As wonderful as Yosemite and Yellowstone are in summer, the peaceful outdoorsy vibe can be spoiled by having to elbow for space to snap a photo of El Capitan or line up 10 deep at Old Faithful. The premier parks are far less crowdedand arguably more beautifulin the heart of winter. Snow drapes the mountains, meadows, and every last tree branch, and things are never quieter or more pristine.
But for an off-peak time, there is surprisingly a lot going on. During four weeks in January and February, Yosemite hosts the annual Chefs' Holidays, when the men and women in charge of some of the best restaurants in the country give cooking demonstrations and host five-course dinners during three-day sessions. All events take place in the Ahwahnee, a granite lodge built in 1927, now a National Historical Landmark. Chef presentations are held in the hotel's appropriately named Great Lounge, among its 24-foot-high ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, and enormous windows topped in stained glass. Jesse Cool, chef and proprietor of the Bay Area's Flea Street Cafe, has participated in the event for two decades. "Winter is my favorite season at Yosemite," says Cool. "The setting is just gorgeous, especially when it snows." Paired with top wines from California and elsewhere, the dinner costs $250 per person (plus tax). Tours and demos are only available in a lodging package, which will include dinneroften a better deal.
Throughout the year, kids can join a program called Wee Wild Ones, with stories, singing, crafts, and games, all free. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls hosts s'mores nights at its fireplace, and nearby there's an outdoor ice-skating rink with an unobstructed view of Half Dome, the famous rock formation that shoots up nearly 5,000 feet from the valley. Most nights the park offers free events of some sortartist slideshows, talks by mountain climbers, documentaries on photographer Ansel Adams.
Yosemite is also home to the oldest ski resort in the Sierra Nevada. Badger Pass offers five chairlifts, 10 runs, and $42 lift tickets, and while the terrain might not get an expert skier's adrenaline rushing, the scenery is fantastic, the sunshine is plentiful, and the ski school specializes in teaching beginners. "Badger Pass is one of the last of the great little ski areas in the West," says Colin Baldock, Yosemite's manager of guest recreation. "Parents feel comfortable here letting their 9-year-olds ski off on their own. That wouldn't happen at the big resorts." A system of free shuttles connects Yosemite Valley to Badger Pass and other key spots in the park, so there's no worrying about driving in the snowor having a few too many glasses of wine over dinner at the Ahwahnee.
There are five entrances leading into Yellowstone, but in the winter the only way for visitors to drive in is through the North Entrance, nearest to Gardiner, Mont. A few miles inside the park, at the Mammoth Hot Springs area, you'll find an ice-skating rink, a restaurant, and several natural pools that gurgle and spout off steam in the cold air. It's easy to spot wolves, bison, and elk just off the lone plowed road. To venture further into the park, hop aboard a special snowcoach. They're customized vans or buses outfitted with snowmobile-type wheels and steering, arranged by private companies in towns bordering the park. All Yellowstone Sports offers a full-day snowcoach tour to Old Faithful for $105 (800/548-9551, allyellowstone.com).
Chill With the Animals
The Yellowstone Association offers four-night Winter Wildlife Expedition packages with food, transportation, lodging, and the chance to see bighorn sheep, elk, wolves, and other animals on a hike or snowshoe trek. $579 per person based on double occupancy; $747 for single occupancy (307/344-2293, travelyellowstone.com).
A High Point at Yosemite
Like hiking, cross-country skiing is especially nice if there's something special at the end of the trail. After 10 easygoing milesfour to five hours on averagefrom Yosemite's Badger Pass, you reach Glacier Point Ski Hut. About 3,000 feet directly below is the ice-skating rink in Yosemite Valley, and spread in front are Half Dome and snowcapped mountains that seem to go on forever. The views would be reward enough for some, but what makes the journey especially enticing is that there's no need to turn around and hoof it back by nightfall. The Glacier Point Ski Hut sleeps up to 20 people in bunks (BYO sleeping bag; rentals are available for $13). There's a staffed kitchen, indoor bathroom, and heat via a wood-burning stove. One-night packages with a ski guide, lodging, and hot meals are $192 per person; self-guided trips are $110 per person (209/372-8444, yosemitepark.com).