For weeks, my partner and I had been excited about our trip to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. Having living in a major city for the length of our relationship — New York, and then, Los Angeles, where we still try to settle as East Coast transplants — we had both acquired an itch for nature. Not too much granola, mind you — we’ve never been hikers or woodsmen that would seek out extreme experiences as in 127 Hours or Into the Wild. But the prospect of hugging a few trees and hiking a few trails seemed like a welcome breath of fresh air.
Moreover, other than the occasional day trip to Disneyland or our initial move from the East Coast, we hadn’t had the time to take a real vacation together. Both of us had been so busy working to build careers and a life together in Los Angeles, that leisure time had seemed a luxury that neither of us had yet earned.
The morning we were set to leave — the car packed with sweaters, hiking boots, and jackets in anticipation of our outdoors adventure — my partner received news from his workplace that would prevent him from coming. He would be delayed day or two, at least. I would have to make the drive alone.
It's 222 miles from our house in Los Angeles to the Wuksachi Lodge, where my partner and I planned to spend the first night of our trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It was a beautiful, lonely journey. The houses, cars, and people that were normally clustered in my rearview window, scattered and fell away the closer I came to the forest. Occasionally, I would pull the car over and gaze in wonder: the mountains, the trees, the water. My eyes couldn’t drink in enough. It was at once frightening and thrilling to not see another person, and startling how clear and far one can see without the layer of smog, like gauze, that spreads over the City of Angels.
At an elevation of 7,200 feet, the Wuksachi Lodge is the highest point one can stay in Sequoia, and the drive up is an exhilarating experience in and of itself. The road, paved over what had once been a path for loggers over a century beforehand, winds up the mountain, and the vista becomes just a little more dizzying with each passing turn. The trees also became taller, and before I knew it, I found myself driving into a grove of giant sequoia trees. For those who have never seen a sequoia tree before, like myself at the time, the experience nears religious. They are among the largest trees in the world, and can live for thousands of years — the oldest known is 3,500 years old. It is truly awe-inspiring to be among the most ancient living things on the planet.
There’s another exciting element to driving up to higher elevations — snow. As an East Coast native, I forgot how much I missed the sight of those white flakes brightening the landscape and the trees. Be prepared to chain your tires during the winter months, however. After storms, the roads can be hard to navigate. But the recent drought in California worked to my advantage in this instance, and I glided my way to Wuksachi Lodge as the snow and sequoias streamed past.
The Lodge is almost exactly one would expect of a grand mountain cabin in the Sequoia National Park: an edifice of wood and stone nestled within the towering trees and breathtaking natural beauty of the Sierra mountains. It calls to mind a smaller, and more authentic, version of the Grand Californian, the Adirondacks-inspired hotel located in Disneyland. The main cabin, where one checks in, boasts a gift shop, a small store for ski apparel and incidentals, a bar popular with all Sequoia visitors, and The Peaks Restaurant, which offers organic and local cuisine — the braised beef skirt rib was delicious, as was the Wuksachi s’more for dessert. But the true pleasure was enjoying a cocktail and excellent meal in the warmth of the Lodge, which has large picture windows that beautifully frames the panorama just outside.
My loneliness hit home, however, when I went to retrieve my key from the front desk. The concierge asked when the other member of my party would be arriving, and I sadly remarked that I would be alone at present. When I reached my room another reminder reared its head, in the form of a heart that had been sculpted with towels by the staff. Previously, I had informed the lodge that I was celebrating an anniversary — my partner and I had been together for three years at that time. Nevertheless, it was touching to see the redwood carpet rolled out.
In addition to its advantages of heat, Wi-Fi, television, and maid service, Wuksachi Lodge is also one of the most convenient home bases to see Sequoia. By car, it is just minutes away from the major attractions — Moro Rock, a 400-step stone climb that boasts sweeping and dizzying views of the area; The Tunnel Log, a fallen Sequoia that has been hollowed out for cars to pass through; the Giant Forest, where the two-mile Congress Trail leads visitors to General Sherman, the largest tree by volume in the world; and Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the country, which visitors can climb through a 22-mile hike. The easiest way to catch all the main attractions is through a service like Sequoia Sightseeing Tours, whose friendly guide not only directed me and a small group to all the major sights, but was also able to provide details that are not always inscribed on plaques and signs.
In order to better explore Kings Canyon Park, a smaller arm of the National Park that is just adjacent to Sequoia, I switched lodging, which I recommend for those looking for a change of scene. For proximity to Grant Grove, a highlight of Kings Canyon, I spent my second night in the John Muir Lodge. Although it does not boast the elevation of Wuksachi, John Muir, as the older venue, has more rustic charm and history. Some of its features, like a redwood mantle, were repurposed from an historic cabin. Its namesake is also taken from one of the park’s legends — John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club and was essential to the establishment of the U.S. National Parks. The night I stayed at the Lodge, a John Muir impersonator, standing before a fireplace and a portrait of the late naturalist, regaled his audience with the life story of the man who gave a tour of Yosemite to Theodore Roosevelt and made an indelible impression on the president about the importance of preservation.
