January 5, 2018

A 6-day Yuletide Christmas in Scenic Yosemite National Park

We knew this would be a Christmas like no other!  Traveling to Yosemite National Park with Daytripper Tours would provide memories of a time a place that would be the best Christmas gift ever. It all began very early a few days before the holiday on December 23 as we packed our bags with winter clothes for the change in climate from San Diego. Our driver Ernesto and I picked up our first group of passengers at the DayTripper office in El Cajon and from the looks of the happy faces we could tell this was going to be a good group.  Ernesto loaded the suitcases on the beautiful black Mercedes Benz motor coach and off we went to pick up the rest of our 40 Daytrippers in Mission Valley, University City and La Costa. Traffic moved fairly well even as we approached Long Beach, Carson (where I pointed out the StubHub Center where the former San Diego Chargers now play), and on past the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery where many famous stars are buried including, Farrah Fawcett, Rodney Dangerfield, Hugh Hefner, and Marilyn Monroe.  As we traveled past the blackened hillsides across from the Getty Center, we could see how close the flames from the recent fires came to the priceless artwork housed within. My research revealed that even if the fire had reached the building itself, the thick travertine stone covering the outside walls, crushed rock on the roofs and fire resistant plants surrounding the Getty would keep it safe. On through the Santa Monica Mountains we drove, past Van Nuys and into the San Fernando Valley where the summers are so hot.  We spied the huge pipes of the L.A. Aqueduct on distant hillsides.  Finished in 1913, it transports water from the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains 233 miles away all the way to Los Angeles. It truly is an engineering marvel. The land outside the windows was becoming more open as we passed Newhall. It was easy to see why so many Westerns were filmed here—High Noon, Deadwood, Django Unchained, Gunsmoke and the Lone Ranger.  Soon, western landscapes were replaced by the brightly painted roller coasters of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita, 19 in all, the world record for most roller coasters in an amusement park! Up and over the 40 mile stretch of the I-5 known as the Grapevine and into the flat San Joaquin Valley we went, passing into the Central Valley of CA.  The Hungry Hunter Steakhouse in Bakersfield hosted us for a delicious lunch before the final 2 hour push to our destination for the next two nights, Wonder Valley Ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside Sanger, CA. As we approached the gate, we were “greeted” by 3 outlaws who “held up” our coach.  It was all in fun, of course, but we certainly knew that we had arrived!  After settling into our rooms spread out across the dude ranch, we reconvened for a hosted happy hour and ranch buffet dinner in the Lakeshore Lounge. The fun continued afterwards with rounds of Christmas Jeopardy and an unbelievable magic show put on by Roy Oken whose family owns the place. By the time we fell into our beds, we were tuckered out, but happy that our Yuletide Christmas with Daytripper Tours had begun!

IMG_0105Day 2
Happy Christmas Eve!  I awoke early and took a predawn walk in the beautiful countryside around Wonder Valley Ranch.  As the sun rose in the eastern sky behind the mountains, it bathed the landscape in golds, pinks and yellows heralding a special day ahead.  Other early risers took advantage of the early bird coffee in the Lakeside Lounge.  By 8am, all of us were there, chowing down on the delicious and plentiful Ranch Buffet Breakfast.  No one would go hungry here!  We needed that nutrition for our shopping trip to Old Town Clovis, CA.  A pleasant half hour drive from Wonder Valley, this suburban Fresno turn-of-the-century town boasts a bigger variety of antiques than almost anywhere else in California. Along the way we drove along the winding King’s River, a 125 mile long river that has its source in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at 13,000 feet.  It is dammed above Wonder Valley making the Pine Flat Reservoir Lake.  Our Daytripper Tour passengers enjoyed strolling the tree-lined streets of Clovis and peeking in the windows of the brick buildings as they searched for a fun white elephant gift for our upcoming Christmas gift exchange back at the Ranch. I found some precious vintage earrings, while one passenger found a complete set of vintage china for less that $100.  Clovis is known as the “Gateway to the Sierras” with a population of 107,000. It is also known as the home of REV’s California Cuisine, our lunch spot on this 12/24/17.  What makes this IMG_0010restaurant especially interesting is the people behind it. Husband and wife Brian and Renée Velasquez run REV’s. The restaurant name is her initials – Renee Elaine Velasquez—“REV.”  Brian is a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef and the meal selections proved it – especially the Lobster Mac & Cheese, and the REV’s Rib Eye Burger.  The Snickers Cream Cheese Cake for dessert was to die for…Back at the Ranch in the afternoon, some folks jumped on horses for a trail ride (including 92 year old Marie!), some decorated cookies, some played corn hole toss, some wrapped gifts, and some clip-clopped around the property on a horse drawn, jingle-bell wagon.  I’m sure some napped too, but I didn’t see them of course… By 5:30 we were gathering to eat, drink, and be merry at the Christmas Court Feast, an event not to be missed!  The Lakeside Lounge was completely decorated with red, green and gold tablecloths, drawings in the windows that looked like stained glass, and a massive head table set for the king and queen.  Oh my. The drama unfolded before, during and after the feast with the owners and employees of Wonder Valley playing different roles.  We were mightily entertained from the start to the bananas flambé finish! A group sing-a-long of “Tavern In the Town,” “Little Brown Jug,” and “Joy To The World” capped a very festive evening. Then, it was time for bed and no doubt that Santa would find us this holy night tucked into the shadows of the rolling foothills of California’s central mountains.

