In their rush for gold, the early forty-niners completely missed one of the world’s greatest treasures. Ensconced on the western flank of California’s Sierra Nevada is this week’s National Park Getaway. Yosemite National Park is not just any gem, but one of the world’s best-loved protected areas.
Yosemite is famous for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves and biological diversity. The Tuolumne and Merced rivers, both protected Wild and Scenic Rivers, begin in the park. Nearly 95 percent of Yosemite, a World Heritage site since 1984, is designated wilderness.
Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s foremost landscape architect, called it the “noblest public park” in the world. Ansel Adams, Albert Bierstadt, John Muir are among a host of artistic giants who shaped America’s vision of Yosemite as an icon of wilderness.
But Yosemite in the winter? Sounds crazy to many, but if your RV is winter-ready (read that enclosed holding tanks, and lots of propane to run the furnace, a set of tire chains and frequent weather forecast checking), Yosemite in the "off season" can be a marvel. The park's Chief of Interpretation, Tom Medema, has his own observations on Yosemite in winter, courtesy of the National Park Service.
"Winter has the opposite effect on me as it does on much of Yosemite's wildlife. Instead of entering hibernation, it is a time of awakening and invigoration like no other! Crisp clean air, brilliant blue sky set against the blanket of white, silence except for the stride of my skis, joyful screams of trepidation and glee on the ski hill and ice rink — these are things that keep one coming back to Yosemite in winter day after day, week after week, year after year.
"Imagine the perfect winter morning: Yosemite Valley is blanketed in white with a fresh coat of snow outlining every detail – rock walls, black oaks, riverbanks, and historic buildings. The sublime scenery created in winter here is almost overwhelming.
"And it's not just the stunning site that takes my breath away … the historic and significant ice rink at Curry Village offers visitors and locals alike a unique and addicting way to raise heartbeats and stretch cramped winter legs. In the 1930s, Yosemite boasted a successful travelling club hockey team, a team that travelled as far as Los Angeles to play matches. Figure skating, speed skating, and ice dancing were all the rage at Curry Village; a unique tradition that continues today with adult and youth hockey, figure skating lessons, and open skating for the public — all in the shadow of Half Dome and Glacier Point. It is unquestionably the most scenic ice rink in the world.
For ski enthusiasts, the perfect day starts with a careful drive up the mountain road to Badger Pass for a quiet morning of cross-country touring on trails surrounding the downhill ski area. Follow this with a fun and adventurous snowshoe walk with a park ranger and end the day in high spirits with an afternoon of lift-line-free downhill or telemark skiing at the oldest and most historic ski area in California! Badger Pass is a perfectly unintimidating family mountain, great for beginners and tough enough for experienced skiers to find great lines through the trees or on the short steeps.perfectly unintimidating family mountain, great for beginners and tough enough for experienced skiers to find great lines through the trees or on the short steeps."
What about camping? The majority of Yosemite's campgrounds close for the winter, but a few remain open year round for hardy travelers. Yosemite Valley's Upper Pines Campground, which requires reservations, and Camp 4, which is first-come, first-serve, are open all year. Wawona Campground, near the Wawona Hotel in southern Yosemite, accepts but does not require winter reservations. The same is true for Hodgdon Meadow Campground, near the Big Oak Flat entrance (Yosemite's northwest entrance) on Highway 120.
ALWAYS call ahead and check weather conditions, and make sure you're up to the task. If you are, Yosemite may be this winter's bet for a snowy RV stay.
photo: Tom Medema, courtesy National Park Service