Toboggan runs, ice skating competitions, and a bid for the Winter Olympics

February 06, 2014 Posted by: MO - Park Ranger/Web Manager (Yosemite Valley)

Some describe winter in Yosemite as magical.

For many people, their visit to Yosemite National Park is filled with activities… typically those of the summer variety: hiking, backpacking, biking, swimming, rafting, climbing, sightseeing, horse riding, just to name a few. 

But, what about winter? A smaller number of visitors experience Yosemite in winter. It is a tranquil season here, when snow blankets the trails and roads that so recently were teeming with people buzzing around hurriedly. It offers quiet moments to explore the park more intimately and to engage in different activities, such as skiing or snowshoeing. 

In the 1850s and 60s as pioneers began to explore and settle throughout the Sierra and Yosemite, winter was a time when much of the mountains were abandoned as people migrated to the snow-free zones of the lower foothills. Over time, people such as James Lamon began to push through that winter barrier and live year-round in Yosemite Valley. However, these hearty pioneers were rare, winter visits to Yosemite Valley were minimal, and the fall pilgrimage to lower elevations continued into the early 1900s. However, on at least some small level, the start of wintering in Yosemite had begun and primitive outings on skis, snowshoes, and sleds had commenced. 

It wasn’t until 1916, along with the creation of the National Park Service, that winter sports began to truly evolve in Yosemite Valley. Employees created an 800-foot snow slide near Curry Village and enthusiasts were creative in finding devices to slip and slide their way down. Using trash can lids or hotel trays, the run became known as “Ash Can Alley.” Local residents and employees longed for winter and a time when the park became a private playground of sorts. While some enjoyed the lack of winter crowds, others wanted to put Yosemite on the map as a winter destination. 

Ash Can Alley, 1932, crowds waiting their turn.

Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, believed strongly, that “Yosemite is a winter as well as a summer resort…That it has not been more patronized during the winter months is due partly to limited accommodations and partly to lack of publicity.” In some ways he was right, and his hopes for Yosemite later came to fruition. 

In 1926 the All-Weather Highway, known today as Highway 140 and the El Portal Road, was completed. With new convenient all-year access, Yosemite began to gain even more attention. Unprecedented numbers of tourists flocked to the park in summer and winter, changing the dynamics of the place forever. New activities were sought after to entice visitors throughout the year, but still winter didn’t draw tourists the way that summer did. Don Tresidder, president of the concessioner at the time, began to envision even bigger things for Yosemite’s future. After visiting Switzerland with his wife for the 1928 Winter Olympics, he was inspired to make Yosemite the “Switzerland of the West.” That year he formed the Yosemite Winter Club (still in operation today) to “encourage and develop all forms of winter sports [and] to advertise and exploit the great advantages, beauties and healthy benefits of winter in the California Sierra to all the lovers of outdoor life.” The Yosemite Winter Club was the beginning of an idea, and the winter sports that resulted from it were numerous. 

The shaded southside of Yosemite Valley remains coldest during the winter months and became a natural place to enhance winter activities. Toboggan runs were built just west of Camp Curry, the Camp Curry parking lot was flooded in order to create a large ice-skating rink, nearby meadows and roads became the canvas for dog sled rides, sleighing and skijoring (skiing behind a horse with a tow rope). Hockey games, curling, and speed and figure skating were also popular out on the ice, and a small ski jump was built on a glacial moraine near the present day stable. The dream Tresidder had was becoming a reality, but he had his sights on more. In addition to enticing visitors to come in winter, he wanted Yosemite to host the Olympic Winter Games in 1932.  

Two women coming down the toboggan run in Yosemite Valley, 1928

The bid for the Olympics was an exciting time for Yosemite, as it was to be the first Winter Games in the United States. It was much smaller than today’s Olympics, with only 17 countries competing in 14 events. Compare that to this year’s record 88 nations competing in 98 different events! In 1932, the three established snow sport areas competing against each other were Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and Lake Placid, NY. Each had their pros and cons and in the end Lake Placid won the bid. While Yosemite boasted about its adequate lodging, and its newly built ice rink, it lacked other venues for the majority of the Olympic events. Tresidder had hoped that ice skating would put Yosemite on top; that along with it being such a premier tourist destination. However, in the end, it was felt that California had little experience with competitive events, especially those of the winter variety. 

Historic photos showing ice skating and curling in Yosemite Valley, late 1920s.

Although Yosemite didn’t host the Olympics, it did grow into more of a winter destination. By then, it claimed the best ice rink in California and the west coast speed skating tryouts for the 1932 Olympic Winter Games were actually hosted at the Camp Curry rink. 

Additionally, in the winter of 1928-29 Tresidder established the Yosemite Ski School, the first in the west, which was run by a top Swiss instructor. Regardless of the expanded assortment of winter activities, Ash Can Alley remained the most popular, drawing large crowds which required up to seven rangers to assist with managing traffic, people, and keeping the pulleys in working order. While these activities were popular, people were looking for other places to further challenge themselves. The Winter Club continued to lead the way.

