With skiing, hiking, fireside retreats ― and no crowds ― Yosemite glows when it snows

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.

Area code is 209 unless otherwise noted. 

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). 

Ooh and aah

Next stop: Yosemite Valley. First have a quick lunch at the Badger Pass Day Lodge. Then drive down into the valley via State 41 north. After passing through the tunnel blasted into Sentinel Dome, pull over at Inspiration Point and revel in the view of El Capitan–one of the largest exposed granite blocks in existence, towering 7,569 feet above sea level ― and 8,842-foot Half Dome, which looks as if it’s been chopped neatly in half with an ax.

Refresh yourself

Just 1/4 mile down the road from Inspiration Point comes the pullout for Bridalveil Fall. A short, easy trail lets you hike up toward the ribbonlike waterfall, which rushes in full force this time of year. (Have a towel at the ready back in the car: You’ll likely get sprayed.)

Get the lay of the land

You’ve done enough walking ― now it’s time to relax. A valley tour is a great way to do just that. Two-hour bus tours provide in-depth orientations to the valley, hitting the most scenic points and stopping frequently for photos. Tours depart every day at 10 and 2 from Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge, Yosemite Village, and the Ahwahnee ($17.50). Make reservations by calling 372-1240 or the general reservations number or by visiting the website (see travel planner, page 22).

Sierra dining. Aside from the Ahwahnee Dining Room, the Mountain Room at the Yosemite Lodge is the valley’s classiest eatery, with a rustic ambience and reasonably priced hearty fare ― seafood, steaks, and vegetarian dishes.

Skate beneath the stars

The skating rink at Camp Curry is open during the day and every evening from 7 to 9:30. Commanding a patch of prime real estate at the foot of Glacier Point, it’s one of the most beautiful rinks you’ll find anywhere. Skating costs $5; rental is $2.

Breakfast of champions

The Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria lays out a moderately priced breakfast spread.

Immerse yourself

Join a free interpretive walk focusing on winter ecology or black-and-white nature photography, among a host of subjects; check the activities page of the free “Yosemite Guide” to find out what’s scheduled.

Follow the bike path on foot or by bike

The 8.7-mile Yosemite Valley bike path loops around the eastern end of the Valley to Mirror Lake, with various cutoff options. If snow cover is light, inquire about bike rentals at the Yosemite Lodge ($5.25 per hour, $20 per day); otherwise, explore the path on foot. Either way, be sure to stop at the footbridge that crosses over the Merced River near the Sentinel Bridge picnic area. Above you loom El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, and Cathedral Rock; below you the river meanders off into infinity.

Grand hotel

You’ve saved the best for last: Now it’s time to see the Ahwahnee. Built in 1927 in a pristine meadow with panoramic views of Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, this national historic landmark does justice to its setting. Free history tours are conducted on Wednesday and Friday evenings at 6:30, but you’re welcome to explore on your own anytime. Among the highlights: the immense dining room; the Great Lounge, with its walk-in fireplace and Native American-inspired decor; and the Winter Club Room, which showcases park memorabilia such as ski equipment used at Badger Pass in the 1920s. At the end of the day, treat yourself to a cocktail (or, if you’re a hotel guest, go for afternoon tea) served in front of the blazing fireplace in the Great Lounge, but beware: You may never want to leave. 

Top it all off

If you just can’t tear yourself away, consider staying for dinner in the Ahwahnee Dining Room (jackets required). Entrées like prime rib and lamb average about $25. Don’t have reservations? There’s a good chance you’ll be able to snag a table: After all, this is winter, Yosemite’s best-kept secret.

Snow chains are sometimes required on the highways leading into the park; for 24-hour weather and road conditions, call (209) 372-0200. The least snowy access road is State 140, the “all-weather highway,” which enters the park near the town of El Portal.

For lodging reservations and information ― including details on the Yosemite Winter Passport program as well as the chefs’ and wine series ― call (559) 252-4848 or visit www.yosemitepark.com. Except for the Ahwahnee Dining Room, none of the restaurants inside the park accept reservations. Current programs (which change weekly) are listed in the free “Yosemite Guide,” given to you when you enter the park. For information on Yosemite Association Field Seminars, call (209) 379-2321 or visit www.yosemitepark.com.

Though lodging reservations are much easier to procure in winter, weekends can still be difficult. Try to book your stay midweek (Sun through Thu). Other strategies for securing a room: Go for a heated tent at Curry Village or a room at the Wawona ― both are in greater supply than other park lodgings. If you can’t get the lodging of your choice, book whatever you can, and try to change later–it’s easier once you’re in the system. If you’re still stuck, call seven days before your visit (when deposits are required) to inquire about cancellations. If all else fails, consider staying in a gateway town (El Portal or Mariposa) and taking the new shuttle bus (YARTS) into the valley for a mere $7. You’ll get the added advantage of saving the $20 per vehicle park entrance fee.

• AHWAHNEE. By far the most luxurious ― and priciest ― lodging in the park, smack-dab in the middle of the valley. Dinner reservations suggested. From $280. (209) 372-1489.

• CURRY VILLAGE. Now that some of the canvas tents have propane heaters, this centrally located lodging complex, with its views of Glacier Point and Half Dome, can be a comfortable place to stay even in February. All tents have shared baths; cabins come with or without private baths. Tents from $40, cabins with shared baths from $44.50, cabins with baths from $68.75.

• WAWONA HOTEL. The only accommodation on the south side of the park is now open on weekends throughout winter (last winter was the first). The landmark hotel’s rooms and nearby cottages retain their old-fashioned character, complete with steam heat (be prepared for clanking in the night). Some share baths, and none have phones or TVs. From $84 with shared bath, from $115 with baths.

• YOSEMITE LODGE. A modern lodging at the base of Yosemite Falls. Ask about the Go For the Snow package, which offers $20 savings on rooms midweek. From $84.25.

Keep Reading: