Yosemite National Park offers delights and surprises in every season, from outdoor ice skating in the winter to the outdoor pool at Curry Village in the summer. But to experience the park with fewer fellow travelers while witnessing the waterfalls at the height of their glory, spring is your best bet. Yosemite gets more than 4 million visitors a year, so make plans now to get in before the crush of summer crowds. Lodging options within the park include tents, yurts, cabins, a lodge, and a luxury hotel; or you can stay in cabins or a hotel a few miles away.
For the benefits of camping—s’mores over the fire, no shared walls, sleeping in the woods—without the drawbacks of setting up camp and sharing a bathroom, try the new Explorer Cabins at Tenaya Lodge. You’ll stay in one of 50 quiet cabins ($250 and up) set on their own loop down the hill from the main resort. Relax on the porches and balconies, some of which overlook Big Creek or Rainbow Pond, and get breakfast items and evening wine and beer at the just-finished clubhouse. The cabins are spacious and well-appointed, with plenty of comfortable details such as a wet bar, microwave, and coffeemaker. Special discounts are available until April 30.
Yosemite will celebrate its 130th anniversary as a national park starting in October. The park has activities galore, no matter your interest: rock climbing for the extreme enthusiasts, bird-watching and fishing for wildlife fans, and stargazing for night owls. For the rest of us, there are hikes for every level with plenty of company along the way. The moderate option to Vernal Fall will make you feel like an expert as it gains elevation and you meander through narrow passages and over bridges. Take it easy with a walk around Mirror Lake Loop or stroll to the base of Yosemite Falls.
Get on a Horse
It’s a bit unnerving to drive up the unpaved road leading to Yosemite Trails Saddle and Sleigh Co. You might think you’re lost, but keep going. You’ll find a parking lot and can saunter up to the helpful guides ready to set you up with a bandana of your choosing, a helmet, and a quick lesson. With that, you’re off on a one-hour ride through the woods, stopping when the horses determine you will, and tasting pine needles that remind you of a Christmas lemonade off the trees along the way. Riders can be as young as 6, and some height and weight restrictions apply ($55 per person, May through October).
Stay in Style
For the most luxurious stay in the park, try the Ahwahnee Hotel ($475 and up). Marvel at the historic details in the lobby, the murals throughout, and peek into the beautiful solarium to imagine yourself in a different era. There’s an old-fashioned soda and candy shop where you can sate your sweet cravings. Be sure to make time for the free one-hour historic tour during which you will learn that the main entrance had to be moved 10 days before the hotel’s opening in 1927 because cars arriving in the driveway filled the lobby with exhaust and noise.
Once you’ve taken in the backstory of the historic hotel, duck into the Ahwahnee Bar for a cocktail and a snack, perhaps one of the enormous pretzels—literally the size of your head. Or feast surrounded by history in the grand dining room, where you should make reservations to be treated to dishes such as smoked duck breast ($36) or lamb osso buco ($42.50). This is an upscale occasion: no T-shirts or shorts in the dining room.
After a few days in the wilderness, you’ll find the steam room and showers at Ascent Spa at Tenaya Lodge an invigorating, welcome respite. Take some time indulging in the serene space before an Amethyst Relaxation massage ($60 and up) or Lupine Aromatherapy facial ($120 and up). The spa incorporates natural elements into every treatment, and special add-ons are available.
Timberloft Pizzeria, just a few miles from the southern entrance to the park, offers pizza, pasta, and salads. Eat there to get a feel of the local vibe or take food on a picnic. The friendly folks are happy to help you with just about everything you might need, including suggestions on the best pizza ($17 and up) and desserts.
March 6 through 8: About 65 miles from the park, the Chowchilla Western Stampede and Cattle Drive has brought the flavor of the Old West to town since 1958. Crowds in Western attire line the streets. chowchillachamber.org/events