America’s real rock star
Spend a few days amid the beauty of California’s most famous national park
Winter, spring, summer or fall, there’s no best time to visit Yosemite. Each season adds its own special effects to one of nature’s most spectacular creations.
Travelling almost 200 miles by coach from San Francisco in a severe winter storm to get there could be considered foolhardy. But our driver-guide negotiated the steep, narrow ascents and descents on hair-pin bends, chattering away as remorselessly as the pounding rain.
Yosemite Falls and the biggest piece of exposed granite in the world, El Capitan
As we climbed higher, the driving rain turned to a blizzard-like snowfall, forcing our driver into silence as he was forced to concentrate and then stop the bus to manhandle huge snow chains on to the vehicle’s wheels.
Glowering clouds and gathering dusk stole the view as we arrived. But the next morning, the weather suddenly changed, the sun rising in a cloudless sky to reveal a heart-stopping scene of jagged, towering cliffs with snow sliding down their perpendicular sides and beginning to melt to replenish the Yosemite Falls across which magical rainbows were dancing.
The majesty of giant oak trees, sequoias, cedars and fir trees was gloriously enhanced by a cloak of snowy icing and shimmering, snow-covered foliage, while lakes and rivers sparkled in the sun and reflected back the peaks and trees.
In 1864, the 1,200-square mile Yosemite National Park was the first region in America to be specifically preserved as a public trust in order to protect the wilderness. Thanks to campaigning by Scottish naturalist, John Muir, it was designated in 1890 as America’s third National Park, and in 1984 as a World Heritage Site.
Many visitors spend an entire summer in the park, walking, camping, canoeing, riding and climbing, but assuming you have less time, try for a week. And if you can’t spare that, spend at least a couple of nights, whatever the time of year.
The heart of the huge park is Yosemite Valley, seven miles long and a mile wide, and many of the three-and-a-half-million visitors who arrive each year don’t go outside the valley.
But it is well worth going beyond, not only for the unexpected scenic delights round every crag and cliff, but to avoid the crowds.
Take your binoculars, not just for the spectacular vistas, but to spot the rock climbers inching their way up the 3,600 ft El Capitan, the biggest piece of exposed granite in the world, or the 8,842 ft Half Dome, the sheerest cliff in North America.
You may not need binoculars to locate the wildlife. Despite the volume of tourists, animals, birds and insects are very much in evidence. Roaming the valley are deer, coyotes and black bears, and bear warnings are posted everywhere. My Jewish DNA prevented a foray into the potentially bear-infested area beyond the perimeter of the Lodge to view the sunrise. As it turns out, however, the strictures are not meant to preserve humans, but to protect the bears. Each year many are killed by cars and some have to be humanely killed after the proximity to humans with their picnic food makes them unnaturally aggressive. They may trash your car or your tent in search of food but, apparently, have only ever killed once… a deer.
This is not the place to come for evening activities. The pricey Ahwahnee Hotel hosts a series of events during the Christmas period which cost $350 (£175) a head for an elaborate meal and a four-hour pageant. (I popped in for a recce and couldn’t help smirking at the women negotiating the slush in their evening sandals). But others are clearly less cynical: the event is so popular you have to put your name in a ballot to get a table.
The Ahwahnee and the Valley itself are, it appears, a tempting venue for Jewish weddings and bar- and batmitzvahs. There is no local Jewish community or facilities in Yosemite, but celebrants bring in a rabbi from San Francisco or the closer towns of Fresno or Merced.
For those who want to eat kosher, the official Park spokesman — Ranger Scott Gediman, who is Jewish — tells me that kosher food can be brought in from Fresno.
When the Ahwahnee’s beautiful baronial dining-hall is not taken over by banquets or barmitzvahs, you can have dinner there — a dish like trout meuniere, beautifully cooked and elegantly served, costs around $28. But you must book in advance and observe their smart casual dress code.
The less glamorous Yosemite Lodge offers less formal dining during the day though a more sophisticated menu is available in its Mountain Restaurant in the evening.
Nature writ large is, of course, the real attraction and if you enjoy hiking, take your boots and sample some of the dozens of trails which criss-cross this spectacular park, or try a spot of canoeing or riding. Courtesy of a frequent (and free) shuttle bus, you can visit the Yosemite museum where you can trace the Park’s geological evolution as well as the fate of the Native Americans who once lived here.
And if you want a chance to do some shopping, the Ansel Adams gallery and shop in the nearby village — also served by the shuttle bus — is well worth a mooch.
Admire Adams’ wonderful black-and-white photos of the Park and be tempted by the Native American-style jewellery which is relatively affordable for UK visitors. The pioneering work done by Adams helped to define photography as an art form and also to bring images of Yosemite into magazines and homes.
But, once you’ve seen the Park, you won’t need any photographs to remind you. Yosemite’s beauty will remain in your mind’s eye forever.
Colletts California Collection (020 8202 8101; www.collettstravel.co.uk; www.collettscollection.com) offers a variety of California packages and custom-tailored tours, including a Lakes & Mountains fly-drive programme which features Yosemite. A nine-day self-drive holiday costs from £875 per person for car and accommodation, based on two sharing, plus return flights to San Francisco with Virgin (from £244, plus tax). More information on Yosemite: www.nps.gov/yose/
Camp Tawonga, established in 1925, organises camping holidays in Yosemite for all age groups. Its ethos encompasses Tikun Olam; partnership with nature; spirituality and positive Jewish identification (www.tawonga.org).
The nearest Jewish communities are in San Francisco, which has a Jewish population of 228,000 (Jewish Community Centre of San Francisco www.jccsf.org); and Fresno, which has two synagogues (Beth Jacob and Temple Beth Israel) and a local Chabad group (www.chabadfresno.com).
Ranger Scott Gediman at Yosemite is happy to help anyone planning a Jewish simchah in the Park (Scott_Gediman@nps.gov).