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Yosemite: Grace Under Pressure

John Muir famously said that going to the mountains is “going home.” But for a couple of local ladies, home is where husbands and kids stay during their girlfriend getaway to Yosemite’s upscale Tenaya Lodge.

By Peggy Sijswerda

An upscale alternative to camping in Yosemite, Tenaya Lodge, with its Alpine architecture and limited cell phone reception, offers a chance to feel beyond the reach of civilization—yet totally civilized.

“Look out for the bears,” a hiker said as he passed us.

“A mom and her cubs are eating acorns in a tree,” his companion added. “You have to walk right under them.” My sister-in-law, Judy, and I looked at each other and smiled. We were halfway down a four-mile trail that descends from Glacier Point, and a bear was high on our list of things to see in Yosemite. But walking underneath a mother bear and her two cubs? We weren’t sure we wanted to get that close to nature.

It was the final day of our girlfriend getaway in one of the world’s most unique playgrounds. For years I’d heard about Yosemite from outdoor enthusiasts and seen images of its granite formations in Ansel Adam’s remarkable photographs. But it wasn’t until I arrived here that I really “got” what makes Yosemite so extraordinary.

Simply put: the scenery takes your breath away. Whether you’re touring the valley floor, where the Merced River winds past massive granite walls and wildflower-studded meadows, or standing at 7,000 feet atop Glacier Point, Yosemite is a tranquil oasis in a world where big box stores are spreading like a terminal disease. The valley—roughly seven miles long and one mile wide—feels cozy to me in spite of its immensity, like a giant’s living room, a hiding place from the rest of the world. And when you take in the views from atop Glacier Point, you may think you took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on the moon rather than California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s a haunting, desolate landscape that transports you in mind and spirit to a different reality.

Judy and I had planned our girlfriend getaway to Yosemite for months. While it’s a perfect destination for Ventura County families, we decided to leave our husbands and kids at home and indulge in a little “we” time. Instead of refereeing sibling squabbles or bickering with spouses about which road to take, Judy and I took off on our own. Both of us love the outdoors and relished the idea of spending time hiking and encountering nature up close.

Rather than camping, though, we stayed at Tenaya Lodge, an upscale property near Yosemite’s southern entrance. The four-diamond resort, which features gorgeous Alpine architecture, sits in a pristine conifer forest surrounded by mountains and sky—and little else. Cell phone reception is iffy out here in the wilderness, and turning off our phones felt freeing, as if we were truly leaving civilization behind.

Of course we weren’t exactly roughing it at Tenaya Lodge. From its spacious, comfortable rooms with Native American décor to its long list of amenities, visitors enjoy big-city services in an unspoiled, natural environment. On our first evening, after sunning by the pool and then enjoying heavenly spa treatments, Judy and I headed to Sierra, the resort’s premier restaurant, for an elegant dinner. We had appetizers of lump crab cakes with jalapeño honey butter and savory lamb chops with organic greens, and topped that off by splitting a garlic-pepper filet mignon and a decadent chipotle chocolate dessert that left us swooning. We had plenty of hiking in our future, so our indulgence wouldn’t produce lasting effects—or at least that’s what we told ourselves.

Just inside Yosemite’s southern entrance is Mariposa Grove, where the largest of three stands of giant sequoias towers over the landscape. Originally inhabited by Native Americans, the region was discovered by European explorers in the mid-1800s. Word of Yosemite’s beauty spread, and soon the region began attracting tourists. Worried developers might ruin the pristine beauty of the area, a group of influential Californians persuaded Abraham Lincoln to grant Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state as public land. Eventually this parcel and another 1,500 acres would become Yosemite National Park.

The ancient sequoias stand like sentinels in Mariposa Grove, and each giant has a story to tell, having watched countless tourists traipse by over the years. Fortunately, forward-thinking individuals such as Galen Clark, an early park supporter, helped to maintain the integrity of the grove. In fact, a tree named Galen Clark memorializes this environmentalist’s efforts to preserve and protect the giant sequoias.

That’s one of the biggest challenges at Yosemite: establishing a balance between the needs of nature and a demanding public. To lessen the impact of humans at Yosemite, the park service recommends that visitors park their cars in a day-use lot and take advantage of free shuttles that circle the park. Bike paths criss-cross the valley as well and offer another environmentally friendly option for getting around.

Judy and I tried exploring Yosemite on muleback one day, but spent most of the trip on our own two feet. Back on the Glacier Point Trail, we shared in the excitement of potentially seeing the mama bear and her cubs. Our hiker friends had said they thought the bears were about a half mile ahead, so we fairly skipped hoping—and at the same time dreading—that they’d still be there.

Soon we found ourselves in a grove of oak trees and saw acorns scattered along the ground. Walking practically on tiptoe, we admitted to being afraid and curious at the same time. We weren’t sure if the bears would fall from the sky or jump out from behind a rock or—worst of all—scurry off into the forest before we could see them. Although we listened intently, we only heard a few birds twittering. Once, scuffling sounds came from a green leafy brush. But we saw nothing.

The sounds of traffic grew louder as we approached the trailhead on the valley floor. While we never had our face-to-face encounter with the bears, Judy and I weren’t totally disappointed. We took solace in knowing that the mama bear and her cubs are better off with fewer human encounters. Sure, Yosemite is a playground for visitors like us, but the mountains are the bears’ home. It’s enough to know they’re out there.

02-01-2008

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