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Yosemite: The road best taken
Patrick Totty

The best road to come in on when you first visit Yosemite Valley is Hwy. 41 out of Fresno. The road climbs north, rising from California’s flat Central Valley into rolling, oak tree-studded foothills. By the time you reach the turn-off for Bass Lake, the ever-increasing abundance of pines and firs tells you that you are in the Sierra Nevada.

Thirty minutes later you enter Yosemite’s southern gate along a heavily forested stretch, with virgin stands of moss-festooned cedars, pines, firs and spruce all about you. A quick side trip will take you to a grove of giant sequoia trees, some of them 2,000 years old and 25-feet wide at the base. Or you can stop off to enjoy the mountain meadows and golf course at Wawona, the park’s quiet southern lodge.

You know you’re in the mountains, but the high granite walls of Yosemite are not yet in sight. To see them, you must drive another 25 miles through dense, often sweetly resinous forest whose glades occasionally let in glimpses of distant peaks.

Left to nature’s devices, the forest here would be nowhere as thick or view-blocking as it is now. When the Americans came to the Sierra Nevada, the mountains’ forests were park-like, the result of natural pruning from lightning-caused forest fires. With the creation of protected areas and national parks in later decades, all fires were suppressed and the forest became extremely dense.

As Hwy. 41 nears its end, the trees begin to pull back, almost like the opening of a stage curtain, and rounded shields of granite appear, sloping steeply down toward the canyon of the Merced River. The walls bracketing the river grow higher and more imposing, and the scenery’s drama quotient increases by the second. You sense your imminent arrival at some unforgettable moment.

The road curves into a 1,000-foot tunnel, and the arch of its other end frames a vision of massive rocky shapes, almost sculpted in placement and appearance. As you near the tunnel’s end, the frame reveals more detail. Then, there it is: You burst into sunlight and your eyes and heart are slapped into astonishment. You look directly into the heart of Yosemite Valley, an impossibly perfect ensemble of chiseled granite peaks, tumbling water, sky and forest.

Fortunately, both nature and man were charitable when it came to this vista. There was enough of a flat area at the end of the tunnel to accommodate a turnout and the highway’s designers wisely took advantage of it. Still holding your breath and still in a state of amazement, you pull off the road to park and take a longer look. As you do so, you keep sneaking glimpses at the view, convinced that that first jolt you experienced leaving the tunnel was a brain seizure, a chimera produced by wishful thinking and images from old Ansel Adams photos. Nothing had properly prepared you for this. Nobody mentioned what three dimensionality, smell, the feel of air and unfiltered sunlight would do to your concept.

Finally, out of your car and standing among the 20 other nationalities that are gaping at the view, you may be tempted as I was in a younger day to edit what you see. What if El Capitan, the valley’s famed 3,000-foot-high granite sentinel over on your left, were higher? What if Bridal Veil Falls to the right were wider? Would Half Dome in the distance be more dramatic if ancient glaciers had made a sharper cut across its face?

Then you just stop thinking like that. You realize that humans, if they had the powers of nature, could carve all the fantastic landscapes they wanted, but would never be able to conjure this. If you want proof, look at the computer-created landscapes that are increasingly showing up in SUV commercials. There is something too extreme, too piled on about their images.

Nature, in its randomness and patience, creates far more interesting tableaus because it lacks artifice. It doesn’t bother with whether a tourist might want some feature taller, or wider or more dramatic. The question, "How did this happen" is more interesting when it is asked about a natural process, as opposed to a human undertaking: "Well, I took a giant laser and programmed it to melt stone until I achieved the desired effect."

Still, Highway 41’s introduction inspires a love at first sight that prompts all the usual new lover’s questions: What is your history? What other charms do you have? What are you like in the morning? What are your secret places?

Yosemite can fascinate for a lifetime. But if your travels will not bring you back to it for awhile, here’s a "must-see" list that partially answers the above questions:

The Ahwahnee Hotel – U.S. national park grand lodges are some of the handsomest hotels on earth. Perhaps the grandest among them is the Ahwahnee, built in 1927. This massive building, completely at home among the cliffs that tower over it, was inspired by a savvy park superintendent who wanted to attract the carriage trade so that he could harness their political clout to protect the national park system. Architect Gilbert Stanley cleverly designed the Ahwahnee to look as though it is all wood – an illusion that makes sense once you realize that as a result the lodge is virtually fireproof. You feel like royalty walking around this hotel, and the place within it to feel the most special is the dining room. With its huge picture windows, intricate rafters, giant fieldstone columns and forest green color scheme, this may be the handsomest place in which you’ve ever dined.

El Capitan – Some say this 3,000-foot monolith is the largest exposed granite face in the world. In any case, rock climbers love it, many of them each summer taking two days to scale its perpendicular face (and sleeping in hammocks suspended from pitons driven into the rock face at 1,800 feet above the valley floor). Aside from its height and sheer monumental look, El Capitan fascinates because of the way it turns morning light into a gigantic sheet of gold plate.

Glacier Point – The drop from the top of Glacier Point is 3,000 feet straight down to Yosemite Valley. That’s not the only drop here: your jaw will do the same when you see not only the great view down into the valley but the sweeping panorama up it to Half Dome and beyond. The peaks of the eastern Sierra and the vast hinterland of Yosemite park are laid out before you.

Tuolumne Meadows – This vast set of meadows is ephemeral – the natural process of colonization by young conifers means that they will be filled in and revert to forest within another generation or two, and what is now the Sierra’s largest subalpine meadows will be gone. Since the national park system is mandated by Congress to leave the parks’ features in their natural state, humans cannot and will not intervene to save the meadows or postpone their inevitable disappearance. See while you can what a large upland lea looks like, surrounded by fragrant forest and rounded granite peaks that often shine from where they were burnished by long-gone glaciers.

Tioga Pass – East of Tuolumne the highway that crosses Yosemite’s vast back country crests at 9,945-foot Tioga Pass, the highest paved road in California. The 3,000-foot drop over 12 miles to the little high desert town of Lee Vining plummets through a gash in mountains that are humbling in their size. The landscape here reminds some visitors of the mountainous parts of Afghanistan or Pakistan. The ride down can be hairy if you don’t gear down and take your time. Fast or slow, it’s one of the Yosemite region’s E rides.

Hetch Hetchy – There’s no way to beat around the bush here: In 1913, the city of San Francisco conned Congress into letting it build a dam at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite’s second deepest and second most beautiful canyon. It is said that the loss of Hetch Hetchy so broke naturalist John Muir’s heart that it caused his death shortly thereafter. Still, despite being filled with reservoir water, Hetch Hetchy amazes with its depth and shape. Easily accessible on