IMG_0089Day 3
The big day had arrived!  Merry Christmas!  Time to celebrate with our Daytripper Tours passengers who were beginning to feel more like family now.  After early bird coffee, everyone gathered for Christmas breakfast decked out in festive red and green attire. Yours truly wore a Santa hat all day. The Wonder Valley chefs put on a delicious breakfast spread for us and we were all appreciative of the fact that they were working on their holiday to make it a special day for us. Thank you! After filling up on fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon, French Toast,  Eggs Benedict, oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, croissants, and toast, we were ready to take a seat for the much anticipated white elephant gift exchange. Chairs were arranged around three sides of an open floor area.  In the middle rose a beautiful Christmas tree with presents spread out underneath.  Everyone took a number out of a hat and I proceeded to pull the matching numbers one by one. As each number was called, that passenger came up in front of everyone and chose a gift. They unwrapped it and I paraded it around for all to see. Edible gifts seemed the most popular, everything from bars of chocolate to tins of popcorn that looked like nutcrackers. There were DVDs of old movies, calendars with pictures of silly animals and even beautiful china soap dishes and tea towels. In the interest of time we did not allow “stealing” as some white elephant gift exchanges do, but a good time was had by all. After a short break in which everyone went back to their rooms one final time to put out their suitcases, believe it or not, we ate again! The Wonder Valley chefs said this would be a light lunch, but in their hospitable style it was wonderful – soup, salad, sandwiches, chicken tenders, fruit, and big homemade cookies, you get the picture… we gave the entire staff a huge round of applause for their warm welcome to Wonder Valley.  I gathered everyone outside by Dalton Pond for a group photograph with the mountains in the background and then it was time to load back on the bus and head toward Yosemite. From an elevation of 400 feet at Wonder Valley we climbed to an elevation of 2300 feet through Oakhurst, California.  Everyone’s ears were popping as we made the 2 hour drive IMG_0003to Tenaya Lodge in Fish Camp, CA.  Now we were at 5000 feet elevation. Tall ponderosa and sugar pine trees dwarfed our motor coach. As we pulled in the main entrance I heard the oohs and ahhs of the passengers as we approached this 4 diamond resort. The Tenaya Lodge combines Native American and Western style decor, vaulted ceilings, roaring fires, fine dining and heart-stopping scenery. Pretty fancy. This cozy, rustic-chic resort even has an indoor pool and open air ice-skating rink and fitness center. Only a handful of our rooms were ready so the rest of us had to wait in the gorgeous lobby, but what a place to wait! The centerpiece was a giant 32 foot tall living Christmas tree brought here from Oregon. Everyone wondered how they got it inside, so I asked the front desk. They said the tree was tightly bound to make it through the double front doors. A crackling fire was in the fireplace and Christmas decorations were everywhere including red scarves tied around the mounted deer heads on the walls.  Once everyone settled into their rooms, it was a quick turnaround for the 4:30 PM Christmas dinner buffet in the Grand Ballroom. The Tenaya Lodge set aside a separate room just for us, so after loading our plates as many times as we wished we gathered around two large tables to share Christmas dinner together. From braised chicken, to glazed ham, prime rib and roast turkey to the dessert tables filled with pumpkin pie, pecan pie, deep dish apple pie, pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate decadence cake, and banana cream pie, we were stuffed.  With full tummies and full hearts we headed to bed. This would be a Christmas to remember and the best was yet to be – Yosemite tomorrow

