Heading for the hills during a season of changeable weather is always a gamble. But taking the chance can carry a big payoff, as we found during a weather-filled weekend in Yosemite.
That weekend the park's lodgings were all full (except for the shabby little cabins at Yosemite Lodge), but the throngs that swarm over the valley in summer were absent nearly everywhere else in the park.
Although activities such as swimming, horseback riding and, for all practical purposes, camping, are closed for the season, there is ice skating at Curry Village on an outdoor rink with magnificent, snow-covered Half Dome for a backdrop. And cross-county and downhill skiing opened after Thanksgiving at Yosemite's Badger Pass. (The downhill slopes aren't much of a challenge, but it's a great place for kids.)
We love the park and usually visit in the spring. On the last several trips we've hiked, lugging the kids in backpacks. This time around, we drove the three hours plus from Simi Valley to Fresno (about 210 miles from Los Angeles) on Thursday night after work. Next morning, my husband and I left our boys with family in Fresno and headed off for the hourlong ride up California 41 to the Yosemite National Park entrance. That twisty highway can be like molasses in summer, with park-bound traffic slowing to a crawl only miles outside of Fresno. But this drive was a breeze past the wheat-colored grass fields and enduring oaks of the northern San Joaquin Valley.
We stopped for lunch at Tenaya Lodge, just outside the park gates. It's a large, 6-year-old hotel; and if not elegant with its faux rock exterior and antler appointments, it is certainly spacious and comfortable. (There were rooms available, for as little as $89 a night, we discovered after checking at the front desk.) The dining room was closed so we ate in the bar, which had a large glass wall at one end through which we watched children play in falling flakes of snow. Lunch was ample, hot and tasty.
From there, it's not quite an hour to the Yosemite Valley floor, another drive that can seem slow and endless in summer. It was misting heavily as we rounded the corner at Inspiration Point and pulled off for a glimpse of Yosemite's dazzling El Capitan before a heavy cloud of fog shrouded the mountain and cheated us of the view.
We usually stay in one of the deluxe rooms at Yosemite Lodge for about $98 per night. (The stately Ahwahnee Hotel costs $210 even in the off-season. Well worth it, in my opinion, for a special occasion.)
At Yosemite Lodge, or anywhere in the park, you can get the room you want if you call a year ahead. But our lives are never that well-planned, so I always get our rooms by calling on consecutive days a couple months ahead and waiting for cancellations. When I called this time, about eight weeks before our November departure, the reservations clerk told me the lodge's cabins were very similar to a standard lodge room. So for $69 a night plus tax, we thought we'd give them a try.
But after checking in and having a look, we found the cabins cramped, with beds that seemed to slant downward toward the head. Back at the front desk, a very helpful Stacy found us a lodge room, with the caveat that we might have to move back to the cabin Saturday night because the lodge was sold out.
Our room--called a cottage or family room because it's smaller than deluxe but has extra beds for kids--in one of the lodge's 16 buildings was just right. The bath was nice, although the tub had mildew around the edge, something I've noticed before at the lodge.
Outdoors, it was chilly, in the 50s, so we put on our boots and set off for one of many sessions of ice skating in Curry Village, just a few miles to the east of the lodge. We laced up our rental skates, as excited as a couple of kids to hit the ice and take a few, very cautious spins. The small outdoor rink is chilled to keep the surface nice in above-freezing weather; the rink and rental hut are open daily until about mid-March. There were all levels of skaters on the ice, from a man making graceful backward loops to the 3-year-old first-timer, with us somewhere in between. As we skated, a group of moms and others sipped coffee and huddled on benches by the cozy fire pit in front of the rink.
Afterward, as rain began to fall in earnest, we took the short drive to the Ahwahnee Hotel lounge for a hot rum drink for me and a cold martini for Mike. We strolled the splendid great room at the hotel, where families played board games at various clusters of well-cushioned couches, couples sipped tea from beautifully upholstered wingback chairs and others read by themselves next to one of several large stone fireplaces.
The next morning I headed straight for the front desk, and with the help of a persistent desk assistant, Carrie, secured another lodge room for Saturday night. We had to vacate the room we were in by the 11 a.m. checkout, but our new room would be ready by then. I picked up a couple of cups of French roast and muffins from the cafeteria's best new feature, a coffee bar, and returned to the room, where we lounged until 11.
We dressed in layers with hats and gloves and headed over to the bicycle rental--a concession that recently closed, as it usually does in early to mid-December. It was pleasant to ride from spot to spot, but we could easily have accomplished the same thing by taking the free shuttle buses that run every few minutes and hit every stop, or even the car.
We stopped to shop for gifts at the Ansel Adams Gallery and grabbed a quick soup and half a sandwich at Degnan's Deli in Yosemite Village, then rode along the well-paved bike paths out to the trail head for Mirror Lake. We parked our bikes and strolled off into the woods for a hushed, nearly private walk through the quiet forest of fallen leaves and misting air.
The waning afternoon and the mist that was turning to rain and light snow sent us back to our room by about 4 p.m. That made for a delightful forced break in the day, providing me time to read my novel and take a hot soak in the tub--this time with no mildew and a nice heat lamp--and Mike the opportunity to read his new Harper's and indulge in a brief afternoon nap before we opened a bottle of champagne and dressed for dinner at the Ahwahnee (we'd made reservations three weeks in advance).
And dress you should for dinner at the century-old lodge (they "strongly encourage" coat and tie for men and "appropriate" dress or "evening pantsuit" for women). The dining room is truly elegant, with its electric-candle chandeliers, 100-foot-high ceilings and floor-length Native American print draperies. We mused that everyone in the park must have had the same dinner reservation, as the 275-seat room was nearly full when we arrived.
We shared a large Caesar salad, lightly dressed, with appetizer of delicious pesto torte. Mike chose the lamb for dinner, which he quite enjoyed, accompanied by crisp vegetables. I had a vegetable plate that was an assortment of vegetables nicely grilled and roasted with rice pilaf. Dessert was a to-die-for chocolate cappuccino cake. The wine list was extensive and pricey. Near the bottom of the list was a Sierra cabernet, which we chose, for $24.
It rained through the night, though it was never quite cold enough for snow to stick on the Valley floor. At checkout, Carrie said that on rainy days she usually steers people to Yosemite Tours, which uses buses instead of the park's uncovered trams for two-hour ($16 per person) to full-day ($42) excursions.
We worried that we might have to put on chains to drive out of the valley. We encountered plenty of rain, and snow on the sides of the road, but the roads were clear. We wound our way out of the valley and stopped at the Wawona Hotel, just inside the park boundary, for the last taste of our weekend away. The Wawona, built in 1875, serves Sunday brunch for $8 each in a dining room encased in hundreds of small-paned windows, allowing diners to gaze out over the grounds, surrounding pines and golf course across the highway (closed for the winter season).
We headed back to pick up our boys, anxious to see them, but still musing about our frolic on the ice rink, our walk in the dampened woods, the luxuriously long afternoons and dining. It definitely had been worth the winter gamble.
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Budget for Two
Yosemite Lodge, standard: $87.18
Yosemite Lodge, deluxe room: 104.33
Lunch, Tenaya Lodge: 40.39
Drinks, Ahwahnee Hotel: 14.00
Dinner, Lodge cafeteria: 22.67
Lunch, Degnan's Deli: 12.73
Dinner, Ahwahnee Hotel: 111.88
Brunch, Wawona Hotel: 17.20
Skate rental: 14.00
Bike rentals, whole day: 40.00
FINAL TAB: $539.38
Yosemite Park reservations, tel. (209) 252-4848.