If it's not the eighth wonder of the world, it ought to be. California's Yosemite National Park is one of nature's most wondrous creations - and a bargain. A $20 vehicle pass is good for seven days in this Eden.
Long ago made famous by the photos of Ansel Adams, the massive granitic behemoths and tumultuous waterfalls cannot really be captured in a photograph - no matter how large the format. You have to see it all to believe it.
Yosemite is easily accessible from the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento or Fresno. And getting there is half the fun, considering that you'll pass through some of California's most famous Gold Rush country on the way.
Inside the park there's the massive Yosemite Falls, with its upper and lower cascades; El Capitan, billed as the largest granite monolith in the world; Half Dome, reclining on the horizon like a sleeping giant; and Bridalveil Fall, a 620-foot drop of turbulent white water.
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From Glacier Point you can view the massive glacier-carved valley from one end to the other. A short trek to the north brings you to the Hetch Hetchy Valley, with its huge dam, where water is reserved for the populous Bay Area.
This smaller valley is full of wildlife. You might sight an eagle's nest, turkey vultures, mule deers or coyotes on the side roads. There are dozens of activities in the park itself, from guided tours (check out www.YosemitePark.com) to photography walks to Indian cultural programs. There are two information stations and two visitors centers where you can plot out your stay and the activities you'd like to pursue.
Various accommodations are available in the park - as well as campsites. Call 559-252-4848 or go to Yosemite's Web site to make reservations.
Of the four gateways into Yosemite, the most interesting is via the southern Mother Lode along Highway 120, which affords the quickest route from San Francisco and Sacramento.
When one travels through the fertile valleys, it's hard to realize that this area was once a torrent of activity. Word spread like a forest fire once James Marshall discovered gold along the American River in 1848. Tent cities sprung up like toadstools all along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the wildcatting began in earnest.
If you continue via Highway 108, you'll stumble on Sonora, once a rollicking and reportedly wicked town settled by Sonoran Mexicans and swollen to bursting by gold fever. You'll spot the old opera house, the historic "red" church and clusters of Victorian homes.
Accommodations here include the Gunn House Hotel, once owned by the publisher of the area's first newspaper. (For more information, call 209-532-3421.) Or consider the Best Western Sonora Oaks Hotel (800-532-1944).
Nearby is the town of Twain Harte, which is named after two of the most famous writers of the Old West, Mark Twain and Bret Harte.
Here you'll find the McCaffrey House, a commodious bed & breakfast, where they serve bountiful breakfasts and plenty of homestead hospitality (888-586-0757).
There's great grub in Sonora at Guss Steak House, Alfredo's Mexican Restaurant or the locals' favorite, the Diamondback.
Just west of Sonora lies Jamestown, where the magic metal was unearthed in 1848 and quartz deposits still produce the precious element. Try Morelia's Mexican Restaurant, Kamm's Chinese or Locals Made Good for lunch here.
Jamestown harbors Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where movies like "High Noon," "The Wild, Wild West" and "The Gambler" were shot. It has one of only two roundhouses left in the United States and steam engines right out of Zane Grey. You can hitch a ride on the wild side aboard one of these for $2. You'd never get away with that price at Disneyland.
A few miles north of Sonora sits Columbia State Historic Park, a site that once bustled with sourdoughs and eventually surrendered 2.5 million ounces of the golden pay dirt. The town of Columbia has been restored to its original semi-splendor, with two hotels dating from the 1850s, where you can stay for around $125-$145 a night, sharing the bath.
There's the dry-goods store (in its original building), the dentist's little shop of horrors and the Eagle Cotage, where cots rented to prospectors for 50 cents a night.
Here you can book a tour of the gold mines through Hidden Treasure Gold Mine Tours (209-532-9693). Or, if the gold bug bites, you can arrange your own five-hour gold-mining trip with California Gold on Woods Creek, between Jamestown and Sonora. The trek is $79 per person; kids under 12 go free (209-984-4914).
Gold panning of a different kind lies just southeast of Sonora in Tuolumne City at the Black Oak Casino, owned by the Mi-Wuk tribe. It has a bowling alley, video arcade for kids and a restaurant with good food.
In or near historic Murphys are several wineries, including Chatom Vineyards, Twisted Oak, the Milliaire Vineyard, Hatcher Winery and Ironstone Vineyard. Ironstone combines a winery with an entertainment complex that features big-name concerts in the summertime. Most of the wineries offer free tastings.
The last stop before you embark on Yosemite is the old town of Groveland. Just 25 miles from Yosemite, Groveland boasts the Groveland Hotel - a far cry from its 1850 humble beginnings - where rooms start at $135 and the vittles are something to write home about (800-273-3314).
Next door is the famous Iron Door Saloon and Grill, supposedly the longest continuously operating saloon in California.
From Groveland you can go on to fishing, hiking, whitewater rafting or houseboating on Don Pedro Reservoir, where a group can book a luxury houseboat for a three-day weekend for $1,695 (800-255-5561).
If you go ...
Transportation inside Yosemite: Visitors are encouraged to take the free on-off shuttle with 21 stops. Park at the day-visitor parking area, just south of the Valley Visitor Center. Gas not available within the park.
Lodging in Yosemite: For reservations, go to www.YosemitePark.com.
Guided tours: Book at the Tour & Activity Desk.
Park entrance fee: A $20 vehicle pass is good for seven days, individual pass is $10.
Temperature: Varies widely depending on altitude and season. Best time of the year to visit is the fall and spring, when temperatures are moderate. Many roads close in early November.
Wilderness treks in Yosemite: Free wilderness permits required. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/yose/wilderness.
Black Oak Casino information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columbia State Historic Park: www.parks.ca.gov.
Yosemite information: www.nps.gov/yose/home.htm.
Groveland Hotel and Restaurant: www.groveland.com.
For general Yosemite Park recorded info, call 209-372-0200.
Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau: 800-446-1333.