In winter, a hush and holy stillness settles over Yosemite National Park. It is, by any standards, a most magical and enchanting time to visit. On peaceful walks, you can easily imagine John Muir's first sighting of these granite domes and thundering waterfalls. In the chill of the day, under sapphire skies, the howls of coyotes drift across the Valley and mingle with mist floating above the meadows.
During this season, Yosemite’s waterfalls come roaring back to life courtesy of winter snow and rain. Any visit should include a hike to Yosemite Falls. Stream-fed, the voice of Yosemite Falls is a constant this time of year. The reality that this is the highest waterfall in North America is drowned out by the crashing din, “it’s overwhelming – dizzying,” says one couple. “The word ‘awesome’ simply isn’t enough.” In the morning chill, early risers are treated to snow showers created by the fall’s spray.
During warmer months, visitors from around the world flock to Yosemite. Post-summer and autumn, the visitor tide ebbs, heralding an unhurried transition into a frosty hibernation. Following major holidays, Yosemite settles down for a winter nap. Less traffic in, out and around the Park is a bonus, not to mention that accommodations are more attainable.
Opened in 1927, the majestic lady of Yosemite is The Ahwahnee hotel. This celebrated Four-Diamond resort perches grandly amid the pines and by the granite Royal Arches. The Ahwahnee’s regal architectural details combine the best of the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts movements with a splash of Native American and Middle Eastern influences. Spacious common areas, 99 elegantly appointed rooms and 24 cottages offer exceptional romantic appeal and stunning views of Half Dome, Glacier Point and Yosemite Falls – three of Yosemite’s most famous natural landmarks.
Sun-drenched days in the Valley can be warm, but anytime is optimal for snuggling in front of a roaring fire. The Ahwahnee’s massive stone fireplaces and comfortable lounges offer reprieves from the cold. Guests Linda and Brad retreat to the Great Lounge to relax and read. “They wait on you hand and foot,” say Linda and Brad. Celebrating their anniversary, they both agree that, “If we could only go one place, it would be Yosemite.”
Yosemite Village is an easy walk or shuttle ride from The Ahwahnee and other Valley lodgings. Leave your vehicle parked during your stay and take advantage of environmentally-friendly transit. Snow doesn’t stay long on the Valley floor, so walks and hikes are always possible. You don’t have to be a rugged outdoors person to enjoy Yosemite. Walk outside and you’ll see things you won’t find anywhere else on earth – relish the peace and quiet. There’s plenty of that in winter.
Besides the usual seasonal pursuits, indulge in some retail therapy at the hotel gift shop and world-famous Ansel Adams Gallery. Interpretive displays at the Yosemite Museum depict the rich heritage of the Valley and its native people the Ahwahneechee. An exhibit of Native American basketry by Lucy and Julia Parker is renowned.
Food, Glorious Food! Extraordinary celebrations are a given in Yosemite. The Ahwahnee dining room is a gourmet experience, with the heart of the menu steeped in California cuisine. Whenever possible, dishes feature both organic and sustainably-harvested, locally-grown ingredients. Heavenly combinations, just for starters, include an Artisan Cheese Board featuring California’s delectable Humboldt Fog, Fiscalini and Golden Valley cheeses and Membrillo, a luscious quince jelly. Or a new twist on an old favorite, El Capitan Deviled Eggs with pesto, arugula, and bourbon-cured bacon. Like days of old, this grand dame requests dinner attire – fitting accompaniment beside so much grandeur.
The Vintner’s Holiday is the ultimate for couples visiting Yosemite early November and December. Wine enthusiasts can avail themselves of six sessions and multi-night packages at The Ahwahnee or Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. Wine tasting seminars, private “Meet the Vintners” reception and a five-course gala dinner leave devotees delightfully giddy. Visitors are welcome, free of charge, at all Vintner’s Holiday seminars and panel discussions, and may also purchase gala dinner tickets.
