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A very Yosemite Christmas: 4 must-try winter adventures in the park

Photo collage of a hotel in the winter and Yosemite's "firefall," alongside illustrations of a skate and skis.
(Mark Boster / L.A. Times; Raul Roa / Times Community News; Getty Images; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / L.A. Times)

By Rachel Schnalzer
Design and illustrations by Jade Cuevas

Good morning, fellow Escapists. As I think back over my travels during 2021, a weekend visit to Yosemite National Park stands out. It was late spring, and I vividly remember looking down at a sea of bright green foliage from the top of Yosemite Falls, mule deer blinking at me through the pines and, of course, the crush of crowds after descending to the valley floor.

One week after my trip, the park began requiring day-use reservations in an effort to cut down congestion.

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Seven months later, it’s decidedly quieter in Yosemite, although there are people who love visiting during the winter. My Times colleague Christopher Reynolds is one of them. In his winter roundup of the 40 best California experiences, he mentions the joys of walking in the snow alongside the Yosemite Valley’s iconic granite walls and the icy Merced River.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find four must-try winter activities within the park. What’s your favorite thing to do in Yosemite? Let me know your recommendations and tips, so I can pass them along to fellow readers.

❄️ Treat yourself to a stay in a historic hotel

With nightly rates exceeding $450, stays at the Ahwahnee Hotel don’t come cheap. “But it’s such a great building,” Reynolds writes in his guide to winter experiences in California. “And Yosemite Valley under snow is priceless.”

Since its opening in the 1920s, the architecturally striking Ahwahnee has hosted the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, former presidents, such as John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, and a number of entertainers (“Judy Garland … truly wasn’t in Kansas anymore when she checked in to the Ahwahnee,” Yosemite’s tourism website reports jokingly.)

If you book a stay, make sure to budget some time to relax by the fireplace in the Ahwahnee’s Great Room, which Reynolds calls his “favorite part of the 1927 landmark.” Also, because of COVID-19 precautions, don’t expect creature comforts such as dining room table service and room service.

Not sure you’d like to spring for a room at the Ahwahnee?

At the Wawona Hotel, which dates back to 1856, you can still experience the history and beauty of the park at a fraction of the price. Located near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the hotel is accepting reservations during the holiday season ahead of its opening in March 2022.

Holiday rates begin around $150 per night.

The front of a multistory building surrounded by trees and grounds covered in snow.
With a fresh blanket of snow from an overnight storm, a new morning dawns at the venerable Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

⛸️ Ice skate in the shadow of Half Dome

Yosemite National Park is a world-class destination for hiking and rock climbing. Turns out its granite-walled valley makes for a pretty memorable place to go ice skating, too.

The Curry Village Ice Skating Rink, included on Reynolds’ list of California ice skating rinks, is open for the season, conditions permitting, and it’s hard to fathom a more beautiful location to skate. Half Dome is visible from the rink, and after spending an hour or two on the ice, skaters can warm up at the nearby fire pit and take in the views.

The rink is also part of Yosemite National Park history. “Just about every winter since 1928, there has been ice skating on a seasonal rink in the valley’s Curry Village,” Reynolds writes.

Tickets can be purchased at the Curry Village Tour & Activity Desk next to the registration office. Adult tickets cost $14 ($12.50 per child ages 12 and under) plus $4.75 for skate rentals.

Two people ice skate on an outdoor rink in winter.
The Half Dome, seen from the Curry Village Ice Skating Rink.
(Yosemite Hospitality)

🏂 Ski and snowboard at Badger Pass

Did you know Yosemite is home to the oldest ski area in California and one of the only ski lifts in U.S. national parks? Badger Pass Ski Area, off Glacier Point Road, offers trails and slopes for skiing, snowboarding, tubing and more.

Downhill operations are expected to begin Dec. 24. The Nordic Center, which offers snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, will open for the season on Dec. 17.

With introductory classes available for beginners and a challenging terrain park, Badger Pass can accommodate travelers at all levels of snow sport expertise.

For those hoping to learn more about Yosemite, it seems hard to beat the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service’s snowshoe hikes. On the group’s Moderate Discovery Snowshoe Hike, visitors will learn about the park’s winter ecology on a 3-to-4-mile trek through the snow. Tickets cost $60, including the price of snowshoe rentals.

Those interested in more of a challenge might consider the Advanced Snowshoe Hike to Dewey Point, an all-day, 8-mile excursion with views of El Capitan, Half Dome, the Clark Range and more. This adventure costs $95.

Ski lift with illustrated beanie hat and snowflakes.
(Photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

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🔥 Mark your calendar. Firefall season is almost here.

If you enjoy traveling in California, chances are you’ve heard tales of Yosemite’s famous “firefall.”

Each February — that’s if the weather cooperates — visitors may be able to catch Yosemite Valley’s Horsetail Fall “bathed in a golden backlight that makes it glow like a flaming waterfall,” Reynolds writes. In 2022, the firefall is expected to appear during Feb. 13-25, he reports.

The firefall typically attracts photographers as well as non-artists hoping to witness this bucket list-worthy experience. If you go, make sure to follow rules in place for controlling crowds and the flow of traffic.

A wide-angle shot of the Horsetail Falls firefalls effect in Yosemite caused by light from the setting sun.
In Yosemite, the Horsetail Falls “firefall” effect is caused by light from the setting sun. The phenomenon occurs during mid-February if there’s enough melting snow on top of El Capitan and clear skies to the west as the sun sets.
(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

Speaking of rules …

When you visit Yosemite National Park — and other destinations — in the winter, it’s important to pay attention to the forecast and weather advisories. Check for closures and restrictions, and remember that snow, sleet and ice can make driving conditions dangerous, especially when combined with elevation and spotty cell-service areas. It’s a good idea to keep snow chains in your car in case you need them.

Check with park officials or other authorities if you’re unsure how to stay safe during your travels.

📰 What I’m reading

An illustration with a plate of food says "101 Best Restaurants in L.A."
Southern California’s superior agriculture combined with L.A.’s miraculous pluralism make the region one of the world’s most exciting places to eat.
(Illustration by Luke Lucas / For The Times; photography by Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

📸 Photo of the week

A snow-covered mountain doted with evergreens and orange clouds above.
The orange hues of the sunset color the sky over Half Dome during a snowy, late-winter evening in Yosemite Valley.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “Everything Is Cool” by John Prine

Best lyrics: I was walking down the road, man, just looking at my shoes / When God sent me an angel, just to chase away my blues.

Where to play it: While stuck in traffic in Yosemite Valley

Photo of visitors at Yosemite Valley inside a Polaroid-style illustration.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)


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