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Yosemite National Park, California 72-Hour Vacation

Timeless Beauty
Mother Nature's Playground
By Marcia Gagliardi

Majestic landscape of Yosemite National Park

There are many destinations in the world people should visit at least once in their life, and Yosemite is definitely one of those places. The park is a vibrant display of nature at its most dramatic, from the massive, granite, monolith-like El Capitan that towers almost 4,000 feet into the sky to the stoic beauty of Half Dome, to the thundering waterfalls that fill the valley with their music and mist. Even during the busiest months, there is a raw beauty and tranquility that manages to prevail over the crowds that descend on the park.

Since Yosemite is open year-round, you can decide which season sounds most appealing to visit California’s treasure of the Sierra Nevada; or perhaps you just want to experience a different season from your last. Spring is the most glorious time, with wildflowers blooming and waterfalls running at their fullest. Summer may be the busiest season, but it also offers the most activities. Note that the falls tend to dry up in the summer and early autumn (typically late August through October), except Bridal Veil Falls. Autumn splashes color on the hiking trails and brings crispness to the air, while winter drapes a mantle of white everywhere, affording activities like cross-country and downhill skiing, snowshoeing and ice-skating. Since winter does bring snow, note that some roads are forced to close. For weather and road conditions, call park information, 209-372-0200.

Below is an itinerary for a 72-hour getaway to the 1,200 square miles of Yosemite National Park’s pristine beauty. Probably the most important thing you can bring is your camera—you will quickly see why Ansel Adams spent more than half a century photographing the splendor of this awe-inspiring valley.

By car, Yosemite National Park is about five to six hours from Los Angeles and four hours from San Francisco. You can fly into Fresno, which is about two and a half hours away.


Ahwahnee Hotel
Ahwahnee Hotel
Get an early start from home so you will arrive in time to explore some of the park before early evening. It's wise to make reservations several months in advance, particularly for the popular spring-summer or holiday periods. Among several accommodation choices, we stayed at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. This grand and world-famous lodge was built in 1927 and has hosted many a visiting dignitary and movie star over the years. The rustic yet elegant hotel was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and features a unique granite and wood façade that blends into the landscape, numerous rooms where guests sit and admire the Native American-meets-Art Deco motifs and artwork, and enormous hearths to warm yourself during a fireside chat. The famous Ahwahnee Dining Room feels like a majestic church built in honor of Mother Nature: soaring wood-beam ceilings that stand 34 feet tall and 24-feet-tall floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing visitors to admire the beauty of the valley views and forested meadows just outside. Even if you don’t stay at the Ahwahnee, it is certainly worth the splurge to have a meal here and soak in the ambiance from a time that has come and gone but is lovingly remembered.

There are a variety of guestrooms, and many include balconies or stellar views from their window. Tucked away in the trees are also 24 cottages that offer a more secluded experience with nice access to the outdoors. You’ll also have a greater chance of catching some wildlife in the early morning or dusk hours, like coyotes, raccoon and mule deer. The soft terrycloth robes, friendly staff, pillow-top beds and turndown service only make the experience all the more luxurious. Although the price may be too steep for some, you would be surprised at how inexpensive the rooms can be in February and March. It’s also wise to make dinner reservations at The Ahwahnee when you book accommodations. The hotel also hosts a variety of annual events that keep guests returning year after year during the winter months: the Vintners’ Holidays series, the 17th-century themed Bracebridge dinner during December, and the Chefs’ Holidays series in January and February.

Wawona Hotel
Wawona Hotel

Within the park is the historic Wawona Hotel, a simpler Victorian lodging that has private rooms or some B&B-style rooms with shared baths, and is close to the south entrance of the park. It’s small but quaint, and is known for its chuckwagon barbecue dinner every Saturday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., with red-checkered tablecloths and tasty Southern vittles (Memorial Day through Labor Day). There are also motel rooms, cabins and campgrounds in the park. (Note: Be sure to check the hotel's schedule, as it is closed for part of the winter season.)

Additional accommodation options outside the park include the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, about two miles outside the South Gate entrance. Built in 1990 and recently renovated, this mountain resort welcomes visitors in a lobby with a huge stone fireplace and exposed beams, giving a feeling of a Western ranch with Native American accents. In the midst of the wilderness, it provides such creature comforts as pools, sauna and spa services. It offers all kinds of outdoor activities and caters to families with a kids program. There is also the acclaimed Chateau du Sureau, just 18 miles outside the South Gate entrance in the neighboring town of Oakhurst. The intimate inn features ten rooms, a spa, and the renowned restaurant Erna's Elderberry House, in a pleasing European-country estate atmosphere.

Tenaya Lodge
Tenaya Lodge

From the Ahwahnee Hotel area, on the afternoon you arrive, you can stretch your legs on an easy 1.5-mile walk (roundtrip) to the bottom of Yosemite Falls, or take the free shuttle to the Yosemite Falls bus stop and hop off there. Yosemite Falls is actually comprised of three stair-step falls, which combined at 2,425 feet is the tallest falls in North America, and the fifth highest falls in the world. While there, you can also visit the Valley Visitor Center and see what kinds of ranger programs and hikes are available. The Indian Cultural Museum (open 24 hours) shows how Native Americans lived in the valley’s early days at the replica village and The Indian Cultural Exhibit (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily). Don’t miss the Ansel Adams Gallery, sure to inspire your photographic technique over the coming days (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily).

The Ahwahnee is a fascinating place to explore: soak in the ambiance of the Great Lounge at the daily tea and cookies gathering from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. There are also historic tours of the hotel offered two to three days a week, and are not limited to hotel guests only—just sign up with the concierge. The obvious destination for dinner that night is the rustic yet elegant Ahwahnee Dining Room; the imaginative seasonal menu highlights many sustainable and organic products, the wine list is extensive, and the setting is unparalleled. (Please note there is a dress code for dinner, so no jeans.) For those who want further education after dinner, there are informative and interesting evening programs that usually last an hour.

Continue to Day 2


Yosemite mountain view

* Hotel image courtesy of DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. and Tenaya Lodge

(Updated: 11/08/09 SG)

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