It's a trip you won't soon forget. With spectacular waterfalls, sky-high sequoias, scenic overlooks and enough hiking trails to sate the most avid of outdoorsmen, Yosemite National Park is one of the shining gems of the national park service.
Established in 1864 as a state park (it became a national park in 1890), this 1,189-square-mile park about the size of Rhode Island includes 263 miles of roads, 800 miles of hiking trails and nearly 240 species of birds, 80 species of mammals and 1,400 species of flowering plants.
The park attracts nearly 3.5 million visitors each year, but the best time of year to see its beauty unfold is during winter. Winter is Yosemite's "secret season," boasting mild temperatures, smaller crowds and lots of snow-filled fun. Lodging is more readily available, and wildlife -- like coyotes, mule deer, raccoons and even the occasional bear -- are easier to spot when the leaves are off the trees.
Here are 10 reasons to love Yosemite in the winter.
1. Photography Walks
Experience the beauty of Yosemite in the company of a professional photographer and guide provided by the Ansel Adams Gallery. Walks range from 90 minutes to two hours and take snap-happy participants along a flat or slightly elevated one-mile route.
2. Skiing at Badger Pass Ski Area
With 5 lifts, well-groomed runs and quick access to the slopes, Badger Pass has been a family favorite ski destination since opening 1935. Eighty-five percent of Badger's slopes are beginner and intermediate level, including several runs perfect for first-time skiers. Kids age 4 to 6 can get a crash course in downhill skiing with the Badger Pups Program.
3. Chefs' Holidays
This annual culinary series is a favorite of foodies far and wide. Enjoy 1 of 8 savory weekend-long sessions with cooking demonstrations, behind-the-scenes tours, chef receptions, and a 5-course gala dinner served by tapered candlelight and paired with complementing wines in The Ahwahnee's majestic dining room.
4. Theater at Valley Visitor Center Auditorium
Get a glimpse of Yosemite's history with live theater in the evenings by resident actors, Lee and Connie Stetson. Performances rotate approximately every other month. Tickets are available at any Tour and Activity Desk.
National Park Service naturalists lead snowshoe walks several days a week from the Badger Pass ranger station. There is no rental fee for these walks, but there is a small maintenance fee. For those interested in exploring on their own, snowshoes may be rented from the Yosemite Cross-Country Ski School Center or from the Yosemite Mountaineering Center at Curry Village when conditions permit.
6. Cross-country Skiing
Beginning cross-country skiers find the 25 miles of machine-set track at Badger Pass a great way to start, while 90 additional miles of marked trails leave plenty of room for exploration for advanced skiers. Skiers may rent striding, skating and Telemark equipment at the Yosemite Cross-Country Ski School Center.
7. Ice Skating
Curry Village's outdoor skating rink offers guests the pleasure of ice-skating under the shadow of 2 of Yosemite's most dramatic sites -- Half Dome and Glacier Point. Rental skates are available, as well as a warming hut, cubbies for shoe storage and hot drinks and snacks. For non-skaters, there's a large area right near the rink with a warm fire pit where guests can gather, watch the aspiring Kristi Yamaguchis and sip hot chocolate.
8. Indian Cultural Program
Demonstrators interpret the customs of Yosemite American Indians at the Cultural Exhibit located at the Yosemite Museum (next to the Visitors Center), where visitors are educated about Miwok traditions, such as food preparation, obsidian-knapping and basket-weaving.
9. Ahwahnee Historic Tours
Take a step back in time through the magnificent halls, great rooms and grounds of The Ahwahnee Hotel. Learn the story behind the architecture, design and the people who influenced the building.
10. Fireside Scrabble at The Ahwahnee Hotel
Few things are more relaxing that sitting with a glass of wine and a game of Scrabble near the giant stone fireplace at The Ahwahnee Hotel. After a day of exploring the Valley, there is no better way to take off the winter chill than to socialize with new friends and soak up the historical charm of the hotel's high timbered, great public spaces.