During the early 1930s, activities began to broaden to areas outside of Yosemite Valley. With the completion of the Wawona Tunnel, the area south near Chinquapin began to attract folks for downhill skiing. Explorations by Winter Club members continued to the east, looking for other ski venues and they found the perfect spot six miles over. Tresidder supported the development of that area, and thus was the birth of Badger Pass. In 1933 with popularity for skiing growing, and the need for related services following suit, a day lodge/ski hut was added on to the service station at Chinquapin (12 miles south of Yosemite Valley at the junction of today’s Glacier Point Road). These amenities were welcomed, but were barely adequate. Regardless, 10,000 skiers visited Badger Pass during the following season! In the beginning downhill skiing required people to hike up the hill on their own, allowing them to fit in just a handful of runs during the day. In 1934-35, a rudimentary electric lift was installed at Badger Pass, carrying a few skiers at a time, which greatly improved people’s experience beyond the days of side stepping their way up the mountain. And this was only the beginning. 

Tresidder was ahead of his time. He was forward thinking in his ideas of promoting and building up winter sports and the venues to support them. The idea of avid winter sporting in Yosemite was hard for many to imagine then and still is for some today. The same could be said for me.  

When I first arrived to Yosemite Valley during the heat of the summer months and under the crush of the summer crowds, I thought nothing of winter and what it would be like. Four months later, as I ice skated at Curry Village under a full moon with a light snow beginning to fall, I paused and looked around. The granite walls were brilliant in a way I’d never seen them. The fresh snow was sticking to every crack and crevasse only making the rock landforms more breathtaking, and more alive with a depth that is not as prominent in summer. As my skates glided along the ice, I was mesmerized by how drastically different the place was, how different it felt. It was magical. 

Yosemite Valley, MO, Yosemite's Legacy

12 Comments Comments icon

  1. Tom
    May 26, 2014 at 03:42

    A ca. 1930 film by the Winter Club shows Ash Can Alley, Tobogganing, ice skating, etc. on "Vintage Songs Of Yosemite - The DVD"

  2. February 09, 2014 at 01:55

    A correction on my post prior to this. I started camping in the Mariposa Grove. Not Marigolds. Spell correct got me again.

  3. February 09, 2014 at 01:44

    My grandparents first visited Yosemite in 1908. It took 30 days to get there from Hollywood in their two horse covered wagon. As they were leaving the valley they spent the night at Gordon's stage stop. In the morning they started out in a rainstorm that eventually turned to snow. It was of all things the month of September. As a stagecoach passed by in the opposite direction my grandmother yelled "Merry Christmas." They had their own winter event going on. My grandmother wrote in her diary of the trip that they were "slipping and sliding down the road". I started camping in Yosemite in 1948 at the Marigolds Grove, sometimes in the snow in late spring. My grandfather would make us a sled from fallen branches for our own winter events. I truly love Yosemite no matter what season, but off season is the best.

  4. Sue
    February 08, 2014 at 09:05

    We once spent a week in the valley after Christmas. It was my favorite time among many trips there over the years! Ice skating & hiking the north side trails, the ice cone below Yosemite Falls was amazing!

  5. February 08, 2014 at 05:21

    We move to CA when I was four and by the time I was eight in 1959, we were camping there in the Valley floor on a first come first serve basis. Good memories of my Mom chasing bears off... yes she did... the firefalls, the bears in the Valley trash area, the Merced River with my brother snorkeling and retrieving lots of lost valuables from other swimmers along with fishing lures/hooks. Horseback riding, hikes to the falls and just fun camping out the ole' fashioned tent/sleeping bag way. The smell of bacon just infiltrated the Valley floor air each morning and it was always over way too soon. Moving back to the Midwest in 1987, I just hope I can make it out there one more time and it is on my bucket list to do so.

  6. Eva
    February 08, 2014 at 10:09

    First time visiting was in the early spring in a Mtr Home. Rounded a corner and saw the Valley below through the huge window of the Mtr Home. What an experience-will never forget it. Breathtaking. Most beautiful place I have ever seen. Not a ice skater but I can dream through the comments of others

  7. February 08, 2014 at 09:54

    Imagine the clothes they wore - wet wool, wet cotton, wet leather. We are so lucky to enjoy Winter sports with warm, dry clothing!!

  8. February 08, 2014 at 07:56

    I remember going there to ski at Badger Pass with my church group in 1962 (about) It really was beautiful in the winter.....😊

  9. February 08, 2014 at 01:04

    Well I know I was not born but I would not mind seeing the Olympics hear in Yosemite. That would be fun..

  10. February 07, 2014 at 04:11

    In 1959 & 1960 I worked as an RN at the Hospital in the Valley-Lewis Memorial it was called then. Dr. Sturm,gave all of his nurses (7 total) season passes to the ice rink. What fun--skated just about evey day. And it was magical anytime you were there but especially at night. Was able to visit the Park this past summer after 50 years--it still is the most beautiful place ever.

  11. February 07, 2014 at 01:47

    I've skated at Curry Village under a full moon, too! No snow fall - just the Milky Way in the black, moonlit sky. Will never forget it.

  12. February 07, 2014 at 01:39

    Sure was interesting reading about the winter history of Yosemite and the events held there. Thanks for posting this article.

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Last updated: February 7, 2014

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