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ITS A DAY OF THE GODS, DECLARES MY TEENAGE SON, CLARK, AS WE RIDE THE SKI LIFT AT THE PARKS HISTORIC BADGER PASS®.
Paul Gauguins painting by that name is a masterpiece, but only Mother Nature can create one in real life such as where were about to ski. From our vantage point at almost 8,000 feet in Yosemite National Park, we can see nothing but endless mountain snow glittering in the sunshine, fresh as new bread.
The bountiful powder in Californias Sierra Nevada has been delivered by a blizzard that chased away all but the hardiest tourists on this February day. So we hardly have to share at all.
My Southern California kids proved beyond intrepid throughout the journey through urban jungle and mountain storms to reach this glorious peak. Weve come 400 miles not just for downhill skiing adventures, but to experience winter – to sled, snowshoe, skate, and to cavort with the snow angels.
WINTER AT THE PARK
Abraham Lincoln first preserved Yosemite as a park. Ansel Adams immortalized its scenic wonder with his photographic genius. The park is so vast that its the size of Rhode Island and so varied that theres an outdoor experience geared to every taste.
The Sierra winter has so much to offer those who meet its challenges. Yosemite gets 3.5 million visitors each year. But February is generally the only month without triple-digit tourism numbers (that is, less than 100,000).
I love the winter here; its peaceful. You get an amazing amount of wildlife, said Park Ranger Scott Gedimans. Its a wonderful chance at solitude.
In storied Yosemite, winter offers a fresh perspective on the famous scenery. Gliding along the open-air ice rink while gazing up at Half Dome literally takes my breath away. The park works hard to make winter special with events like wine-tasting dinners, free ranger-led snowshoe walks, and hearthside storytellers. Shuttle buses to the main trailheads and hostelries run even during blizzards. The highlight for us is always Badger Pass, a glitz-free ski resort dating back to the 1930s.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
I have faithfully visited Yosemite in springtime when the falls and creeks are thunderingly full, but I am at heart a winter girl raised in the eastern Snowbelt. Now that we finally have a car capable enough to meet the challenge of Yosemite in winter (our trusty 2004 Subaru Forester), we hit the Yosemite highway in winters, too.
As we zip north along Highway 99, the agricultural backbone of the Golden State, we see the white-capped Sierra in the distance. Theyre wearing snow hats, said Ava, my preteen.
Just outside the parks south entrance, we turn off to Tenaya LodgeSM. We check in and race into our snow armor. As I layer up, I marvel at the evolution of outdoor gear. I tell my kids about the old days when we kept our feet dry and from freezing by wrapping them in empty sandwich bread bags. They politely pretend to listen as they lace up their boots and zip into todays sleek miracle fabrics. We hike through grounds and surrounding woods and hit the sled hill.
Later, back at Tenaya, we shed our soggy outdoor gear and dine at one of the lodges three restaurants. Afterward, we settle into one of the sofas in the lodge great room beside the immense fireplace and play Scrabble® until we are sleepy.
DOWN IN THE VALLEY
The next morning were crushed to learn that Badger Pass has closed due to the blizzard. The Tenaya valet service digs out our Forester and clears the three feet of snow covering its roof. We head to the Yosemite Valley floor.
With dangerous road conditions, I heed the California Highway Patrol warning: I drive with care and travel in packs with fellow motorists – the Snow Buddy System, Ava calls it. Yosemite Falls has been there for centuries, and its not going away.
In the valley we hike and cavort and then head to The Ahwahnee® Hotel. The grand old building looms like a castle, crafted from centuries-old sugar pine logs and decorated in Native American-inspired splendor. We indulge in fabulously juicy burgers and frothy hot chocolate in the majestic dining room, under its sequoia high-beamed ceiling.
Afterward, my son relaxes by the bear-sized fireplace while my daughter races outside to build a snow dog. Ava throws back her head in the utter joy of the moment, opens wide, and awaits a refreshing snowflake. Patting our snowy dog, I join Ava in throwing back my own head and opening wide to the wonders of life.
FINDING A PLACE TO STAY AT YOSEMITE
When dignitaries visit Yosemite National Park, they bunk in luxury at The Ahwahnee Hotel. Or you can stake your own tent, because an advantage of Yosemite winters is that snagging one of the parks prized campsites is easier.
Unless you bring your own roof in and around Yosemite, you likely are sleeping with Delaware North Companies (DNC), the global hospitality corporation that operates concessions in many state and national parks in the West. DNC runs the landmark Ahwahnee, which was built in the 1920s on the site the native Miwoks chose for their own village. It is spectacularly beautiful and an engineering masterpiece, built of 5,000 tons of stone and 30,000 feet of timber hauled in through the Sierra Nevadas.
The Ahwahnees 123 rooms are much in demand, even at $480-$1,000 per night. As would be expected of a place where Queen Elizabeth once slept, this resort is top drawer. Over the years, the strict dining room dress code has eased, and dinner requires resort casual. (Find more information at www.yosemitepark.com.)
Nearby, the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is more family-oriented and motel-like. It offers 226 rooms (at $230 per night) and an excellent restaurant with a fabulous waterfall view.
Other park accommodations include modest cabins and tent cabins, heated and unheated. Some are available all year for around $80 per night. Backpackers with wilderness permits are welcome in winter.
Just outside the park sits the Tenaya, with 244 rooms including cabins, where we were to stay. But with the blizzards that struck during our most recent visit, the Tenaya staff graciously switched us to the main lodge.
By motor vehicle, Yosemite is approximately 400 miles from San Diego and 180 miles from San Francisco. Outside each entrance to the park are strings of alternate accommodations, including the popular Evergreen Lodge (www.evergreenlodge.com). Train buffs enjoy the Narrow Gauge Inn (www.narrowgaugeinn.com) because of its proximity to an old steam train ride (www.ymsprr.com).
The train evokes the days of the old robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its a remnant of a local baron who harvested more than a billion board feet of lumber from the venerable Sierras before the forest finally became protected from exploitation.
From Thanksgiving on theres outdoor skating both at Tenaya and at Yosemites Curry Village®. Near the parks southern entrance sits Badger Pass, offering downhill skiing, ski and snowboard rental, and ski school. Snowshoe rentals are available throughout the park and resorts.
One of the favorite spots for cross-country skiers is the Ostrander Ski Hut. You have to pack in your own food and sleeping bag, and its nine miles uphill from Badger Pass. It can take all day to reach the hut, where you bunk dorm-style. The hut sleeps up to 25 people, by reservation only for safety reasons. It is run by the nonprofit Yosemite Association, and reservations are by lottery for more popular days. The rate is $20 per night (for Yosemite Association members from Monday through Thursday). (For information: www.ostranderhut.com.)
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