It was 1864 when President Lincoln signed a bill that set aside the world’s first parcel of land for the express purpose of preservation and public use. The Yosemite Grant not only set a precedent for the world’s first national park at Yellowstone eight years later, but also paved the way for the National Park Service.
Anyone who’s ever set foot in Yosemite could tell you there’s a clear reason this was the place “America’s best idea” began. A vast 1,200-square-mile patch of the Sierra Nevada, it’s absolutely brimming with natural wonders, from towering age-old sequoias to grand meadows, deep valleys and crackling blue-grey glaciers. “Magic is a feeling that really exists here in the Yosemite Valley,” explains park ranger Scott Gediman. “It’s a feeling that, even after all these years working in the park, hasn’t faded.” Gediman fell in love Yosemite as a young boy in the 1960s and has dedicated the past two decades of his life to the park. Why? “It’s got 3,000-foot granite walls, spectacular waterfalls, and a history going back to the very creation of the national park idea,” he says.
Climb the Mist Trail
Entering Yosemite Valley and basking in the iconic Tunnel View panorama is the quintessential Yosemite experience for most car-bound park-goers, but Gediman says the signature activity for active travelers is The Mist Trail. “That, for me, is something that’s got everything,” he explains of the three-mile roundtrip hike to the top of Vernal Fall. “You start in Yosemite Valley, get views of Half Dome, experience the iconic rock formations, and even feel the power of the water itself.” Turn the hike into a more challenging seven-mile return journey by forging onward to Nevada Fall and looping back via the John Muir Trail.
Explore the Tuolumne Grove
The Mariposa Grove is the biggest and most famous grove of giant sequoias in the park, but it’s closed through spring 2017. Not to worry; Gediman says he actually prefers the 2.5-mile hike through the Tuolumne Grove near Crane Flat. “It’s a hike that’s just as gorgeous in the summer as it is in the winter when the snow adds a whole other dimension.” Tuolumne Grove boasts more than two-dozen mature giant sequoias, including a dead one you can walk through for the perfect photo op.
Ride the Merced River
You won’t encounter any Class V rapids, but the 2.5-mile meander down the Merced River between Curry Village and Sentinel Beach is a ride through the Yosemite hall of fame, taking in iconic sights such as Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Hospitality rents rafts at Half Dome Village for $31 per person, but Gediman says you can bring your own packraft or kayak. The NPS also allows rafting on the South Fork of the Merced River below Swinging Bridge (in Wawona), while kayakers flock to the calm waters of the alpine Tenaya Lake.
Don’t-Miss Detour: Mono Lake
Those looking to get off the beaten path should make a quick detour to Mono Lake, California’s very own Dead Sea. Located just 11 miles from the Tioga Pass Entrance, Gediman says the lake’s bizarre rock formations and unique geography make it a must-do side trip from Yosemite. This ancient and mysterious lakebed is home to eerie limestone spires known as tufa towers that are oddly reminiscent of drip sandcastles. Its hypersaline waters, chock full of brine shrimp, attract more than one million migratory birds throughout the year.
Where to Stay
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel inside the park proves an ideal place to rest your head if camping isn’t for you (or for this trip). Open year-round, the hotel boasts insane views of iconic focal points like Half Dome and Yosemite falls. Golfer? Book at their Big Trees Lodge, where there’s a course on the property.