Even Angelenos get the winter blues. Though not plagued by the chapped hands, frozen toes and cabin fever that torment those living in more seasonal climates, we have our issues. That weird itchy winter heat, those smoky days when the sky looks like a dirty nickel and the air is full of static, the cold Santa Ana winds.
Some people can pull themselves out of a seasonal rut through willpower and positive self-direction. My family needs to get out of town.
We came to Yosemite because we knew we would find some peace here, and maybe even snow.
Neither my husband nor I had ever visited the park during winter, and our children, Danny Mac and Fiona, almost 6 and almost 4, had not been at all. This made the trip a bona-fide adventure, and one not requiring air travel or even a lot of money.
We booked a condo at Yosemite West for three nights and threw some sweaters, ski pants, sleds and $100 worth of groceries into the car. I tried to get my husband to leave before daybreak (an old McNamara tradition), but he resisted. Still, with two potty breaks and one stop for Krispy Kremes just outside Fresno (why does any sentence with the word “Fresno” in it sound like a Glen Campbell song?), we were handing over $20 for a five-day pass to Yosemite National Park just around 1 p.m.
Five hours is a long time in the car for children, despite Krispy Kremes. During the final hour, we bribed them with a CD of Irish stories and songs — which gets old after 18 repetitions — and promises of snow. So the moment we passed through the park’s gates, we were in search of any potential slide area.
The sun was high and bright, and the temperature hovered around 43, but it had snowed the week before. As we gained altitude, the drifts grew thicker and more dense, and soon we were able to pull over and engage in a legitimate, if slightly icy, snowball fight and even do a little tobogganing. (Sliding is permitted throughout the park; you just have to be able to park safely.)
We needn’t have looked so hard for a place to stop. When we arrived at Yosemite West, the first thing we noticed was the hill in front of the condos — piled high with snow and firmly packed by earlier sledders. In the office of Four Seasons Vacation Rentals, we discovered that toboggans and saucers were available, had we forgotten ours. Also videos, board games, snowshoes, ski poles, any kitchen appliance you could possibly think of, footballs, Frisbees and all manner of toys for every age child. In the front office, there was also a shelf stocked with easily forgotten but much needed sundries — from peanut butter to shampoos to Children’s Motrin. You have to love a place that stocks peanut butter and Children’s Motrin.
The condo was perfect for us — a main floor, a sleeping loft and a mini-sleeping loft on top of that, both safely railed. The kids began playing fort the moment we stepped inside. There were two bathrooms, a nice living room and a full, if compact, kitchen stocked with coffee, creamer, tea, napkins, paper towels, filters for the coffeemaker, even a full roll of aluminum foil (which I have learned never to travel without — many problems can be solved, at least temporarily, with aluminum foil).
Yosemite West is about five minutes south of the turnoff to the Badger Pass Ski Area, which explained all the SUVs jammed with ski equipment in the parking lot. It’s 20 more minutes or so to the valley, but it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend 25 minutes than driving in and out of that glorious landscape.
Even Danny Mac was impressed into almost five consecutive minutes of silence by the Tunnel View overlook. “Mama,” he said finally, gazing out at El Capitan and Half Dome, “are those real giants?”
Which is probably close to the reaction John Muir and others had upon discovering Yosemite.
The park is very different in the winter, smaller, not less grand but less intimidating. On a map, Yosemite is an enormous, tantalizing blotch of green, its 1,200 square miles promising myriad visions of natural glory, from alpine wilderness to giant sequoia groves. In summer, there are too many options: Let’s do this trail, and then this one; let’s camp in Tuolumne Meadows and up above Bridal Veil Falls; let’s go into the backcountry and never come out.
No matter how long you stay, there is still the feeling of having missed something. Meanwhile, the valley seems overrun and almost tacky — so many buses, RVs, video cameras and radios, so many kids ignoring all those signs warning them not to clamber up the rocks beneath the falls.
Winter smooths away all these problems. Many of the roads are closed, the campsites and trails lost under snow. You don’t have to feel bad that your kids are too young yet to go for the really good hikes. The valley becomes a place of quiet beauty, every meadow and forest glen a snow-covered work of art.
There are still buses and video cameras (including ours) but not as many. Hovering above the white fields and beneath the trees bare and black, there is a feeling still of wilderness — despite the parking lots and the nearby hotels.
Winter transforms the short paved walkways up to Yosemite Falls and Bridal Veil Falls — fogey territory during the summer — into communal adventures. The day we stopped at Bridal Veil Falls, the path was so icy that small children had to be towed up the last steep incline by a chain of obliging adults and the only safe way to get back down was on our bottoms. (So bring ski pants, even if you’re not skiing.) When we were done, we really felt as though we had gone somewhere.
Cold, white stuffFor our Southern California children, snow in and of itself is a destination. Lurking in the trees were imaginary tribes of snow people and every open pasture held at least one snow fort. During our first real sledding adventure, I had to teach Danny and Fiona the rudiments of walking in the stuff — step in other people’s footprints if you can; don’t walk on hard-packed, icy snow (you’ll slip) or walk in drifts (you’ll wallow).
