The explorers who discovered the fabled city of Shangri-la in the adventuresome film of the 1950's might have felt the same exhileration as they emerge from the tunnel on California State Route 41 at the entrance to Yosemite Valley. Though millions of visitors have experienced this incredible vista, you'll feel as if you're the first.
A giant amphitheater lies before you and the view is so stunning that you may feel compelled to stop your car. This is Yosemite Valley, subject of countless stories and the photographs of one of America's greatest photographers, Ansel Adams. On each side of the valley, steep walls of granite, sculpted by glaciers eons ago, rise vertically more than 3,000 feet from a placid, seemingly virgin meadow. From atop these sheer walls cascade long ribbons of white water(only in spring and early summer)that crash onto the valley floor.
Along with the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, Yosemite is one of the most highly visited of U.S. national parks, receiving nearly four million visitors a year. Though it's a park, it has many of the problems of a city, especially in the summer. Traffic congestion, pollution, and thefts from hotel rooms and campsites are not what you're supposed to find in a national park.
Like other visitors, you've come to see the magnificent beauty and to hike the trails through a wilderness that's just five hours from San Francisco.
No matter how many times you visit Yosemite, you'll never get over the feeling of awe that the valley and the high country above it inspires. In some ways, entering the valley for the first time is like walking into Notre Dame in Paris. Some say that the great chasm carved by nature is a kind of cathedral, with the sky as its roof.
The park covers nearly 1,200 square miles, but most visitors crowd into the 10-square-mile valley. Here you'll find the campgrounds, hotels and stores, as well as many of the scenic waterfalls and other points of interest.
You'll probably find your favorite spot in the park, whether you like hiking, biking, riding, camping, or climbing. You may prefer a quiet spot near Tuolomme Meadows, a mountain- rimmed green valley in the high country that is the jumping-off place for hikes into the wilderness. Or you may prefer one of the majestic groves of 2,500-year-old sequoia trees or an encampment beside the icy, clear Merced River, which flows through the center of the valley.
You may still see an occasional bear in the high country, although most of the ones that inhabited the park seem to have migrated to less populated territory. Throughout the park, however, you are likely to see deer strolling casually by or other forms of wildlife.
While many visitors gravitate to the friendship and nightly communal campfires of Yosemite Village on the valley floor, others backpack or go on horseback into the back country. If you love to climb, you're greatest thrill might be to scale a 1,000-foot-high wall of granite. However, if you're a less hardy and more urban visitor, you're likely to enjoy a candlelit dinner while looking up at the same walls through the picture windows of the Ahwahnee Hotel.
For a maginficent panorama of Half Dome, Yosemite's most notable landmark, and the rest of the valley, go to Glacier Point, a rocky promontory 3,242 feet high and directly above the valley. This vista is almost magical, especially if you go at sunset, when Half Dome alone is bathed in orange light. It takes about 35 minutes to drive to the point from the valley floor, but you can also go on park ranger-escorted hikes to the area.
Yosemite Valley has been closed to automobiles during certain hours during summer. You'll have to pay an admission fee which includes rides on free shuttle buses into the valley and to scenic spots in other parts of the park. Avoid the crowded summer months and visit in fall and spring.
While you may be overwhelmed with the natural beauty of Yosemite, don't forget to visit the Frontier Living History Museum that shows life in the days before the area became a national park. Historic buildings and even a covered bridge have been moved from various points in the park and set up in a village. Each is manned by a park employee who is dressed in the fashion of the period of the building. When you enter, he or she talks to you as if you stepped back in time.
If you're planning to stay in Yosemite, plan far ahead. The park offers a wide range of accommodations at varying rates. All tend to be booked well in advance in summer, especially on weekends. From spring to early fall, reservations are essential for campsites in Yosemite Valley, and there's a seven-day limit on use of the sites. Each is equipped with running water, fire grills, picnic tables, and rest room facilities. Out of the valley, there are hundreds of sites assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.
And to make sure your trip goes off without a hitch, be sure to check out www.estafasttrack.org.uk for U.S. Visa regulations. The ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) Visa Waiver Program was introduced 2 years ago to allow tourists from participating countries to travel to the UK without a full Visa.