For those dreaming of a white Christmas, a visit to Yosemite National Park is guaranteed to turn spirits high for the holidays.
For us it began last year as we drove through the Sierra foothills from the San Joaquin Valley. Rain that spattered our windshield in Merced had turned to snowflakes by the time we neared the park's entrance.
We put chains on our tires and did not remove them until we left snow-covered Yosemite a week later.
It was two days before Christmas. Our arrival in the park coincided with a snowstorm that created a winter scene that Norman Rockwell would have envied. As we drove into Yosemite Valley, each sweep of the windshield wipers seemed like a slide projector that changed the view from one dramatic picture to another.
Snow clung to El Capitan and other granite formations lining a rugged cleft in the mountains. Near the tops of the glacially carved walls, Yosemite's famous waterfalls had turned to gigantic ice sculptures.
Scudding clouds animated the scene with flashes of blue sky and shafts of sunlight. On the valley floor, evergreens were flocked by mounds of snowflakes while snow-covered rocks resembled huge scoops of ice cream in the misty Merced River. Deer peered from the forest, oblivious to the occasional cars and a family of cross-country skiers.
Resembling a Christmas card, the steepled Yosemite Chapel was wrapped in wreaths. A warm glow from the window glistened off the snow that surrounded the old wooden church. Entering the chapel, we listened while the organist practiced for Christmas Eve services.
Ahead was an evening of feasting and festivities at Bracebridge Hall, caroling by candlelight, downhill skiing at Badger Pass, ice skating in the moonlight . . . and a Christmas we'll always remember.
Our wintertime trip to the park fulfilled a lifetime dream--taking part in what has been described as America's national pageant: "Christmas Dinner at Bracebridge Hall." An annual tradition, it began in 1927 to celebrate the first Christmas for Yosemite's new lodge, the Ahwahnee Hotel.
The three-hour program, filled with holiday songs and a seven-course dinner, was created from an 1820s tale by Washington Irving. He wrote of caroling and feasting on Christmas Day at the manor house of Squire Bracebridge in Yorkshire, England.
Trumpeters in medieval costume paraded through the hotel corridors, calling us and 350 other guests to the Ahwahnee's baronial dining hall for the dinner pageant. It has become so popular that there are now five performances, and all seats at the candlelighted tables are awarded by lottery.
At the head of the hall sits Squire Bracebridge and a cast of colorful characters that include a court jester called the Lord of Misrule. Another, the Parson, announces each dinner course by having servants present the squire with enormous papier-mache models of the Majestic Peacock Pie and other dishes.
We dined on such delights as chilled salmon with sweet mustard sauce, pheasant and duck in a puff pastry and roast sirloin of beef. As much of a treat as the food was the music performed by organists, vocalists and the 35-voice Eugene Fulton Chorale from San Francisco. Just as traditional as the Bracebridge Dinner is the Ahwahnee Hotel, a granite-faced building with cathedral windows that frame the valley's scenery from enormous lounges warmed by massive stone fireplaces. Rare Indian rugs and wall hangings decorate this National Historic Landmark. The Indian theme is carried out in the hotel's 99 guest rooms.
By evening, when the snow had stopped, we bundled up in long underwear, parkas and wool hats to take a few turns on the outdoor ice rink at Curry Village.
The moon was shining on one of the park's granite sentinels, Half Dome, as we skated to the rhythm of recorded Christmas carols. We found more outdoor activities during the day at the park's Badger Pass ski area, which, when it opened in 1935, was the state's first ski resort. Over the years it has remained a quiet family skiing retreat, with 85% of the runs for beginning and intermediate downhillers.
Badger Pass also is headquarters for Yosemite's cross-country skiers, who join a variety of nordic tours, including a 21-mile round trip with a panorama of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point.
For a more leisurely look at the countryside, rangers lead walks in the woods on snowshoes. There also is a tour over the Sierra Nevada slopes in an open-air snowcat from Badger Pass.
Snowshoes and cross-country skis can be rented at Curry Village in Yosemite Valley, where we later made a circle tour through meadows and campgrounds that had been abandoned for the winter. Throughout the season, the Yosemite Park and Curry Co.'s wide-window tour buses offer narrated excursions around the valley. Stops are made at two of its best-known waterfalls, Bridalveil and Yosemite, and the park's most famous monoliths, Half Dome and El Capitan.
During our holiday we drove 27 miles from the valley to Wawona for an old-fashioned country Christmas celebration at the Yosemite Pioneer History Center, a collection of cabins and other historic buildings. Bells jingled from a horse-drawn wagon that carried visitors on a tour of the mini-village.
At dusk we gathered in a vintage barn where musicians in turn-of-the-century costumes played Christmas carols. Afterward, everyone set off across the snow with candles and sheets of music.
Rangers in pioneer dress met us at the cabins to describe how early Christmases were celebrated in Yosemite. Later the group joined in the caroling while strolling back to the barn for hot chocolate. It was a holiday scene that was magic.
Another reason for venturing to Wawona was to spend a night in the state's oldest resort hotel, the Wawona Hotel, which opened in 1879 and is a National Historic Landmark. Candles, red ribbons and bows made of corn husks decorated Christmas trees in the lobby and dining room. Pre-dinner drinks were served in front of a glowing fireplace, accompanied by music from an antique pump organ.
Children had created a pair of snowmen on the hotel lawn to greet Santa Claus, who would arrive on Christmas eve in a wagon pulled by a pair of white horses. Guests had already deposited gifts with the desk clerk, who promised that the packages would find their way into Santa's sack.
The Wawona Hotel was only recently winterized, so that it remains open for the holiday season until New Year's Day. Other park lodgings that remain open during winter are in Yosemite Valley, including Yosemite Lodge, a modern complex of 485 rooms.
Guests have a choice of four types of accommodations, from deluxe motel-style rooms with private bath to rustic cabins without bath. During the holidays and on winter weekends, visitors also can stay at Curry Village in hotel rooms, cabins and canvas tent cabins, with or without private bath.
On our special holiday last year, we dined by candlelight at the Ahwahnee...and for an alfresco picnic in the snow, we bought food and drink at the Yosemite Village Store. Snow fell and carolers sang, providing cheer and warmth for a white Christmas in California.
Holiday rates at the Ahwahnee Hotel are $183 single, $188 double. At Yosemite Lodge, rates vary from $39 to $84, single or double; at Curry Village, $26-$67. Rooms at the Wawona Hotel during the holidays are $54-$73.
Make reservations for lodging in Yosemite by calling (209) 454-2000 or (209) 252-4848, or write to Yosemite Park and Curry Co., 5410 E. Home Ave., Fresno 93727.
Now is the time to enter the lottery for the Bracebridge Dinner next Christmas. Call the numbers above to request a 1990 application and return it by mail before Jan. 15 for the drawing.
Thousands of applications are received for the 1,750 seats available. Win or lose, you'll be notified by the end of March. Estimated cost of the dinner is $120 per adult, $105 per child, plus gratuity.
The YP&C; Co. has a post-Christmas event, the Yosemite Chefs' Holidays (Jan. 2-Feb. 1), with culinary demonstrations and banquets. Get details by calling the Yosemite Holidays Hotline at (209) 454-2020.