A legendary gala, adapted from Washington Irving's "Sketch Book," Bracebridge Dinner marks its 89th year this winter. Trumpets announce the arrival of Squire Bracebridge and presentations of an elaborate seven-course feast are made on cue by the sounding of chimes during the performance. The main dining room of The Ahwahnee is transformed into an Elizabethan Yuletide pageant. Elaborate props, costumed characters, and period entertainment bring this 17th-century fête to life. You will, quite literally, be left speechless by this most sensory of celebrations. The experience of a lifetime, the always coveted Bracebridge tickets – eight December performances – are available online.
January would be Yosemite’s quietest month of the year were it not for the influx of food-and wine-minded guests who visit specifically to attend Chefs’ Holidays, a gourmet treasure. Over the course of four weeks and eight sessions, acclaimed chefs from around the country come to The Ahwahnee to practice their culinary arts. Each session features a “Meet the Chefs” reception, cooking classes and demonstrations, and kitchen tours where you can visit The Ahwahnee’s pantry and see some of the original kitchen tools. The astonishing Chef’s Gala Dinner is certain to send you into a gastronomic coma as five courses, paired with complementing wines, are crafted and prepared by each session’s guest chef. Bejeweled by tapered candlelight, there couldn’t be a more exquisite setting then The Ahwahnee’s regal dining room.
Chef’s Holiday 2015 features chefs from California and as far away as New York. The event features some of the country’s most innovative and acclaimed chefs including Elizabeth Falkner and Ryan Scott.
Ultimate Escapes: Yearning to unwind and avoid the last vestiges of winter crowds in Yosemite Valley, but still want endless distractions? Head to the Wawona Hotel. It’s an escape to days of old: No TV. No phones. And limited Wi-Fi – what madness! Whether romance or family time is on the agenda, the Victorian-era Wawona Hotel provides the best of all possibilities. Located on the southern end of the Park, the oldest Yosemite accommodations (a National Historic Landmark) is reminiscent of a gentle southern belle, offering the epitome of hospitality. Known for its exceptional fare, the winter menu highlights local organic and seasonal foods, and breakfast is included with all rooms. Some rooms are European-style so, if you prefer, specify en-suite.
Outside Yosemite’s boundaries, elegant and historic lodging comes in many guises. Two miles from the Park’s southern entrance, the Four-Diamond rated Tenaya Lodge offers superb accommodations – nothing less than luxurious. Native American and western-style décor honors the hotel’s legendary namesake, Chief Tenaya, roaring fires, five seasonal restaurants, and heart-stopping scenery. In the midst of a multi-million dollar remodel, 240 of the main lodge’s rooms and suites will be completed by spring 2016. But wait, there is more!
After a day exploring, hiking, or snowshoeing unwind and indulge at Ascent the Spa. Inquire about kid activities and personalized babysitting services. While you wine and dine or soak up some sun, off-spring can unwind at the expanded arcade or indoor heated pool. When the snow flies, an open-air ice-skating rink provides miles of chilly smiles. Incidentally, pet friendly, yes! Indulge your loving pooch with a Pampered Pet Package.
Evergreen Lodge, off historic Highway 120, offers couples and families a rare opportunity to enjoy the little visited and secluded northwest corner of Yosemite National Park. Down Evergreen Road, Hetch Hetchy Valley is waiting. In the early 1920s, damming of the Tuolumne River created the 8-mile-long Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. While surrounding landscapes may be winter white, Hetch Hetchy is frequently spring-like and otherworldly. You’ll delight in fern grottoes, sunlit granite, crashing waterfalls and tree-frog wetlands. The bonus is that you can hike for hours undisturbed by other day-trippers.
Built in 1921, the main lodge houses a historic tavern and restaurant. After a day of hiking or skiing, a steaming bowl of apple and butternut squash soup with candied pecans or bacon-wrapped elk meatloaf with sweet potato puree, roasted Brussels sprouts and an oyster mushroom jus will fill that hunger void. Menus change seasonally to incorporate the finest local, organic and sustainable ingredients. Retire to the Great Room for roaring fires, s’mores, and classic films. Honeymooners, Kahdijah and Alistair, enjoyed five nights at Evergreen, “It’s amazing,” says Kahdijah, “we love it! Evergreen has a faraway feeling and we can still spend time in the Park.” A variety of fully furnished cabins and cottages accommodate up to six guests.
