Weekend Escape: Yosemite National Park : Tent Tales : The Digs Were Spartan but the Setting Sublime for Only Dollars a Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Haldane is a reporter for The Times' Orange County Edition

The epiphany came for me late one afternoon on the banks of the Merced River as I demonstrated abominably average rock-skipping skills to my 9-year-old daughter, Adina.

"Wow, look at that," she exclaimed to her little brother, Drew. "Dad is good at everything!"

The comment took me back about 35 years to a similar demonstration by another dad-- mine. I remembered my own childish wonder at his skipping prowess, the comforting feeling that he knew everything, could do anything.

Such sentiments are fleeting, of course, soon to be replaced by the knowledge that our parents are certainly fallible and we are basically in the game alone. For a few shining moments, though, people with children get their turns in the sun. Several of my turns have come at Yosemite, a place I consider among the most beautiful on earth. It was to this wilderness paradise that I recently brought my children to engage in the ritual that my own father shared with me, the family semi-camp-out.

We had begun our trip not knowing exactly what to expect; common wisdom has it that you have to call months in advance for reservations. Yet we called a couple of weeks ahead and easily reserved space at Curry Village, a relatively inexpensive resort at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley.

Here, for $37.50 a night, a family of three can rent one of 450 tent cabins, primitive accommodations consisting of permanent wood frames four steps off the ground with wooden floors and canvas walls. There's no heat, closet, carpeting, bathroom or kitchen. Just a couple of beds, a dresser and the nearby community shower; considerably more Spartan than a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel for $208, or one at Yosemite Lodge for $77.

Yet it was also more comfortable than an $8 campsite, affording the illusion of camping without all of its attendant hassles. And, we were told, generally available on short notice anytime except June, July or August. Perfect for what was to be our second trip to Yosemite together in the 2 1/2 years since my wife and I separated, dividing our households and our time with the kids.

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Leaving Los Angeles on a Saturday morning during Adina and Drew's spring vacation in early April, we made it to Yosemite Valley in just over seven hours--an enormous chunk of it spent trying to get out of the city itself. To facilitate the trip, we packed apples and cherry yogurt in an ice chest and rented something I highly recommend when traveling with youngsters: a series of children's books on tape.

Emerging finally from the Wawona Tunnel--a long passage that burrows through a mountain to burst dramatically onto the first vista of Yosemite Valley--I stopped the car long enough for the kids to gasp at the fairy-like specter of Bridalveil Falls cascading down the face of a distant cliff. Then it was on to Curry Village to check into our tent, unpack our bags and take an exploratory stroll.

Lots of other families with children were around, as well as a few young couples and what looked like some youth groups. They, and we, cheerfully wandered past the outdoor amphitheater where forest rangers lecture nightly, in and out of the gift shop, sport shop, ice cream parlor and burger joint, and through the village lounge with its comfortable couches and huge stone fireplace. We toured the rest of the campground, peering casually through the windows of the tidy heated cabins available at $49.50 per night without bathrooms or $63.75 with them.

For dinner, the children decided on pizza at the Curry Village pizzeria. Almost immediately, they spotted a raccoon meandering among the tables on the patio. They dubbed it "Bandit" and watched for half an hour as I finished my Coke and chatted about earthquakes with an amiable couple from England. Then, after a rest in the lounge during which I read a book and the kids drew pictures, we retired to our tent where I--wracked by cold and the loud snores of a next-tent neighbor--spent the night tossing and turning while the little ones dreamed heavily of bears and waterfalls.

The price of our accommodations included sheets, pillows and as many wool blankets as we could muster, but the 42-degree nighttime temperature made me glad that we'd brought our sleeping bags as well. Snuggled deeply into them, rest came more easily on subsequent nights.

The next day was Sunday, a glorious blue cloudy day with the great Half Dome looming moodily over Curry Village and the little town of tents. Walking in sweaters to the village cafeteria, we found a long line of sleepy-looking guests snaking past an almost confounding array of aromatic foods. For about $18, we finally settled on a breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns, pancakes and juice. Then we set off toward Mirror Lake on a 1.5-mile trail dotted with huge granite rock formations featuring cavernous "rooms" that provided the perfect grist for youthful imaginations.

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Yosemite is marvelous at this time of year, just awakening from its long winter sleep. With the waterfalls at their peak, the valley's wide wet meadows croak with frogs and bud with manzanita, oak, maple and dogwood. "Everything looks so fresh and green," Jeff Samco, a ranger naturalist, told us the next day during our stop at the visitor's center in Yosemite Village, about a mile and a half west of where we were staying.

Getting around the valley floor is easy; you can leave your car parked at your quarters and take the shuttle or, as in our case, drive yourself from place to place.

Later in spring, Samco said, the dogwood trees will bloom with big yellow blossoms. The Western azaleas will flower into sweet-smelling trumpet-shaped flowers. And gradually as spring wends into summer, the area's wild residents--deer, coyote, bear and bobcat--will become increasingly visible.

On this particular day, however, caves were on my children's minds as they darted in and out of dark openings and displayed heroic poses on (low, reasonably safe) ledges. Later, after we'd skipped back down to the start of the trail, the kids declined a scrumptious brunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel that would have cost $16.35 for me and $13.50 per child, in favor of hamburgers at Yosemite Village. After lunch, we sauntered behind the visitor's center to the Ahwahnee village, an authentic re-creation of a Native American hamlet of the 1870s, complete with bark tepees, a smokehouse and a prayer lodge.

Ironically, it was here that Adina and Drew found one of their favorite spots in the valley, a tiny babbling brook at which they spent more than an hour building miniature bridges made of twigs.

Later, we drove down the road, stopping only for the long walk along the Merced River during which I delivered my lesson on rock skipping. Then it was back to the car for the ride to Bridalveil Falls where, hidden behind a boulder beneath the powerful flow, the kids floated bark boats down the treacherous, swirling waters while getting soaked in the shimmering mists.

"This is great," Adina said, barely audible above the roar. "I never want to go."

In the end we had to, of course. Gliding down the freeway back toward civilization, the kids seemed quieter than they had before. There were, of course, the usual fights over who got to sit in the front seat and where we'd stop for dinner. But, for a little while at least, there also seemed to be a kind of restfulness, the quiet reverence of an experience shared.

"Daddy, this is so beautiful ," Adina had said as we pulled onto the highway after bidding our final farewells to a shaggy-looking coyote meandering by the side of the road. "Can we do this every year?"

You bet, kid. Just try and weasel out of it.

Budget for Three

Gas: $ 56.34

Tent cabin, Curry Village: 116.64

Park entrance: 5.00

Food: 126.79

FINAL TAB: $304.77

Yosemite reservations, including tent cabins, tel. (209) 252-4848.

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