Most Californians I know will think nothing of fighting hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to fresh powder in Tahoe or Mammoth – which is funny because just a tweak of the compass makes the traffic disappear and delivers a four-hour ride to heaven.
The mystique of winter in Yosemite must be experienced to be believed. If you’ve not had the chance to gaze at an ice-covered El Capitan while hearing only the crunch of your boots in the snow, this is the year to do it.
Yosemite National Park receives more than four million visitors each year but fewer than 10 percent of them come in the winter. Pick a non-holiday and you’ll feel like you’ve got the place to yourself – especially compared to a summer visit. During a snowy walk on the Mirror Lake Trail years ago, my husband and I saw a bobcat in his winter white coat. Even birds stay away from that trail during high season.
The best part? A winter loop through California’s mountains majesty is easy to execute. Room reservations aren’t impossible to get. You can still get in a bit of skiing at Badger Pass. And the roads are open into Yosemite Valley and through King’s Canyon and Sequoia all year (except during major storms).
My 12-year-old daughter Pearl and I were lucky to spend a November weekend in Yosemite and Sequoia after the first snows of the season. Our first stop was Tenaya Lodge, perched just outside the southern gate into Yosemite. It’s the largest property in the area – and that pays off in the winter. In addition to a pool and spa, the hotel offers a variety of winter activities for families, including a sledding hill, sleigh rides, archery, kid snowmobile rides and an ice skating rink with Hot Toddy service to parents relaxing at the bonfire outside. Don’t feel like packing all your snow gear? No problem. You can rent sleds, skates and even snowshoes for a day hike to the Nelder Grove of Sequoias nearby.
Of course, the real attraction at Tenaya is its proximity to Yosemite Valley. You can be there in about an hour or take two hours like we did, stopping along the way to hike around, take in the vista at “Tunnel View,” and play in the snow. Many of the popular hikes near Yosemite Village that are too crowded in the summer are the perfect length for a winter outing.
Though we visited before the rink opened, Curry Village (renamed “Half Dome Village” along with many of Yosemite’s landmarks as of March 1, 2016) offers ice skating in the shadows of El Capitan and Glacier Point. Snowshoers and cross country skiers have many backcountry options (day trips or overnights near Glacier Point and Crane Flat, depending on current trail conditions). But we were happy with a hike, lots of short wanders and hot bowl of chili in the warmth of the Ahwahnee’s lobby “Bar” before driving back to Tenaya for an indoor swim.
In the morning, we headed south for King’s Canyon and Sequoia. On the trip down to Fresno and east back up into the Sierras, Pearl and I saw spots of damage from 2015’s Rough Fire and hillsides spotted with brown pine trees that have died from a combination of drought and beetle infestation. It makes you appreciate the famously hard-to-destroy bark of the Giant Sequoias: all those burnt fir trees are just nature “weeding” one hundred years-worth of undergrowth from the forest floor.
Where Yosemite had light crowds, we had King’s Canyon all to ourselves. The Grant Grove car park had only one other car when we visited. It was just us, Giant Sequoias and the sound of melting snow dripping off the tip top branches in the morning sun. Very amazing.
Proclaimed the “Nation’s Christmas Tree” by President Coolidge in 1928, the General Grant Tree and the short paths in its grove provide a perfect winter King’s Canyon experience: you can gaze up, around and through the big guys in around an hour.
If you snowshoe to the top of this ridge, you can see how close the Rough Fire came to destroying this world famous grove. Even though it had raged months before, the fire was not fully extinguished until the first snow fell in November just days prior to our visit. The whole area smelled like you just dumped a bucket of water on a campfire.
The General’s Highway 198 runs through higher elevations than the route into Yosemite Valley. That means the forests are thicker, the trees are more caked with snow and the roads are more likely to be icy. Most of the rest of King’s Canyon’s sights cannot be reached in the winter, including Hume Lake, Panoramic Point and Moro Rock, so we continued cruising another hour towards Sequoia National Park. We found parking tight at the small lot near the General Sherman Tree but it was worth the effort to be able to wander the trails, throw some snowballs and build a snowman under the largest tree in the world.
A bit farther down the road, the Giant Forest is home to five of the ten largest Sequoias in the world. In fact, Sequoia National Park (which originally encompassed King’s Canyon’s Grant Grove as well) was created to prevent the remainder of these massive trees from being cut down. Founded in 1890 just after Yellowstone (1872) and shortly before Yosemite, Sequoia is America’s second oldest national park and celebrated its 125th birthday in 2015. We had a look at the Giant Forest Museum and checked out a few of the short trails near the parking area that are walkable in the snow.
From here it is possible to backtrack fifteen minutes to Wuksachi Village, get a snack, rent snowshoes and sleds, and enjoy an afternoon of snow play near Wolverton. This is the jumping off point for the Pearl Lake Winter Hut, an overnight destination for expert cross country skiers. For the rest of us, Wuksachi Lodge offers a warm meal and a comfy room set in the glory of snowy High Sierra forests.