IMG_0026Day 4
This was the day we had all been waiting for! Yes, maybe even more than Christmas itself. Today, we Daytrippers were going to spend the entire day in Yosemite National Park. There would be no snow today, but snow or no snow, nothing can deter from the grandeur of this place. A short 15 minute drive from the Tenaya Lodge led us to the south entrance to the Park. I paid the entry fee for the coach and then we were in.  Yosemite of course is internationally recognized for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves, lakes, mountains, and glaciers. Today our National Parks help us imagine what the American landscape looked like before railroads and automobiles and motels existed. They carry a glimpse of the past into the present and hopefully they will carry that into the future.  We drove through Wawona and passed the oldest of Yosemite’s accommodations, the whitewashed wooden Wawona Hotel. Guests have included Ulysses S Grant and President Theodore Roosevelt. “Wawona” by the way means “big tree” as the famous Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias is only a short distance away. Unfortunately the Grove is closed now for a restoration project so we didn’t get to see the big trees.  As Ernesto drove us skillfully deeper into the park over winding roads, I informed everyone that Yosemite was originally a state park, but was nationalized in 1890. Today tourists only see 5% of the park. 95% is designated wilderness. Almost 4,000,000 visitors a year spend the majority of their time in the 5.9 square miles of Yosemite Valley, an area the size of Rhode Island. It took another hour to finally reach the Wawona Tunnel, bored through solid IMG_0088granite bedrock in 1933. When we emerged, TAA-DAA!  The famous Tunnel View of the valley floor spread out spectacularly before us. We piled out of the bus and everyone’s cameras were busy capturing the “Big 3”– El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls. Next stop? Yosemite Valley Lodge where some walked to the base of Yosemite Falls and others spent their time in the large gift shop. Ernesto drove us to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, otherwise known as the “Ahwahnee” for our very special lunch. The equivalent of San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado, this “majestic lady of Yosemite,” was built back in 1927. Being served lunch in the 34 foot high dining room was the most scenic setting one could hope for. The delicious cuisine matched.  A short ride back to the Yosemite Valley Lodge took us to our narrated afternoon tram ride around the valley floor. I  think we all got kinks in our necks from looking up at the towering rock walls.  Several times, we got out of the tram to take pictures and breathe the cool mountain air.  The two hours passed quickly and the sun was setting, so we knew it was time to head back to the Tenaya Lodge. Through the fragrant ponderosa pines and sugar pines we drove. Along the bubbling waters of the Merced River.  By the time we arrived for dinner on our own, it was dark, but the sights our eyes had witnessed would light up our memories forever.

