When returning from a trip, a game often played with my traveling companions is the question “What was your favorite thing….?” On a recent trip to Yosemite National Park, Michael answered “The Ahwahnee.” I replied, “The waterfalls!”. And Michael immediately agreed. Yes. The waterfalls. The recent record rainfall in California, viewed by the locals as at best something to be endured, to slog through, month after month, and by an unfortunate few as genuine natural disaster, at last offers a consolation: the spectacular waterfalls at Yosemite. It’s early spring when we visit, the last major snowstorm only two days in the past, and the melting snow fueling amazing, cascading, waterfalls throughout the valley. We are told they will only grow more spectacular through May, before most eventually dry up and disappear with the hot summer months…
It was a beautiful drive up from LA, once past Fresno. There’s nice spring weather but still some snow around from Friday’s big snowstorm. But today is very mild. Our first activity in Yosemite, typically for us, is dinner—at the Ahwahnee hotel. A delicious meal, plus this beautiful view of Yosemite falls framed by the huge window at the end of the elegant dining room. Little plates of assorted starters: duck ravioli, mushrooms, crab cakes, shrimp. Venison for main course, very tasty with some cabbage and risotto. Pot de crème for dessert. Rather expensive, but good, California wines. Saw a ring-tailed cat climbing around the rafters of the dining room! Outside, after dinner, there were like five raccoons wandering around on the tables outside the bar. There is no mobile phone service here in the park, but there is wifi in the lounge downstairs. Doesn’t reach our room however. The hotel is very amusing, grand yet still very much 8o years old. It doesn’t seem over glamorized.
Yosemite National Park is an iconic place; just the name conjures images: the silhouette of Halfdome; the valley ringed by towering waterfalls; the eclectic luxury of the Art Deco meets Native America Ahwahnee hotel; hiking, rock climbing, the world famous photographs of Ansel Adams. Indisputably, Yosemite is a place of incredible natural beauty even for California—a state abounding with beautiful landscapes.
But if you think of Yosemite, do you think Gay Destination— it seems most unlikely! Strangely, we are visiting the park with as small group of journalists from various gay media at the invitation of the Yosemite press office. Writers for such publications as various as the national Out Traveler and the local San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. I’m not sure who I’m writing for! The invitation came only a few days before, and the day after I drive back from to LA, I fly to Europe. But I decided it was an opportunity to good to miss—surprisingly, after all my years in California, I’ve been to Yosemite only once before, and that just for an afternoon on an unseasonably warm February day.
All the writers met at last nights dinner, along with our hosts and guides from the Park. In charge of our little gay group is Public Relations Manager, Kerri Holden, charming and organized, but surprisingly young. So much younger that the rest of us—and from a suburban background that doesn’t involve a lot of gay life—that some of the writers make a game of educating her to the more outlandish, fetishistic, and amusing frontiers of the gay “community.” To her credit, she is amused: curious and unshockable.
You may wonder, in this time of increased hostility toward gay issues from the Federal Government, why one of their National Parks has suddenly taken the initiative to direct a special marketing effort to gay and lesbian visitors. The answer to this lies in the perhaps surprising organization of the park—for while it is owned by the federal government—actually the American people—the park is run and administered by a private corporation. All the hotels, campsites, food facilities, equipment rentals, tours, shops, public relations, and public infrastructure is managed by DNC Parks and Resorts, which has an exclusive contract for the park’s concessions, and it is this private company that is actively courting gay and lesbian visitors. Interestingly, the park has always had a public/private component. Before there was a park, early entrepreneurs provided provisions to the first hearty 19th century visitors, and later built hotels and residences. In response to increasing development, Abraham Lincoln signed legislation giving Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Sequoia Grove to the State of California as a public trust. Although Yosemite became only the third National Park, in 1890, it was actually the first land in the U.S. ever set aside for the preservation of it’s scenic beauty. Still, private individuals offered lodging and amenities, until the largest operators were merged into the Yosemite Park and Curry Company in 1925 in order to tightly control expansion and development. Since 1991, DNC Parks and Resorts has managed Yosemite’s recreation, lodging, food and guest services—and is publicly courting gay and lesbian visitors.
OK, they haven’t turned it overnight into a gay Mecca, and probably never will. And it really seems beside the point, as Yosemite is a fantastic place to visit, for anyone.
