Saturday, March 22, 2008

Getting Traction in Yosemite

Everyone's heard about the wonders of Yosemite in the winter. There's the quiet, the lack of crowds, the beauty of snow-covered Half Dome and El Capitan and the lower prices. But, try as we might, it takes years for a lot of us to actually get there. It's a season that is so different from the congested madness of summer that you will never want to return between June and September. On a recent visit, the lobby of Yosemite's grand hotel, the Ahwahnee, was bustling but not crowded. The comfy sofas in front of the huge crackling fire were empty (and, since this is the only area in the hotel with WiFi, it's a cozy spot to catch up on email). I found the same pleasant atmosphere at the Yosemite Lodge, where rates fall to as low as $89 per night in winter, and there's no fighting for a weekend reservation or to get the attention of a front desk clerk.
There was a mild snowfall and gray skies for a day, perfect timing since the Ahwahnee's Chef's Holidays cooking programs were taking place. This annual January event was started years ago to draw visitors in the off season. Many well-known chefs from San Francisco and other cities, in a delightfully relaxed mood (no Gorden Ramseys here), give hour-long cooking demonstrations twice a day in the Ahwahnee's lovely Great Lounge, all complimentary to visitors. Snow fell on the meadow outside the Lounge's large windows as we sampled cheese from Cowgirl Creamery and a homey vegetable gratin from chefs at Boulette's Larder in San Francisco.
The next morning was spectacular. Skies were a clear blue, the temperature in the low 40s and several inches of powdery snow had accumulated on the ground and in the trees. At the Yosemite Sports Shop I bought "traction devices," those crampon-like doo-hickeys to strap on the bottom of hiking boots. I only recently learned about these things. They are easy to put on all kinds of shoes and seem to prevent slipping on ice. Highly recommended. I took a long walk along the valley's trails, seeing only a few people, all of whom seemed as hushed as I was by the spectacular sight: Yosemite Valley on a brilliant morning after a mid-winter snowfall.

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