Depending on weather, the winter months are ideal for seeing California’s national parks. The summer crowds, which clog the parks with cars and lines for many of its photographed attractions, have passed, and often, it feels as though one has all of nature to oneself. The Peaks Restaurant, as well as The Grant Grove Restaurant, situated in the John Muir Lodge, offers seasonal delights like pumpkin soup, sweet potato soufflé, and turkey for visitors looking for a hot meal. A special holiday spread is prepared at the Trek to the Tree, a popular annual event. On December 14, visitors march to the General Grant Tree, one of the park’s other arbor giants, which was christened the Nation’s Christmas Tree by President Coolidge. Carolers and a special tribute to members of the U.S. military sweeten the expedition. It’s a surprisingly wonderful way to celebrate the holidays.
By the end of my sojourn in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, my partner had still not been able to get away from work. But I still had one last leg of the trip: Yosemite National Park. It is hard to put into words or capture in photos the absolute splendor of Yosemite. It is, simply put, the most beautiful place I have ever been. And it hits you like a big beautiful boulder. As I emerged from a long tunnel bored into the mountain, I got my first sight of Tunnel View, a stunning vista of the park. I’ve used the word “breathtaking” often in my summation of national park beauty, but the sight genuinely sucked the air out of my lungs. One of the most animated areas of the park, buses of tourists from all over the world pull over by the side of the road to snap photos of the backdrop: the trees, the sky, the Sierra Mountains, and not a golden arch in sight.
For the first portion of my Yosemite experience, I stayed at the Tenaya Lodge, a four-diamond resort that offers every creature comfort in the midst of the wild. There are outlying cabins available to those who want a more private experience, but the most decadent fun is in the primary resort, which boasts gorgeous suites with walls that are hand-painted with mountains, as well as Jacuzzis and balconies with stunning views of the outdoors.
After unloading my gear, I put on a bathrobe and hurried downstairs to the Ascent Spa, where I received one of the most amazing massages of my life. They have a special deal just for hikers, which pays careful attention to the muscles in the leg — a wonderful amenity for trail lovers or skiers who may just want to stop by for some stress relief. After a few minutes in the steam room, I returned to my suite, threw on a sweater, and had a quick archery lesson. Later, I laced up for a few spins around the ice rink — fun activities both offered onsite. A S’more Skating Package, available until January 3, might be a good option for couples or families. There is also a Kids Dinner with Santa Package, in which children can have the opportunity to break bread with Santa and his elves when they visit the resort on December 22 and 23. It is in high demand however, so be sure and make reservations!
Winter is an ideal time to visit Tenaya Lodge, as it offers a number of retreats that take advantage of all its amenities. During the holidays this year, Tenaya Lodge has workshops that include decorating gingerbread houses, cookies, and a special holiday buffet on Christmas Day. Afterward, Tenaya also boasts a New Year’s Eve Package, which includes a surf-and-turf dinner at one of its several on-site restaurants, a hosted bar, and a performance from the acclaimed impressionist Greg London. On January 26-29, the resort will host its Yosemite Wellness & Spa Treatment, which offers yoga classes, spa treatments, nature hikes, cooking classes, and wine tastings for health-minded adventurers.
There are also a number of activities that can only be enjoyed this season—a horse drawn sleigh ride, for example, whisks you through the forest and is sure to be a family favorite. Snowshoe hikes, sledding, and skiing are also popular activities at and nearby Tenaya Lodge. Although it has been a few years since I skied, I made sure to lace up my boots, rent some equipment, and ride a few bunny slopes down Badger Pass, a ski area located nearby in Yosemite Park. It’s a beautiful way to enjoy nature.
For the last leg of my trip, I stayed at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, one of the most convenient properties for seeing the magnificent sights of the Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, is in walking distance of the property, and is a popular hiking destination. It is also a stone’s throw away from El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world, as well as the Gates of the Valley, which boasts (another!) breathtaking panorama of El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall.
In addition to nature, there are also many man-made structures that are interesting to explore. I had lunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel, an exquisite four-diamond hotel and National Historic Landmark that was built in 1927 to house visiting dignitaries, and later, Hollywood royalty. If you feel a sense of déjà vu when you enter its lobby or expansive Great Lounge, don’t fret — you’ve seen the interiors before, as they were used to film Stanley Kubricks’s horror classic The Shining to create the fictional and haunted Overlook Hotel. The hotel is also notable for its annual Bracebridge Dinner, an annual feast and Yuletide musical celebration that has taken place since Ahwahnee’s founding in 1927. The seven-course dinner and night of entertainment is still incredibly popular. In past years, a lottery has been held for one of the 1,650 seats available in the grand dining room for the fabulous affair. It is a grand place indeed.
But perhaps my favorite activity while at the park was the Yosemite Night Prowl, where a guide took me through a one-mile nature trail without any assistance from lights. At first, it was a disconcerting experience. But eventually, my eyes adjusted to the point where I could see my surroundings, as well as the various fauna that only emerge at night. After living in cities that suffered from severe light pollution, it was both surreal and serene to be walking in darkness. But not total darkness, exactly. The stars, in my estimation, had never looked so bright, and the moon gave shape to the mountains and trees around me. My ears sharpened. I heard my feet softly stepping on the dirt of the trail. I listened as a creature emerged, and then retreated, from a nearby pond with a soft splash. Insects hummed from every direction.
In that moment, I found something I did not realize I had been searching for: a connection with life other than human beings. Ultimately, my partner was not able to join me on my trip. But that was OK. I had never really been alone on this journey. And he was there when I returned, after the sun rose and the mountains receded behind me into nothing but the fondest memories.