Generally, when people visit Yosemite National Park, their goal is to experience the spectacular scenery and see at least some of the Park's world-famous sights. Lots of people take tours, many come in cars for the day, and others camp and backpack for several days. The focus here is truly more on adventure and exploration than on food. However, after a few hours or days in the mountain air, you are sure to get hungry.
Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Village
The most interesting, elegant, and perhaps the best of all choice is the old Ahwahnee Dining Room. This huge, vaulted, elegant room is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea. The menus vary with the seasons and in the evening you must dress in something more elegant than shorts and T-shirts, but you will experience a taste of the original park both in dishes and decor. The Yosemite Lodge Food Court. Visitors will not have to wander very far in the Village to find some sort of restaurant or snack bar.
Wawona and Southern Yosemite
Three restaurants are in the park, but outside of the Valley. On the east side, you can have breakfast and dinner at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Restaurant (make reservations for evening meals); its prime rib and New York steak dinners are highly praised and sought after by hungry hikers.
Off Highway 41 is the Wawona Hotel Dining Room. Like the hotel, the room is full of light and airy ambience. The food has a good reputation for both quality and quantity. Breakfast is bacon or sausage and eggs, or French toast; lunch is a buffet that changes with the seasons and often includes local fresh vegetables and herbs. At dinner, you will find some amazing delicacies including Indian Tom's South Fork Trout or crackling roast duckling.
On the west side of the park, along Highway 120, is the White Wolf Lodge Restaurant. Open for breakfast and dinner, its casual dining room serves the usual bacon and eggs for breakfast and has a dinner menu that changes with the season—most days offer dinner specials that can include fish, chicken, beef, pasta or vegetarian dishes. The portions are large; the quality is excellent; and, the staff is happy to share 'secret vantage points' within the park.
Outside the Park
Variety abounds as you travel to and from the Park. If you are coming from Lee Vining, you will find several casual and fun places there, like Niceley's Restaurant, Bodie Mike's Barbeque or a top-drawer Tioga Lodge Restaurant on Mono Lake. Keep in mind that the eastern side of the Sierra often gets heavy snow in winter, so your selection during those months may be limited due to road closures.
Mariposa is an interesting little historical city on the southwest side of the park. You can enter the park on either the south or west side from here. Here you will find Gold Rush charm and the upscale Charles Street Dinner House where you will want to wear something a bit more formal than shorts and T-shirts. Midpines is in between Mariposa and the west entrance of the park and Recovery Bistro & Cafe.
Oakhurst is another area that is south of the park that offers a variety of dining choices. It also has some gold rush influence. Castillo's Mexican Food which has the look and feel of a real Mexican cantina. You can have great scones, coffee, and ice cream, as well as regular meals at the casual Yosemite Coffee and Roasting Company.
The incredible beauty of Yosemite began about 130 million years ago when a 400-mile fault line, along what is now the eastern edge of the Sierras, broke lose, and the ground on the western side was forced up to heights of over 10,000 feet. During the Ice Age, Yosemite Valley lay under 6,000 feet of ice, the Tuolumne Meadows Visitors Center under 2,000 feet. Over the millions of years since, the ice and erosion sculpted the Yosemite area into the spectacular scenery you see today.
Some 4,000 years ago, Native Americans moved into the Sierras from the east, probably looking for game and water in dry years. Later, Miwok-speaking people moved into the same area from California's central valley. Gradually the two groups merged, and for centuries they were a peaceful people living a 'hunter-gatherer' life in the greater Yosemite area, including the Mono Lake region, where the group came to be known as the Paiutes. They spent summers in Yosemite Valley, which they called 'Ahwahnee' and moved to the lowlands when winter came.
European-Americans came to the area in the 1850s looking for gold. They forced the Miwoks out of the central valley and into the mountains, despite the harsh climate. As the search for gold continued, clashes between the Native Americans and European Americans increased, with the European Americans rounding up bands of Indians and forcing them into the Mono Lake and other areas beyond the mountains. By the 1870s, there were fewer than 50 Miwoks in Yosemite Valley and the area around it. Today, visitors can hear this story at the Indian Village of Ahwahnee.
Word of the wonders of Yosemite spread quickly. In 1855, James Mason Hutchings brought the first group of tourists to the valley from San Francisco. Artist Thomas Ayres was one of the visitors and his sketches spread the fame of the area even more rapidly. Hutchings continued to promote the area, and soon roads and crude hotels were built, allowing for more and more visitors.
Early conservationists, I.W. Raymond and Fredrick Law Olmstead (the landscape artist who later created New York's Central Park) visited Yosemite and believed it should be preserved. They worked with Congress to protect the area. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that granted Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the State of California, effectively creating the world's first national park and limiting development in those two, small areas.
Rampant growth, however, continued outside the protected areas. Many, including Hutchings, scrambled to create hotels and other services to profit from the growing number of tourists. Logging, mining and stock grazing boomed as well, threatening to degrade the area.
