Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe; winter touring in Northern California

Vernal Falls in Yosemite, taken last January; again, no snow in a drought year.

Cross country skiers on road to Glacier Park, usually snowed in from December to March (photo courtesy National Park Service).
Our Scotty in front of Yosemite Falls last January; note, no snow in the valley.
The Truckee Hotel is just north of Squaw Valley; and provides overnight accomodations.
Rangers lead a snowshoe tour along Lake Tahoe from Sugar Pine Point State Park.
Squaw Valley’s main entrance off Hwy. 89 pays homage to the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Adventure touring in Northern California; Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe:

We north/central Californians are blessed by close proximity to an amazing world just outside our door. Take a late fall or winter tour to several wonderful cold-weather destinations, Yosemite National Park or the Lake Tahoe area!

California’s first thoughts often fall to our most visited western national park, Yosemite. Veteran Yosemite explorers know the park is an active and special place in winter. You may, or may not, find snow on the floor of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls are almost always flowing freely, even as snow closes other portions of the iconic park.

Yosemite’s winter season typically runs December through March, though snow can be, or not be, present even in January (it was absent on a mid-January visit last year). The Yosemite Valley and Wawona are accessible by car all year, while the Tioga road is usually closed by sometime in November or early December. The road to Glacier Point is also closed about the same time, though the Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is plowed to the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard area (formerly Badger Pass Ski Area) where cross-country, downhill skiing and snowshoeing are popular.

Winter in the park can be cold and snowy, so take proper clothing, and chains for your vehicle if not a 4 wheel-drive. Also check current forecasts to avoid smoky conditions that may occur even during winter. Hiking and cycling in the valley offers opportunities, though they can be covered by snow. Again, check ahead with the Park service.

The park offers overnight lodging from the very up-scale Grand Yosemite Hotel to less expensive options. Upper Pines Campground is open year-round, but it does get dark very early in the winter. Tip: If you’re planning on a nice dinner at the nearby Grand Yosemite Hotel, formerly the Ahwanee, take a collared shirt and a sports coat – or you will be turned away (as I was last January).

Smashing as Yosemite is, don’t overlook other nearby winter wonders such as Lake Tahoe, where you can rekindle the Olympic Flame and enjoy cross-country, downhill skiing and snowshoeing as well as stunning winter scenery.

Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 VIII Winter Olympics, offers vestiges of the old Olympic Village, as well as the ski runs and much of the romance of the Olympics.  Just 16 miles away are the cross-country and biathlon trails used in the Olympics, open for skiing or snowshoeing, at Sugar Pine Point State Park on Lake Tahoe’s west shore.

You can ski or snowboard on the runs that made USA’s Penny Pitou famous, snowshoe or cross-country ski in the tracks where the Soviet women swept the 10K race and imagine the crack of the biathlon rifles on the range where  a Swede would triumph, or merely explore these venues on foot and by car.

Much of the Olympic spirit remains, some of the venues and a good portion of the Olympic Village. All of this Olympic finery, and much of the history, are wrapped around Lake Tahoe’s north shore, a spectacular destination in its own right.  Nearby Tahoe City, just six miles from Squaw, offers a wealth of fine dining and over-night accommodations, in addition to what you will find at Olympic Valley/Squaw Valley Resort.

The mountain/ski, skating, jumping venues: At Squaw Valley, all the skiing, skating and jumping venues were within walking distance. Squaw Valley offers 2,850 vertical feet of elevation drop; and one can ski the Olympic downhill, slalom and giant slalom courses on KT22 Peak, Squaw Peak and Little Papoose Peak (ask the friendly National Ski Patrol on the mountain and they can point out Olympic runs).

A compact Olympic Village was constructed at the north end of Squaw Valley, consisting of four dormitories for athletes, the Blyth Memorial Ice Arena, three outdoor skating rinks and a 400 meter outdoor speed-skating rink.  Many of these facilities have been removed, though a number of the 1960s buildings remain.

The cross country/biathlon venues at McKinney Creek Stadium (now Sugar Pine Point State Park): Just 15 miles south on Highway 89,  McKinney Creek Stadium was a 1,000 seat temporary arena where six cross country races started and finished, as well as the biathlon event (a 20 km skiing/shooting event, making its Olympic debut). Over 18 Km of the Olympic trails and the biathlon rifle ranges remain, marked with a series of plaques.  One can cross country ski or snowshoe in the tracks of the Soviets, Swedes and Finns who dominated these events.  The cross country trails are groomed weekly and the park charges a $5 parking fee.

How to get there: Yosemite National Park is about 130 miles, go south on Hwy. 99, then east at Manteca on Hwy. 120 to the park; for Squaw Valley/Olympic Valley, USA, 170 miles from Stockton; north on I-5, to US Highway 50E to S. Lake Tahoe, then north on Highway 89 to Squaw Valley.   From Squaw Valley, Tahoe City is 6 miles; Sugar Pine Point State Park is just 10 miles south on Hwy 89.

For more information: Yosemite Park, nps.gov/yose; Squaw Valley, squaw.com; Cross country skiing/snowshoeing at Sugar Pine Point State Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=510.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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