Simply put, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK (w www.nps.gov/yose), nestled in the picturesque Yosemite Valley, is one of the world’s most dramatic geological spectacles. Just seven miles long and less than one mile across, it is walled by near-vertical three-thousand-foot cliffs, streaked by tumbling waterfalls and topped by domes and pinnacles that form a jagged silhouette against the sky. At ground level, grassy meadows are framed by oak, cedar and fir trees; deer, coyotes and even black bears abound. You can visit at any time of year, even in winter when the waterfalls ice over and the trails are blocked by snow, and, excepting summer, the valley itself is rarely overcrowded. Park entry costs $20 per vehicle, $10 per pedestrian or cyclist, and is valid for seven days (an annual pass is only $40). Bus passengers get in free.
Yosemite Valley was created by glaciers gouging through the canyon of the Merced River: the ice scraped away the softer granite leaving soaring cliffs. Thanks to the campaigning work of naturalist John Muir, in 1864 Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were set aside as America’s first protected wilderness. A Scottish immigrant who travelled the entire area on foot, Muir spearheaded the conservation movement that led to the founding of the Sierra Club, with the express aim of preserving Yosemite.