Yosemite National Park, Mariposa County, California.
Yosemite National Park, Mariposa County, California. Supplied

Yosemite bows to no man

AN early snowfall set in on the ancient forests of Mariposa County in November. Thousand-year-old giant sequoia trees bowed to the oncoming storm and mountain rangers closed off the high-country roads one by one as the snow piled up to 30cm deep.

We narrowly missed the weather, having driven out of the hills as the wind picked up, fleeing an area already crisp with autumn leaves and full of the season's transitory charm.

Mariposa, in central California, has in its boundaries the alpine wilderness of Yosemite National Park. The giant sequoias there - as old as 3000 years - are noticeable as much for their elegant orange bark as the sheer girth of their trunks. The park's reputation hangs on its summer sightseeing and mountain hikes, but the wider region is seeking to extend its appeal across the four seasons.

We stayed in a high-country lodge, hushed in the shoulder season and warm with wood fires. When the forests surrounding us settled into dusk, we forgot the brightness of midday hikes and driving on tarseal, and fell into the quietude of being deep in the mountains.

In winter, we were told, the nights were even more still as black bears and squirrels hibernated at the sequoias' feet. Then the park's waterfalls roared to the melting of snow in May, like the 300,000 miners who had once rushed to the promise of gold.

Most of them were beaten down in the wilderness, the pickings too poor to even buy a passage home.

The summer holidays bring another surge as millions of people make pilgrimages to the granite cauldron of Yosemite Valley. Amid the peak heat, their cars and caravans pack the valley.

It's no wonder, because there are postcard views on every side: the towering Half Dome, El Capitan cliffs and Yosemite Falls - the tallest in the United States at 739m.

But by autumn, when we were there, the waterfalls had slowed to a trickle and the crowds scattered, while bucks descended from the cooler heights to mate.

As we left those hills ahead of the early November snow, we saw all the marks left by man and nature in their negotiations over Yosemite: the mining, tourism and geology.

A grand hotel had been carved out of the wild forests to accommodate royalty, of the old world and new: the Queen, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt and Brad Pitt. But boulders as big as houses then plunged on to its carparks, reclaiming the past, just as they did from time to time with highways and cabins.

Controlled fires also singed the trunks of sugar pines as rangers mimicked lighting strikes to freshen up the woods. They avoided, in theory, untimely blazes flaring up on family picnics.

Often they failed. A ranger recounted how a controlled burning of 37ha in 2009 had shone brightly for 16 days. It wiped out 3004ha in the wrong direction, and just 0.4ha where intended.

If human industry encroached on Yosemite's majesty, in turn the cliffs and winds could tear it back in one swipe.

The road followed a river out of the mountains to Mariposa town, the lovely county capital. We went past its historical main street in the blink of an eye, but the old storefronts carried quaint handicrafts and stylish dinners.

"It's been slow," said Sylvia Emery, the guardian of historical documents from the 1850s which are stored in the town's museum.

"We have one of the big drug stores, but that's all that's happened in the last couple of years."

New hotels, an "adventure ranch" and a conference centre were gearing up on the edges of the old town, but they were yet to make any dent on its character. Instead, they promised to take away some of the traffic clogging the valley, putting more visitors on foot and into free buses.

"We don't like change - the high school and grammar school, they're the same as they've always been for years and years and years," Emery said.

By the next morning, snow had piled on the windscreens of cars driving past. Yosemite had clicked forward a season while we slept; another turn of its ancient cycle.

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