During a 2015 visit to northern California, my fiancée and I had the good fortune to visit Yosemite National Park and land a table for lunch at the back of the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room, where Queen Elizabeth enjoyed a meal in 1983.
We also had the good fortune to be waited on by Rick Agnew, who served as wine steward for the queen and her royal party in the same spot 32 years earlier.
"The queen was pretty quiet," Agnew said. "Prince Philip, on the other hand, laughed a lot, spilled his wine. A man after my own heart."
We also got a great tip from Agnew. While on his turf, it was worth heading 30 minutes each way off the main park road toward Glacier Point to take a high-point gander at Yosemite Village in the valley below. Nestled in the valley is the Ahwahnee – renamed the Majestic Yosemite Hotel after Buffalo-based Delaware North lost its hospitality contract at the park last spring. El Capitan, Half Dome and other high peaks would beckon to our eyes in the distance at roughly shoulder height, he said.
The hour investment in drive time the next day was well worth the spectacular view – particularly because we pulled into a small parking lot as we neared our destination at another spot called Washburn Point, walked toward the vista, and gaped as if we'd just found the southern tip of heaven.
National Parks have the ability to astound, often greatly. I have learned that it pays to seek out the experts in places like Yosemite, Acadia and the Grand Canyon, not only after you arrive but preferably before you go.
The eighth edition of the "National Geographic Guide to National Parks," issued to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service, is an invaluable starting point to help you get the most out of a visit to the parks. A used edition can be found online at only about one-third its original cost.
Its glossy pages boast more than enough tidbits to make its purchase on amazon.com a better and more reasonable investment than lunch at the former Ahwhanee. (Though, if you ever go to Yosemite, I encourage you to book a lunch reservation. It's much less expensive than dinner.)
The book is an easy read that contains maps, travel tips and fun facts from parks that extend from Alaska to south of Key West, and into both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. A companion book, "National Geographic Kids National Parks Guide U.S.A.," allows children to get in on the vacation planning fun.
The eighth edition guide's introduction tells us that National Geographic and the National Parks have been intertwined since the publication's first editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, marveled at the giant sequoias during a two-week backpacking trip in 1915 through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. The magazine focused an entire edition on the best parks in the nation a year later. The staff got a copy got to each congressman and Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service a few month later.
These parks remain pristine and in some cases remote, and the guide warns us that cellphone service fluctuates at many of these natural treasures. Talk about ideal time with loved ones.
The National Park System encompasses more than 400 national park sites but the guide focuses on the 59 that have the words National Park at the end of their names.
Among what you can learn:
– Yellowstone became the world's first national park in 1872. Acadia, Great Smokey Mountain and Shenandoah were the first national parks to open in the East between 1919 and 1926, after the Park Service was established.
– Mammoth Caves in Kentucky has more than 400 miles of mapped caves.
– The northern swath of Biscayne National Park in Florida is home to the third largest coral reef in the world. Dolphins are known to swim alongside boats that pay the reef a visit.
– Some trails at Badlands National Park in South Dakota are wheelchair accessible.
– The description of the 8.2-acre "Big Room" at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, the largest national limestone chamber in the Northern Hemisphere, comes with this tip: "Don't forget to look up."
– The only national park named for a person is Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in 1947 in North Dakota. The book also notes that Roosevelt (inaugurated in Buffalo) established five national parks, 18 national monuments and many national wildlife reserves and national forests.
The book also reminds us that Roosevelt once said, "It's not what we have that will make us a great nation, it's the way in which we use it."
Words that matter
The tour guide is sprinkled with descriptive writing, including this backcountry take on Isle Royale National Park, in the Lake Superior waters of Michigan: "It appears as if the island was stoked lengthwise by a giant comb. Ridges protrude like old bones, thinly forested and often with good views of open water. Between ridges, you'll find lakes, bogs, beaver ponds, and dense forest." The park, accessible only by ferry and private boat, is among the least visited of the bunch, the writers say, but those who come once often return.
Of the much more popular Grand Canyon National Park, established in 1919, we learn that the 1.2 million-acre wonder includes 277 river miles and 1,905 square miles and formations that took root almost 2 billion years ago. "Stay to watch the sunset," the guide advises.
Taken as a whole, the "National Geographic Guide to National Parks" makes you yearn to explore more of our national parks, and provides the tools to tempt your adventurous and spiritual sides.
It also reminds you of some of the most beautiful places that already have stirred your senses.
It calls Yosemite "a symphony of contrasts."
We learned as much from our visit two years back.
I've been to Grand Canyon and Acadia national parks twice each, and three years ago to Glacier Bay National Park in southern Alaska. When I need a calming presence in my hectic life, I just need hear the mention of these places to move my soul back to some of the most magnificent days in my life.
Yet still, none, from a breathtaking perspective, equals the view of Washburn Point, and those precious moments I felt like I could touch the sky.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – IF YOU GO
My fiancée, Karen Gelia, and I visited Yosemite National Park for three days in the summer of 2015 as part of a longer trip to northern California. We spent two nights in San Francisco first and found it easier to take a tram from San Francisco International Airport – about 15 miles from downtown – to avoid parking fees in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., and use the city’s transit system to get around.
We rented a car at the airport after our stay in San Francisco to drive first to Yosemite, then to Sonoma and Napa valleys for winery tours, then back to the airport.
Here are a few Yosemite tips based on our visit.
Timing: We went midweek, when the attractions and park roads were more quiet.
Wine: We like wineries and found one, Vista Ranch and Cellars (vistacellars.com) on East Highway 140 in Merced, Calif., about the midway point between San Francisco and Yosemite. We were the only customers. The owner gave us a better sense of the landscape – it was mostly almond trees we saw along the nearby roads – a nice sampling of his vintages and tips for our overnight destination just outside the national park.
Lodging: We stayed at the Hounds Tooth Inn (houndstoothinn.com) in Oakhurst, Calif., a 12-room bed and breakfast about 15 minutes south of the southern entrance into the national park. It was about $180 a night and the owners give us great insight into park attractions. We ate dinner twice at South Gate Brewing Co. (southgatebrewco.com), which had a solid combination of food and craft beer. I spent a lot of time in the months before our trip trying to find the most accessible and reasonably priced lodging. It can be hard – and expensive – inside the park. The nearest campground directly west had horrible online ratings and most other hotelswere 25 or more miles away, not worth it when you consider it takes a dozen more miles to get to Yosemite Village after you enter the nearly 1,169-square-mile park.
The Tunnel View Turnout, on Wawona Road (Route 41), is the gateway for many visitors and provides an incredible view of Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Valley plays home to the park Visitor Center, Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the Yosemite Museum, Indian Cultural Exhibit, Ansel Adams Gallery, a general store and other amenities.
Cook's Meadow hugs the valley and its trails snake along the Merced River. The trails include stops along the bases of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan and, behind the hotel, Glacier Point.
Glacier and Washburn points can be found south of the valley near the tip of the 16-mile Glacier Point Road.
Part of the reason we stayed south of the park was to see the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove. The grove is closed into at least this fall while ecologists work to protect and preserve its ecosystem.