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Nature's marvels, on extravagant display

No place offers a surer or thriftier path to beauty and inspiration than our national parks.

May 25, 2003|Arthur Frommer | Special to The Times

I recently returned from a three-night stay in Yosemite National Park, which I reached after a pleasant 5 1/2-hour drive in a rented car from San Francisco International Airport. I went there in late April -- still chilly and off-season. There were few other visitors. The experience was memorable.

The great national parks of the United States -- especially Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon -- are among the crowning glories of our country. They are the highlights of American travel, and not to have visited all three is to have missed something unique and precious in American life.

They are inexpensive. People 62 and older pay $10 for a lifetime pass (the Golden Age Passport) to every national park, valid not only for the bearer's admission but also for everyone accompanying the senior citizen in a car. Those younger than 62 pay $50 for one year's unlimited admission to every national park, again including every family member or friend in the car driven by that pass holder.

Once in the parks, you find accommodations for every budget; in Yosemite, for instance, a family of four pays $59 a night for a tent cabin with comfortable beds, platform deck and heater. Space for your own tent and sleeping bag, or for your RV, is cheaper still. Cafeterias in every park sell bountiful, tasty meals for less than $10. Free shuttle buses take you from one major area to another.

Although every park has one upscale lodge (the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, El Tovar in Grand Canyon), they tend to be unobtrusive, and the overwhelming bulk of lodgings is in rustic, inexpensive cabins, tent cabins and tents. People wear casual clothing, generally park their cars out of sight and engage in nature hikes as their chief activity.

Visitors tend to support one another. If a coyote or bear is sighted, they draw attention to the animal by waving to others. They freely offer advice and suggestions. They know that many visitors are tourists from Europe, South America and Asia, and they take special pains to greet and assist those guests.

Stand for a moment on a walking trail and view the faces of your fellow visitors; you will find smiles of relaxation and enchantment. The great U.S. national parks affect our sense of well-being like a giant Jacuzzi, a massive massage table, a steam room. Wealthy patrons of elegant spas spend upward of $600 a day for such contentment and even then often fail to achieve the relief from stress that one of these wonders of nature provides.

At Yosemite, the great activity is to walk on level paths through the famous valley and on mountain trails described as "easy," "moderate" and "strenuous" in helpful free literature.

If you have never seen the geologic formations and awesome waterfalls of Yosemite, if you have never gasped at the extraordinary vistas of the Grand Canyon, if you have never marveled at the steam spouting from the earth of Yellowstone, you should make an immediate resolution to visit one of them. And once there, you will resolve to return as often as you can and to visit others in their turn.

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