If you live on America’s west coast and don’t want to jump on an airplane Yosemite National Park is open, the air quality amidst weeks of forest fires has improved and late fall is an incredible time to be there. Or, if you’d prefer to wait for warmer weather, start planning for a Spring trip which is less busy than the crowds that summer brings.
Please note that at the time of writing, Yosemite was receiving only 1,700 cars per day compared to their typical 8,000 cars a day in reaction to both Covid and the forest fires. For those new to Yosemite, there are four gateways you can enter, so these visitors are spread across each of those available gateways. The upside is that there’s less traffic in the park, making for better viewing, driving and serenity.
Yosemite National Park is known for its nature, serenity and wildlife around the world, making for great family fun but what about other activities when you’re not exploring the park? The truth is that Madera County has plenty to do. Let’s take a look at our trip this fall, which albeit a shorter trip than we had planned, was full of memorable experiences.
Here’s a short video of some of the highlights — the rest you’ll find in detail in the guide below. Enjoy!
For wine lovers, be sure to visit the Madera Wine Trail. We were surprised to find a slew of wineries in this region and although we didn’t have time to visit them all, here’s a couple of call-outs for places we sampled some of their wines.
On the way to Bass Lake, you’ll find Fasi Winery if coming from the SF Bay Area.
It has a tasting room on-site which sits among beautifully manicured lawns and a large cow who greets you as you enter.
It was quite hot when we arrived, but when it’s cooler, a great option is to sit out in the garden area or you can taste wines under their balcony. The winery overlooks the Sierra Nevada Mountains and they’re known for their award-winning Syrah and Argentinian wines as well as their local white and Rose wines.
Below, inside the tasting room, there’s plenty of authentic charm and character.
From Fasi, we headed to Toca Madera down the road.
Toca Madera Winery
We absolutely love the ambiance at Toca Madera Winery and the staff were not only knowledgeable but helpful and fun to talk to, with a guitar player/singer in the background. The environment truly is a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Outside, the lawns are beautifully kept, not surprising given that they have weddings here often during peak season.
It’s a great winery to walk around which we did despite the heat and humidity which was higher than you’d expect for an October weekend. The flowers greet you as do fruit trees.
Toca Madera Winery makes small-lot estate wines from warm weather grapes — Tempranillo, Moscato Giallo, Malbec, Zinfandel and others (eleven varieties). They are hand-picked from their vineyard that grow on the beautiful, undulating hills behind the estate. Our favorite? A dry rose that was uniquely made from mostly Tempranillo grapes. We loved it so much that we bought a bottle before heading out.
Other wineries on the trail include Westbrook, Idle House (which was the first winery in Oakhurst and they use sustainably grown grapes), Quady Winery and Birdstone in Madera, and a handful of others. Also worth noting is Ficklin Vineyards because they are known for their ports, so if you’re a port lover, be sure not to miss it.
Ever thrown an axe or wonder why you’d want to? When offered the opportunity, we thought it would be a hoot to try it out. In the heart of Oakhurst, along the main drag, you’ll find an axe throwing club, where you can experience axe throwing for yourself. If you are traveling with friends, you can keep score a bit like you do with bowling or dart throwing.
In fact, the process is a bit like dart throwing in that there’s a bullseye you are aiming to hit, however it’s much bigger and the axe is obviously heavier than a dart.
They have lanes set up with cages to protect the people throwing axes next to you. You are required to wear closed tow shoes for protection and even though it’s outside, you can opt to wear a mask to protect you from others nearby although wearing masks outside (or not) is at your discretion in this area.
Anthony and I had a blast, especially since it was new for both of us — axe throwing opportunities don’t present themselves all that often. So, if you’re heading to Yosemite, you may want to try it out for yourself.
Hodges, who is currently ranked number 3 in the world in double-blade ax throwing and who has won more than a dozen national timbersports crowns is founder of the ax-throwing club in Oakhurst, where we had our experience.
For those of you new to this sport, the Stihl Timbersports Championships, billed as the “Original Extreme Sport,” features athletes competing in a number of specialized events involving “axing and sawing.” Yes, really. Read more about the championships and Hodge’s involvement in 2019.
Interested in learning more? Visit their website for more information and to book a time if heading to the area.
The Sugar Pine Railroad Steam Train
Personally, I have always loved steam train experiences and in the Yosemite area, they offer daily excursions from April through October. We were fortunate enough to experience it given that it had been closed due to fire smoke and only re-opened a couple of days before our arrival in the area.
The experience allows you to relive rich California history of the post gold rush era amongst the Sierra National Forest, which is located just outside Yosemite National Park. It’s a perfect choice if you are traveling with kids but even if you’re a couple headed to the area for a romantic getaway or quiet retreat, its a beautiful and serene experience to travel through Sequoia forest area on a stream train.
If you are traveling with kids, must do’s in the same area include Gold Panning, the Thornberry Museum, the Kids Depot Toy Store, the Jenny Railcar and a picnic area where you can have lunch before or after your train ride.
