Yosemite National Park is the Ultimate Outdoor Classroom.
This 1,200-square-mile swath of soaring granite cliffs, towering waterfalls, and ancient sequoia groves has awed millions of visitors for over a century. “I can’t think of a better classroom,” says Beth Pratt, director of California programs for the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s my favorite place on Earth.”
Trailblaze: You can’t beat the exertion-to-reward ratio on the flat one-mile round trip from the trailhead to the base of Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America. “The Lower Yosemite Fall trail is perfect for strollers and 100 percent wheelchair accessible too,” says park ranger Scott Gediman, who lives in the park with his family.
For teenagers itching for a challenge, the seven-mile Mist Trail features hundreds of steps carved out of the cliffside, but the real thrill is getting drenched in spring and early summer from Vernal Fall. “I call it the full immersion trail,” says Gediman, who recommends timing your hike to arrive at the waterfall in late morning (10:30 to noon) to view incredible rainbows.
Take the John Muir Trail for a loop hike and a spectacular view of Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, and the back side of Half Dome. “The trail, waterfall, and granite epitomize Yosemite in so many ways,” notes Gediman.
Rock and Roll: Grab your binoculars and stake a claim in El Capitan Meadow for a picnic and front-row seat for the rock-climbing show on the monolith. (At night, keep your eyes peeled for the headlamps of climbers as they bivouac on El Cap.) “On the right flank of El Capitan many people see a dark shape that looks like part of a map of North America. Look for a ponderosa pine growing on a ledge not far from where the Yucatán might be,” says Pete Devine, resident naturalist at the Yosemite Conservancy. The action on El Capitan happens from mid-September through late October.
Inspired? All levels of climbing lessons are offered daily.
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Stargaze: Head to Glacier Point, a granite outcropping that affords a sweeping view of the valley, in time to catch the sunset. Find a spot at the amphitheater and watch for the alpenglow “when the setting sun lights up the rocks and peaks—especially the snowy peaks to the east,” suggests Devine. Nightfall reveals a clear sky crammed with stars. “Look for the Summer Triangle, which is visible in evenings through the summer.”
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This piece, written by Margaret Loftus, appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.