YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — I am a human cruise missile, zigging and zagging through the forest with the same technology that guides our military's smart bombs to their bridges and bunkers.
If all goes to plan, data beamed from a cluster of navigational satellites 22,240 miles overhead will steer me unerringly to my target: a bucket with some tchotchkes in it.
This relatively new pastime, basically a high-tech scavenger hunt, is called geocaching, and it's become wildly popular among owners of handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) units.
It's so popular, in fact, that the Tenaya Lodge, just outside Yosemite National Park near Wawona, began offering a geocaching program along with its nature hikes and horseback riding outings last year. I signed up for it to sample both the sport and the hotel.
Built 15 years ago and renovated recently, the 244-room Tenaya Lodge is the grandest of Yosemite's perimeter "gateway" hotels catering to the park's overflow and visitors who prefer to put a little distance between themselves and Yosemite Valley's bustle.
With a large porch supported by columns of river stones and a grand, three-story high trussed lobby with American Indian-patterned chairs and a large stone hearth, the hotel looks like a cross between the Ahwahnee and a Marriott (the company that built it.) It's now owned and managed by Delaware North Co., as are the hotels inside the park.
What it lacks in proximity to Half Dome and Yosemite Falls - it's a 40-minute drive away - it tries to make up in comfort. The rooms are modern and more spacious than those at the Ahwahnee or Yosemite Lodge, and come with cable TV and high-speed Internet access. The hotel regularly gets four diamonds from the AAA.
Tenaya Lodge began offering the geocaching program last fall, and I was one of the first to sign up. Essentially, the sport is a cross between orienteering and a treasure hunt using high-tech navigation. Someone hides a "cache" - typically a plastic or metal bucket with a lid - with a logbook and some goodies in it and publishes the precise latitude and longitude on the Web. The goal is to dial those coordinates into your handheld GPS unit and have it lead you to the stash.
Since the sport began in 2000, it has grown exponentially. According to Geocaching.com, there are currently 202,735 caches in 218 countries.
"Some people call it a hobby," said Bryan Roth, co-founder of Groundspeak, the Web site's parent company, "and others call it an addiction."
Geocachers are continually adding new wrinkles to the sport. Some transport little objects from cache to cache around the world, a high-tech twist on the famous traveling gnome.
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"There was a little Darth Vader action figure that an Air Force pilot picked up from a cache and took with him to Afghanistan," Roth said. "It's been brought back to a pub in England, and to Texas. It's traveled over 17,000 miles."
Tenaya Lodge offers both a hiking and a mountain biking version of its geocaching program. I signed up for the former. At the hotel's activity counter I was handed a small backpack, a box lunch and a Garmin Rino 130 model GPS unit, which was about the size of a small walkie talkie.
When I switched on the unit, it locked onto four satellites in geostationary orbit - meaning they appear to hover over one point on the globe - and spat out our elevation (5,288 feet) and our exact location (37 degrees, 26.402 minutes by 119 degrees, 36.237 minutes.) Depending on how well it linked up with the satellites, it was accurate to anywhere from 25 to 100 feet. With various "waypoints" pre-programmed, the GPS unit directed my wife, Jeri, and me down a series of increasingly rough dirt roads - the last was four-wheel-drive territory _ and beeped to alert me at various junctions. Or at least it was supposed to. The hotel is still working the kinks out of the system.
At a trailhead it led us up a dubious-looking, unmarked trail, through a forest of pine, cedar and manzanita, with occasional views out over the Central Valley. In the dense forest the GPS unit sometimes lost contact with the satellites and failed to notify us of a trail junction and a creek crossing, but the route was pretty obvious.
I was beginning to wonder about the point of the hike when we reached the last waypoint and found ourselves staring up gape-jawed at our own private grove of giant sequoias. They're outside Yosemite National Park and little known to the public, and as we ate our sandwiches among them, we enjoyed a serenity unknown amid the tram tours of the nearby Mariposa Grove.
It was an unexpectedly rewarding hike, but this wasn't really geocaching. Back at the car, I dialed up "cache" on the menu and the little GPS unit directed me on a short course through the forest in search of hidden treasure. As I reached each waypoint I dialed in the next one, and the gizmo's arrow pointed me in the right direction. After a few minutes I arrived at a little metal pail tucked into the bushes. I'd found my treasure.
Inside was a disposable camera with which I was invited to photograph myself for the hotel's Web site, a logbook to sign and a handful of goodies: squashed pennies with the Tenaya Lodge logo.
Under the rules of geocaching, I was supposed to take one and leave something of my own, but I'd forgotten to bring anything. I'll try to navigate my way back when I can get my hands on the Darth Vader action figure.
If you go:
GETTING THERE: Tenaya Lodge is located on state Highway 41 in Fish Camp, two miles outside Yosemite's Wawona entrance.
GEOCACHING: Packages are offered through Sept. 4 this year. The mountain bike package includes two logo backpacks, pack lunch for two, bottled waters, cache treasures and the use of two mountain bikes and a hand-held GPS unit. It costs $346 to $432 per night. The hiking package includes everything above except the bikes; it costs $266 to $352 per night.
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