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The fall glory of Yosemite National Park
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California -- This isn't the Fall Color Capital of Anything.
That doesn't mean fall color's not here, if you know where and how to look, and if expectations are rational.
Plus, it's Yosemite, which means, in any color, it's flat-out gorgeous. So this is a legitimate autumn destination -- but understand that Yosemite in mid-October isn't mountains and valleys covered with reds and golds and rusts.
We learned that when we scouted the place last year for what has become our annual autumn preview.
We also discovered that Yosemite in mid-October isn't the Yosemite of mid-May.
In the entire national park system, there may be no more spectacular view than the one from Yosemite's Glacier Point.
Spread before us is the incomparable Yosemite Valley. From 3,200 feet above the valley floor, Half Dome, the park's iconic split rock, is dramatic beyond description, which is why we'll pass on trying to describe why. It just is.
Nevada Falls and, below them, Vernal Falls are little more than vertical white twine from this distance but somehow beautiful nonetheless.
And Yosemite Falls? The stuff of all those Ansel Adams note cards?
"Is that smudge where Yosemite Falls would be?"
"Yep," replies park ranger Dick Ewart, "that's it. Yosemite Smudge."
By now -- for the record, it is Columbus Day weekend -- the snowmelt has pretty much melted and gone. Streams, most of them, no longer rush. Mirror Lake has shrunk to Mirror Puddle.
Yosemite Falls, at 2,425 feet America's tallest, is just a 2,425-foot shadow on granite.
That's fine. We're here to savor Fall Color at Yosemite, not Colorful Falls at Yosemite.
And here, it isn't. From Glacier Point, there is nary a smidgen, much less a smudge, of changing leaves.
So if not from Glacier Point, we ask Ranger Dick, where is the very best place to see it? "Go to New England."
But seriously, sir. We're here to savor Fall Color at Yosemite ...
"OK," he says, sensing in the writer's question a desperate need to rationalize an airfare, "there's some dogwoods around 5,000 feet or so, and they do turn red, and that's nice. And the oak trees, they turn a little yellow -- but mostly they just sort of get brown, then they fall off ..."
The writer's face droops. The ranger's brightens a smidge.
"There is one tree in the valley," he says. "The early pioneers -- they all came from back east -- they came out here and they went, 'There's no fall color!'
"So they planted a sugar maple tree."
(We find it. It's across the road from Yosemite Chapel, and on our visit, some of the leaves indeed were flashing reds and yellows -- just enough to draw three leaf-peeping Japanese with cameras and, well, us with ours.)
Dick Ewart, who is from New England, has been a ranger at Yosemite for 31 years and, like almost all National Park Service people, is fun, patient and knows his stuff.
"People come up to me all the time," he says, "and they look around and they say, 'We came for the fall colors. Where are they?'
"And I go, 'That way [pointing toward Nevada], about 3,000 miles."
But he also knows there are subtle seasonal changes here among the dominant conifers and rocky cliffs, domes, half domes and outcrops that make Yosemite so irresistible in any season, including this one.
In case you don't know ...
For the uninitiated, here's a quickie tour of Yosemite National Park:
There's Yosemite Valley, focus of most visitors, with its views of waterfalls, meadows, mountains, and majestic granite things like Half Dome and El Capitan -- along with one of those singular park lodges with quadrupular room prices, the 80-year-old, still-grand Ahwahnee Hotel.
There's the Wawona Road, which runs along the park's southwestern edge and provides access to, among other attractions, the Mariposa Grove of very big sequoias.
There's the Tioga Road, the weather-sensitive, high-altitude roadway that, open or not (and in mid-October it might be either), bisects the park horizontally and has its own amazing views and sequoia grove.
There are some other roads, including Glacier Point Road, which twists and turns from the valley to the Point.
There are hiking trails, some gentle and some not, extending from all those roads. There are trails that lead to straight-up walls of rock that lure climbers drawn to such madness.
There are black bears and mule deer and bobcats and coyotes and ground squirrels and bighorn sheep and the occasional mountain lion and other critters. Birds. Wildflowers.
Lots and lots of wilderness most of us will never see but, in our heart of hearts, are comforted still exists.
And evergreens. Zillions of them. Trees with cones. Trees that have needles. Trees that wear ornaments at Christmastime.
Trees that ... don't change color.
Except -- not counting when they die -- when the setting sun hits them just right. There was, one very late afternoon, a startling moment when that sun hit a mountainside of deep-green conifers along the Merced River and turned them a deep-orange worthy of, dare we say it, New England.
But that was, as we said, just a moment.
The rest of the time, those of us who go nuts over autumn leaves settle for ferns that turn light tan when the chill hits, the reddish dogwoods, a hit of bright yellow from a stray aspen, dots of orange on an oak before the brown takes over and reluctant edges of color from a few maples, all but one not imported from Back East ...
