YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — We had been traveling for hours — six by plane from Philadelphia to San Francisco, then nearly four more in a car through city, suburbs, farmland and forest — when we glimpsed our reward from a turnout in the mountain road.
The vista of Yosemite Valley stunned me: a majestic waterfall, soaring granite, and a winding river flowing through an endless stretch of pine trees.
I smiled, feeling oddly vindicated by its Brigadoon-like appearance. Yosemite had been an unusual choice for a vacation; my husband and I usually opt for beach resorts when we want to escape Philly for a few days.
Now, after such a long journey, Yosemite had already left us with an indelible image — and we hadn't even checked into the lodge yet. In fact, we had barely gotten out of the car.
I had sold my skeptical spouse on the idea by calling it a beginner's visit to a national park, a nature trip for city people — we'd do the same stuff we do at home, like walking and biking, only with different scenery.
I had been to Yosemite twice before in the early 1980s. Then, as a tween growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't think it was all that special; it was just a forest a few hours away where everyone went camping. Big deal.
As an adult, Yosemite became simply the place in those ubiquitous Ansel Adams prints. But my interest was rekindled by recent family photos taken at the park, making me wonder if I should go back to see the gushing waterfalls, open meadows, towering rocks and rushing streams — and if it could be done without sleeping in a tent.
The answers were yes and yes.
We stayed at the centrally located Yosemite Lodge, which as park novices was probably the smartest thing we could have done. Not only did it have the comforts of home (Wi-Fi, cable and flat-screen TV, plus several on-site food options), we only had to walk about a city block for a spectacular view of Yosemite Falls.
An easy path led us to the bottom of the lower fall, which was impressive enough that we skipped the strenuous, hours-long hike to the top of the upper fall. We then took a short walk to get lunch in Yosemite Village, which features a museum, visitors center, gallery, post office, courthouse, deli and general store, not to mention great people-watching.
After lunch, we hopped on the park's free shuttle to the start of the Mist Trail. The 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) roundtrip hike to the bottom of Vernal Fall was more of a workout because it was partly uphill, but the view was worth it.
Still jet-lagged, we turned back without braving the additional 500 mist-drenched steps to the top. We shuttled back to the village for coffee and, at sunset, walked to a nearby meadow to take pictures of iconic Half Dome.
The next day, we drove to Merced Grove for a three-mile (4.8-kilometer) roundtrip trek to see giant sequoias, trees that are taller (and certainly older) than some urban high-rises. We later got sprayed by the water at Bridalveil Fall — an easy walk from the designated parking lot — and took a quick drive up to a scenic overlook called Tunnel View.
On our last day, we rented bikes and rode out to Mirror Lake. I had remembered being enchanted by its reflective nature as a fifth-grader, but now ... not so much. The lake has shrunk to pond size and is on its way to becoming a meadow. Still, the trail offered an impressive close-up of Half Dome, the park's iconic granite summit, and bike riding on dedicated paths among tall pines and flowing waterways was priceless.
After enjoying all that beauty, I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that Yosemite is the third-most visited national park. Actually, I could have guessed as much considering the array of tourists we saw on the trails — women in yoga pants and running shoes, seasoned hikers with backpacks and walking sticks, children wearing sandals and grandparents in collared shirts and sweaters.
And the park's popularity is why timing proves crucial. Summers at Yosemite are known for crowds and traffic jams, but the park seemed blessedly quiet during our mid-April trip.
That said, we had to book six months in advance for a room at the lodge, though there are other options both inside and outside the park. Also, some waterfalls, scenic overlooks and roads are seasonal; Yosemite Falls, for example, is fed by snowmelt and tends to run dry in early fall.
A note for travelers coming from afar: We drove in on Route 120, which is a twisting, unlit mountain road that I wouldn't want to navigate at night. Consider an early flight or bookend the trip with overnight stays in San Francisco so that you can arrive at Yosemite during daylight hours.
That will also help ensure you'll enjoy the gorgeous views as you descend into the valley; there are plenty of vehicle turnouts, so keep your camera handy. The landscapes become even more breathtaking once you reach the valley floor, and a plethora of travel options — walking, shuttle bus, guided tour or bicycle — makes it impossible not to see something beautiful at every turn.
And, unlike Ansel Adams, you don't have to worry about running out of film.
If You Go...
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK: http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm . Located about a four- to five-hour drive east of San Francisco.
Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson