We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is just 4 hours away from one of the most stunning, jaw-dropping, and downright awe-inspiring natural wonders of the world: Yosemite National Park. And yet, despite living so close, we rarely visit. Why?? Like, what’s wrong with us?
Look, it’s not for lack of trying. Every year, 6 months in advance, we schedule an alarm on our phones to alert us that the campsites inside Yosemite Valley have opened up for reservations in the summer. And then … we attempt to book campsites. In Yosemite. During the summer.
If you’re not from the San Francisco Bay Area, let me explain why this is an exercise in futility: EVERYONE wants to camp in Yosemite Valley during the summer. Like, all 7 million of us. And there aren’t enough campsites to go around (*insert pointed political commentary about the housing shortage in the Bay Area here*).
Luckily for us, we found the perfect solution.
Table of Contents
Visiting Yosemite National Park in the Winter
Turns out, almost nobody visits Yosemite during the cooler months of the year, and the park is gloriously quiet and empty. Plus, if you’re lucky, the plunging granite cliffs just might be covered in a blanket of fresh, sparkling snow. It is heaven for a winter loving, mountain obsessed girl like me!
Our first-date-iversary is in early December, and this is the PERFECT time to visit Yosemite for a romantic weekend getaway. We’ve actually celebrated our anniversary in Yosemite before, so this year in our first winter back in the Bay Area after our year-long honeymoon, we jumped at the chance to spend one of our anniversary weekends in Yosemite again (yes, we celebrated our anniversary twice this year, with two romantic weekend getaways – here’s the other one. When your anniversary falls in the middle of the week, make lemonade).
Willing to travel a bit further away for your weekend getaway? Check out this guide to the 4 best Salt Lake City ski resorts for a weekend getaway!
These are our favorite winter activities at Yosemite National Park:
- Ice Skate in Half Dome Village with incredible views of majestic Half Dome
- Ski, snowboard or go tubing right in the park
- Take a hike! Here are several great hikes that are still accessible during the winter
- If you’re up for it, snoeshowing is an incredible way to see Yosemite National Park
- Take a horse drawn sleigh ride complete with hot chocolate and cider (depending on weather, call for details).
One $30 pass to enter the park will cover your whole party for 7 entire days, so you can visit the park as much as you want even when you’re staying outside of Yosemite.
Psst: If you’re planning to visit multiple parks this year, we recommend picking up an America is Beautiful National Parks Pass. The pass is valid at over 2,000 National Parks and 10% of the sale proceeds are donated to the National Park Foundation, helping to keep our parks beautiful! The average cost of admission to a National Park is $35, which means that the pass quickly pays for itself after just a few visits. AND you are supporting the National Park Foundation. Win/win!
One $30 pass to enter the park will cover your whole party for 7 entire days, so you can visit the park as much as you want even when you’re staying outside of Yosemite. You can pick up a pass online at REI or in person at any National Park
Oh, and here’s a very important tip: If you’re visiting Yosemite National Park in the winter, be sure to bring chains or rent an all-wheel-drive car! The roads definitely get snowy. Also, it’s the law. We were driving a 2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring AWD and it did the job perfectly!
Speaking of … where should you stay in Yosemite during the winter? My friends, we’ve found the perfect place – and no, it’s not a motel an hour away.
Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite National Park
Rush Creek Lodge is located a hop, skip and a jump away from the entrance of Yosemite National Park. It’s literally like a 5 minute drive from the entrance on highway 120. Which means it’s pretty much the closest you can get to the park without actually staying INSIDE Yosemite. We’ve done both, for what it’s worth. We still recommend Rush Creek Lodge. Just sayin’.
The lodge itself is actually brand new, and is the first lodge near Yosemite to open in over 25 years. It’s also a sister property to the older and more established Evergreen Lodge.
Rush Creek Lodge has the aesthetic of every lodge I’ve ever loved: everything is wood, pine, burlap, and plaid. There are mirrors in decorative wood slice frames. There is wood trim on EVERYTHING, which makes the entire lodge just smell like wood and Christmas and forest and heaven.
During our visit in December, the lodge was decorated like a lumberjack Christmas playland. The grounds were decorated with twinkling Christmas lights and giant hanging wooden carved snowflakes.
It made me want to wear flannel and skip around chopping down trees and hugging stumps, or whatever lumberjacks do. FWIW, I did not chop down any trees during our time at Rush Creek Lodge, but I did wear a LOT of flannel.
Why We Love Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite
It’s hard to say what our favorite thing about our stay at Rush Creek was, because there was so much to fall in love with.
Maybe our favorite thing was the cozy lodge, filled with board games and books and a crackling fire. We spent one cozy night curled up on one of the couches playing a Carmen Sandiego card game (by the way, can we just talk about how awesome Carmen Sandiego is? She’s like, my favorite bada$$ imaginary travel babe, and it’s not just because we both have cartoony rhyming names. She’s so fierce and fabulous! But I’m getting off topic).
Anyway, maybe it was the cozy lodge and game room. But maybe it was the incredible spa services (you guys, it was our anniversary! #treatyoself). Jeremy described his Signature Massage as “the best massage of his life,” with that I’m-so-relaxed-right-now voice and droopy eyelid thing you only get after you just fell asleep on someone’s massage table while they rubbed yummy smelling oils into your skin and placed warm, flat rocks on your back.
Or maybe our favorite thing at Rush Creek was the unlimited smores by the fire every night. Because let’s be honest, we are gluttons and it’s really easy to win us over with food. Imagine this: you’ve just spent a day snowshoeing or hiking or ice-skating in Yosemite National Park. You come back to your lodge, which is like, 8 feet away from the park entrance. And there is a bottomless, unlimited s’more buffet waiting for you, next to a crackling outdoor fire.
UM YES. THIS IS A REAL THING.
Every night at 8pm, Rush Creek allows its guests to guiltlessly indulge in a s’more-gasboard (get it?!) of bottomless gooey marshmallow and chocolate goodness. Polite employees kept coming out to refill the bowls of s’more supplies, for like, HOURS. If you’re imagining us gorging ourselves on s’mores for hours a la Spirited Away, you’re not wrong.
This is Where We Talk About S’mores a Lot
There is something about s’mores and fires and being outside after dark among giant, ancient sequoias that has a magical effect, and Jeremy and I are lucky enough to find ourselves in this situation frequently as avid campers. And, because we have a tendency to turn absolutely everything into a competition, over the years we’ve gotten REALLY extra about our s’mores. Every chance we get to eat a s’more is also a chance to create a ridiculous s’more recipe to try to one-up one another.
Yes, that’s right: my husband and I have been competing for years to see who can create the best s’more. Because we’re grown ups and marriage is a very mature and serious thing.
See, it’s not just about the ingredients of the s’more. It starts with the marshmallow. There are 2 strategies to marshmallow roasting. Jeremy’s approach is to carefully toast the marshmallow just outside of the flame, slowly turning it and browning it to perfection before finishing it off with a good toasting. It’s perfectly oozy with just the right amount of crunch on the outside. But it takes freaking forever.
My approach is to stick the whole marshmallow in the fire, burn it to a crisp, and then eat the oozy outside (because the middle is still totally uncooked). This way, I can go through like 5 s’mores before Jeremy even gets to eat ONE. Quantity over quality, you guys. If I’m being honest, we both know that Jeremy’s way is better. I just have no patience.
One of our favorite s’more recipes is something we call the S’maurice. What you do is sandwich a Reese’s cup between 2 toasted marshmallows on your graham cracker. The Reese’s melts WAY better than plain old Hershey’s chocolate, and the 2 marshmallows balance out the chocolatey, peanut-buttery goodness.
Did I just blow your mind?
Here’s anotha one, to quote DJ Khaled. Get a sea salt caramel filled Ghirardelli square. Use that instead of plain chocolate. BOOM.
Our s’mores cookbook will be coming out any day now.
Anyway, unlimited s’mores are definitely close to the top of the Things We Love About Rush Creek Lodge list. Which is honestly sort of a very long list.
Also, and this is a weird thing to rave about, but Rush Creek’s soap smells AMAZING. It’s sort of like the scent of fir, spruce, cedar, and Christmas all mixed with forest lodge smell. Like they bottled the concept of a lodge in Yosemite and created soap out of it. It’s not just the soap, either: the whole suite of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash smells like forest heaven. They’re all in sustainable and zero-waste friendly reusable bottles, which is great for the environment but bad for me because it means I can’t swipe a bunch of bottles like I’m Ross from Friends and take them all home with me to recreate a forest in my own shower (you CAN buy some from the gift shop, though, which we obviously did).
Clearly there’s a LOT to love about Rush Creek Lodge. But I’ve actually saved the best for last.
