Wawona Hotel | Credit: Courtesy of Aramark

There was nothing “off” about our “off-season” visit to Yosemite National Park. In fact, I’d argue our two-day autumn stay rivaled any spring or summer itinerary. 

Instead of hot weather, we got cool, crisp air. Evergreen ponderosa pines stood against oaks and dogwoods turning intense yellow and deep red. Smatterings of small groups replaced the peak-season throngs. And the waterfalls roared with life thanks to a recent rainstorm. The timing of it all felt like a still-undiscovered secret.

Credit: Courtesy of Aramark

We stayed at the newly renovated Wawona Hotel, which was built in 1856 as one of California’s original mountain lodges. It breathes with history. Situated near the south fork of the Merced River and just a couple miles down the road from Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, the Wawona features 104 rooms outfitted with Victorian-era furnishings and decor, and the lobby holds a double-sided fireplace circled by deep-seated couches perfect for reading or conversation. Wi-Fi is available, but we did ourselves the favor of putting our phones away.

On our first morning, we drove the 27 miles to the valley (which takes about 45 minutes), stopping at the Tunnel View overlook to take in El Capitan, Half Dome, and all the beauty in between. We made our way to the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead and toward the base of the iconic drop-off, and as we craned our necks upward to watch the spray make a rainbow in the early light, we heard a mild exclamation behind us. Another couple had spotted a black bear meandering 50 yards away down the creek. We were a lot more interested in him than he was of us, and he kept his focus on the fish before turning a bend out of sight.

Lunch was at the Ahwahnee Hotel, where we put down half-pound burgers at tables visited by queens and presidents. Outside, a squirrel the size of a small cat scurried to and fro, gathering leaves to make a nest. The Ahwahnee, considered Yosemite’s “premier” accommodations, is another time machine back to a bygone era of elegance in the wild. High ceilings hold intricately carved beams and hand-made stained glass, while massive stone hearths radiate warm light across antlered chandeliers and plush seating areas. Native art and basketry line the walls.

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The afternoon took us to the Ansel Adams Gallery, where I was happy to find and buy a few prints by the celebrated photographer I hadn’t seen a million times already. The gift shop was ideal for a few early Christmas presents, and there was even a small but smartly curated book collection to search through. It being Halloween weekend, we checked out the nearby historic cemetery, aptly populated that day with a small band of ravens.

After a deep, entirely undisturbed sleep in our king-sized bed ― wall-length heaters made the room a cozy refuge from the 36-degree night outside ― we decided the next day to hike the Mirror Lake Trail at the east end of the valley. Challenging but not difficult, the five-mile loop took us right under Yosemite’s most dramatic formations and along the route’s namesake body of water that reflected the sheer granite walls in picture-perfect detail. That night, we took a “star-gazing” tour of constellations nestled in a brilliantly-bright Milky Way splashed across ink-black sky.

Closer to “home” at the Wawona, nearby attractions include an impressive covered bridge (one of only 12 in the state); a cluster of historic buildings, including an old Wells Fargo office, bakery, blacksmith, powder house, and jail; and the scenic Wawona Meadow Loop Trail that weaves through lush forest surrounding a wide meadow. The hotel serves a buffet breakfast and dinner and has a full bar for unwinding at the end of the day.

If you do decide to travel in the October-November window that worked out so well for us, be sure to keep tabs on weather-related closures of roads and seasonal amenities, like bike rentals and access to Glacier Point. But the trade-off is well worth it. Go see for yourself.

For more information and to book your trip, visit travelyosemite.com.

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