Scenic Highway 120 passes through the Gold Rush-era town of Groveland and provides year-round access to the Park. If you choose to stay outside the Park, this small town offers big hospitality. Embrace the warm welcome of the Three-Diamond Groveland Hotel. Seventeen uniquely decorated rooms provide outstanding lodging for adventures both in and out of Yosemite. Greeting guests since 1849, the hotel’s Cellar Door is known for its extraordinary cuisine and wines and boasts a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
Opening June 2016, Rush Creek Lodge sits just half a mile from the Park’s Highway 120 west entrance, providing an ideal launching point for exploration into all parts of Yosemite. The opening coincides with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
As temperatures drop and snow flies, nothing is quite as special as ice skating at Curry Village beneath the splendor of Half Dome and Glacier Point, the warmth of an outdoor fire ring and scrumptious winter s’mores…is a winter dream. Yosemite Valley lodges provide shuttle service to Badger Pass Ski Area. If there’s significant snow at Wawona, people cross-country ski on the golf course across the road. Built in 1878, the 130-foot Wawona Covered Bridge crosses the south fork of the Merced River and leads to the 1880s Pioneer History Center.
The road is closed to the Mariposa Grove, but you can still hike, cross-country ski or snowshoe to visit the giant sequoias – the largest living things on earth. YExplore Global Adventures offers Yosemite guided snowshoe treks to both the Mariposa and Tuolumne sequoia groves. Beginner or extended hikes to Dewey Point on the south rim of Yosemite Valley and photography workshops capture landscape views and the natural “firefall”, one of Yosemite’s most amazing spectacles.
Get Your Badger Pass On! Like an old friend, Badger Pass Ski Area is quaint and welcoming. Generations of parents and children have cut their skiing teeth at Badger Pass, California’s oldest downhill ski area. With more than 85 percent of the slopes devoted to beginner and intermediate levels, this is understandable. There’s no friendlier place for the little ones than the Badger Pups program that offers customized instruction, ages four to six. The sundeck at Badger Pass answers all your wintertime prayers. After time on the slopes or trails, you’ll be ready to enjoy lunch with a full view of downhill daredevils. After refueling and relaxing, embrace your sillier side with a little snow tubing. There are also daily ranger-led snowshoe walks.
Cross-country skiing, snowboarding and showshoeing experiences in and around Badger Pass are both scenic and serene. Miles of groomed trails and fresh powder are unsurpassed even for first-timers. For those with true gusto, the 10-plus mile trek to Glacier Point Ski Hut will reward you with stellar views of Yosemite Valley. Excursions to the rustic stone and log lodge include lodging, meals and layover activities. Experiencing Yosemite’s wintry-white back county and starlit skies? Simply priceless.
In snow season, access to Yosemite is via highways 140 (west) 41 (south), and 120 (north). These scenic byways pass by historic towns and untold scenic wonders. Enjoy the sights and an occasional stop along the way for sightseeing and shopping – antiques, art galleries, museums, state parks, trendy boutiques, and wineries – California’s past and present lives on in these Gold Rush-era gems. Even in sunny California, winter weather is unpredictable. It’s best to check ahead for road conditions and always travel with snow chains!
Millions throng to see the splendor of Yosemite’s granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, giant sequoias, and the magnificence made famous by the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams. Retreat urban environs by way of traffic-laden highways. Soon, slow rolling valleys, wide-open spaces, neatly hemmed by fences, and carefully rowed orchards and vineyards lead to snow-capped peaks, the promise of winter, and Yosemite!
Food & Travel Magazine Winter 2015-16 - by Barbara L. Steinberg