John Muir first visited the park in 1868, returning the next summer to work as a sheepherder in the high country. In 1869, he moved into Yosemite Valley, doing odd jobs and building a cabin on Yosemite Creek. In 1871, he wrote the first of a series of newspaper articles that spawned much of the public sentiment in favor of protecting the region. He joined forces with Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of the influential Century Magazine, and the two of them resolved to create a much larger Yosemite National Park.
On October 1, 1890, the U.S. Government enacted the law, which created a park that was about 25 percent larger than the current one. Surprisingly, it did not include either Yosemite Valley or the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, which were still run by the State of California. The U.S. Army was put in charge of the National Park, and their work lives on today. They blazed trails, explored unknown areas, chased poachers and prepared many maps.
Of course, this dual control led to political differences. Soon John Muir, the newly formed Sierra Club and various citizens began to push for unification. In 1896, California formally deeded Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the Federal Government. The army continued to run the park, headquartering in the Valley.
The first automobile arrived illegally in the Valley in 1900, and by 1907 the Yosemite Rail Road was completed between El Portal and Merced, making it even easier for tourists to visit. In 1913, the army legalized cars, and they came in droves.
It was during this period that public campgrounds, including Camp Curry and other concessions, were built. In 1913, San Francisco was granted the right to dam the Tuolumne River at Hetch Hetchy over years of protesting by John Muir, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists. Many consider this the nadir of the management of the park.
The creation of a National Park Service to replace the army in 1916 signaled a change in thinking on park management. The new agency was charged to 'conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave the unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations'. This phrase still guides the National Park Service; it led to the creation of the many interpretation programs that are currently available to the public.
Today, science informs many of the efforts to preserve the park. Fire is regarded as a management tool, wild life is studied and protected, and artificial events like the Fire Fall from Glacier Point have been stopped.
The biggest challenge for the Park Service now, is how to keep the park accessible to the more than four million annual visitors without destroying it. To that end, park maintenance issues are constantly negotiated, such as the limitations on cars; they grow more stringent every year.
Entertainment in Yosemite National Park has a different meaning than it does in a city. In fact, visitors come to Yosemite to get away from nightclubs, concerts and crowded bars. Here, you will most likely find yourself singing around a campfire, taking a moonlit hike or even going to bed early in order to get up after midnight to do some stargazing. Dawn is prime time here—some claim it's when the fish bite. In many ways, you will be entertaining yourself in the Park. This is not hard to do when surrounded by some of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring scenery on the planet.
Take time to wander the John Muir Vernal Falls Mist Trail Hike. Sure there are likely to be crowds, but when you watch the play of water, mist and light, you'll know that navigating through the throngs was worth it. The falls are good listening places as well, and if you watch carefully, you may see dragonflies flitting about.
Take advantage of at least one or two Ranger Programs. The trained guides that run the programs have been operating for years and have wonderful stories to tell. Their extensive knowledge of the park is unbelievable. Feel free to ask them questions; you never know what nugget of information you may uncover.
Stroll through the Indian Village of Ahwahnee to get a taste of what the Valley was like before Westerners arrived. You may even view a demonstration of an indigenous craft. The village is an interesting place at night, too. If you happen to be here when the moon is full, you will be stunned by its dramatic impact on the landscape.
Offering free art classes for adults and children, The Art Activity Center is another park hot spot. The daily sessions can be difficult to get into during the summer, so check in early to ensure your place.
The LeConte Memorial Lodge offers entertainment of the educational variety. There are classes for both children and adults during the day and on some evenings. This meeting place for many local clubs including the Yosemite Association. These meetings are usually open to the public, so check the schedule and find out what is happening on the local front.
Live theater is alive and well in Yosemite Village. You will find it at the Yosemite Theatre. Productions are offered at the Visitor Center. Recognized by the National Park Service as one of the best interpretive programs in the park system, these plays are delightful and instructional. You might view a play about pioneers or even star in one exploring the political history of the park. Like all good theaters, this one changes its shows often, so check at the Visitor Center or in the Yosemite News for details.
Yosemite is not close to any major city, which is part of its charm. People go there to relax rather than kick up their heels. The towns around the Park are small, and entertainment is spontaneous. For instance, on some weekends, you may find live music at the Yosemite Coffee Roasting Company in Oakhurst. The musicians are usually locals, which adds to the fun.
You can enjoy a genuine Mystery Dinner starting on Friday nights at the Yosemite Trail Camp in Midpines on Highway 140. The dinner is a barbecue, and the mystery doesn't really end until breakfast the next morning—late night enthusiasts will delight in this, but you are not required to stay through the entire performance. The mysteries are usually based on early California themes.
The real trick to finding entertainment in Yosemite is to keep your eyes open. You may discover a festival, a banner stretched across the street telling of a street dance or a sign in a coffee shop promising live entertainment that evening. But most visitors to this incredible natural wonder will be so busy with outdoor activities—the hiking, biking, backpacking and simply gazing upon its majesty—that they wont want to do anything at night but turn in.