TUOLUMNE COUNTY, Calif. -- It was not exactly white-water rafting. In the heart of Yosemite National Park, we were on an inflatable raft in the Merced River, which, far from being on a rampage, was from time to time only mildly agitated.
White-water types, we were told, like Class 5 rapids. According to Scott Gediman, Yosemite park spokesman, the Merced was "about Class 1 1/2, mostly smooth water, but some of the time a minor rapids, especially right after the bridges."
But if the river wasn't thrilling, the scenery was. The massive monolith El Capitan, 3,600 feet high above the valley floor and the world's largest piece of solid granite rock, rose toward the sky on our left. Half Dome, a huge, hulking shape, towered 4,700 feet above us. Those and the other granite monuments, each unique, looked as if they had been carved by some cosmic sculptor.
No matter where we floated, we never lost sight of Yosemite Falls descending thunderously. We saw the falls cascade 2,425 feet down a granite cliff, making this the tallest waterfall in North America, equal in height to 13 Niagaras.
We had been issued paddles and life jackets, but my three male raft-mates had agreed that I was not to paddle, since I tended to turn the raft around. I liked this arrangement, for I could concentrate on what is surely one of the country's most celebrated national treasures, a sublime landscape that arouses reverence for nature. Yosemite is, in a word, magical.
This was my first visit to the 1,170-square-mile park, an area about the size of Rhode Island. And although I would have liked to stay longer, I found that a long weekend was enough time to get a feel for the park and other parts of Tuolumne County in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We spent the first two nights in the town of Sonora and the last night in Groveland, a gateway to the park, which is 24 miles away.
If you've heard that the park is sometimes so crowded that cars are turned away, that's not true, Gediman said. "Anyone who comes to Yosemite will get in," he said. "We can park 1,200 vehicles at a time. We do encourage people to park their cars at the main Yosemite parking area and ride the free shuttle bus to the various stops throughout the valley."
On a two-hour tram ride in Yosemite, Jay Sammer, a park ranger, gave us a brief lesson in geology and showed us the famed granite monuments, verdant meadows, and peaceful woodlands. Some statistics: Yosemite has 37 species of native trees, 800 miles of hiking trails, 240 species of birds, 80 species of mammals. Most of all, we wanted to see one of the 300 to 500 black bears that inhabit Yosemite. Although we had no luck, we did see deer and ducks. "I see a bear on one out of about five of these tours," Sammer said. "Their name is misleading since a black bear might be blond, cinnamon-colored, brown, or black."
Sammer pointed out miniscule dots on the vertical granite of El Capitan. "Those are people climbing it," he said. An estimated 150,000 climbers from around the world come to Yosemite each year for the challenge of its granite walls. The park has a mountaineering school that offers lessons at this rock-climbing mecca.
Although it was the main event of our weekend, Yosemite was not the only delight of the trip. So were the county's gold-rush towns, its many fine restaurants, and gorgeous Lake Don Pedro with its 160 miles of shoreline and black bass that can reach 20 pounds. We also enjoyed visiting Columbia State Historic Park, created to preserve and interpret a typical gold-rush town during 1850-70, when $87 million in gold was found there.
At Columbia, you can pan for gold, ride in a mud wagon, and visit shops where costumed craftsmen demonstrate skills from the era. We were told there were 50 saloons in the town during the gold-rush days. Brothels thrived. "In 1853, women started to come here -- wives, that is," said Michelle Hofmann, state park interpreter. "The `fancy ladies' were here from the start."
Many Americans, including those who live in the historic and often charming towns that once were the epitome of rowdiness and lawlessness, imagine the gold-rush era in romantic terms. But what was romantic for some was calamitous for others, specifically the Me-Wuk Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the region. (Their re-created village and the Native American museum in Yosemite are not to be missed.)
"Gold mining had a disastrous impact on our people's way of life," said Sonny Hendricks, a Me-Wuk leader who has worked in tribal government for 40 years. "The people were forced out of their native lands, and the environment was ruined through dredging, sluicing, and using arsenic to extract the gold.
Hendricks worked to develop the Me-Wuks' thriving Black Oak Casino, which will be substantially expanded by December. When we visited, it had 600 slot machines; the new casino will have 940 slots, 24 gaming tables, and a bowling alley. On the second day of our trip, we drove to the Moccasin Point Marina in Jamestown to rent a boat to explore Lake Don Pedro, which was a beautiful Aegean blue. Forever Resorts owns the boats and rents a wide range, from $70-a-day fishing boats to their most deluxe, a 70-foot-long houseboat that costs $3,595 for three days and can accommodate 12 in style. Whatever you rent, anchor it and swim in the crystal-clear warm water.
In Groveland, we loved the Groveland Hotel, which dates to 1849, when it was known as "the best on the hill." The original adobe building has been renovated by owners Grover and Peggy Mosley and furnished with fine antiques.
Despite such sophistication, Groveland's original name of Garrote -- a stark reminder of how often the hangman's noose was used there -- reminded us that this was, after all, a rough gold-mining town, part of California's colorful history.
Vera Vida is a freelance writer from Cohasset.