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The snowflakes came floating down just as we entered Yosemite National Park at the west gate. They swirled, silent, drifting through the pine branches, some settling on needles, others landing in the white, open meadow, a few piling softly on our windshield. I leaned forward to see that clouds erased the peaks of Yosemite Valley’s stone walls, blotting out Half Dome’s dolphin nose and Glacier Point’s point, and the afternoon light dimmed so fast that 3 o’clock felt like 5 o’clock.
This is Yosemite in January. On cloudy days, white and gray, all shadow; sparkly, teeth-and-tinfoil cold on sunny ones.
We parked in the frozen parking lot at The Ahwahnee hotel, then assumed a strange gait as we carried our bags toward the breezeway: firm footsteps, no butt wiggle, tight through the knee. First day of a three-day getaway is a bad time for a shattered hip. The softer snow felt safer than iced-up asphalt, and we arrived in the hotel’s fire-warmed lobby with cold toes, but bones intact. The grand fireplace beckoned, taller than our heads, so we heated our backs and chatted with some nice folks from Germany who lounged on couches as they sipped from steaming mugs. We were all here for the annual Chefs’ Holidays event, a monthlong celebration that brings chefs from restaurants renowned in the United States—and sometimes beyond—to showcase their cooking prowess. Guests come away with some new kitchen skills, some secrets behind fine-dining cuisine and, yes, bigger bellies.
Whether you come to The Ahwahnee for Chefs’ Holidays or a different type of winter getaway, wander around and appreciate the property’s grandiosity. Built in the 1920s on the site of a former Miwok village with views of Half Dome, Glacier Point and Yosemite Falls, the hotel was designed for the affluent traveler, with luxurious Persian rugs, grand furniture, imposing beams and vast common areas with floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places, and although it has been remodeled numerous times over the years, it still feels period-appropriate and lavish. Today’s decor leans more toward Native American chic, but several of the original rugs adorn the walls, and it’s no stretch to imagine guests dressed in 1930s-popular butterfly sleeves and boleros. Reserve one of 123 rooms or suites in the main hotel or one of 24 cottages on the property. Eat supper under soaring 34-foot ceilings in the magnificent dining room, where white tablecloths, stone walls, candelabras and vast windows will make you feel very small indeed. Grilled fillet of beef, prime rib, osso buco, grilled swordfish and short rib pasta, among other hearty winter dishes, fill up the menu; an impressive wine list accompanies. Bring something besides your sweatshirt and jeans—while I don’t believe we would’ve been kicked out for going uber-casual, the restaurant requests “resort casual,” and it felt right to step it up a bit. The event, with lodging packages that start at $449 per person for two nights at The Ahwahnee, begins with a Meet the Chefs appetizers-and-drinks reception and includes a gala dinner in the cavernous Ahwahnee dining room, a behind-the-scenes commercial kitchen tour there, and admission to the cooking demonstrations, complete with ample samples, that fill each day. When we attended for two days, we learned, among other things, how to make mirepoix—the French base mixture of onions, celery and carrots—for a delicious sunchoke soup, and watched (and later tasted) in awe as the chef created a lobster dish with cauliflower and uni (sea urchin). This year’s Chefs’ Holidays takes place Jan. 11–Feb. 6 (eight three-day sessions) and includes mostly California chefs. For the lineup, go to www.yosemitepark.com/chefs-holidays.
Yosemite in the wintertime is tremendously different from the park in the summertime. It’s quiet, cold, and even on clear days the granite walls shield the sun, especially on the southern end of the park. With snowfall, meadows become broad fields of white, trees sprinkled with sugar; without snow, as it went last year until far into the season, the park is a stark, gray world.
Either way, the pathways are maintained, although with potential for black ice, they require careful footing, and crowds stay thin. Some of the park’s attractions remain open year-round—the museums and The Ansel Adams Gallery and gift shops make for warm stops near Yosemite Falls. Explore the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and the Yosemite Museum for a wealth of information and history, and where a 23-minute film introduces folks to the splendor of the region—and might motivate you to go out and buy a good camera. Same with The Ansel Adams Gallery, packed full of Adams’ famous photography as well as works by other artists and photographers.
