It’s been a wet and cold winter for most of us across the States this year. Snow drifts and downpours are making even the most well-adjusted folks long for warm winds and sand between our toes. But before you book that flight to fly south consider making a trip to the Valley of the most photographed national park in the West, Yosemite National Park.
Picturesque prints of Yosemite’s majestic cliffs are ot in short supply but it’s safe to say you need to experience their breathtaking beauty first hand. This 745,000-acre park was established in 1890 and wilderness crusader John Muir was right, “No temple made with human hands can compare with Yosemite.” In fact, it was Muir’s book, Yosemite, that inspired a recent road trip to enjoy Yosemite Valley during the winter season. Sure, we could wait until summer to take a cool dip in the Merced River and camp at Curry Village. But there is an unmatched magic to the Valley covered in snow. Quiet and shrouded in mist, winter in Yosemite is much less crowded, by humans and bears alike.
To get there from San Francisco it’s roughly a four-hour drive winding through California’s Gold Country, home of the original 49ers. While the sweeping vistas are many miles ahead, the famous In &Out burger is a welcome distraction from the strip malls and dry landscape. We stopped to enjoy a more leisurely lunch in the historic town of Oakdale, also known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World”. There you can stick with the western theme and enjoy a cowboy steak and corned beef hash at Cahoots Corner Cafe. If the kiddos (or a kid-like adult) are with you let them ring the bell on the way out the door to appreciate the chef’s culinary skills.
While there are options to stay overnight inside the Valley, The Groveland Hotel is a well located and romantic choice. Only a thirty-minute drive from the park gates, this hotel is as adorable as its name and each room is named after a friendly ‘prior tenant’, i.e. a ghost. The historic town of Groveland is not instantly notable but is filled with small pleasures for the history buff. The ‘main street’ spans only a few hundred yards so it was easy enough to enjoy some fresh air and take a walk. This way we were able to get an up-close peek at the one-room jail, built in 1895. Side note: six Tesla charging stations sit right next to the old jail. This juxtaposition is worth a photo. A favorite stop of mine whether I stay in Groveland or elsewhere is the Iron Door Saloon, the oldest bar in California. Yosemite memorabilia cover the walls giving you plenty to look at while you enjoy a strong drink and a surprisingly fresh salad bar. If you haven’t had enough meat yet the buffalo burger is worth it.
After fueling up and recharging, Yosemite Valley awaited. Even the short drive to the park gates is mind blowing and there are plenty of vista points to stop for a photo. Eventually, rounding a bend, Half Dome’s famous shape comes into view. It was cold but the sun was out and we continued to wind our way through the snow banks, stopping to enjoy a view of Yosemite Falls. In an effort to reduce traffic and pollution, it is highly encouraged to park your car and take a free shuttle bus around the valley. Or you can creep along slowly, stopping often to take photos and stretch your legs.
Once we relieved ourselves of the car and packed some snacks in our daypacks we made our way to a trailhead destined for Mirror Lake. It’s an easy, level hike and if you’re lucky a family of deer will join you. We were very lucky. A doe, a young buck, and several fawns slowly walked across our path, not shy by any means. I felt a little like Snow White as I watched them for at least thirty minutes quietly graze on what was left of the berry bushes. Eventually, we moved on, but as an animal lover that was a highlight of the trip. At Mirror Lake is a great view of the nearly five thousand foot tall Half Dome peak and crystal clear waters. After a hike and a brief snowball fight, we made our way over to the Curry Village Ice Rink for a quick skate. Nearby is a cafe with a gigantic fireplace, perfect for sipping hot cocoa and thawing out.
The landmark Ahwahnee Hotel, or what is now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, is another place to warm up by a fire. Bring a book or people watch. You might hear at least three different languages while listening to the tourists. It’s tempting to stay cozy indoors but as the sun is setting the alpenglow on another famous Valley peak is not to be missed. Expert rock climbers from all over the world come to stake their claim on El Capitan. The views from Cook’s Meadow at dusk are unrivaled and if you wait long enough you can see the tiny lights from the rock climbers headlamps shining hundreds of feet up the rock.
There is magic in spades in Yosemite Valley during the winter. A quick weekend trip is well worth the drive. Save exploring the rest of the park for summer when the roads are clear. Pack your warm clothes and put on the snow tires. The views are endless and your fond memories will be too.
— By Joanna Harris Brewer
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