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Just outside the Yosemite border, serenity prevails

Just outside the Yosemite border, serenity prevails
Fifty cabins, including this one with forest views, have been built since 2001 at Evergreen Lodge. Others date back several decades. (Jane Engle / LAT)
Along with Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, Yosemite is one of my favorite national parks. Unfortunately, more than 3 million annual visitors share my sentiments.

"In Yosemite Valley, it's a bit of a bun fight," said tourist Elaine Harris, using the British slang for a frenzied scramble. At Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, she said, crowds jostled for seats in the cafeteria. And it wasn't even summer.

Harris, a holistic therapist visiting from England found Evergreen Lodge an hour's drive northwest, a place "much more peaceful."

Me too.

Seeking a more serene Yosemite, my partner, Wesla, and I visited Evergreen Lodge in April. The recently refurbished and expanded lodge in Groveland is about a mile from the Hetch Hetchy entrance to the park's less-visited northwestern corner.

What we lost in proximity to Yosemite Valley — the hub of park activity — we made up by joining bicycling and fly-fishing excursions led by Evergreen's guides. In the evenings, we enjoyed family films, slide shows and s'mores. Our simple cabin seemed sublimely remote.

During our four-day weekend, we did venture into the valley to visit the imposing Ahwahnee hotel, Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall. We're glad we made the effort; the falls, swelled by the heaviest snowpack in more than 20 years, were splendid. (Last Monday, the snowpack, rain and warm temperatures combined to flood parts of the valley, closing roads. Waters receded and roads reopened Tuesday.)

Our trip had begun on a less-than-promising note. We were shadowed by rain on the eight-hour drive from Los Angeles and ended up in a snowstorm at the 6,195-foot-high Crane Flat area. But we got some payoff. As we reached the valley and emerged from the Wawona tunnel, the stormy skies added high drama to the postcard panorama of El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil.

When we pulled up to Evergreen Lodge later that Thursday night, the rustic dining room was nearly deserted. Neither server nor hostess was to be found. A young man finally seated us. Our dinners were tasty, although I was bewildered that the "porcini crust" on my trout looked and tasted the same as the "basil crust" on Wesla's halibut. The waiter assured me there were mushrooms there.

I was equally skeptical when we drove past old dark-wood cabins, some apparently sprouting green moss.

But our cabin was spacious and pristine, half of a newly constructed duplex with a private deck overlooking the forest. It was sparsely but smartly furnished with a queen bed, a sofa bed and a compact cast-iron stove to warm the room. Vintage photos and a topological map of the area adorned the walls. It did not have a phone or TV. The cabin lacked kitchen facilities; staff said that was to discourage bear visits. The refrigerator sitting on the floor was so tiny that I mistook it for a safe. We crammed our breakfast fixings into it and slept.

So much for annoyances. The rest of our stay was wonderful. After a nicely prepared pistachio-crusted salmon and a decadent hot-fudge sundae during subsequent meals, we even made peace with the restaurant.

The Evergreen Lodge has been a meeting spot in the Yosemite area since Warren G. Harding was in the White House. The main lodge building that contains its restaurant, bar and poolroom opened around 1921, said co-owner Lee Zimmerman.

Eighteen cabins were added to the grounds in the next several decades. When Zimmerman and two other investors bought the property in 2001, it had been a family-owned resort for 27 years.

The three Bay Area men have since lavished more than $7 million on it. They added 50 vaulted-roof duplex and free-standing cedar cabins (including the one we stayed in), a recreation center, an events hall and a general store. The lodge also schedules activities geared to families and outdoor enthusiasts.

Wesla and I took full advantage. Friday morning found us pedaling out the lodge gate and onto Cherry Lake Road for a mostly downhill 14-mile ride through Stanislaus National Forest, which abuts Yosemite on the west.

On our right was a 1,200-foot drop plunging into the Poopenaut Valley, carved by the coursing Tuolumne River. Then we threaded through a cathedral of ponderosa pines, glided past Day-Glo green meadows and sped down a brake-squeezing screamer of a hill toward our goal: Rainbow Pool, with its cascades and summer swimming hole.

