By Anne Z. Cooke

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

As winter steals over Yosemite National Park, in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, a hush fills the valley.

Walking along the snowy banks of the Merced River as it winds its way below towering cliffs, it's obvious to a group of visitors why the valley's original Native American inhabitants felt they lived at the center of the universe, and why Yosemite Valley is such an inspired place for a winter vacation.

From the window of the Ahwahnee Hotel, we can see the snow on Half Dome, and an occasional coyote trotting across the meadow. Driving around the valley on the Loop Road, we spot a bobcat trotting along under the pines.

When the sun comes out from behind the clouds, we head to Yosemite Falls, the park's most popular tourist destination. The path to the falls used to be a hiking trail. Now, to accommodate busloads of summer visitors, it's a paved sidewalk running an eighth of a mile from the parking lot to the base of the falls. Still, with our history -- frequent family camping trips to this park -- a visit is a must. With less water than in winter, Yosemite Falls is still impressive, a frothy torrent showering ice droplets on the rocks below.

On the way back we pass a group of snow-shoers clomping across the meadow, passing Nordic skiers going the other way. We plan to ski, too, but not here. Along with other alpine skiers, we're planning to go up to Badger Pass ski area, at 7,200 feet on the rim, a Sierra pioneer resort for a quarter century. A one-hill outfit, Badger Pass is where our kids learned to ski.

The ski school, in fact, has made its reputation teaching alpine skiing to kids four and older. With five short chair lifts and gentle slopes that meet at the base lodge, it's a good place to learn. After a day of lessons, most kids can ski alone, and without supervision. The lodge offers a ski rental service, and there's a lunch bar and a tubing hill.

"There's a solid 9-foot base on the slopes, so we're set for a long time," says a clerk behind the lunch counter. "I expect I'll be working here until spring."

Along with the snow and ice, in Yosemite, comes elbow room. The crowds, 3.5 million-strong in summer, thin out and traffic disappears. From Thanksgiving on, it's easy to find available lodging. If you're the pioneer sort, ask about Curry Village's famous tent cabins, rectangular canvas tents with pitched roofs. The tents, mounted on wood platforms, come in two sizes with beds for two to five people. The bathrooms are communal (a chilly walk at 3 a.m.), but efficient gas heaters, added a few years ago, ward off the cold. The cots and mattresses have improved, but long johns and a down sleeping bag are still essential.

For luxury, stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel, a cultural icon and national historic landmark. Built in 1927, this rustic but stately 123-room lodge is one of just a few architecturally significant national park lodges remaining in the U.S. National Park System. During the 1970s, the National Park Service, swept up in a short-lived attempt to return all national park land to wilderness status, either tore down many historic lodges or converted them to government/employee housing.

The Ahwahnee is built of Yosemite Granite and what appears to be wood, used in beams, window trim and balconies. Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Ahwahnee's builder fabricated poured-cement sections, made on site to duplicate natural wood. Stone chimneys and peaked roofs complete the country manor house.

The interior, too, is a feast for the eyes. An eclectic mix, its use of stone, open beams, peeled log ceilings, dark wood floors and Native American artifacts is complemented by stained glass panels, oriental carpets, historic photos and art-deco motifs. The Ahwahnee's location, in a scenic corner of the valley floor, is a short drive off the main Loop Road. Follow the signs, park your car in the hotel lot and use the free shuttle buses to visit Yosemite Falls, souvenir and gift shops, the grocery story, the Ansel Adams Gallery, the Indian Museum, Yosemite Lodge restaurants, the ice skating rink at Curry Village and the trail head at Happy Isles.

The practical traveler's best buy is Yosemite Lodge, with 245 motel-style guest rooms scattered through one- and two-story buildings, and a central registration counter, tour desk, shops and restaurants in a separate structure. But they're perfect for families, hikers, school groups and seniors on a budget. Rooms have private baths, one or two beds, a chair and desk, TVs and coffeemakers. Wi-fi is also available in adjacent lounges.

The location is convenient, close to a grocery store, post office and sundries store. The Cafeteria Food Court, open all day, serves salads, pasta, hot entrees, hamburgers, fresh fruit and eggs and bacon. For dinner, try the Garden Terrace, a sit-down restaurant serving steaks and seafood, or the Mountain Room, a clubby sports bar with a fireplace and television.

Ask at the Lodge Tour Desk for information about ice-skating at the rink at Curry Village, snowshoeing, photography walks, ice-skating, fishing and (in summer) horseback riding and rock climbing. Curry Village rents ice skates and snowshoes. Badger Pass rents skis, snowboards and snowshoes.

Alternative lodging includes Tenaya Lodge, off Highway 41 two miles outside of Yosemite's southern entrance, is a good choice for weekend skiers. A 224-room family resort, Tenaya is on 35 acres at 5,288 feet, on the edge of a network of snowshoe trails into both the Sierra National Forest and the National Park. The most popular trail, the two-mile trail to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, is accessible only on foot and rarely used in the winter.

Recently renovated, Tenaya Lodge is a contemporary western lodge with a 34-foot high central lobby, open beams, a peaked roof and an impressive 12-foot rock fireplace. Heavy tables and rustic furniture, designed to stand up under heavy use, is upholstered in leather and Navajo-style fabrics. Spacious guest rooms have western furniture, wrought iron fixtures, hair dryer, coffeemaker, minibar, wi-fi access and television.

Kids love the sledding/sliding hill and the indoor swimming pool; the hot tub is a delicious spot to end a day. Or bundle up at night and step outside to watch the twinkling sweep of the Milky Way. The stars will never look so bright.


© Anne Z. Cooke, Vacation Travel Muse

Yosemite National Park in Winter