My 5-year-old is so giddy, he's doing a happy dance atop his father's shoulders. It's a crisp Saturday morning, and we are standing before Yosemite's Tunnel View with a small group of hikers. The bright sun casts shadows on the iconic El Capitan and Half Dome rock formations as Benjamin regales us with imagined tales of the creatures lurking beyond the basin.
He gets this way -- joyful, then focused and professorial -- when immersed in the natural world. I remember how excited he was when he spotted the wonderfully spiky silversword plant on a recent trip to Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park and how smitten he was by Olympic National Park's Hoh Rainforest.
Unlike those trips, where we drove and discovered on our own, this time we decided to put ourselves in the hands of an expert for our first family trip to Yosemite. As our senior naturalist guide -- Kevin Perry from Groveland's Rush Creek and Evergreen lodges -- pointed out the light, swaying flow of Bridalveil Fall, I realized something. Sure, the greatest gift you can give kids is a love of the outdoors. But the greatest gift you can give yourself is an excursion that is manageable in duration and intensity -- with plenty of snacks and periodic piggy-back rides.
We chose this particular tour for its half-day length and easy, mostly flat walks designed for families with kids 4 and older. In addition to lunch and transportation, Perry promised to provide history lessons about Yosemite's most famous and impressive wonders, as well as a few hidden treasures only a seasoned expert would know.
As we hopped in the van and drove along the gurgling Merced River toward the national park's northern entrance, Perry explained the difference between the 300 to 500 American black bears that live in Yosemite and the California grizzly, which no longer exists here, despite its presence on the state flag. Euro-American settlers perceived grizzles as a threat to life and property and killed them in large numbers. The last one was shot outside the Yosemite region in the early 1920s, Perry told us. Everyone in the van let that one sink in.
We parked in the Valley and made our way through the towering trees toward Yosemite Falls, as Perry pointed out a cluster of rocks that some kids were using as a makeshift slide. He encouraged Benjamin and the other child in our group to join him (sweet: first climbing lesson). From there, we made the short, paved walk to the base of the falls and took in all three: Upper Yosemite Falls (1,430 feet), the Middle Cascades (675 feet) and Lower Yosemite Falls (320 feet) with their strong, steady streams that, come spring, transform into roaring runoff.
After taking us to stunning viewpoints of Half Dome, our guide knew we were ready for a break. Perry led us to a clearing in neighboring Sentinel Meadow, where we sat outside the old superintendent's house, which was set awash during the 1997 Yosemite Flood.
We munched sandwiches, chips and apples from our sack lunches and asked Perry to share his most incredible hiking story. He'd been hiking -- not here, but in the Mojave Desert along a ravine on the Pacific Crest Trail, when he suddenly heard a loud buzzing in the dry grass. The word "rattlesnake" entered his mind, and he started to high step and run.
"Then I felt the wind of the snake as it struck after me," he told the kids, who weren't the only ones with eyes wide. "I was just inches from being bitten by one mean Mojave rattlesnake!"
We sat motionless, imagining a run-in with a rattlesnake. It was so quiet that the only sound we could hear was the wind tickling the grass. Then, a pair of deer appeared in our clearing, their serene pose banishing any thought of rattlers -- and Benjamin grinned once more.
IF YOU GO
The National Park Service offers a Little Cubs (kids 3-6) program that allows kids to earn a button during their visit to Yosemite Valley by completing a self-guided booklet ($3) published by the Yosemite Conservancy. They have a similar Junior Rangers program ($3.50) for children ages 7-13. Find more information at https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/kidsyouth/beajuniorranger.htm.
Guests staying at Groveland's Rush Creek Lodge have several Yosemite tour options, including the half-day Range of Light tour, which runs from 9:15 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and includes lunch and transportation. The tour is $95 for adults and $65 for children under 13; www.rushcreeklodge.com.
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