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Vacationing on top of the world

The summit of Lembert Dome, which one guidebook described as a “huge, lopsided, smoothly polished mound of granite,” at Yosemite National Park in California

Yosemite. Labor Day Weekend. After the park had been closed for almost three weeks because of wildfire danger.

What had been planned as a time to catch up with my recently graduated, West Coast-living son had the makings of being the kind of tourist death march of which memories – few of them good – are made.

And then, quite by accident, Robert Frost intervened, and for two days we wound up on what was for the vast majority of the thousands of visitors to Yosemite that weekend the Road Not Taken. It made all the difference.

Sentinel Dome at Yosemite National Park. (Tracy Grant/Washington Post)

What follows might be considered a bit of heresy. It is a suggestion that the best way to experience Yosemite National Park is to avoid Yosemite Valley altogether.

Bear with me.

When it comes to trips, I am a planner. I love guidebooks; I live for maps. And while I have fully embraced the digital age, a trip to a national park seems worthy of the physical entity rather than the virtual ones. So I picked up a handy little tome called “Best Easy Day Hikes: Yosemite National Park” and I studied maps of the park, dominated of course by Yosemite Valley. But I was also intrigued by the newly reopened Mariposa Grove, home to the epic sequoias.

If Yosemite Valley bisects the park, Mariposa takes you on a steep jog to the south and east. To planning-mode me, it seemed to be a good spot to start the 2½ days my son and I would have in the park. Not far (which, in Yosemite, is a relative term) from Mariposa was Glacier Point, which won the distinction of being the easiest of the “Easy Day Hikes” in the book. A short jog from there was Sheldon Dome, which landed squarely in the middle of the two dozen easy hikes. We would do those before heading into the valley for the “real sights” – Vernal Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome. Day One planned.

Mariposa Grove at Yosemite National Park.

So off we set on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, leaving before dawn from our adorable Airbnb, located 45 minutes from the park. We took a southern approach, avoiding the Yosemite Valley entrance – remember, that’s the theme of this journey – and made our way to the brand-spanking-new Visitor Center at Mariposa Grove. The area had been closed for several years while renovations were done, including the creation of this spot, where cars are parked and shuttle buses boarded to limit the pollution that could damage the mammoth and ancient specimens.

The grove is spectacular, and a newly added boardwalk makes it easy for young and old to navigate a small portion of the site. But the reason for this visit with my son was to check in on him. He had graduated from college, been hired on contract in the communications department at Oculus and was living, working, breathing as a sentient adult for the first time. Weekly FaceTime calls are great; texting is terrific. But I wanted to spend some real time with this child of mine, this “old soul” from whom truths leak rather than flow.

So we abandoned the boardwalk and the chatter of other visitors to make our way to trees so iconic they have been named, including “Faithful Couple,” which is actually two trees that have over the course of a thousand years grown to have one fused trunk.

There is something profound about nothing more than the gentle crunch of pine needles under your feet, the abandon to ponder the monogamy of anthropomorphized trees, to smell – despite the remnants of fire – the unbridled freshness of air into which trees are breathing life. And to be, less than a mile from the shuttle stop, so surprisingly alone in this sacred place.

And so Mariposa Grove, off the beaten path and unlike any other part of Yosemite in its lushness, was an auspicious start to our journey. By the time we returned to the visitor center, it was clear that our early start decision had been the right one. Queues formed for shuttles; the parking lot was nearing capacity.

Our next stop was Glacier Point, where – with its much-touted views overlooking Half Dome, Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls – we encountered what I had feared for the weekend. While visitors might overlook Mariposa Grove, they do not pass by Glacier Point, and by the time we arrived at 1 p.m. on a beautiful holiday weekend, we most definitely were not alone. Circling the parking lot to find a spot – which included waiting patiently while a German family packed their gear and gathered up all the children from the restrooms, took longer than driving from Mariposa to Glacier Point.

We had resigned ourselves to battling crowds as we made our way the short distance to Sentinel Dome, another peak in the area. We were surprised, therefore, to find it relatively easy to pull onto the side of the road at the trailhead. Whatever Sentinel Dome offered, it did not attract crowds and rather than that deterring us, it enticed us.

In front of us, across a broad expanse of wildflower-strewn meadow, stood an imposing granite monolith, home to a Jeffrey pine, one of the world’s most famous dead trees – immortalized, as so much of Yosemite is, by Ansel Adams.

“Are we going up there?” Andrew asked.

Uncertain – and made a little giddy by the uncertainty, we set off. The path was flat, crossing a now-dry creek, and while we passed a pair of hikers on our way and greeted a pack on their way back, Sentinel Dome – less than three miles from Glacier Point, seemed as if it were on the opposite end of the world.

At the flattened top of granite summit were two women with three children among them frolicking on the rocks … and us. And not another soul. And when the moms announced to the boisterous crew that it was time to head down, Andrew and I had Sentinel Dome – with its stunning, unimpeded view of Half Dome, El Capitan and the breathtaking expanse of Yosemite Valley, to ourselves.