Yosemite: A magical winter destination
Yosemite National Park might not seem like an ideal winter destination. This might be really true if you're from a part of the country with plenty of road salt and wind chill.
But Yosemite in winter is magical. I discovered this last year on a trip there. I went with my family. We went just after Christmas. There's snowboarding. There’s skiing. You can try downhill skiing. Or you can try cross-country skiing. There is also sledding. Pick up a plastic saucer on the way. You can get one at a sporting goods store. You can also ice skate. The rink is in the shadow of a famed granite formation. It is known as Half Dome. Park rangers also lead snowshoe walks. They are free with $3 suggested donation.
Many of Yosemite Valley's shops and restaurants remain open. The Majestic Hotel is one of the country's most storied national park lodges. It has holiday decorations. It has a seven-course dinner with costumed performers. It is called the Bracebridge Dinner. The hotel is made of wood-and-stone. It was formerly known as the Ahwahnee. It was opened in 1927. It has hosted many famous guests. Those guests include Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. They also include Queen Elizabeth. And it includes Walt Disney.
Winter can also be a time to enjoy the park's scenery without summer's crowds. But the weather can pose challenges. Here are some details.
Naturalist John Muir once wrote that Yosemite was "full of God's thoughts."
When you drive in, thick forests of snow-dusted pine and fir trees block your view at first. You can’t see the park's famous granite monoliths towering over Yosemite Valley. But there's nothing like that first glimpse. El Capitan rises 3,600 feet from the valley floor. It is more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. On the other side of the valley is Half Dome. It rises 4,700 feet off the valley floor.
It’s harder to see the landmarks in winter. The options are limited. You can see them from the valley. Some roads in the park are closed until the snow thaws. The cables that climbers use to ascend Half Dome are also removed for the season.
There are walking tours. Those are led by National Park Service rangers. They explain how these huge chunks of granite came to be. They're not just the result of erosion. They were also formed by melting glaciers and forces under the ground that over the millions of years pushed them higher and higher. It's a way to understand the massive forces that formed the earth itself.
Visitors can also follow the footsteps of famed photographer Ansel Adams. He made his home here for a quarter century. You can even snap your own pictures from where Adams stood when he took some of his most iconic photographs. Classes cost about $100. The Ansel Adams Gallery also offers free camera walks. Those are only on certain days. Tours fill up. You need to reserve ahead.
Getting there can be hard. Roads may be snowy. They may be icy. Car rental places may tell you that snow chains aren't necessary. They are necessary.
"California law says if you are entering a chain control area, you have to carry chains." That's according to Scott Gediman. He is a park ranger. He is also a public affairs officer in Yosemite. "Everybody needs to have chains, even if you have four-wheel drive."
Rangers don't enjoy checking car trunks for chains and cables. But they do it and they will send you out of the park if you don't have them.
The good news is that chains are not that expensive. They cost as little as $40. They can be purchased at any auto supply store nearby. Snow chain technology has improved a lot. It is far easier to put the chains on than it used to be. Still feel like you can't do it? There are services along the road that will put the chains on for you. It costs $30 or so.
Yosemite Valley is about 210 miles from San Francisco. Does the winter drive sound scary? Use the YARTS bus service. It runs year-round. It goes between Yosemite and Merced. That’s a city located about 130 miles from San Francisco.