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Ho, ho, ho, Yosemite: A magical winter destination

By Associated Press
This undated image provided by Yosemite Hospitality shows skiers on a lift at Yosemite National Park in California in winter. The park offers solitude, scenery and activities like skiing and snowshoeing in the offseason when there are fewer crowds. (Yosemite Hospitality via AP) NYLS212

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. ó Yosemite National Park might not seem like an ideal winter destination, particularly if youíre from a part of the country where youíd like to trade in road salt for rim salt on your margarita and leave the words "wind chill" behind.

But Yosemite in winter is magical, as I discovered last year on a trip there with my family just after Christmas. Thereís snowboarding and skiing, both downhill and cross country, as well as sledding. (Pick up a plastic saucer at a sporting goods store on the way.) You can also ice skate at a rink in the shadow of the famed granite formation known as Half Dome. Park rangers also lead snowshoe walks (free with $3 suggested donation).

Many of Yosemite Valleyís shops and restaurants remain open. And at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, one of the countryís most storied national park lodges, there are holiday decorations and a seven-course dinner with costumed performers called the Bracebridge Dinner. The wood-and-stone hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee, opened in 1927 and has hosted everyone from Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama to Queen Elizabeth and Walt Disney.

Winter can also be a time to enjoy the parkís scenery without summerís crowds. But the weather can pose challenges as well. Here are some details.

The scenery

Naturalist John Muir once wrote that Yosemite was "full of Godís thoughts."

Driving in, thick forests of snow-dusted pine and fir trees block your view at first of the parkís famous granite monoliths towering over Yosemite Valley. But thereís nothing like that first glimpse. El Capitan rises 3,600 feet (914 meters) from the valley floor, more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. On the other side of the valley is Half Dome, rising 4,700 feet (1,400 meters) off the valley floor.

In winter, the options for seeing these landmarks from anywhere other than the valley are limited, as some roads in the park are closed until the snow thaws. The cables that climbers use to ascend Half Dome are also removed for the season.

But there are walking tours led by National Park Service rangers that explain how these huge chunks of granite came to be. Theyíre not just the result of erosion, but were also formed by melting glaciers and forces under the ground that over millions of years pushed them higher and higher. Itís a way to understand the massive forces that formed the earth itself.

Visitors can also follow the footsteps of famed photographer Ansel Adams, who made his home here for a quarter century. You can even snap your own pictures from where Adams stood when he took some of his most iconic photographs. Classes cost about $100, but the Ansel Adams Gallery also offers free camera walks on certain days. (Tours fill up; reserve ahead.)

Getting there

Getting there can be a challenge on roads that are potentially snowy and icy. Car rental places may tell you, as they told me, that snow chains arenít necessary. They are, to be blunt, lying.

"California law says if you are entering a chain control area, you have to carry chains," said Scott Gediman, a park ranger and a public affairs officer in Yosemite. "Everybody needs to have chains, even if you have four-wheel drive."

Rangers donít enjoy checking car trunks for chains and cables but they do it, and they will send you out of the park if you donít have them.

The good news is that chains are not that expensive, costing as little as about $40, and can be purchased at all sorts of auto supply stores nearby. Snow chain technology has improved dramatically, making it far easier to put the chains on than it used to be. But if you still feel like you canít do it, there are services along the road that will put the chains on for you for $30 or so.

Yosemite Valley is about 210 miles from San Francisco. But if the winter drive sounds intimidating, use the YARTS bus service that runs year-round between Yosemite and Merced, a city about 130 miles from San Francisco.