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WEEKEND GETAWAY : Make Like an Explorer in the Yosemite Wilderness

<i> Ron Eggers is a free-lance writer who occasionally contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

The California Sierra Nevada range boasts of some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. The Sequoias, the John Muir Trail and Mt. Whitney are just a few of the scores of attractions there that draw visitors from all over the world.

One of the most popular is the Yosemite Valley, where it is estimated that each year, about 3 million visitor-days (the combined number of visiting days calculated per person) are spent there.

Those who have not been to Yosemite tend to have some misconceptions about it, though. Some who are familiar with it only through Ansel Adams’ photographs expect a majestic place of stark, intense beauty that is to be seen but not entered. Others have heard disconcerting stories about the deterioration through overuse, congestion and pollution.

There are elements of truth in both perceptions, but neither is accurate. The valley is certainly majestic, but it is not uninviting. And, yes, there are some environmental problems. It can get crowded, and the greater the number of visitors, the greater the potential for pollution. For the most part, though, those problems will have a minimal effect on the average visitor.

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The problems a tourist is most likely to encounter is a wait for dinner in one of the restaurants and occasional traffic congestion on the road that encircles the valley.

Although shuttle transportation is available throughout the valley, the best way to see it is by walking. There are easy trails up to the waterfalls, along quiet streams and through blooming meadows. You also can hike up more difficult terrain to out-of-the-way places that haven’t changed much since Adams first lugged his camera and tripod through the area.

For the more adventurous, there are rock-climbing trips and over-night excursions. Remember, though, that you’re in the mountains. The elevation can take its toll on someone not used to the thinner air.

Temperatures in Yosemite, as in much of the Sierra, are cold at night (often in the high 40s) and quite warm (upper 70s) during the day. It also seems easier to get a sunburn.

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Fortunately, Orange County is just a few hours by car away from the Sierra, so there is no need for extensive travel and transportation arrangements. Still, it is important to make plans in advance for your stay.

Reservations are strongly recommended if you intend to stay there overnight. Officially, rooms are booked a year in advance, but last-minute cancellations and schedule changes occur often enough that it is possible to get a room if you can be flexible.

The most impressive place to stay in the valley is the Ahwahnee, the massive old lodge that makes guests think they’re staying at some grand duke’s hunting preserve. It’s a unique Old World resort with stately, elegant decor in a magnificent setting that offers spectacular views. An average room at the Ahwahnee is about $200 a night, with more expensive suites available for just under $250.

Even if you aren’t staying there, take a walk through. Relax by one of the oversize fireplaces and ponder how it feels to live like royalty.

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If you have simpler tastes, or a more constricted budget, the Yosemite Lodge, situated almost directly under the Yosemite Falls, is the place to stay. Rooms there run from $35 to $85 a night.

Then there are the cabins, about $55 a night. These are a little more rustic, but they really make you feel as if you’re out in the wilderness.

Nothing can beat a morning in Yosemite. It’s great to wake up when there’s still that silent chill in the air and walk out the front door and smell the crisp clean air of the pine forest. That’s what a getaway in the valley is really all about.

For more information, contact the Yosemite Park & Curry Co., Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; (209) 375-4848.

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