There's really no best time of year to visit Yosemite, often referred to as the crown jewel of national parks. Ever since California Route 140 (a.k.a. the "All Year Highway") opened in 1926, snow lovers have had as much access to this High Sierra sanctuary as waterfall watchers, wildflower aficionados, and foliage freaks (winter, spring, summer, and fall, respectively). Urban-dwelling Californians have long thought of Yosemite (which encompasses 1,170 square miles--an area the size of Rhode Island) as an accessible escape from the crush of city life.
Reaching the 3,000-foot sheer granite cliffs, towering ponderosa pine groves, and cascading waterfalls of Yosemite Valley requires a mere five- to six-hour road trip from San Francisco or Los Angeles, making it a natural addendum to a queer romp in those storied cities. Though you won't find gay or lesbian bars within the park (thank God!), you will likely spot fellow queer travelers in the lodges and campgrounds and on the endless hiking trails.
Of course, Yosemite offers more than just hiking. Depending on the season, activities could include rock climbing, rafting, snowboarding, or fishing. You can even take an outdoor watercolor class offered by the park's Art Activity Center (an instructor lovingly described my primitive rendering of Half Dome, one of the most iconic landmarks in the park, as "very...interesting").
Summer is by far the park's most popular (yes, crowded) season, so unless you crave the sight of flowering dogwood--one of the park's many June-blooming wildflowers--you may want to wait until the trees are flush with fall colors before braving the roads. Come winter, one of the few accessible areas in the park is Yosemite Valley, where the Great Lounge in the grand Ahwahnee Lodge, built in 1927, is the backdrop for several cozy events including Yosemite Vintners' Holidays, where guests and visitors can experience free seminars and tastings featuring vinters from California's best wineries. The other big event is a three-hour Christmas pageant, the Bracebridge Dinner, which features a seven-course dinner, costumed characters, and lively carols.
When the snow starts to melt in April and May, and Yosemite Valley's world famous waterfalls take center stage, it's almost impossible to find words to describe the park's awesome grandeur. John Muir, one of the first advocates for federal protection of Yosemite, put it best in an 1870 letter predicting the resilience of the park's natural assets: "The tide of visitors will float slowly about the bottom of the valley as a harmless scum, collecting in hotel and saloon eddies, leaving the rocks and falls eloquent as ever and instinct with imperishable beauty and greatness."
He certainly had the right perspective.
ACCOMODATIONS While Yosemite still offers plenty of places to pitch a tent, the days of being forced to rough it like John Muir are long gone. Visitors have had the option of staying in grand luxe style since 1927, the year the Ahwahnee Lodge (east of Yosemite Village, 559-253-5635, $379-$936) opened. Ideally situated within view of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Glacier Point, this massive stone and timber edifice houses 99 rooms (another 24 cottages are accessible via a winding path that leads from the main lodge). It does bear an eerie resemblance to the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, right down to the art deco and Native American design motifs. The Ahwahnee tends to attract a mostly heterosexual, affluent, older crowd, but the general vibe among the staff and guests is definitely gay-welcoming. Tenaya Lodge (1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, 888-514-2167, $265-$309), located just outside the park's south entrance, lacks the quirky charm of the Ahwahnee but redeems itself with contemporary creature comforts such as in-room wi-fi and spacious, well-appointed bathrooms. The Victorian-style Wawona (four miles from Yosemite's south entrance on Highway 41, 559-253-5635, $99-$175) is one of the oldest mountain resort hotels in California. Forty-eight of its 104 rooms were renovated in 2002. If you want to rough it without the bother of setting up a tent, check into Housekeeping Camp (559-252-4848, $67), where you'll get three concrete walls, one curtain wall, sleeping space for six people, and a covered patio. The 266 units are nestled along the sandy beaches of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.
RESTAURANTS The concessions inside Yosemite have improved considerably since the Delaware North Companies took over in 1993. The Ahwahnee Dining Room (east of Yosemite Village, 209-372-1489) is by far the best of the lot. Seated beneath its 34-foot-high vaulted ceiling, guests feast on such culinary delights as Angus beef tenderloin, crispy-skin Pacific black cod, and smoked duck carbonara. The other fine-dining option in Yosemite Valley is the Mountain Room Restaurant (Yosemite Lodge, 209-372-1281), which offers BBQ pork loin, steak, pasta, and grilled trout and salmon--but the best treat that it offers is unobstructed views of Yosemite Falls. Just outside the park at the Tenaya Lodge, the Sierra Restaurant (1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, 888-514-2167) features executive chef Frederick Clabaugh's "Sierra Alpine cuisine," a mix of fresh local produce, seafoods, and pastas. For lighter fare, Degnan's Deli (Yosemite Village, 209-372-8454) serves up delicious deli sandwiches, fresh salads, and gourmet coffee.
INFO Comprehensive trip-planning information can be found at the National Park Service's site. For information on a wide variety of park activities, including climbing, horseback riding, golfing, backpacking, rafting, biking, fishing, and more, visit the DNC Parks and Resorts site.