Yosemite National Park: Nature at its Finest

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Mountains, trees and river at Yosemite National Park
The Yosemite Valley floor is bisected by raging rivers and beautiful meadows, offering reflections and beauty just begging for photography. It is not surprising that talented photographers like Ansel Adams were attracted to Yosemite. (Photos by Jeff Orenstein)

Yosemite National Park is one of the most precious gems in the spectacular wilderness necklace of America’s national parks.

It is justly famous for its enormous and impressive cliff faces, gigantic granite monoliths that rise thousands of feet straight up from the valley floor, breathtakingly beautiful waterfalls and colorful meadows. This is where you will find Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall and other landmarks made famous by Ansel Adams’ photography.

All of it is easily accessible from the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center by car, on foot, via free circulator bus or even on a bicycle. Hiking trails in the valley range from easy and short to challenging.

The valley floor is the most visited and most convenient part of the park and has more than enough sights to satisfy the simply smart traveler seeking a view of spectacular wilderness. But there is also a vast expanse of the national park beyond the valley, the equivalent to the area of Rhode Island, beckoning to be explored. The whole park offers a myriad of opportunities for hikers and experienced mountain climbers.

Those of us who are a little less adventurous and who are content to just drive around the park can take advantage of scenic vistas with spectacular views of mountain lakes and remarkable highland vistas. Nearby are the awe-inspiring Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona with historic buildings and demonstrations of pioneer life.

Plan on spending at least a couple of days in the park. Check in at one of the visitor centers at Yosemite Valley, Big Oak Flat, Wawona or Tuolumne Meadows to get the lay of the land and to learn about the schedule of ranger-narrated tours. We particularly recommend the two-hour 26-mile tour of the valley floor. It reaches parts of the valley not served by the free shuttles and the ranger narration in the open-air vehicle is informative. To travel between valley attractions, it is best to park your car and use the free shuttles to get around.

Bridal Veil Falls falls over the mountain
An excellent roadside view of the world-famous Bridal Veil Falls can be easily attained from the banks of the rushing Merced River.

Getting There and Getting Around:

Yosemite can be reached by air, rail and highway.

  • By car, California Highways 120 and 140 lead to the park.
  • The nearest commercial airports to Yosemite Valley are Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT), 65 miles, Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH), 42 miles away and Merced Regional Airport (MCE) at 72 miles distance. Major airports are Sacramento at 152 miles and Oakland at 151 miles away.
  • The nearest Amtrak station is at Merced, 69 miles from the park. There is a YARTS bus from the station to Yosemite National Park.

Must-Sees for a Short Trip:

Among attractions that you should take in are:

  • The visitor’s center at Yosemite Valley
  • A ranger-guided or self-guided tour around the valley floor

If You Have Several Days:

  • Explore the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.
  • Visit small Sierra Nevada towns around the park.
  • Spend time in the Ansel Adams Gallery.
  • Get beyond the valley and explore some of the rest of the park.
  • Tour the California Mining Mineral Museum in Mariposa and enjoy the shops and restaurants in Mariposa. The Mariposa County Visitor Center can supply information and Yosemite maps.
  • Try hunting, fishing and photography in the areas surrounding the park.

Ginny O’s Tips for Dressing the Simply Smart Travel Way for Yosemite National Park:

Dress casually and for the season. Weather can change without notice so pack layers. There is no need for dressy outfits.

This Destination at a Glance:

Over 50 Advantage: Gorgeous vista, ease of accessibility, cultural and historical learning

Mobility Level: Low. Accessible parking, lodging, tours and activities are available throughout the park. Some hikes can be difficult.

When to Go: The park is open year-round. Fall and spring are great times to visit. Spring, especially April, brings spectacular waterfalls, especially when the preceding winter had a lot of precipitation and dogwood and redbuds. Fall crowds are smaller after Labor Day and temperatures are still moderate in September. Winters are cold and snowy.

Where to Stay: There are several hotels in the park, including the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the Yosemite Valley Lodge, Big Trees Lodge and many cabins and campgrounds. Nearby towns have many motels and hotels catering to park visitors.

Special Travel Interests: National parks, mountain scenery, waterfalls, geology, photography

great vista of granite
Great vistas of massive granite monoliths such as Half Dome are available from the Yosemite Valley floor. The vertical rise is spectacular.

Jewish Yosemite

It’s not easy being an observant Jew in the wilderness, but it can be done.

As published in a 1978 article by Norton B. Stern in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, the gold fever country around Yosemite attracted Jews as well as others seeking to strike gold or create businesses that supplied miners. Though their numbers were not huge, Jewish immigrants from Europe found their way to the Yosemite era and even became active in politics in the surrounding communities.

The nearest synagogues are more than an hour away in Stockton and Fresno and no kosher restaurants are found near the park, yet Jews and Jewishness can be found in the wilderness. In 2010, Jewish Yosemite Park Ranger Scott Gediman told a reporter on tour that, “The Ahwahnee Hotel kitchen is not kosher, but the hotel has the capacity to stage most Jewish wedding receptions, and the park itself hosts several Jewish wedding ceremonies annually.”

In the Mariposa Museum and History Center, the story of many of the early Jews and their entrepreneurial adventures can be found.

Stockton and Modesto have significant Jewish communities. Chabad of Fresno is the closet organized congregation to the park. There is also a Jewish summer camp, Camp Tawonga, in Yosemite.

Writing in the Jewish blog publication Reshet Ramah in 2017, Avi Rubin, who lives in the park and works as an environmental science educator with NatureBridge, wrote, “My Jewish life has become a different sort of beast. To my knowledge, there are a total of 12 Jews living within 50 miles of me.”

Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Florida.

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