Maybe it's the stark beauty of snowcapped granite towering against a slate gray sky. Or the image of the Ahwahnee hotel, serene in an empty meadow, so quiet you can almost hear plumes of smoke rising from its chimneys. Or the ephemeral artistry of pine marten tracks imprinted in newly fallen snow.
For all these reasons and more, Yosemite's grandeur reveals itself to me most clearly in winter.
The first time I saw the park this way was about a year ago, in January, during the annual Chefs' Holidays Series: two- to three-day packages built around cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs, with dinners served in the Ahwahnee's grand dining room.
The foodie in me loved learning the nuances of gnocchi, but what struck me the most was how much lovelier the park seemed without the high-season crowds. Of Yosemite's annual four million visitors, only 20 percent come between October and March ― and the difference was obvious. On my afternoon forays along trails that are normally packed in summer, I encountered at most a handful of people.
The chefs' series is just one of many programs meant to encourage visits during the less-trafficked winter months. There are also Yosemite Association Field Seminars, from snowshoe treks to photography classes, all priced under $400, including up to two nights' lodging.
In fact, bargains abound in winter. In addition to off-season lodging rates (not to mention greater availability during the week), a brand-new Yosemite Winter Passport lets you save 60 percent on winter activities.
But to me no extra incentives are necessary to warrant a winter visit. As I discovered last year, not only is winter far less crowded, it's also more fun. Because the lower elevations rarely get more than a light dusting of snow (temperatures rarely drop below the 20s or 30s), activities run the gamut from sightseeing tours of the valley to ice-skating under the stars at Curry Village. You can go sledding at various designated snow-play areas, or ski, snowboard, or snowshoe. On the south side of the park, you can explore pioneer history and luxuriate by the fire at the historic Wawona Hotel--now open on weekends all winter long.
Think of a winter trip to Yosemite as a new take on a place you thought you already knew. You may find yourself sympathizing with John Muir, who, in 1869, reportedly commented to a friend, "I am bewitched, enchanted," and must start at once for the "great temple" to hear its "winter songs and sermons." You'll probably want to do the same.
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