Whether it’s to escape the holiday madness or to start a new holiday tradition, visiting one of our national parks over the next couple of months is an excellent getaway. One that provides lots of options to get outdoors and sooth the soul, yet also offers a festive holiday flair, is Yosemite National Park, Calif.
A trip to Yosemite is a treat any time of the year, but in the fall and winter, there is extra appeal. The immense crowds of summer have cleared out, and it’s possible to find some of the solitude that enriches a Sierra adventure.
For most visitors to the sprawling 747,956-acre park about the size of Rhode Island, the main destination is Yosemite Valley. This is where you will find most of the park’s main services and, more important, the most iconic natural landmarks such as El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite and Bridal Veil Falls.
Assuming you are coming from Las Vegas, you will arrive from the south entrance near Fish Camp, Calif. To reach Yosemite Valley from there, you will be taking Wawona Road about 30 miles from the entrance. But don’t make a beeline straight to the valley because there are not-to-be-missed fall and winter highlights along the way.
Immediately after the fee station, on your right, you will find the access road to Mariposa Grove. Home to hundreds of giant sequoias, it is a must-see place to visit on foot through most of the year, but especially charming after the snow hits and one skis or snowshoes into the silent forest. The “celebrity” of the grove is Grizzly Giant, the largest tree in the park with a 96-foot circumference. It’s thought to be 1,900 to 2,400 years old.
Returning to the main road to the valley, you will find Glacier Point Road on your right, which brings you a few miles up to Badger Pass Ski Area. The elevation there is 7,000 to 8,000 feet. This area is one of California’s better destinations for those just learning to ski or snowboard. Eighty-five percent of the terrain is devoted to beginner and intermediate levels. Prices are reasonable, including the cost of renting equipment. Not much glitz or glamour here; it’s just a good family-friendly place. You can get further information at yosemitepark.com.
In winter, and with a good snow base, the Glacier Point Road Winter Trails are the place to stretch your legs on cross-country skis or snowshoes. You will find both groomed and ungroomed ski trails from an easy two-mile round trip to more than 20 miles round trip. For even more adventure, you can even take an overnight Guided Glacier Point Hut Tour.
Yosemite Valley is at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, so snow is not as heavy as where you traveled along Wawona Road. November average daily highs in Yosemite Valley are 56 degrees, and December averages about 47 degrees. This means that unless icy conditions are present, it will still be a great place for hiking.
There is a variety of lodging in this area of the park, with details available at yosemitepark.com/lodging.aspx. Noteworthy is the Ahwahnee Hotel, a National Historic Landmark. If you don’t stay there, it’s worth touring the building and grounds and having a meal, especially the Sunday brunch.
If you are coming from Las Vegas and prefer lodging conveniently close to potential outdoor experiences, a good choice is the Tenaya Lodge, a couple of miles from the park’s south entrance. You will have the best of two worlds: a full-service resort with Yosemite just minutes away. Prices are at their lowest this time of year, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. The resort offers family holiday celebrations now through New Year’s Eve. One of the most popular activities is Tenaya’s annual Gingerbread House Decorating Workshop on Nov. 29, Dec. 21 and 22. On Dec. 22 and 23, children can have dinner with Santa Claus and his elves. For more information, visit tenayalodge.com.
In Yosemite itself, the Ahwahnee is celebrating New Year’s Eve with an elegant black-tie dinner dance. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls also has New Year’s festivities, yet this event is more catered to families. Children can play games, dance and take part in a balloon drop.
If you are not up to driving the 450 miles to Yosemite, you can get pretty good deals flying from Las Vegas to Fresno and renting a car. It is about an hour drive north from Fresno to the south gate of the park.
Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.