Even if you’re a frequent visitor to Yosemite, seeing it in winter will be like seeing it for the first time. There is always a sunrise, a sunset, a lifting fog, a changing shadow and a wind driven snow that changes the landscape by the hour. And, if you haven’t been there at all, winter is the best way to first experience this 1,200-square-mile wilderness park, the first created in the United States. The throngs of summer visitors and lines are non-existent and the park takes on a tranquil atmosphere.
Hiking the ancient, giant sequoias in winter is a peaceful experience you won’t soon forget, and a perfect way to de-stress after the holidays. In fact, the moment you enter the park you can’t help but feel a little calmer. But, don’t let the fact the landscape is blanketed with snow fool you into thinking there is nothing to do.
The perfect winter escape starts by checking into one of the several lodges or inns found in the Yosemite Valley. While there are several that fit within most people’s budgets, the Ahwahnee Hotel is the most spectacular. A National Historic Landmark, this massive, six-story structure was built in the 1927 and blends in with the backdrop of the mountains all around it.
Inside the towering ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows seem to bring the dramatic scenery indoors. Nowhere in the Ahwahnee is the study of size and grace more apparent than in the magnificent Great Lounge featuring fabrics with designs, colors and patterns reflecting the Native American heritage found in the hotel’s original décor. The Great Lounge is 77 feet long, 51 feet wide and 24 feet high and is flanked by grand fireplaces on each end so large you can stand in them or sit on one of their built in benches to stay warm. There are 10 floor-to-ceiling windows, each with a top panel done in an original stained glass Indian design.
While you may be in a national park you certainly won’t be roughing it while staying in one of the Ahwahnee guestrooms. Each room features specially designed headboards, storage chests and armoires and window treatments that frame the spectacular scenery visible from most rooms.
Whether you are just spending a day in Yosemite or several nights, it is mandatory to enjoy at least one meal in The Ahwahnee Dining Room, which has played host to presidents, royalty, celebrities, and countless visitors. It is often regarded as one of the most impressive dining rooms in the United States. Like the rest of the hotel the height of the room immediately impresses as it soars 34 feet overhead and is crisscrossed with logs of stripped sugar pine. Wrought iron candelabras hang from the timbers and gleam off the fine china giving the restaurant an elegant yet rustic feel that goes perfect with the mountain surroundings.
For all you foodies out there, winter offers a special time at the Ahwahnee. This year marks the 24th Annual Chef’s Holiday held each January and February. Featuring some of America’s most innovative and acclaimed chefs, this special package includes a “Meet the Chefs” reception, cooking demonstrations and behind-the-scenes kitchen tours of The Ahwahnee’s cavernous 6,500-square-foot kitchen. On the final evening, the Gala Chefs’ Dinner provides a fitting finale with a memorable five-course feast highlighting the specialties of the celebrity guest chef and paired with wine.
While there is a lot to marvel at and do indoors, the reason to come to Yosemite in winter is the outdoor wonder. For skiers, Badger Pass Ski area is California’s original skiing spot established back in 1935. Today, it offers five lifts and 10 runs on 85 acres (35 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate and 15 percent advanced). Badger Pass also has a day lodge, full rental shop, two fast food restaurants and a sports shop.
For those wanting a slightly slower pace, Badger also is home to The Cross Country Ski Center, which offers classes in cross-country skiing and guided trans-Sierra trips to Glacier Point Ski Hut. Cross-country skiers can enjoy 25 miles of groomed track and 90 miles of marked trail. But to really get back to nature take a ranger-led snowshoe walk. These beautiful treks take you to some enchanting spots within the park. For something really different, time your trip to coincide with the full moon and take the moonlight snowshoeing tour. Free shuttle buses transport skiers from Yosemite Valley hotels to Badger Pass twice daily.
Another winter activity is the beautiful ice-rink in Curry Village. Nestled in the shadows of two of Yosemite’s most dramatic sights, Glacier Point and Half Dome Mountain, there simply couldn’t be a more romantic place to skate. Every year between November and March since 1928 when the Winter Club flooded the parking lot, there has been skating here. Now the rink has all the amenities of a modern skating surface with skate rentals, a warming hut, and cubbies for shoes. For those who don’t want to partake of the ice the best thing here is the outdoor fire pit. The store next door sells hot chocolate and the ingredients to make your own smores over the open fire.
Before you go: Between October and March, two-wheel drive vehicles require tire chains or bring a four-wheel drive vehicle and have chains available. For weather information, call (209) 372-0200, or visit www.BadgerPass.com.
Dan Dawson is a travel journalist and dedicated world traveler who has written articles for many publications on adventures abroad. He is also the marketing manager for the Big Blue Bus. Tell him about your favorite vacation spot at www.WonderlustTravel.com