the rest of the world.
INTO THE WILD
Judy and I had planned our girlfriend getaway to Yosemite for months. While this destination is, in fact, a perfect vacation option for families, we decided to leave our husbands and kids at home and indulge in a little “we” time. Instead of refereeing sibling squabbles or bickering with spouses about which road to take, Judy and I took off on our own. Both of us love the outdoors and relished the idea of spending time hiking and encountering nature up close.
While a variety of lodging options are available in the park—from rustic camping to the exclusive Ahwahnee Hotel, Judy and I chose to stay in an upscale property near Yosemite’s southern entrance. A four-diamond resort, Tenaya Lodge, which features gorgeous Alpine architecture, sits in a pristine conifer forest surrounded by mountains and sky—and little else. Cel phone reception is iffy out here in the wilderness, Judy and I discovered, but turning off our cel phones felt freeing—as if we were leaving civilization behind and entering into the wild.
The truth is we weren’t exactly roughing it at Tenaya Lodge. From its spacious, comfortable rooms with Native American décor to its long list of amenities—two restaurants, a coffee shop, two pools, children’s activities, a fitness room, special packages, a relaxing spa, shops, and a guest experience center—visitors enjoy big-city services in an unspoiled, natural environment.
That evening, after relaxing by the pool and then enjoying heavenly spa treatments, Judy and I headed to Sierra, the resort’s premier restaurant, for an elegant dining experience. Known for its commitment to fresh organic produce, quality meats, and fresh seafood, Sierra offers an eclectic menu with dishes designed to please the most discriminating palates.
First Judy and I ordered appetizers: lump crab cakes with a delicious jalapeno honey butter and savory lamb chops with organic greens. Next we shared the Tenaya Salad, a flavorful combination of greens, apples, spiced walnuts, and blue cheese. To save room for dessert, we split a garlic-pepper filet mignon for our entrée, which was cooked to perfection, and then shared a decadent chipotle chocolate dessert that made us absolutely swoon. Luckily, Judy and I had plenty of hiking in our future so indulging in this over-the-top meal wouldn’t produce lasting effects—or at least that’s what we hoped!
A TREASURE HUNT
Tenaya offers unique activities for adventurous guests—including mountain biking, fly fishing, horseback riding, and a new sport called geocaching, which involves using a GPS (global positioning system) receiver to search for the location of hidden “treasure.” Geocaching is really taking off across the U.S., and while I’d heard about it, I’d never tried it.
After a good night’s sleep, Judy and I joined Scott King, Tenaya’s guest services manager, who offered to help us since we were neophyte GPS users. It was a sparkling blue-sky morning—perfect for our geocaching adventure. Scott knew exactly where the treasure was hidden but promised he wouldn’t interfere unless we wandered too far afield.
Armed with a GPS, which the resort rents for a nominal fee, Scott, Judy, and I headed off down a dusty trail that led into the forest. Finding the correct direction wasn’t difficult since Tenaya staff have programmed the treasure’s coordinates into the GPS. As we hiked along, we noticed that periodically the satellite signals disappeared, leaving us clueless about where we were going and where we’d been, but that only added to the suspense.
Besides indicating the direction, the GPS also showed us how far we were from the treasure. As we got closer to the cache, Judy and I began to feel a little disoriented. The GPS pointed us toward a meadow, which appeared beyond a stand of trees; however, a steep ravine was in the way. We ended up overshooting a bit, then backtracking through a squishy Alpine meadow—by now Scott was coaching us—and finally we found the treasure under a fallen log. The plastic shoebox contained souvenir trinkets from the resort as well as a logbook, which Judy and I signed and dated. Scott explained that Tenaya was among the first resorts nationwide to offer geocaching, but now other resorts offered it as well. It’s a perfect family activity, I decided, one that would definitely appeal to my active boys.
That afternoon Judy and I got our first glimpse of Yosemite National Park. Just inside the southern entrance is Mariposa Grove, where the largest of three stands of giant sequoias towers over the landscape. We joined an open-air tram ride, which gives commentary on the trees as well as history of the park. Originally inhabited by Native Americans, the region was discovered by European explorers in the mid-1800’s. Word of Yosemite’s beauty spread, and soon the region began attracting tourists. Worried that developers might ruin the pristine beauty of the area, a group of influential Californians persuaded Abraham Lincoln to grant Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state as public land. Eventually this parcel and another 1500 acres would become Yosemite National Park.