Eighty percent of Yosemite’s visitors come between Memorial and Labor days—but unless you’re a hardcore adventure enthusiast, you’ll be better off avoiding this busy season. The PR folks tell us that summer isn’t that bad…they have done much to limit the impact of cars, for example; I’m not entirely convinced—it seems a certain solitude is the essence of nature, and the park is in April by no means deserted! The advantages of summer of course is that the entire park is accessible—there are multi-day hikes and horseback tours through the vast high country, rock climbing, and lots of opportunity for vigorous hiking and camping. But the famous valley, and the main attractions for the more leisurely traveler are best visited in spring and fall. Spring brings the most spectacular waterfalls, as the winter snows begin to melt. The high country is inaccessible, but the valley is still lightly populated and days can be pleasantly warm (though don’t be surprised by a sudden snowstorm.) Hikes of an hour or two to a full day can take you up the sides of the mountains for spectacular views over the falls. Rock climbing and bicycling are possible (bring your own bike if you with to cycle—the rented bikes are expensive, primitive, and available only in high season). Fall has the beautiful colors of turning leaves, and sees the return of the waterfalls after the dry summer season. The famous Mariposa Grove, with its ancient, giant sequoias, is only accessible by car in summer—probably reason enough to make the hour hike by foot to visit in the solitude of spring or fall. Winter is cold and snowy, but the hotels remain open and there are attractions for both the active and the aesthete. There is excellent skiing and there’s the Bracebridge Dinners—a gourmet and theatrical extravaganza based on a Renaissance Christmas feast and an Ahwahnee hotel tradition since 1927.
Where to stay in Yosemite? The first choice has to be the historic Ahwahnee hotel. Opt for the privacy of a bungalow in the forest, and come into the hotel for its lavish public rooms. Of course the Ahwahnee is impressively expensive—a more economical alternative is the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls—choose a deluxe room with a private patio, as far away from the restaurant and bar as possible. An economical option are the tent villages—basic but comfortable (in warm, dry weather) with food lockers, barbeques and communal bathing facilities—but nicely situated among the trees and streams. Take the smaller Housekeeping Camp rather than sprawling, raucous Curry Village. Outside the valley, convenient for skiing and to Sequoia Grove, is the Victorian-cute Wawona Hotel—the oldest in the Park.
Dining choices are somewhat limited—the best food by far is at the Ahwahnee Hotel, and the room itself is spectacular as well. The kitchen turns out first rate American cuisine—crab cakes and venison as well as Caesar salads and filet mignon. The more casual Mountain Room Restaurant (the Ahwahnee requires a jacket) is almost as pricey and not nearly as good. It’s worth dressing up for the Ahwahnee! There’s also a deli and a cafeteria serving petty good basic food, and more options in summer. You can bring your own food to the campsites of course—but you must keep it in a locker; crafty bears are highly skilled at sniffing out food and breaking into cars. Bears are best avoided, but deer, ring-tailed cats, and raccoons will walk right by paying you no attention at all!
There is friendly instruction in everything from mountain climbing to photography. And it’s fun—and in the off season at least—easy to meet the friendly, outgoing young staff—hundreds of workers come from all over the world to spend a few months working at the park. The staff are uniformly friendly and fun—from the PR Office, to the various activity instructors and leaders, to the hard-working busboys. You get the feeling that everyone enjoys being there—whether it is for three months or 21 years! When the employees are not working there is not a lot to do, and the Mountain Room Lodge—the bar at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls—serves as a sort of social center. We found the park employees eager to chat—there was an avid rock-climber from nearby Fresno, a San Franciscan originally from Mexico, various college students and recent graduates—quite interesting in their diverse backgrounds.
Out last stop on the organized tour was the Tenaya Lodge, located just outside the park itself, and operated by the same management. It’s a large, relatively new hotel, built as a rustic lodge, that sits in the middle of a National Forrest. For this reason, it is aggressively fire-proofed—which you may find reassuring, or slightly disturbing, depending on your personality. Fatalist that I am, I just found it slightly amusing. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about burning up—especially if I have a comfortable room to lounge about in. The Tenaya is nice, and far more reasonably priced than the Ahwahnee, but for me it catered far too much to business meetings, and to harried families (there are both extensive meeting facilities, and extensive pool and recreation facilities). It’s also an hour from the valley floor, so seems a bit remote. The restaurant however is excellent, our best meal since the Ahwahnee. Plus it’s a pleasant stop for the last night, as it put us an hour closer to LA for the return trip.
More information on activities, local conditions, and reservations can be found online at www.yosemitepark.com
A shorter article based on this entry appeared in Gay Travel News.