He knows we’re here,” our naturalist Pete says, in answer to my naive question, as I gawk at a bear ripping apart a fallen cedar. He’s only yards from our hiking group in California’s Yosemite National Park.
Huge paws with very noticeable claws, effortlessly tear thick shards of bark off the tree trunk. I can’t help but consider if my torso would put up any more resistance if he charged at us.
In reality though, the bear would more likely flee in fear and probably climb a tree, than attack, Pete reassuringly explains.
Rangers estimate 300-500 brown bears can be found in America’s oldest government park, which celebrates its 125th anniversary next month. They’ll often encroach on camp grounds in search of food and regularly wind up in humane bear traps dotted around the park, giving rangers the chance measure and examine them, before releasing them in less busy areas.
But as I peer through a bush, desperately trying to focus my camera for that one brilliant shot, I feel remarkably alone, sharing the fleeting experience with nothing but nature itself.
That is, I came to realise, one of the real assets of Yosemite. For a park that sees an estimated 3.7 million visitors a year, most of which spend all their time in Yosemite Valley occupying only one per cent of the park, it’s remarkably easy to find tranquillity.
We continue our walk, a hike from the visitor’s centre in the valley to Mirror Lake, at the base of Half Dome, a granite peak rising 4,800 feet above the ground. It’s a popular ascent for amateur rock climbers, who can trek up the back face, using ropes and chains permanently in place.
I can only imagine the view from the top is as spectacular as it is from the bottom, when I see the mountain’s reflection in the still water. Awestruck at the beauty before us, we sit in silence until our guide encourages us to read a selection of quotes from Scottish-born naturalist John Muir, who was writing about the park 140 years before I arrived.
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown. For going out, I found, was really going in,” Muir wrote, in the years Yosemite was his muse.
It’s true, the park does draw you in and it had taken our small group around an hour to walk only two miles, taking in scenery, marvelling at the sky-scraping cedars and sequoias, and spotting the native fauna.
The open air train tour is also a popular option for day trippers to the park, who wish to see the main sights in a short period.
I’ve never really taken to sightseeing buses, but our ‘train’ is more than that. Sarah, our guide, is as passionate as any other ranger in the park, and a wealth of information cascades over us as we pass across the valley floor.
After a few short photo stops, we arrive at the ultimate view in Yosemite, opposite Wawona Tunnel, the first vista most visitors see as they arrive at the park.
We can see across the entire valley, spotting the mountains El Capitan and Half Dome, Dana Meadows and several seasonal waterfalls, all of which are being captured on cameras, phones and video around me.
The advance of technology to record the moment amuses me, when I consider how 150 years ago, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, designating the region to be preserved for its natural beauty and for public use, the only thing visitors would take away then, were their memories.
That legislation paved the way for Yellowstone to become the country’s first federal park a few years later, and the establishment of America’s National Park program as it’s known today. Yosemite joined the rest after President Teddy Roosevelt spent a few nights in it at Muir’s invitation, and fell in love with it.
With visitors in the millions now, great efforts are being made to preserve the region, with almost 90 per cent of the park now designated as wilderness. Artificial inducements to visit the park have also been curtailed, such as the nightly ‘firefall’, where glowing embers were pushed off a cliff face to create an admittedly spectacular waterfall of fire.
Our night, however, is spent sitting under the wide open sky, competitively watching for shooting stars. I can’t imagine a finer place to lose sleep.