Fall and winter offers something for everyone
By Kristin Conard
Yosemite Valley, the “Incomparable Valley,” was set aside to be protected by the Yosemite Grant on June 30, 1864. And it was four years later that John Muir first visited the valley. Thanks in great part to his writing about the mountains and valleys he loved and his lobbying politicians, Yosemite became a national park in 1890, and now, 125 years later, the valley has become a destination for millions.
Come fall and winter, things slow down considerably and there are few, if any, lines at the park stores or venues and no crowds on the trails or in the campgrounds. If you want to check on road conditions, call (209) 372-0200 – no matter what the conditions, you’ll need to have snow chains with you.
Yosemite Falls can dry up during the fall, but with snowfalls and rains of winter, it begins to flow again, and the spray can freeze, leaving a tall cone of snow at the base of the falls. John Muir described Yosemite Falls and its “snow cone” as “smooth, and pure white, the outlines finely drawn, the whole presenting the appearance of a beautiful crystal hill wreathed with clowds of irised spray.”
Around the second week of February, thanks to the angle of the setting sun, Horsetail Fall looks like it’s lit on fire. The glowing orange and red spectacle along the east face of El Capitan is a tricky one to witness; it depends on just the right conditions: clear skies, a flowing waterfall, and good timing. It only happens for about ten minutes, but you’ll remember it forever.
Since the 1930s, people have ice-skated with views of Half Dome and Glacier Point. The Curry Village Ice Rink comes complete with a rink side fire ring where you can make your own s’mores. It opens in late November and stays open through early March. Call (209) 372-8319 for more information.
To get more chances at snow, you can head up to Badger Pass, you’ll be at 7,200 feet. For the experienced cross-country skier, you can spend the night at Glacier Point Ski Hut (Glacier Point Gift Shop during the rest of the year). You ski 10.5 miles through the backcountry from Badger Pass to Glacier Point and on the way, you’ll see one of the most impressive views of Half Dome. You’ll receive dinner and a bed then breakfast and lunch the next day. Guided trips, $350 per person, and self-guided trip $146 per person. Call (209) 372-8444. There’s an annual lottery for a chance to ski-in and stay at Ostrander Ski Hut.
Badger Pass in Yosemite was the site of California’s first ski school back in 1928, and the tradition continues with relatively easy runs for skiing and snowboarding. Check out the ski school with rental equipment and ski shop. Tickets start at $179 for adults, $149 for youth (13-17) and seniors (65+) and $69 for kids (7-12). For tickets, call (209) 372-8430; for snow conditions, call (209) 372-1001.
Culture and Luxury
Take a photography workshop from The Ansel Adams Gallery. The white, grey, and green colors of winter and the possibility of snow makes for amazing photos. Staff photographers lead tours and camera walks, some of which are free. For reservations, call (209) 372-4413.
The Ahwahnee was built in 1927 in “parkitecture” style – designed to blend in with the natural surroundings. You can walk right in the front door (take a shower and leave your climbing gear behind) and head to the Great Room, which is filled with comfy chairs that are reclined – it helps you take in the views from the ten floor-to-ceiling windows of Royal Arches.
The Ahwahnee Bar is also the perfect place to indulge in a drink after a long day of climbing or exploring. The Firefall ($13) has tequila, crème de cacao, hot chocolate, pasilla chile, and cinnamon, and the peppermint hot cocoa ($7) is flavored with peppermint syrup and topped with whipped cream.
If you want to go all out at The Ahwahnee, winter is the best time to go. For the holidays, they have the Bracebridge Dinner – an elaborate dinner show inspired by 17th century England. Then in January and February, the hotel hosts Chef’s Holidays. Some of the country’s best chefs give cooking demonstrations and serve up high-end, multi-course meals. Plus, it’s the only time of year you can take a tour of the hotel kitchen, which is larger than the dining room, which is saying something for those who’ve seen the cavernous dining area. Dinner-only tickets $199. Two-night packages start at $449 per person; call (801) 559-4884.