Holiday Magic in Yosemite

I used to wonder if John Muir would appreciate Yosemite National Park today. Oh, the scenery is spectacular, and there is nothing like the roar of Bridalveil or Yosemite Falls when the water is rushing, but I suspected that’s where his fascination would end.

It is entirely too crowded, and the commercialism of the park seems to take away from its magic.

That’s why I was luke-warm when we accepted an invitation to join my brother-in law’s family for a long Thanksgiving weekend last year at the Tenaya Lodge, located in Fish Camp, just out of the park’s southern gate.

For starters, I still fret about leaving home and hearth for this major holiday and having a restaurant prepare the big meal. It just doesn’t seem traditional enough. Then I wondered how I would entertain my family – a husband, two teenagers and an 11-year-old – for a long weekend without great cell phone reception.

What I found out was, we didn’t need it. The Yosemite Thanksgiving was one of the most memorable of our lives, as I finally discovered the magic of Yosemite for the holidays.

Yosemite Park is strikingly beautiful any time of year, but the late fall seems to be especially picturesque, as the fall colors haven’t yet faded, but the mountain peaks are dusted with snow. Add spectacular scenery to a full docket of fun events, and spending Thanksgiving – or any winter holiday – at one of the Yosemite-area resorts is a great way to bond as a family.

The Tenaya Lodge and the in-park resorts – The Wawona, the Yosemite Lodge and the stately Ahwahnee – offer many rich seasonal activities, including holiday parties, special dinners and even ice skating. There is also snow skiing at nearby Badger Pass Ski Area.


Serving Up Family Fun

The Tenaya, the newest resort, seems like a throw-back to the resorts of old because of its array of family-friendly activities. During the summer months, the lodge features barbecues, late-night flashlight hikes and even geocaching – a GPS-driven treasure hunt. Some of those activities are curtailed in the winter, but the Lodge makes up for it with seasonal-inspired fun, like gingerbread-house decorating and a hot chocolate-infused holiday tree lighting.

Upon arriving on Thanksgiving morning, two of my children and I strapped on ice skates and took advantage of the Tenaya’s holiday ice rink – and we followed up that exercise with s’mores and hot chocolate by an outdoor fire pit.

After quick showers, we donned our “holiday” clothes and made our way to the Tenaya’s grand ballroom for the Thanksgiving buffet. Ten minutes into the meal – in which my kids heaped mounds of turkey, prime rib and ham onto their plates – I realized that I could never go back to cooking Thanksgiving dinner again. The food, prepared by the Tenaya’s excellent chefs, was wonderful, and anyone who didn’t like it had other treats to choose from, including a kids’ table full of pint-sized delicacies like chicken fingers, french fries, mac and cheese and pizza. And there were no dirty dishes to clean!


Choo-choos and Gingerbread Houses

The next day, rather than race off to the mall at 5 a.m., I slept in, as the kids went down for a complimentary breakfast in the lodge’s cafe. (Some of the room packages offer it, others don’t, but it’s definitely worth it.)

Later, we drove a few miles down Highway 41 to the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. From 1888 to 1931, the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber company used the railway to haul lumber. Today, the track is restored along the old narrow gauge, taking travelers on a four-mile, open-air ride through beautiful scenery and the towering pine trees. While the railroad is known for its fair-weather activities – including the famous Moonlight Special night rides – it is still open during November and December, and is great way to entertain kids (even my teenagers). Call 559-683-7273 for schedule or visit

We arrived back at the Tenaya in time to take advantage of one of the highlights of the weekend, the family Gingerbread House Decorating Contest. We were give the shell of a gingerbread house – prepared by the Lodge’s kitchen staff – and all the sweet and sugary decorations necessary to turn it into a masterpiece. As a group, the five of us were pitted against about 50 other families to see who could turn out the best-looking design.

My family is a little challenged when it comes to being artistic, and the judges didn’t seem too impressed by our Gingerbread Frat House – compete with a licorice beer bong and gumdrop-designed Greek letters. While we didn’t win the grand prize, the house was displayed – with all the others – in the lodge’s lobby throughout the weekend, and we are still laughing about the experience almost a year later.


The Park’s Treasures

The following day we “did the park,” taking our time driving down into Yosemite Valley, stopping by to roam through the giant redwood grove and hike up to Bridalveil Falls. Despite the fact that it was late in the season – and California was in the midst of a drought – the water was rushing. And surprisingly, the crowds that the park is so renowned for weren’t too apparent. It was a good weekend to enjoy this treasure as John Muir intended. At least if he had had a minivan full of kids.

We ate lunch at a snack bar in Curry Village and did the usual foray into the gift shop. However, since we were still recovering from our earlier ice skating experience at the Tenaya, we didn’t take advantage of the holiday ice rink on the valley floor. But it is a family favorite, featuring beautiful views of Glacier Point and Half Dome and, like the Tenaya’s rink, has a warming tent and an outdoor fire pit to make s’mores.

We ended our day in the park at the majestic Ahwahnee Hotel. Although renowned for its famous Bracebridge Dinners – a seven-course banquet celebrating 17th-Century England – the hotel offers many other holiday activities. (See sidebar.) In addition, the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and the Wawona – the other two major hotels located in the park – piggy-back on a lot of the events. No matter where you are staying, it seems, you can still enjoy the holiday festivities.

And as were driving back down into the valley the next day, I hoped that we had started a new family tradition. The Yosemite holiday allowed us to appreciate the natural beauty of the park, enjoy a special time together and celebrate the spirit of the season. John Muir would definitely approve.


Peggy Spear is a former editor of Bay Area Parent, East Bay and Peninsula/San Francisco/Marin editions.



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