The truly color-desperate have this semi-convenient option for leaves: Leave.
And then, another Yosemite ranger, Ariel Kelly, map spread before her, saves the trip: "If you go outside the park in this area, Lundy Canyon, you'll see more color."
Which we do.
In fact, if the timing is fortuitous -- and it was, on this trip -- the color begins just east of the park's Tioga Pass entrance. Lee Vining Creek winds below California Highway 120, with campgrounds and places to walk and to test its waters for compliant trout. Along the banks and partway up the slopes, deciduous trees, aspen mostly, put on a show worthy of, dare we say this, Aspen.
The highway ends at the pleasant hamlet of Lee Vining, where the road meets U.S. Highway 395 near briny Mono Lake. A left turn and a short drive past Mono City (which is more like Mono Intersection) takes us to a modest two-lane that in turn takes us west into Lundy Canyon and ultimately to Lundy Lake and what's left of Lundy's mining-town past, which isn't much.
Along the way: color. Again, it's primarily aspens, golden with streaks of orange, and when the sunlight hits them they pop with brilliance, and when the wind comes up they shimmer.
Watch out for the snow
All this glory can be done in a day trip (about 180 leisurely miles, round trip) from Yosemite Village. The only potential downside is that a few autumnal snow flurries could close Tioga Road behind you, which would create an interesting logistical situation if you left your toothbrush or a child back in camp -- but never mind that now.
Within the boundaries of the national park?
"Just little spots," says Kelly, and that's what we found.
"California," explains Ewart, "has such a drought every summer. It's just a natural, super-dry environment. Broadleaf trees -- the oaks, maples, cottonwoods, beeches, birches, with such huge, delicate leaves -- they can't live.
"Pine trees are really well-adapted. In order to survive, you really need to be, you know, a needle."
Appreciating what's there
What's amazing, though, is how satisfying the little spots of color can be.
We see those golden ferns in the shady areas around Siesta Lake, reachable by Tioga Road, and on the roadside heading up to Glacier Point, and they grab our attention.
Along the trail, much of it paved, to the nearly dry Mirror Lake are oaks whose leaves, however reluctantly and briefly, do exhibit a little brightness. Beside Tuolumine Grove's evergreen giant sequoias, the occasional red-leafed dogwood reminds us that change does happen here, if not in preponderance, then at least in a gesture that provides an honest sense of season.
Below Bridalveil Fall -- in October, water falls at Bridalveil -- a splash of color.
"There's some, of course," concedes Ewart.
But come to Yosemite for Fall Color?
"Definitely," says Kelly, from Michigan. "I mean, it's one of the most beautiful sites as it is. Adding a little color here and there makes it even more enjoyable."
As an excuse to see Yosemite, as if we needed another one -- it's golden.
Nearest major gateways to Yosemite National Park are San Francisco, 190 miles west of the park, or Reno, about 215 miles northeast. Figure 3 1/2 to 4 hours by car from either city.
Traffic and parking at Yosemite isn't as problematic in fall as during summer season, though things can thicken during the extended Columbus Day weekend. Even those who drive into the park will want to take advantage of the free, frequent park shuttles to get around in the valley and elsewhere, not only because they're more environmentally friendly and eliminate parking hassles but because the drivers' patter adds to the experience. Some shuttles are seasonal, so check schedules. Additional paid shuttles link other routes, including popular hiking and climbing destinations.
A central booking system (559-253-5636; yosemitepark.com) handles all onsite Yosemite lodgings, including The Ahwahnee, a landmark since 1927 and a classic of its type; in most seasons, if you can get a room at The Ahwahnee, expect to pay $470 and up a night (double occupancy; all rates subject to change and seasonal variation). Other options in the park include the less deluxe but central Yosemite Lodge (from $109), the historic and variable (some rooms have shared bath) Wawona Hotel (with private bath, from $149), and a variety of cabins and tent-cabins with and without private bath (from $135 with, $49 without). Off-site, our choice -- Yosemite View Lodge, in El Portal, Calif., near the Arch Rock entrance -- made us happy with its cleanliness and good restaurant (from $159, river view [recommended] from $199; 888-742-4371; yosemite-motels.com). Reserve early, as tours and weddings can lock up large banks of rooms. Naturally, this being a national park, there are the usual campgrounds and backcountry options.
Most visitors to Yosemite either dine at their lodges or self-cater in campgrounds or in kitchen-equipped rooms. The one true destination restaurant is the semi-formal (at dinner), candlelit Ahwahnee Dining Room (reservations required at dinner: 209-372-1489), in the hotel. Expect dinner for two to set you back $150 and up plus beverages and gratuity, and expect to walk out full and happy.
Park information: 209-372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose.
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