On the darker side of the valley, the Curry Village skating rink invites winter visitors to figure-eight and spin beneath Half Dome. Bundle up and go for it: Skating costs $10.50; skate rentals are $4. Park your shoes in the warming hut and gather around the fire pit when you exit the ice. If you’ve stocked up on marshmallows, grahams and Hershey bars at the village grocery store, you’ll be in good shape to roast one up and stack it thick.
If you’ve got good waterproof boots, take one of Yosemite’s renowned hikes—to the Vernal Falls footbridge of the Mist Trail, to Lower Yosemite Falls or around Mirror Lake. These trails are open during winter months for hardy hikers who don’t mind seeing their breath.
Go South to the Sequoias
Out of the valley near the south end of Yosemite National Park, more snow flies, making for some splendid snowshoeing or cross-country skiing under the sequoias in the Mariposa, Merced and Tuolumne groves. The largest grove with the hugest trees, Mariposa, requires a two-mile tromp to the trailhead and another mile or so to the lower grove. If you tackle it, be sure to admire the Fallen Monarch, an upturned dead tree whose base dwarves even the tallest man. Twice as large, though, the Grizzly Giant, the largest of the Yosemite sequoias, stands very much alive.
Bundle Up for Badger Pass
During winter months, Glacier Point Road stays open as far as Badger Pass Ski Area, where skiers and snowboarders can spend the day cruising the slopes or strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis to tour the backcountry. Rent equipment, take a lesson, lounge on the sundeck at the lodge. After dark, take a two-hour guided moonlight snowshoe trek on winter nights when the moon is full or near-full. Stars’ twinkle through the trees is dimmed only by the moonglow off snowy hillsides. Dec. 31, 2014–Jan. 4, 2015, Jan. 30–Feb. 2, March 1–March 5, March 31–April 4. $19 including snowshoe rental. Call (209) 372-4386.
Good Grub When It’s Cold
Many of your standard Yosemite eateries close for the winter months. For example, Curry Village won’t have many reliable options beyond the little grocery store. Degnan’s Deli at Yosemite Village stays open during the day and makes towering sandwiches and typically has a crock of soup or chili going; it’s also one of the few spots to nab an espresso drink during the cold season. The food court at Yosemite Lodge makes a great coffee or hot chocolate stop on a chilly day. If you’re hungry, grab a casual lunch—make the rounds for pizza, pasta, burgers, soups and premade salads. Also at the lodge, the Mountain Room delivers gorgeous views of Yosemite Falls—unfortunately, too dark to see in winter at dinnertime, the only meal served. But go for the seafood and steaks—house specialties include filet mignon and rib-eye, with classic sauces such as bearnaise or mushroom.
Inside the park, The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Lodge—which also has Chefs’ Holidays packages—remain open year-round. At the lodge, some 200-plus newly remodeled guest rooms come in standard and deluxe sizes, with private baths, coffeemakers, televisions, the usual. Families might opt for a room with bunk beds and a sofa sleeper. Also in the park, but not in the valley, The Redwoods in Yosemite books spacious homes and cozy log cabins in the Wawona area (near the south entrance) year-round. Many are pet-friendly, and the proximity to Badger Pass makes these vacation rentals a desirable option for skiers. In the towns surrounding Yosemite National Park, more lodging exists. In Fish Camp, just outside the south entrance, Tenaya Lodge is open in the winter and draws winter-sports enthusiasts. For more sedate fun here, take a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the pines. In Mariposa, the largest town before the west entrance to the park, numerous moderate-level hotels have plenty of availability during the winter, and in El Portal, closest to that park gate, you’ll find a few motels. Groveland, approaching the north entrance to Yosemite, is home to a collection of inns as well.