They were both surprised at how cold it was, though they could not keep their mittens on to save their lives. The mittens were my fault; I should have gotten them gloves. You can’t make a decent snowball with mittens, and Danny couldn’t get in enough snowball fights. Only on a trip to Badger Pass was he satiated, when he and a boy named Max engaged in a skirmish that lasted 2 1/2 hours. Seriously. Nonstop.
Listed in the Yosemite weekly newsletter were loads of organized activities: ranger-guided snowshoe treks (several by moonlight), tours of the falls and other parts of the valley, several story hours. Badger Pass offers ski classes, although none for children younger than 5, which eliminated Fiona. Both of my children were too young for most of these things, and that was fine. Yes, it was hard to give up seeing the sequoias (the parking lot was closed so the closest grove required a 2½-mile hike, too far for Fiona), but some people are born to peaceful idleness and others must occasionally have it thrust upon them.
Breaking with another fine old McNamara tradition (“It isn’t a trip if you aren’t following a schedule”), we didn’t have a Yosemite itinerary. In fact, that was sort of the point. We did whatever we felt like each day. We ate breakfast in the condo, went sledding, made a picnic lunch and went down to the valley where we walked and ran and built snow families, complete with snow dogs. We went to the posh Ahwahnee Hotel on Sunday morning for a lovely children’s story and craft hour. We were tempted to visit the gorgeous dining room for breakfast or lunch one day, but it was a bit too expensive and there was no way our kids would sit still when through the huge windows they could see snow to play in. We went to the various museums, and found a playground behind the school. While Fiona napped and Danny swung, I tried to imagine what it would be like to go to school there.
But mostly, we just walked — on the bike path that crisscrossed the meadows, along those roadside trails that were clear — and tried to see as much of Yosemite as we could fit into our eyes and brains. We tried to gather up the diamonds that seemed to glitter in the snow just across the Swinging Bridge. We tracked deer and coyotes into the trees, saw the sun splatter like spilled paint against Half Dome and watched the sky fade to lilac over El Capitan. We stood in the fog that rose from the river and rolled over the meadows at nightfall when sun left the valley and turned the world around us into an Ansel Adams portrait. We walked in the icy night and tried to find our friends in a sky cluttered with stars — Orion, the Big Dipper, the Seven Sisters, the Twins.
My husband and I were reminded of what it was like to have cold hands, cold bottoms, cold toes, remembered what winter was like in the places we were children. Danny and Fiona laughed with the cold, slid over frozen puddles, clambered up snow banks; in the evening their cheeks bloomed and their eyes drooped with the languor of a long winter’s play.
A six-hour drive and we were in a place as beautiful as any on this planet, a world away from our daily lives, concerned for the moment with nothing more than watching the sun dissolve into shadow or seeing the dry rush of a raven’s wings as it scattered the air above the snow.
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Winter in Yosemite
From Los Angeles, take Interstate 5 North to Highway 99 North to Fresno. Take Highway 41 into Yosemite National Park.
WHERE TO STAY:
Yosemite’s Four Seasons Vacation Rentals, 7519 Henness Circle, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; (800) 669-9300, https://www.yosemitelodging.com . Rental condos are 10 miles from the valley floor and include studio apartments that sleep up to four and lofts that sleep up to six. Off-season doubles from $88.
Ahwahnee Hotel, 1 Ahwahnee Road, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; (209) 372-1407, https://www.yosemitepark.com . A National Historic Landmark, this hotel opened in 1927. Its common rooms are large and comfortable in a high-end way. Doubles from $357. The Awahanee’s dining room is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch; reservations are recommended for dinner and brunch.
Yosemite Lodge, Yosemite Valley; (559) 252-4848, https://www.yosemitepark.com . Standard motel accommodations with a patio or balcony. Across from Yosemite Falls. Doubles from $110.
Curry Village, Yosemite Valley; (559) 252-4848, https://www.yosemitepark.com . This is the largest lodging facility in the valley, with a motel, cabins (with and without bathrooms) and canvas tent cabins without plumbing. Cabins with bath begin at $88.
WHERE TO EAT:
In winter, many dining facilities in the park are closed. There is a general store in Yosemite Village, and you can choose from the following:
Ahwahnee Dining Room, (209) 372-1489. This romantic restaurant, with a 34-foot-tall, trestle-beamed ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows, is just as expensive as you would expect. Dinner entrees $20 to $38. Sunday brunch $32 for adults, $16.50 for children.
Degnan’s Delicatessen, (209) 372-8454. Sandwiches, salads, soup and all manner of chips, cookies and sundries are available at the deli adjacent to the visitors center in Yosemite Village. Sandwiches start at $6.50.
Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria, (209) 372-1267. This cafeteria, along with the Coffee Corner and Grill, is open year-round and is functional for families without cooking facilities. Dinner entrees start at $7.75.
TO LEARN MORE:
— Mary McNamara