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Weekend Escape: Yosemite National Park : Tent Tales : The Digs Were Spartan but the Setting Sublime for Only Dollars a Day

May 08, 1994|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Haldane is a reporter for The Times' Orange County Edition

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The epiphany came for me late one afternoon on the banks of the Merced River as I demonstrated abominably average rock-skipping skills to my 9-year-old daughter, Adina.

"Wow, look at that," she exclaimed to her little brother, Drew. "Dad is good at everything!"

The comment took me back about 35 years to a similar demonstration by another dad-- mine. I remembered my own childish wonder at his skipping prowess, the comforting feeling that he knew everything, could do anything.

Such sentiments are fleeting, of course, soon to be replaced by the knowledge that our parents are certainly fallible and we are basically in the game alone. For a few shining moments, though, people with children get their turns in the sun. Several of my turns have come at Yosemite, a place I consider among the most beautiful on earth. It was to this wilderness paradise that I recently brought my children to engage in the ritual that my own father shared with me, the family semi-camp-out.

We had begun our trip not knowing exactly what to expect; common wisdom has it that you have to call months in advance for reservations. Yet we called a couple of weeks ahead and easily reserved space at Curry Village, a relatively inexpensive resort at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley.

Here, for $37.50 a night, a family of three can rent one of 450 tent cabins, primitive accommodations consisting of permanent wood frames four steps off the ground with wooden floors and canvas walls. There's no heat, closet, carpeting, bathroom or kitchen. Just a couple of beds, a dresser and the nearby community shower; considerably more Spartan than a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel for $208, or one at Yosemite Lodge for $77.

Yet it was also more comfortable than an $8 campsite, affording the illusion of camping without all of its attendant hassles. And, we were told, generally available on short notice anytime except June, July or August. Perfect for what was to be our second trip to Yosemite together in the 2 1/2 years since my wife and I separated, dividing our households and our time with the kids.

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Leaving Los Angeles on a Saturday morning during Adina and Drew's spring vacation in early April, we made it to Yosemite Valley in just over seven hours--an enormous chunk of it spent trying to get out of the city itself. To facilitate the trip, we packed apples and cherry yogurt in an ice chest and rented something I highly recommend when traveling with youngsters: a series of children's books on tape.

Emerging finally from the Wawona Tunnel--a long passage that burrows through a mountain to burst dramatically onto the first vista of Yosemite Valley--I stopped the car long enough for the kids to gasp at the fairy-like specter of Bridalveil Falls cascading down the face of a distant cliff. Then it was on to Curry Village to check into our tent, unpack our bags and take an exploratory stroll.

Lots of other families with children were around, as well as a few young couples and what looked like some youth groups. They, and we, cheerfully wandered past the outdoor amphitheater where forest rangers lecture nightly, in and out of the gift shop, sport shop, ice cream parlor and burger joint, and through the village lounge with its comfortable couches and huge stone fireplace. We toured the rest of the campground, peering casually through the windows of the tidy heated cabins available at $49.50 per night without bathrooms or $63.75 with them.

For dinner, the children decided on pizza at the Curry Village pizzeria. Almost immediately, they spotted a raccoon meandering among the tables on the patio. They dubbed it "Bandit" and watched for half an hour as I finished my Coke and chatted about earthquakes with an amiable couple from England. Then, after a rest in the lounge during which I read a book and the kids drew pictures, we retired to our tent where I--wracked by cold and the loud snores of a next-tent neighbor--spent the night tossing and turning while the little ones dreamed heavily of bears and waterfalls.

The price of our accommodations included sheets, pillows and as many wool blankets as we could muster, but the 42-degree nighttime temperature made me glad that we'd brought our sleeping bags as well. Snuggled deeply into them, rest came more easily on subsequent nights.

The next day was Sunday, a glorious blue cloudy day with the great Half Dome looming moodily over Curry Village and the little town of tents. Walking in sweaters to the village cafeteria, we found a long line of sleepy-looking guests snaking past an almost confounding array of aromatic foods. For about $18, we finally settled on a breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns, pancakes and juice. Then we set off toward Mirror Lake on a 1.5-mile trail dotted with huge granite rock formations featuring cavernous "rooms" that provided the perfect grist for youthful imaginations.

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