And don’t plan to rush home after breakfast. Highway 198 from Sequoia to Three Rivers is one of my favorite drives in California. The spectacle begins about 4 miles past General Sherman when you drive through four Giant Sequoias – even prettier when covered in snow (obviously, this isn’t anywhere near as snowy as it gets).
The road descends into the Sierra Foothills and showcases California’s diverse landscapes: in an hour you move from Sequoias, pines and snowy meadows to oaks, buckeyes, rivers and cacti, with valley vistas along the way.
We always stop at Hospital Rock on our way down the mountain. Native American tribes inhabited this striking area along the Kaweah River for hundreds of years. The massive boulder across the highway from the picnic area is covered with pictographs and the adjacent table rock has dozens of mortar holes for grinding acorn flour. It’s fun to pass under the Tunnel Rock and scramble down to the river here, as well.
Passing over the cute 1922 Pumpkin Hollow bridge, we entered the artist’s community of Three Rivers. During the 2015 drought, this town was overrun with black bears that came down the mountain looking for food and water. Our cousin Val who lives in Three Rivers recommended eating at Sierra Subs or Casa Mendoza but we skipped lunch and went straight for dessert at Reimer’s Candy House.
Candy enthusiasts must bring their “A” game and their credit cards in order to do justice to this 50-year-old family-run shop. We were there an hour and left with a fortune in homemade peanut brittle, Stollen Bread, fudge, jawbreakers of all sizes, and a “crispy bear paw,” a massive confection made of crunchy rice and caramel covered in chocolate. The homemade sugar high kept us buzzing all the way home.
Good to Know
YOU MUST HAVE SNOW CHAINS! Even cars with four-wheel drive may need chains for winter roads. Doublecheck current highway conditions before you go (click here for Sequoia/King’s Canyon and here for Yosemite.)
Tenaya Lodge Aside from the amazing, expensive and always-booked Ahwahnee (now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel 🙁 ), this Fish Camp resort is one of the only non-motel, non-camping option for miles. Winter rates on non-holiday weekends are very reasonable – as low as $129 per night. (Check TravelZoo and Groupon for deals.) Half of the rooms have undergone a sleek update. The other half are decorated a bit less fashionably but cheaper. Ground floor rooms allow dogs. The “cottage” rooms are a short walk away from the main lodge and are one of the least expensive options. They’re actually separate units of a three-unit townhome-like building set in a pine and cedar forest. The cottages would be a great option for a multigenerational trip or for three families spending the weekend together. Tenaya has a restaurant and bar/grill open all year long (both offering kid’s menus) so we didn’t have to hunt for food, which is great because the next restaurant is miles and miles away. Considering Tenaya has you trapped, the breakfast buffet is pretty good too.
King’s Canyon/Sequoia Lodging Both John Muir Lodge and Wuksachi Lodge provide comfortable stops along the General’s Highway at reasonable prices. Neither property is overly “lodge-y” but both deliver warm beds, clean rooms, good food and helpful staff inside the national parks. We preferred the Wuksachi for its southern location near the Giant Forest and its ridgeline setting. Be aware that both properties require a short drive or chilly walk to the main check-in building and restaurant.
Snow Camping is Possible You can save money and earn street cred by camping on the Yosemite Valley floor in the winter. Just pack your gear and show up. No reservations are needed from Dec. 1 to March 15 at Upper Pines campground, which will run you $26 per night. Be aware that you might spend your savings in the lobby of the Ahwanee, paying for hot drinks, meals and central heat, however. King’s Canyon’s snowy campground, “Azalea,” near Grant Grove, is only $16 per night at 6,500 feet (!) and on the Three River’s (snowless) side, South Fork and Potwisha campgrounds are open year round.
Mariposa Grove Closed The parking lot for Yosemite’s largest Sequoia Grove near Tenaya Lodge is being moved away from the roots of the big trees. The grove will reopen in spring 2017.
Short Days Aside from the chill, the only bad part of taking a family vacation to a national park in winter is the early sunset. In Yosemite Valley, this is especially true given its spot between massive cliffs. On the Mirror Lake Trail in November, the sky got that snowy glowy dusky look by about 3:00pm so there isn’t really time for too much more than a meal and one or two stops/hikes per day.
Bear Country Don’t be like us and dump a 10-pound bag of oranges on your car floor during your drive to the Sierras. If you do, you’ll be in the freezing-cold darkness grabbing them out from under your seats and cleaning out other food and drinks sprinkled throughout the car to prevent an insomnolent bear from breaking in for a snack. The bears in this area do not hibernate soundly and have been known to break into cars even in the dead of winter. Better safe than sorry.
by Maryann Jones Thompson, December 2015
© ROAM Family Travel 2015 – All rights reserved
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