IMG_0004Day 5
The day after Christmas, but we weren’t about to stop celebrating!  After a lovely breakfast buffet at the Tenaya Lodge, sitting next to a crackling fireplace in the restaurant no less, we bundled up for a horse-drawn wagon ride from the Yosemite Trails Saddle & Sleigh Company.  To be honest, we had been hoping for a sleigh ride, but since there was no snow, we had to go to Plan B.  And, it turned out to be quite nice, thank you. Outside, under the huge timbers of the portico of the Lodge, two huge Belgian draft horses awaited. Behind them, a long wagon with nice warm blankets laid out on the facing benches.  We scrambled up, settled ourselves under the blankets and off we trotted. The horses pulled us deeper and deeper into the pine forest on a hard-packed dirt road.  Soon we came upon a clearing where a fire was burning.  Down we climbed off the wagon and hot cider was served around the fire.  Some passengers spied marshmallows and in no time were roasting them over the flames.  In the distance, we could see machines carrying out the timbering that has been happening in these Sierra woods for many a year.  Once the horses were rested and we were sated, it was back on the wagon and back through the forest road.  This time, as it was a downhill incline, the horses trotted and we picked up speed.  There was much laughter and many smiles.  This would be a fond memory of our time at the Tenaya Lodge.  As much as we hated to, it was time to check out of these beautiful accommodations and head back into California’s Central Valley.  Our destination for the night was Bakersfield, a 3:15 drive away, but first we would stop at Bravo Farms in Traver, CA.  IMG_0072Over the past 25 years it has grown into a favorite destination for local and traveling folks; a “mini Knotts Berry farm” according to the LA Times. We saw Christmas treats like eggnog almonds and Christmas tree pretzels, as well as the largest selection of beef jerky, cheeses, candy, chocolates, dried fruit, and a whole selection of sugar free items. Yum. Packages in hand, it was back on the bus for the final push to the Hilton Garden Inn in Bakersfield. After checking into our rooms and a brief rest, we were headed to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, the music hall constructed by the country music legend Buck Owens and opened in 1996. Buck Owens had performed in hundred’s of second class joints over his career and wanted a classy place to call his own. So, he built this place to showcase his “Bakersfield Sound” genre of country music. When we arrived, a live band was already on stage performing under big video screens. Dinner was amazing – grilled cedar plank salmon, barbecue chicken breast, vegetarian pasta or, best of all, top sirloin steak! It didn’t take long for several passengers to leave their seats and start dancing on the large dance floor. I heard several say it was a perfect way to end the trip!

IMG_0038Day 6
Hard to believe that our Yuletide in Scenic Yosemite trip with Daytripper Tours was almost complete, but here we were on day 6 of our adventure.  After breakfast at our leisure in a private room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bakersfield, we were treated to a surprise…an impromptu violin concert by one of our passengers, Nick Grant of the San Diego Symphony!  While Ernesto loaded our luggage in the cold December air outside, we waited inside listening to Nick play by memory Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.  What a way to start the day!  In fact, this was a most generous group of passengers.  Another fellow traveler, Cindy, bought a large box of chocolates which she asked me to pass around the coach as we started our final day on the road. Chocolates AND violin music?  We were certainly feeling like the pampered passengers!  Nick continued to play for another half hour on the moving coach itself, up and over I-5’s “grapevine.”  You could have heard a pin drop between notes.  I asked Ernesto to pull over at the Vista del Lago Visitor’s Center to give everyone a chance to stretch their legs, use the restroom and see the lovely panoramic view of Pyramid Lake from the back balcony.  The Center itself is an informative museum explaining this part of the California State Water Project.  With 700 miles of canals and pipelines providing drinking water for 25 million people and irrigation for 750,000 acres of farmland the CSWP is a mind-boggling enterprise.  As we walked through the Center, we saw illustrations of how California’s unique topography affects the way water is distributed. Another hour down the highway and we were back in L.A. traffic as we approached Griffith Park and the Autry Museum of the American West. Luck was ours this day as they had four docents waiting for us instead of the two we were expecting!  Our four groups of 10 were treated to an hour’s long tour of this museum which is home to a collection of more than 600,000 pieces of art, artifacts, and cultural materials.  We saw an amazing display of guns of the West (including those that had been presented to U.S. presidents) in the fire arms gallery, a life-size chuck wagon from days driving cattle on the trail, and the original costume of T.V.’s Lone Ranger.  Stunning sculptures (Remington, anyone?) and paintings of the West were on display as were pieces of Native American jewelry. A necklace made up of huge bear claws caught my eye! The Autry’s collection of Native American art is so significant it is second only to the Smithsonian’s collection in Washington, D.C. Co-founded in 1988 by Jackie and Gene Autry and Joanne and Monte Hale, The Autry Museum of the American West does a bang-up job of sharing the stories of the diverse peoples of the American West.  After lunch on our own at the museum under sunny 70 degree sky, we boarded the motor coach one final time to head back to our own stomping grounds of San Diego.  We may have left the cold mountain air behind us, but inside our minds the memory of a one-of-a-kind Christmas with Daytripper Tours would always be with us.  And it isn’t just the gorgeous natural landscapes we will remember, but the warm, generous people we traveled with too.  Saying goodbye to each person felt like saying goodbye to a family member…a member of our Daytripper family.  Until next time…

25659455_10215653244471065_7984977160252241630_n– Pat Brown
Tour: Christmas in Yosemite
Date: December 23-28, 2017


Categories: Blog