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Weekend Escape: Yosemite

Park and Glide

No more fishing and swimming, but in winter there's skating, skiing and--gasp!--weather

December 15, 1996|JOANNA M. MILLER | Miller is a freelance writer based in Simi Valley

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Heading for the hills during a season of changeable weather is always a gamble. But taking the chance can carry a big payoff, as we found during a weather-filled weekend in Yosemite.

That weekend the park's lodgings were all full (except for the shabby little cabins at Yosemite Lodge), but the throngs that swarm over the valley in summer were absent nearly everywhere else in the park.

Although activities such as swimming, horseback riding and, for all practical purposes, camping, are closed for the season, there is ice skating at Curry Village on an outdoor rink with magnificent, snow-covered Half Dome for a backdrop. And cross-county and downhill skiing opened after Thanksgiving at Yosemite's Badger Pass. (The downhill slopes aren't much of a challenge, but it's a great place for kids.)

We love the park and usually visit in the spring. On the last several trips we've hiked, lugging the kids in backpacks. This time around, we drove the three hours plus from Simi Valley to Fresno (about 210 miles from Los Angeles) on Thursday night after work. Next morning, my husband and I left our boys with family in Fresno and headed off for the hourlong ride up California 41 to the Yosemite National Park entrance. That twisty highway can be like molasses in summer, with park-bound traffic slowing to a crawl only miles outside of Fresno. But this drive was a breeze past the wheat-colored grass fields and enduring oaks of the northern San Joaquin Valley.

We stopped for lunch at Tenaya Lodge, just outside the park gates. It's a large, 6-year-old hotel; and if not elegant with its faux rock exterior and antler appointments, it is certainly spacious and comfortable. (There were rooms available, for as little as $89 a night, we discovered after checking at the front desk.) The dining room was closed so we ate in the bar, which had a large glass wall at one end through which we watched children play in falling flakes of snow. Lunch was ample, hot and tasty.

From there, it's not quite an hour to the Yosemite Valley floor, another drive that can seem slow and endless in summer. It was misting heavily as we rounded the corner at Inspiration Point and pulled off for a glimpse of Yosemite's dazzling El Capitan before a heavy cloud of fog shrouded the mountain and cheated us of the view.

We usually stay in one of the deluxe rooms at Yosemite Lodge for about $98 per night. (The stately Ahwahnee Hotel costs $210 even in the off-season. Well worth it, in my opinion, for a special occasion.)

*

At Yosemite Lodge, or anywhere in the park, you can get the room you want if you call a year ahead. But our lives are never that well-planned, so I always get our rooms by calling on consecutive days a couple months ahead and waiting for cancellations. When I called this time, about eight weeks before our November departure, the reservations clerk told me the lodge's cabins were very similar to a standard lodge room. So for $69 a night plus tax, we thought we'd give them a try.

But after checking in and having a look, we found the cabins cramped, with beds that seemed to slant downward toward the head. Back at the front desk, a very helpful Stacy found us a lodge room, with the caveat that we might have to move back to the cabin Saturday night because the lodge was sold out.

Our room--called a cottage or family room because it's smaller than deluxe but has extra beds for kids--in one of the lodge's 16 buildings was just right. The bath was nice, although the tub had mildew around the edge, something I've noticed before at the lodge.

Outdoors, it was chilly, in the 50s, so we put on our boots and set off for one of many sessions of ice skating in Curry Village, just a few miles to the east of the lodge. We laced up our rental skates, as excited as a couple of kids to hit the ice and take a few, very cautious spins. The small outdoor rink is chilled to keep the surface nice in above-freezing weather; the rink and rental hut are open daily until about mid-March. There were all levels of skaters on the ice, from a man making graceful backward loops to the 3-year-old first-timer, with us somewhere in between. As we skated, a group of moms and others sipped coffee and huddled on benches by the cozy fire pit in front of the rink.

Afterward, as rain began to fall in earnest, we took the short drive to the Ahwahnee Hotel lounge for a hot rum drink for me and a cold martini for Mike. We strolled the splendid great room at the hotel, where families played board games at various clusters of well-cushioned couches, couples sipped tea from beautifully upholstered wingback chairs and others read by themselves next to one of several large stone fireplaces.

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