With the approach of Christmas and New Year's, some people remain undecided about what to do and where to go for the holidays. Here are a few suggestions for year-end national park vacations that are likely to result in some lasting memories.
Trains for the Kids
For younger children consider a Christmas-themed train trip.
The 1985 book, The Polar Express, has become a Christmas classic, especially following its 2004 release as a movie. Now there is an opportunity for this adventure to come alive for the children in your life (including the child in you). Picture everyone dressed in pajamas, robes, and slippers, hopping on the train and heading to the North Pole, in anticipation of meeting Santa. Both the Grand Canyon Railway, located south of Grand Canyon National Park in Williams, Arizona, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park offer Polar Express trips.
The Grand Canyon Railway’s version of the Polar Express operates from November 12th to January 9th. The train departs the Williams Depot and travels to the “North Pole.” In route, hot chocolate and cookies are served during the reading of the story. A surprise awaits passengers when the train arrives at the North Pole and Santa boards the train. He gives each child a gift (You can guess what it is if you have seen the movie or read the book.) on the return trip. Prior to departure children may visit the Polar Room located inside the Williams Depot. There they will find activities, such as pictures to color, and they may visit with Mrs. Santa. Polar Express tickets are $14 (Sun.-Thur.), $19 (Fri.-Sat.), and $38 (child), $58 (adult) for the Christmas Eve Limited. Lodging packages for the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel are available. For additional information or reservations call (888) 848-3511 or visit www.thetrain.com on the web.
Traveler fine print: This special train does not go to the Grand Canyon. However, through February (some dates excluded), a 50 percent reduction for the Grand Canyon trip is available for individuals who purchase a Polar Express ticket. Several of the South Rim lodges are open during the winter months in the event you would like to spend some time at the canyon.
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad Polar Express trip is nearly identical to that of the Grand Canyon Railway. Available from November 18th through December 19th, this train departs from the Northside Station in Akron, Ohio, and the Rockside Station in Independence, Ohio. Tickets are $35 and can only be purchased on the Web site (www.cvsr.com). For additional information call (800) 468-4070.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the surrounding area offer opportunities for a variety of winter sports including downhill skiing, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. Visit www.nps.gov/cuva for more information. The only lodging facility within Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the Inn at Brandywine Falls, a lovely bed and breakfast. For information and reservations call (888) 306-3381 or go to www.innatbrandywinefalls.com.
Learning and Lodging in Yellowstone
If your children are old enough that they no longer want to be called children, Yellowstone National Park is an excellent choice for a winter family vacation. Even those who have visited the park in summer will discover a totally different experience during the winter months. Roads within the park are closed to cars so transportation is only via snowcoach, snowmobile, snowshoes, or skis. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only lodging facilities open during winter.
An excellent way to experience Yellowstone is through participation in winter Lodging and Learning Programs led by naturalist experts and offered by the Yellowstone Institute. Groups are small, limited in size from 10 to 12 participants, and a minimum age of 8 or 12 is required depending upon the program chosen. Lodging, breakfast and lunch, park transportation, ski and snowshoe rental, and other amenities are included in the price of each program. (For additional information, go to www.travelyellowstone.com; or call Lodging and Learning Programs (866) 439-7375, #6.
Five programs are offered this winter. Winter in Wonderland is designed for individuals who enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Participants experience different habitats within the park including the Lamar Valley, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Old Faithful. The week-long program includes four nights in Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and two nights in Old Faithful Snow Lodge. It is offered each week, starting December 21st. ($1,244 per person double occupancy)
Winter Wildlife Expedition begins December 23rd and includes four nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Participants will learn about the pronghorn, bighorn, bison, elk, wolves, and other wildlife of Yellowstone’s Northern Range. Participation requires some hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. ($619 pp double occupancy)
In Winter Wolf Discovery participants learn about Yellowstone’s wolf packs, and hopefully experience the thrill of seeing these beautiful wild animals. Some hiking and snowshoeing may be involved. This program starts on December 27th and includes four nights at Mammoth. ($649 per person double occupancy)
Yellowstone on Skis begins December 26th and includes three nights at Mammoth and three nights at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Participants ski into the interior of Yellowstone to view the mountains, hot springs, geysers, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. ($1,429 pp double occupancy)
Family Winter Holiday is geared toward families with children ages 8 to 12. Participants snowshoe, cross-country ski, take photographs, watch wildlife, and track animals. Also included is a snowcoach trip to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a sight some consider the most magnificent in the park. The program begins on December 25th and includes four nights at Mammoth. ($749 per person double occupancy; $515 per child)
A Special Christmas Treat
How about a magical Christmas meal this year? The famous Bracebridge Dinner is offered each Christmas season in Yosemite National Park’s lovely Ahwahnee dining room. This famous dinner first took place in 1927, the year this upscale national park lodge was completed. For years, the dinner was so popular that tickets were sold only by lottery. However, they are now available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The theme for the dinner is based a Washington Irving story in The Sketch Book that describes 17th Century English Christmas traditions. The Ahwahnee dining room is transformed into the great hall of Bracebridge Manor. A seven-course banquet is served during a 3 ½-hour musical production with a cast of more than 100 members dressed in elegant and colorful costumes. Food this year includes pan roasted Moulard duck breast, white bean puree, braised red cabbage, and Foie Gras butter sauce. The cost is $375 per person. The dinner will be held this year on December 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, and 25. One- and two-night lodging packages are available. For dinner reservations call (801) 559-4884; for lodging packages call (801) 559-5000; for additional information visit www.yosemitepark.com.
Christmas in Death Valley
If fine dining and luxury lodging are appealing, but you want to avoid snow and freezing temperatures, consider Death Valley National Park’s Furnace Creek Inn. An elegant dinner buffet will be offered Christmas Eve ($55, reservations required), while on Christmas Day, from 3:00 to 9:00 P.M., a four-course dinner will be served, with five entrees from which to choose ($56, reservations strongly suggested).
For those unable to stay awake until midnight on New Year’s Eve, but who still want music and party favors, an early dinner buffet will be offered from 5:00 to 7:00 P.M. ($70, reservations required). The New Year’s Eve Party begins at 8:00 P.M. with a six-course dinner, after which a DJ spins music for dancing. Midnight champagne and a balloon drop are included ($125, reservations required). For dinner reservations call (760) 786-3385; for lodging reservations call (800) 236-7916; for additional information visit www.furnacecreekresort.com.