Our guide, Steve, was laid-back but careful, alerting us to the occasional oncoming car. In 2 1/2 hours, we passed nary another cyclist. Jason, the lodge's recreation manager, met us at the end and loaded the bikes into his truck, sparing us the uphill return.

Beautiful valley

Hardly winded, Wesla and I picked up our car and headed for O'Shaughnessy Dam, nine miles to the northeast.

The dam, dating to the 1920s, pens up the Tuolumne to create Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which provides water for more than 2 million Bay Area residents — and is a cause célèbre for nature lovers. The Hetch Hetchy Valley, now submerged under 300 feet of water, once rivaled Yosemite in beauty. At least that's what naturalist John Muir believed, and his philosophical heirs want it drained and restored. The state is studying the prospect.

From where we stood, the dam was a study in contrasts. On one side, the Tuolumne tumbled wildly down a boulder-strewn course. On the other side, the placid deep-blue reservoir reflected clouds and canyon walls.

After a short hike near the reservoir, we hurried back to the lodge for an afternoon dry-casting lesson, where Wesla proved herself a complete natural at fly casting. But when it came time for the real thing, she demurred, too tender-hearted even for catch-and-release.

As a result, my half-day fly-fishing outing turned into a private lesson. By 8:30 a.m. Saturday, I was up to my hip waders in the rushing Tuolumne, hypnotized by the parabola of my fishing line as it looped through the air and slapped onto the water.

"You're scaring the fish," said my guide, Rod, nudging me out of reverie.

As earnest as a Boy Scout, as patient as a medieval scribe, Rod has been fly-fishing since he was a 4-year-old in northern New York state.

"It took me three weeks to catch a fish after I learned," he said. "But once I did, it was all over. I was hooked."

I didn't land a trout. But I learned a lot: how to read swirling waters to find trout hide-outs. How to gauge what fish are eating by studying bug remains squished under rocks. Why fly-fishing is as much about meditation as catching fish. (My trip cost $150, with equipment, but group trips cost less per person.)

In the evenings, Evergreen's recreation center, with its enticing fireplace, was abuzz with families playing board games, children assembling s'mores and guests logging onto the Internet and phoning home.

Saturday night's movie was the 1992 fly-fishing drama "A River Runs Through It." My novice casting couldn't hold a candle to the deft technique of Brad Pitt's rebellious journalist, but I'd had fun and so had Rod. He stopped by to let me know, saying, "Thanks for coming with me this morning. You really made my day."

That afternoon, Wesla and I had driven to Yosemite Valley, where we had a fancy lunch at the Ahwahnee and admired $13.5-million worth of scenic paths, educational plaques and other recent improvements to the base of Yosemite Falls.

The three falls — combined, the highest in North America — were commanding and incomparably scenic. But the standing-room-only crowds on the park's free shuttle buses made us glad to get back to the Evergreen, where we caught up with tourist Harris and her friend.

"I like the energy up here," Harris said as we dug into desserts in the dining room. "The people are lovely. I'd definitely stay here again."

Me too.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

So near, so far

Expenses for two on this trip:

Lodging

Evergreen Lodge, three nights

with tax $472



Meals

Lodge restaurant: two dinners, one

breakfast and lunch, and desserts $148

The Ahwahnee, lunch $49

Other meals, snacks $14



Activities

Guided bike trip for two, fly-fishing

for one with tips $255

Yosemite National Park entrance fee $20



Total $958

Distance from L.A. 339 miles

WHERE TO STAY:

Evergreen Lodge, 33160 Evergreen Road, Groveland, CA; (800) 935-6343 or (209) 379-2606, http://www.evergreenlodge.com . Cabins are $79 to $249 per night; new cabins, $20 to $35 more, are worth it. Activities include biking, hiking, fishing, rafting and van tours, most led by lodge staff. Our bike trip was $30; in June, they'll offer longer trips for $60.

WHERE TO EAT:

Ahwahnee Dining Room, at the Ahwahnee, One Ahwahnee Road, Yosemite National Park, CA; (209) 372-1489, http://www.yosemitepark.com . Entrees $24.75 to $40 at dinner; $11 to $13.50 for entrees and sandwiches at lunch. Reservations required for dinner.

TO LEARN MORE:

Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200 or 372-4726 (TDD for hearing-impaired); www.nps.gov/yose.
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