A different approach
Start your Yosemite trip at Wawona, at the south end of the park. Once you get there, you'll understand why it was given a name that means "big meadow." For an easy hike before lunch, try the 31/2-mile Meadow Loop, starting near the Wawona Hotel.
Take to the trees.
If you have the time and energy, consider hiking--or cross-country skiing, snow permitting ― to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Though the 2-mile access road is closed to vehicles from November through April, it remains open to foot and ski traffic and is a great place to take in some of the park's most pristine forestland. Even if you only venture partway, you'll enjoy sweeping vistas of the south end of the park. Those who make it all the way to the legendary grove will be amply rewarded: Here stand 500 giant sequoias, some of the largest living trees known to man. A 7-mile trail loops through the grove, but you don't have to tackle the trail's entire length; some of the most impressive trees are within a mile of the trailhead--including the Grizzly Giant, estimated to be 2,700 years old. You can picnic anywhere along the access road or trail. Before you set out, buy supplies in Mariposa (outside the park) or at the Wawona Grocery Store (375-6574).
Or relax on the rocks
Want a slightly less ambitious trek? Unlike the dizzying vertical drops of Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, Chilnualna Fall tumbles down Buick-size boulders, which are perfect places to sit and enjoy the scenery. From the Wawona Hotel it's about a 2-mile drive to the base; from there a 1/2-mile walk ushers you to a scene peaceful enough to be part of an ancient Japanese print.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
Spend a relaxing afternoon at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, a depiction of early pioneer life in Wawona. In addition to relocated buildings dating from the 1850s and '60s, there's a charming covered bridge (the oldest in California) spanning the South Fork of the Merced River.
Old World evening
Before dinner at the Wawona Hotel, sip drinks by the fireplace in the intimate lobby, listening to a pianist and admiring photos of Victorian-garbed settlers dwarfed by the sequoias in the Mariposa grove. In the dining room, waiters wear pleated shirts and black bow ties, and candlelight casts a soft glow. Food is basic but good; the menu suggests wines to match the entrées. After dinner try a hot buttered rum on the Wawona's covered porch: The hotel even provides blankets for guests to take outside.
Take to the slopes
A short drive from Wawona (take State 41 to Glacier Point Rd.), the Badger Pass Ski Area (372-8430) distinguishes itself as California's first ski area, dating from 1935. It's still a wonderfully scenic place to ski, and inexpensive: Lift tickets cost $25 on weekdays, $28 on weekends and holidays ($14.50 to $16.50 for children under 13); cheaper half-day tickets are available. You can grab a quick breakfast at one of three food service areas at the Badger Pass Day Lodge ― sit outside for a great view of the slopes.
Tramp through the snow
If you'd rather make your own tracks, join a ranger-led snowshoe walk ($3), starting daily at 10:30 a.m. from the Badger Pass Day Lodge. These moderately paced, two-hour tours include basic instruction along with insights into winter flora and fauna--you might learn, for example, why pine trees are conical (to shed snow).