GROVELAND — Along with Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, Yosemite is one of my favorite national parks. Unfortunately, more than 3 million annual visitors share my sentiments.
“In Yosemite Valley, it’s a bit of a bun fight,” said tourist Elaine Harris, using the British slang for a frenzied scramble. At Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, she said, crowds jostled for seats in the cafeteria. And it wasn’t even summer.
Harris, a holistic therapist visiting from England found Evergreen Lodge an hour’s drive northwest, a place “much more peaceful.”
Seeking a more serene Yosemite, my partner, Wesla, and I visited Evergreen Lodge in April. The refurbished and expanded lodge in Groveland is about a mile from the Hetch Hetchy entrance to the park’s less-visited northwestern corner.
What we lost in proximity to Yosemite Valley the hub of park activity we made up by joining bicycling and fly-fishing excursions led by Evergreen’s guides. In the evenings, we enjoyed family films, slide shows and s’mores. Our simple cabin seemed sublimely remote.
During our four-day weekend, we did venture into the valley to visit the imposing Ahwahnee hotel, Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall.
We stayed in a spacious and pristine cabin with a private deck overlooking the forest. It was sparsely but smartly furnished with a queen bed, a sofa bed and a compact cast-iron stove to warm the room. Vintage photos and a topological map of the area adorned the walls. It did not have a phone or TV. The cabin lacked kitchen facilities; staff said that was to discourage bear visits. The refrigerator sitting on the floor was so tiny that I mistook it for a safe. We crammed our breakfast fixings into it and slept.
The rest of our stay was wonderful.
The Evergreen Lodge has been a meeting spot in the Yosemite area since Warren G. Harding was in the White House. The main lodge building that contains its restaurant, bar and poolroom opened around 1921, said co-owner Lee Zimmerman.
Eighteen cabins were added to the grounds in the next several decades.
The lodge also schedules activities geared to families and outdoor enthusiasts.
Friday morning found us pedaling out the lodge gate and onto Cherry Lake Road for a mostly downhill 14-mile ride through Stanislaus National Forest, which abuts Yosemite on the west.
On our right was a 1,200-foot drop plunging into the Poopenaut Valley, carved by the coursing Tuolumne River. Then we threaded through a cathedral of ponderosa pines, glided past Day-Glo green meadows and sped down a brake-squeezing screamer of a hill toward our goal: Rainbow Pool, with its cascades and summer swimming hole.
Our guide, Steve, was laid-back but careful, alerting us to the occasional oncoming car. In 2 1/2 hours, we passed nary another cyclist. Jason, the lodge’s recreation manager, met us at the end and loaded the bikes into his truck, sparing us the uphill return.
Hardly winded, Wesla and I picked up our car and headed for O’Shaughnessy Dam, nine miles to the northeast.
The dam, dating to the 1920s, pens up the Tuolumne to create Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which provides water for more than 2 million Bay Area residents and is a cause celebre for nature lovers. The Hetch Hetchy Valley, now submerged under 300 feet of water, once rivaled Yosemite in beauty. At least that’s what naturalist John Muir believed.
The dam is a study in contrasts. On one side, the Tuolumne tumbled wildly down a boulder-strewn course. On the other side, the placid deep-blue reservoir reflected clouds and canyon walls.
After a short hike near the reservoir, we hurried back to the lodge for an afternoon dry-casting lesson, where Wesla proved herself a complete natural at fly casting. But when it came time for the real thing, she demurred, too tender-hearted even for catch-and-release.
As a result, my half-day fly-fishing outing turned into a private lesson. By 8:30 a.m. Saturday, I was up to my hip waders in the rushing Tuolumne, hypnotized by the parabola of my fishing line as it looped through the air and slapped onto the water.
I didn’t land a trout. But I learned a lot: how to read swirling waters to find trout hide-outs. How to gauge what fish are eating by studying bug remains squished under rocks. Why fly-fishing is as much about meditation as catching fish.
In the evenings, Evergreen’s recreation center, with its enticing fireplace, was abuzz with families playing board games, children assembling s’mores and guests logging onto the Internet and phoning home.
Wesla and I drove to Yosemite Valley, where we had a fancy lunch at the Ahwahnee and admired $13.5-million worth of scenic paths, educational plaques and other recent improvements to the base of Yosemite Falls.
The three falls combined, the highest in North America were commanding and incomparably scenic. But the standing-room-only crowds on the park’s free shuttle buses made us glad to get back to the Evergreen, where we caught up with tourist Harris and her friend.
“I like the energy up here,” Harris said as we dug into desserts in the dining room. “The people are lovely. I’d definitely stay here again.”