The ancient sequoias stand like sentinels in the Mariposa Grove. Many have names and colorful histories to match—the Grizzly Giant, General Sherman, the Fallen Monarch, the Clothespin Tree, Bachelor and the Three Graces, the Telescope Tree, Faithful Couple, and the Wawona Tunnel Tree. Each giant has a story to tell, having watched a lot of tourists traipse by over the years. Some have even suffered in the process. Fortunately forward-thinking individuals—such as Galen Clark, an early park supporter—helped to maintain the integrity of the grove. In fact, a tree named Galen Clark memorializes Galen’s efforts to preserve and protect the giant sequoias.
THE NEEDS OF NATURE
That’s one of the biggest challenges at Yosemite: establishing a balance between the needs of nature and a demanding public. To lessen the effect of humans at Yosemite, the park service recommends visitors park their cars in a day-use lot and take advantage of free shuttles that circle the park. Bike paths criss-cross the valley as well and offer another environmentally friendly option for getting around.
You can also explore Yosemite using four-legged transportation. Judy and I decided to try a trail ride one day. When we arrived at the stable in Yosemite Valley, the guide told us we’d be riding mules, not horses, on the trail. This was a first for me! Mules always seemed to be such homely creatures, lacking the regal bearing of horses. On the other hand, I’d always heard that mules are very sure-footed, and sure enough, once we got started, I saw for myself how carefully they traversed the trails. Not only did we ride up and down steep slopes, the path was frequently covered with loose stones. I was more nervous than the mules and ended up spending more time looking down to see where my mule was going than enjoying the scenery. Next time I think I’ll rent a bike!
Another challenging form of transportation in the park—one that Judy and I decidedly did not try—is rock climbing. Since the temps are milder, September is a favorite month for climbers, and El Capitan, the grandfather of all rock faces, attracts numerous daredevils and adrenaline junkies who prepare for months to scale this sheer wall of granite. It takes a week to climb from bottom to top, and only occasionally are rescue operations required.
The closest Judy and I got to El Capitan was Northside Drive, which runs along the valley floor. We tried to make out the climbers, but they appeared as small as fleas to the naked eye. Binoculars would have helped. All I know is I got dizzy just staring at the rock from a distance and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to dangle from a rope somewhere on that 3000-foot monolith.
No, I preferred to keep my two feet firmly on or near the ground. Hiking opportunities abound in Yosemite. Many say the prettiest hikes are in the northern half of the park around the Tuolumne River and Meadows, an area Judy and I never got around to visiting. We both look forward to returning one day for more hikes in this peaceful paradise.
HOLDING OUR BREATH
Back on the Glacier Point Trail, Judy and I walked along, excited about the possibility of seeing the mama bear and her cubs. Our hiker friends had said they thought the bears were about a half mile ahead, so we fairly skipped hoping they’d still be there. Between looking down at our feet to avoid stumbling and scanning the treetops, we barely had time to enjoy the awesome valley view—so determined were we to see the bears.
Soon we found ourselves in a grove of oak trees and saw acorns scattered along the ground. As we walked, holding our breath, both of us admitted to being afraid and curious at the same time—not sure if the bears would fall from the sky or jump out from behind a rock or—worst of all—scurry off into the forest before we could see them. We listened intently but only heard a few birds twittering. Once we thought we heard some scuffling sounds and peered into the green leafy brush, but saw nothing. The closest we got to bears that day was some bear scat on the trail.
The sounds of traffic grew louder as Judy and I approached the trailhead on the valley floor. While we never had out face-to-face encounter with the bears, Judy and I agreed we weren’t totally disappointed. We took solace in knowing that the mama bear and her cubs are better off with fewer human encounters. Sure, Yosemite is a playground for visitors, like Judy and me, but the mountains are the bears’ home.
It’s enough to know they’re out there.
For more information, visit: