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You need a day or so to take in the scale. And then there’s the waterfalls. Come April, when snowmelt is at its peak, the thunder of Yosemite Falls resonates through the valley in a constant, crashing hum. But, for all its hugeness, the seven-by-one-mile valley constitutes a mere five per cent of the park’s total size. To grasp just how big Yosemite really is, hit the trail.

The most ambitious ascend Half Dome before dawn, but this demands peak fitness. Instead, head for the lower part of John Muir Trail, which meanders along the Merced River through oak and pine forests. Grandparents and kids usually turn back after the first mile, once they’ve glimpsed Vernal Fall from a rustic footbridge. The better target: the 2.7-mile hike to the top of Nevada Fall, where the cascade roars like a jet engine. ‘You’re assured a spectacular rainbow as you ascend the granite steps to Vernal Fall,’ says park ranger Scott Gediman. ‘As water cascades down the walls, it conjures the glaciers that cut through the Merced River Canyon 1.2 million years ago to form Yosemite Valley.’

If you had two months spare, you could continue 209 more miles to Mt Whitney (4,418m), the highest peak in the lower 48 states. To learn just how big California really is takes time – and a good pair of boots.

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Where to eat
The Dining Room at the 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel merits a look even if you don’t stop for a large meal. Granite pillars line the 10m-high dining room, its ceiling crisscrossed with timbers. The food costs twice as much as it should: you’re paying for the room. Go for a carbo-loaded breakfast before hiking, or midday for a lazy lunch, when you can take in the grassy meadow and soaring granite-wall views (lunch mains from £10).

Where to stay
Staying in Yosemite Valley proper saves time. Of the three valley lodgings, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is the mid-range choice, with simple chainhotel- style rooms, in two-storey buildings, all newly refurbished. Its best feature is its location: smack next to the falls, on the shuttle-bus route and within walking distance of major trailheads. The on-site restaurant serves steak, pasta and seafood, and there’s a food court, ideal for those on a budget (£144 summer, £85 winter).

Point Reyes: Best for wildlife spotting
Point Reyes is about 230 miles northwest of Yosemite National Park, under 5 hours by car.

When the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco and levelled the city, Point Reyes Peninsula moved a whopping 6m northwestward. To prove it there’s a broken fence along the Earthquake Trail near the Bear Valley Visitor Center. As the main road, Sir Francis Drake Blvd, crosses a short bridge connecting the mainland and the peninsula, it’s hard to imagine that the little creek beneath sits atop such a massive rift zone.

Point Reyes National Seashore’s western tip juts 10 miles out to sea and stands 183m high, with sea lions lazing on the rocks below. It’s an ideal perch from which to see the January-to-May migration of California grey whales. Just east at Chimney Rock is a large elephant seal breeding colony, complete with a dedicated lookout spot.

‘My favourite time of year is winter,’ says park ranger Doug Hee. ‘The migrating whales, the mating elephant seals, the profusion of wildflowers – everything comes alive in colour from January to April.’

Wintertime bird-watching is sensational, especially from a kayak on Tomales Bay. The Pacific Flyway, the route migrating flocks follow between the tropics and the Arctic, sits just overhead. ‘Forty-five per cent of all North American bird species have been spotted at Point Reyes – there are great opportunities to see very rare birds,’ says Hee.

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