Yosemite in Autumn: An Insider’s View

Photo (c) Ben Sander.

Photo (c) Ben Sander.

YosemiteMillions of people visit Yosemite each year to explore its dramatic landscapes. But with so many popular tourist spots, what makes a trip to this internationally renowned park a truly extraordinary journey? Last month, I was in a unique position to find out, serving as a staff representative on NPCA’s ParkScapes autumn expedition to Yosemite with 14 other excited NPCA members.

This trip was extra special for me. I had visited Yosemite only once before, on a vacation with my parents just a few months before I started working at NPCA three years ago. My experience at the park had inspired me to learn more about conservation issues and ultimately pursue the job I have now. My parents and I saw all of the highlights, including Mariposa Grove, Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake, Hetch Hetchy, and Bridalveil Falls—but now I had a chance to get an “insider” view of some of these same places. I went into the trip with anticipation. How would this visit compare?

From the beginning, the group knew it was going to be a special trip by the positive energy from our two guides, Kurt Westenbarger and Eve Wills, and the breathtaking fall foliage that got more and more dramatic as we gained elevation on our way to the park. The excitement on the group members’ faces was priceless as we finally passed through the gates of Yosemite.

Our first stop was Mariposa Grove, home of some of the largest and most distinctive trees in the world. Though I had explored these trees on my first trip to Yosemite, I saw the sequoias in a new light through stories told by our guides. They shared how and why the grove is so unique, including the unusually small number of young trees due to limited fire activity. Many of the giant sequoias serve as living history, honoring prominent historic figures such as Stephen Mather. It was particularly poignant to stand in this rare grove and learn about the man who not only helped to establish the National Park Service but also NPCA.

Mariposa Grove at Yosemite

We were treated to a walking tour of the Pioneer Yosemite History Center with a Park Service ranger who walked us through the human history of Yosemite from pioneer days to its first days as a national park. Figures in the park’s history came to life through the ranger’s stories—men like George Anderson, one of the first guides to lead groups to Yosemite. Anderson had climbed Half Dome, and then constructed cables for other visitors to climb this famous granite formation. Shortly before he died, he was working on a plan to construct a boardwalk and charge people a fee to use it. His plans never came to pass; it still takes the average hiker ten to 12 hours to complete the 16-mile round trip, including 400 feet on the famous cables. The ranger also shared stories of the Buffalo Soldiers who famously protected Yosemite before the National Park Service was created. They often had to face difficult situations, such as standing up to sheep farmers to keep their herds from harming protected land—a new concept for African-American soldiers working as public servants in a rugged western landscape.

On a hike to the top of Sentinel Dome, our guides shared the history of how the Yosemite Valley was formed, then led us on a little-used connector trail offering beautiful vistas and a rare chance to enjoy a bit of solitude. We also toured the Ahwahnee, a historic hotel that played host to many of the first visitors to Yosemite, inspiring many to support the creation of a larger National Park System. We marveled at the Ahwahnee’s famed sun room, which had once provided the perfect opportunity to watch the Yosemite firefall, a summertime ritual that lasted from 1872 until 1968 in which burning hot embers were dropped from the top of Glacier Point—a height of about 3,000 feet—down to the valley below. The ritual had reportedly begun inadvertently one summer when the owner of a hotel on Glacier Point had kicked out the embers of his campfire over the edge of the cliff, and visitors in the valley witnessed the spectacle and asked when they could see the next “firefall.” Our guide recreated this remarkable experience by sharing photos of the sight, which looked like a waterfall on fire, and singing the traditional firefall song heard at Camp Curry, the “Indian Love Call,” which the group couldn’t stop talking about for the rest of the day.


Our guides even helped us understand some of the more unfortunate recent events at the park, such as the August Rim wildfire. We had to bypass Hetch Hetchy due to fire damage, but we could see how the disaster had affected the landscape. Our guides explained how a fire can help regenerate a forest as part of its natural cycle of life. In this case, most of the fire had stayed close to the ground, causing only a few trees to completely burn and a few more to die, creating a strangely gorgeous mosaic effect.

Are you looking to visit Yosemite? Like many national parks, Yosemite is vast and has a lot to see. Guidebooks and trail guides by companies such as Moon, Falcon Guides, and Lonely Planet are a big help. Also, make sure when you enter the park to take a few minutes to read through the park newspaper available at entrance stations and visitor centers to check for ranger-led tours and other educational events. NPCA’s ParkScapes program also offers all-inclusive small-group journeys to Yosemite with two departures coming up in May 2014. Also, you can contact me at travel@npca.org about other ParkScapes trip opportunities in our national parks.

By the end of the trip, I felt our guides had provided us with a truly exceptional experience full of wonderful memories and a greater understanding of Yosemite and why the national park system is important. I returned to work reinvigorated to ensure parks like Yosemite remain protected for future visitors.

About the Author

Travel Program Manager Ben Sander

Ben Sander is travel program manager at NPCA. He has worked in ecotourism ventures in Costa Rica, Tanzania, Peru, and Pohnpei, Micronesia, which have guided his vision for the travel program. He conducted research in Costa Rica at one of the first eco-lodges in the world, Rara Avis, and has spoken at a number of ecotourism-focused conferences on his research. His passion for ecotourism also led him to be a tour guide in Washington, D.C., offering bike tours of the national memorials, as well as being a nature guide in Costa Rica. Ben is also a bike advocate and commutes 15 miles round-trip a day as often as possible from his home in Brentwood, Maryland, to downtown D.C. He has taken part in Climate Ride the last two years to help raise awareness around climate change, bike advocacy, and national park protection.