“It’s another thirty-five miles t’the valley floor,” the Yosemite National Park gate keeper drawled.
Free of Fresno, the drive up to this point took us past hazy, crushed-velvet hills and mesas still tinted with California’s late autumnal colors.
Thick-coated black cattle wandered among time-sculpted tree trunks and careless billboards.
These were the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, the precursor to the wonders of Yosemite Park in winter’s off-season.
The narrowing road gave way to rock-studded gulches and deepening canyons (4000ft).
Late afternoon light lengthened the shadows of towering Ponderosa pines, and painted the mountains a salmon pink.
The switchback drive was dizzying in its challenge… and its beauty.
“Thirty-five more miles!”
“Yup. It’ll take ya a good hour, but y’ll get there by dark…barely.”
The ranger’s time sculpted face was strikingly similar to those of the surrounding trees.
But she knew her stuff.
We were headed to the Ahwahnee Hotel, about an hour’s drive from the park’s entrance in the middle of the Valley Floor, Yosemite’s most dramatic spot.
Built in 1927, the 99-room hotel is a western masterpiece of great expectations.
Redwood beams and native granite cocoon a luxury hotel with thirty-five foot ceilings providing an elegant grandeur, and massive stone fireplaces adding warmth and glow to the vast rooms and hallways.
Yosemite itself is the iconic image of a national park made famous by Ansel Adams and his obsession to capture in dramatic photographs the magical play of light falling on cedars and shadows.
This is the kind of place that transforms the “hello’s and good by’s” of travel into vivid memories that linger long after the experience itself has passed.
And winter’s off-season is a terrific time to visit.
Frost-glazed grasses catch the sunlight and fragment it into a thousand mirror images of the stone cathedrals that form the vaulting mountains and cliffs, pink-hued in the late afternoon sun.
Waterfalls cascade in arched silence from snow-encrusted mountain faces.
And there are no crowds or traffic.
Just silence and wonder.
The Ahwahneechee Indians were the first to give voice to the majesty of Yosemite.
They understood its power and majesty, and saw the faces of maidens and the long-lost souls of ancestors in the waterfalls, mountains and sculptured valleys of frost and light.
They’re gone of course, but the ground is still hallowed.
On the day we left, the sun was up, but the ghost of a moon clung stubbornly to the flawless blue sky.
Out of the stillness of the valley floor, suddenly rose a chorus of coyotes’ cries, their sounds echoing off the canyon walls rising and falling in complex layers, filling the space with a deep, uncertain feeling.
Powerful Ponderosa Pines reached toward the blue dome of the heavens, and it was clear that Yosemite had lost none of its appeal to the great spirit.
Fresno airport is the closest to Yosemite, about a 21/2 hors drive. Rent a car at the airport, but drive in the daylight. The roads are beautiful but very challenging.
Yosemite’s accommodations range from the luxurious to the modest and are owned by the park services.
Ahwahnee offers a Vintners’ Holiday and a separate Chefs’ Holiday program featuring master winemakers and chefs.
Park and accommodation information: 559 252-4848
Yosemite Lodge at the base of Yosemite Falls is more modest and very family oriented with a reasonably priced yet varied food court.
Curry Village has hotel rooms, cabins and canvas tent cabins with some interesting dining options and lots of history. It also has one of the few outdoor skating rinks in California.
Park Information, Reservations and Winter Sports schedules . (559) 252-4848
• Check out the Ansel Adam Gallery (www.anseladams.com) and the Indian Village Museum.
The gallery offers photographic walks in the park with professional photographers, and the museum is small “Must See.” It details the rich lives of the Native Americans who made Yosemite home, and the horrors of the decimation committed against them by the “white man,” especially the Gold Rush miners.