Our Favorite Thing About Rush Creek Lodge
Hands down, our favorite thing about Rush Creek Lodge, and why we were SO excited to have the chance to stay there, is their social philosophy. Rush Creek, and its sister lodge Evergreen, are both social enterprises. What that means is that their Social Mission is at the core of everything they do. For the owners of Rush Creek, a business isn’t just about earning money: it’s about being a force for social good. A steward of social change. Using business as a platform to actually create and drive positive change in the world.
Rush Creek is a living embodiment of all of our beliefs in one stunning, cozy lodge. And we could not be more excited about this place, you guys.
There are 2 facets of Rush Creek’s social stewardship. There’s an environmental component, committed to energy conservation and environmental sustainable practices. Hence why there are no disposable containers of delicious smelling forest-scented soap for me to squirrel away.
The other fact of Rush Creek’s mission is the amazing Youth Program. Rush Creek and Evergreen lodge hire young people from urban backgrounds to work as paid seasonal interns, living and working in the lodge. They learn valuable skills and gain experience while learning to love and appreciate the outdoors and spend the summer exploring Yosemite National Park, right in their backyard.
This project is incredibly close to our hearts, as Jeremy is a teacher at an urban high school. We’ll actually be encouraging his students to apply to the Youth Program. How cool is it that our worlds can intersect like this, Jeremy’s teaching and my travel blogging? I hope one day that one of our readers visits Rush Creek Lodge and meet one of Jeremy’s amazing students!
So yeah – that’s our favorite thing about Rush Creek Lodge. Yes, even more than unlimited s’mores.
Winter Activities at Rush Creek Lodge
Rush Creek Lodge is more than just unlimited s’mores, incredible massages, yummy smelling soap and doing good in the world. Is it even fair to be this amazing?!
Rush Creek Lodge also offers activities to help its guests enjoy and explore Yosemite National Park in all seasons. During our stay, we took a guided hike to a gorgeous Sequoia Grove. Our amazing guide was from my hometown, Louisville, which NEVER happens so of course we instantly bonded. We gushed over how great Louisville is, how beautiful Yosemite is, and how much we both loved the PrAna Halle pant (she was wearing a pair, of course). I’m a travel pant fanatic, by the way – here are my favorite women’s travel pants.
She was also a wealth of knowledge about the park: the history, the ecology, the cultural background, everything. She knew it all. As we hiked, she pointed out different types of birds flying high in the redwoods, told us stories about how the park came to be, and pointed out the signs of damage from fires and climate change. She literally knew every tree in the park. Like we could point to a single pine needle and be like “what’s that” and she’d be like “oh, that’s a Sugar Pine. Here, you can eat it, it tastes like how the soap at Rush Creek Lodge smells.” It totally did, y’all.
Sadly, it did not snow during our stay. But if it had, we could have gone on a guided snowshoe adventure. Some of the other activities we didn’t get a chance to participate in during our stay:
- Hot tubbing
- California craft beer tasting
- Making a pet rock
- Painting with 3D snow paint
Ok, the last 2 were for kids, but I TOTALLY would have loved them.
We left Rush Creek Lodge wishing we could stay longer, and dying to come back again. And you know what? Now that we know where to stay near Yosemite, I think we might just brave the summer crowds this year.
Practical Information About Rush Creek Lodge
- Address: 34001 CA-120, Groveland, CA 95321
- Price Range: From $176 in low season. Compare pricing deals on Hotels Combined
Hey, while you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, why not check out some of our other posts?
- 12 Off-Beat & Awesome Places to Stay Near San Francisco (on a budget)
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco: A Local's Guide
- The 10 Best Weekend Trips from San Francisco, California: A Local's Guide
- Glamping Near San Francisco: A Romantic Weekend Getaway Itinerary
What activity are you most excited about trying at Rush Creek or in Yosemite? It’s the unlimited s’mores, isn't’ it? Drop us a comment below!
Hey, did you like this post? Save it for later on Pinterest!
Disclaimer: This post was created as part of an uncompensated collaboration with Rush Creek Lodge and Mazda. Although we were hosted guests, all opinions, s’more obsessions, and suggestions of soap-thievery are 100% our own and totally not their fault.
Get the San Francisco Walking Tour PDF!
Subscribe below and we'll send you the FREE San Francisco Walking Tour printable map. We'll also send you our favorite tips for visiting San Francisco!