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Yosemite Park: Come for the Views, Stay for the Food

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Tourists take in the views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View Overlook.

Food will never be what draws 293 million visitors to America’s national parks each year. The waterfalls, wildlife, canyons, and forests get full credit. But those people gotta eat, and they’re what the industry calls a “captive audience.” They are in the middle of the wilderness, at the mercy of the park’s offerings, with no other food options except what is in the cooler, backpack, or RV fridge. (Eating found berries and such is usually OK, as long as you don’t poison yourself or “harvest” or “collect,” like this guy. As I’ve written before, you just don’t want to go to prison for being a mushroom poacher.)

So national parks could serve almost anything and hungry people who have been hiking all day would eat it. It’s kind of miraculous that some don’t.

The 99-year-old National Park Service, the U.S. government department that cares for the parks, protects natural resources and its respect for food’s binding tie to our land flows from that. And Yosemite National Park in California—the first land set aside for protection by what is now the NPS—has used its food traditions to enhance visitors’ experiences for decades. With Yosemite’s location within 200 miles of San Francisco and Napa and Sonoma Valleys’ rich food and wine farmland, Yosemite has a high pedigree, a cache, and fine ingredients.

Wine and steep cliffs may not be an intuitive pairing, but for decades, winemakers have made pilgrimages to the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room for its celebrated Vintners’ Holidays dinners. Last year Daniel Baron of Silver Oak, Eva Dehlinger of Dehlinger Cellars, and John Williams of Frog’s Leap were among the esteemed couple of dozen who hosted meals paired with pours from their rare or limited-release bottles.

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The Ahwahnee Hotel, an historic hotel in Yosemite National Park where wine dinners are held. Photograph by Nadia M.B. Hughes, NG Creative

Even now that winemakers are in-demand celebrities—very different from when the dinners started 30 years ago—they don’t send their sales representatives to Yosemite. They still come in person. “It’s a tradition,” according to Scott Gediman, a park ranger and Yosemite spokesman. “They have deep emotional connections with the park, so it’s personal. It’s not just coming to do an event.”

Winemakers themselves drive five hours immediately after their busy fall harvest season to pour for patrons at the legendary hotel’s perch at the base of Yosemite Falls (North America’s highest) and 7,500-foot-tall El Capitan and its nearby cliffs and points (on which some die each year, including the extraordinary climber Dean Potter just last month). It’s a heady setting for a wine tasting.

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Children awaiting a wedding on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park look 7,000 feet down. The Half Dome rock formation is in the background. Photograph by Mary Beth Albright for National Geographic.

Food binds the park’s residents to its close-in surrounding community as well. People who work in the 1,200-square-mile park often live there too because, really, it’s difficult to live elsewhere when your job lies in a place roughly the size of Rhode Island.

Nearby Diestel Farms and T & D Willey Farms deliver wares directly to Yosemite—heirloom tomatoes and turkeys and fresh fruit. Mountain Meadow Farms’ Brenda Ostrom, a former Yosemite employee, drops shares of produce at Yosemite residents’ doorsteps and hosts Yosemite Elementary School’s kids for agriculture education days on the farms, showing them the special varieties she grows specifically for the Ahwahnee’s dining room. Percy Whatley, executive chef of the Ahwahnee, started at a Yosemite hamburger stand when he was 18 and is now raising his two children in Yosemite. (Rest assured, he attended the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in between.)

In part, thank legendary photographer Ansel Adams for Yosemite’s food focus. In 1927 he was a creator of Yosemite’s annual Bracebridge Dinner, a medieval Christmas feast and pageant held at the Park’s then-new Ahwahnee Hotel. In his mid-twenties, Adams was starting to receive acclaim for photographs taken during his time as a caretaker in Yosemite and wanted to promote the hotel and Park during the winter months. The script he wrote for the yearly pageant is still used today.

The Bracebridge seven-course, four-hour dinner continues to sell out at $400 per ticket (plus all expenses—“it’s a bucket-list item for many,” explains Lisa Cesaro, Public Relations Manager for Delaware North, which currently runs Yosemite’s food service). Bracebridge’s feast menu includes a fish, fowl, and meat course with plum pudding and brandy. Open to the public, Bracebridge is still a Yosemite community food tradition; the current Bracebridge director was in the play when she was 5 years old, directed by Adams.

The NPS must preserve Yosemite’s natural resources in the face of four million visitors—and their trash—each year, so being green is a main goal in food service. Yosemite diverts 70 percent of its waste from landfills, runs a recycling truck fueled on old fryer oil (named, appropriately, Fryer Truck), and uses melted ice to spot water plants (with the California drought coming up on year four).

The National Park service takes on a tough load every day: Feed a wide spectrum of tastes, in a place where the whole point is to have little infrastructure. Yosemite does it by building traditions grounded in its location and drawing value from its surrounding areas.

As with Cuyahoga National Park, Yosemite cleverly and sustainably uses its natural resources to create greater value for Americans, while increasing public enjoyment. As Cesaro explains, the winemakers love coming to Yosemite year after year as much as the park loves having them. “Now Yosemite’s tradition is the winemakers’ tradition, and our visitors can reap the benefits of that relationship.”