They also offer something called a “Moonlight Special,” which is another family favorite. Imagine a BBQ dinner at the depot, followed by a train ride through the forest to the Lewis Creek Canyon Amphitheater, where you take a seat around the campfire and sing folk songs together with an acoustic string ensemble. (offered during the summer only, twice a week).
For more information, visit their website.
The fall foliage in the area is absolutely stunning and it was far from its peak. Because the weather has been so warm, the leaves had only started changing. I imagine in November, there will be plenty more reds, oranges and yellows to take in. Breathtaking, right? I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Canoeing & Kayaking on Bass Lake
On the other side of the lake from where the Pines Resort is located, Miller’s Landing offers plenty of boat rental options. Bass Lake offers pristine waters amidst tall cedars and pines at an elevation of around 3,400 feet. Thanks to the generous folks at Miller’s Landing, we were able to take a couple of kayaks out on the lake which was so incredibly serene, it melted my heart. I felt at one with the ducks and other birds in the area.
Some of the views of Bass Lake. Note that we kayaked on the lake, hiked on a few of the local nearby trails and also encircled the lake by car.
The serene surrounding environment was my favorite thing about kayaking and hiking here. You can also paddleboard of course or zip around the lake on a jet ski. They offer sporting events on the lake during parts of the year and there’s the Bass Lake Fishing Derby in early May. There are plenty of places to picnic around the lake and if hiking isn’t your thing, you can mountain bike on one of their countless trails as well.
For more information, visit Miller’s Landing’s website for seasonal availability, how to book boats and for more information on their accommodation rentals as well.
The marina at the Pines Resort also rents boats, but we’d recommend Miller’s for a few reasons: it’s on a quieter part of the lake, so we find it more pristine and pretty and they also have a fun country store that is open in season.
Art & Culture
I was surprised to learn that they had a number of art galleries in Oakhurst and that we happened to be visiting during something they call Yosemite Renaissance. This year, they celebrated 35 years of the arts in Yosemite and the California Sierra Nevada. One of the ways they honor this is opening the galleries and curating select pieces for people to view.
In October, they offered viewing in Yosemite Gateway Gallery Row and it runs through November 15, 2020. Executive Director Jonathon W. Bock is one of the main curators and we had an opportunity to chat with him to learn more about the local arts community.
There were so many varieties and options, we ended up spending the afternoon browsing the galleries and talking with Jonathan. Even though there were several paintings and photograph we loved (note the black and white photo of the tree above had me at hello), I kept getting drawn to Jonathan’s work over and over again. And, in the beginning, we didn’t realize that Jonathan’s work was in any of the galleries.
Below is a stand-out mixed media photograph and one of Jonathan’s pieces. We nearly bought it and I still keep thinking about the image, but ended up going home with another mixed media photo of his instead. I still wonder if we’ll end up with this one of Kuan Yin taken in Thailand in our home at some juncture – it’s absolutely stunning.
He’s the director of this art initiative which started 35 years ago by a small group of artists and advocates, all of whom were and remain dedicated to promoting the arts in Yosemite. Jonathan has been helping guide its vision since 2016.
“Our relationship with the world we live in has always fascinated me, influencing my travels, my life choices, and my art.” — Jonathan W. Bock, Executive Director, Yosemite Renaissance 35
Above and below, more great pieces we love.
Yosemite National Park
From art and photography to the nature that has inspired so many of the local artists, let’s now head to Yosemite National Park. I was last in Yosemite seven years ago with a San Francisco Photography Club, where we were led by a pro who lined up an itinerary with photography in mind (driven by shooting by tripod which I rarely do). The below five photos are a handful of the ones I shot during that fall photography trip.
Forward wind to 2020. When I was last in the area, I had more lenses, the sky was clear (we had blue skies every day) and a lot more time to set up shots with a tripod. The skies were a bit smoky when we were there this October, so the photography from our recent trip reflects that as well as having very limited time in the park. That said, the park remains breathtakingly beautiful nevertheless. I only wish we had a few more days to explore the park and take in some of the walking and hiking trails.
Other areas that you’ll want to experience include a walk along Merced River which boasts views of the infamous El Capitan in the park, which reaches 3,000 feet and on the other side, Cathedral Rocks and Spires.
Two trips ago (early 2000’s), I headed out to Glacier Point, which is arguably the most breathtaking view in the park but we didn’t have time to hike it on this trip. From our hotel, it would have been about an hour and a half and also about an hour’s drive from the heart of Yosemite Valley.
From Glacier Point, you can get spectacular views of Half Dome another famously photographed spot. When we hiked it, it was late summer and if we had been able to build it into our itinerary on this trip, it would have been the latest we would have been able to do so before winter since Glacier Point Road is usually closed from November until late May or June.
Other amazing spots to photograph include the Valley Loop, the Chapel inside the park (there’s a Sugar Maple tree that’s to die-for), Sentinel Bridge and Cooks Meadow, Taft Point (there’s a great 1.4 to 2 hour hike to get there), and Cathedral.
Where to Stay
The Ahwahnee is one of the most renowned hotels at Yosemite — it offers a combination of convenience (it’s right inside the park) with upscale rooms, views and ambiance. You could say that it is deemed as the crown jewel of national park lodges.
The hotel holds a historic heritage as it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a also National Historic Landmark. If you’re a celeb, queen or president, this is likely where you’re going to stay.
We had a small bite to eat here and looked at the stunning architecture inside and out, as well as at the work of local artisans. They also offer a heated outdoor swimming pool.
The Pines Resort
You can opt between 84 inviting mountain chalets, 20 deluxe lakefront suites or two private, fully-furnished houses, equipped with an array of modern amenities. They have 105 guestrooms with either private furnished balconies or patios. During our stay, we were booked in a chalet so we could cook ourselves, which is a great feature in the middle of Covid.
Chateau du Sureau
This luxurious property has joined the best properties in the world and earned the coveted Forbes Travel Guide award, AAA Five Diamond award and Relais and Châteaux distinction. Yes, it’s ever so luxe and we loved our dinner here.
Founded by an Austrian couple, this stunning nine-acre sanctuary blends the charm and beauty of the Provencal region of France with central California’s verdant landscape. Intimate and exclusive, this charming property amidst natural beauty offers ten-bedrooms, their Spa du Sureau, and the private two-bedroom Villa Sureau.
Sierra Sky Lodge
The Sierra Sky Ranch is a converted mountain ranch, which dates back to more than 100 years, offers 28 guest rooms and suites. A stunning setting and perfect for nature lovers, it is nestled among towering oaks and pines.
Inside, the ranch house has a spacious room with beamed ceilings, two stone fireplaces, knotty pine walls, lovely vintage western furniture, and a grand piano. At the end of the hall of their main house, you’ll find a peaceful library perfect for reading, relaxing, or playing cards.
Note that the resort is meant to be haunted, so if that piques your curiosity and/or if you’re not sensitive to spiritual energy, this may be an interesting choice for you. Check out their website for more information including how to book.
Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite hotel rooms in the Main Lodge offers Cottage rooms and suites, each with a fireplace and an outdoor sitting area. Or, you can upgrade to their two-bedroom Explorer Cabins which are 560-square feet areas. All cabins have private balconies and fireplaces.
One of the best things about this property is its size and location — located in Fish Camp, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to the park if you’re planning to spend a few days exploring the park itself. Visit their website for more information and how to book.
The Wawona Hotel
Although the historical Wawona Hotel is currently closed for electrical repairs and upgrades and will likely not reopen until Spring 2021, it is worth noting its presence, as it is one of California’s original mountain resort hotels. It’s a Victorian-era hotel that was originally built in 1856 and is situated 27 miles from Yosemite Valley on Highway 41.
It’s grandeur certainly greets you as you drive past despite the fact that it’s currently boarded up. They have 50 standard hotel rooms with private bath and 54 standard hotel rooms with shared bathrooms. Also nearby is a golf course and riding stables and locals talk about memorable moments on the porch sipping wine and listening to music in prime season. Learn more here.
Where to Eat
If you’re a foodie — and you likely are if you’ve been reading We Blog the World for awhile — you’ll want to book a reservation at our top pick for the region: Erna’s Elderberry Restaurant – be sure to read our review.
Our top pick by far, this exquisite dining experience is housed at the charming and luxurious Chateau du Sureau. Because of Covid compliance, dining is outside in their beautiful courtyard, however the tables are spaced far apart from one another and there’s plenty of heat lamps. Here are some shots of our dinner in October.
Ducey’s on the Lake
From local seafood to Angus steaks, Ducey’s on the Lake is located at the Pines Resort, where we stayed when we first arrived in Yosemite. It serves American cuisine on the patio which overlooks Bass Lake — it’s a great option to make a reservation right before sunset.
From Angus Beef sourced from Harris Ranch, seafood, pastas and salads to vegetarian dishes, spicy calamari and smoked sea salt crusted prime rib, we think it’s an excellent option for family dining. You can also bring your own wine for a $15 corkage fee, which is reasonable.
Jackalope’s Bar & Grill
We had burgers at Jackalope’s Bar & Grill which is inside the Tenaya Lodge, around the entrance to the park. We ordered a meal to go and dined outside around the pool at one of their many patio tables, which was lovely on a fall afternoon.
If you’re a vegan, then you’ll want to head to the Love Cafe which is a family-run business. Think burritos, tacos, portabello scrambles, omelets, avocado concoctions and more. Visit their website for more information.
Have you been to Yosemite? What was your favorite part of the region? The Park? The wine trail? The arts and culture? Bass Lake? Or, something we didn’t even mention? Do tell us!
Note: we were hosted for some of the activities mentioned in this round-up but all opinions expressed are entirely our own.