YOSEMITE VALLEY, Calif. - You don't have to skate like an Olympic champion to hear oohs and aahs at the Curry Village Ice Rink. Matter of fact, you don't have to be much of a skater at all to enjoy a memorable setting where Mother Nature is the biggest star.
Imagine taking a tumble and finding yourself staring up at a 3,200-foot granite wall that seems to stretch forever into the winter sky. Or picture yourself gliding out of the northwest turn and into a dazzling view of a snow-capped Half Dome, blushing with a reddish alpine glow from the late afternoon sun.
"When you skate indoors, the scenery never changes," says Patrick Hannan of Sebastopol, Calif., admiring the pine trees and mountains surrounding the rink. "Up here, it's different every day. This place is awesome."
Hannan was one of about 100 people who spent a recent afternoon skating at what may be the world's most beautiful outdoor ice rink. Beginners and veterans worked their way around the ice at their own speed, doing what skaters have been doing in Yosemite National Park from late November to early March since the late 1920s.
In the early years, skating was offered on the sunny north side of Yosemite Valley, and ice conditions often were poor due to warm temperatures. The current rink, built in the 1960s and operated by Delaware North Companies, the Yosemite National Park concessionaire, is located at Curry Village, on the shady and cooler south side of the valley.
The rink is situated in a spot directly below Glacier Point and, when skies are clear, receives about 20 minutes of sunshine every morning, says manager Mike Poisson. The rink has its own refrigeration system to keep the ice frozen on warm days and a Zamboni machine to smooth out the surface when it grows rough from heavy use or from storms.
People come from all over to skate at Yosemite, but most of the regulars are from Fresno and Merced, he says.
Marie Lopez left 90-degree temperatures in Tahiti to visit friends in Fresno and make a skating trip to Yosemite, where the mercury was in the mid-20s.
"It's magnifique, but very cold," she says, describing the outdoor setting while watching her daughter, Lola, 14, move around the rink.
With no roof to hide the scenery - or protect them from the elements - skaters at Yosemite must take a little bit of bad with all the good Mother Nature has to offer. As their cheeks grow pink and fingers get chilled, they leave the rink to warm themselves around a blazing fire pit.
"There's no better place to go skating," says Kevin Rick Auburn, who was vacationing in Yosemite with wife Trisha and their children, Taylor, 14, Jake, 11, and Carly, 8. "Our family has been coming here for 35 years, and now I'm introducing my children to skating. The ice is harder and it's a little rougher than indoors. But we got to skate one time when it was snowing, and that was very nice."
Skating under gentle snow may be great for making memories, but winter storms usually end up making more work for Poisson.
"Our biggest challenge is dealing with storms," he says, talking about how the weather can produce cracks and roughness in the ice. "Sometimes it takes a few hours in the Zamboni to smooth everything out."
But it's nature's quirks that help make the rink endearing.
"I love being outdoors and I love the setting," says Shauna Edson of Livermore, Calif. "There's something more real about skating here. The ice has character. It's got bumps and pine needles in it."
When Bernadette Gomes Kerman learned there was ice skating in Yosemite, she booked a few days at Curry Village so her children - Tony Jr., 11, Cassie, 7, and Gabby, 4 - could have a special winter experience.
"I take the kids skating at the Gateway Ice Center in Fresno all the time," she says. "But up here, you have the mountains. It's outdoors. It's beautiful. It's refreshing."
First-time skaters Daniel Rong, 10, and his brother, Alex, 7, were eager to get out on the ice. They were in Yosemite for a winter vacation with their parents, Joe and Mei Rong of San Jose.
Joe Rong says it's good for kids to get outside and do things like play in the snow and skate on ice.
"They spend too much time inside playing video games," he says with a grin.
Skating outdoors in Yosemite provides a welcome link to the past, says Hannan, who learned to skate on outdoor ponds in his native Indiana and now does most of his skating at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa, Calif.
"It's the whole atmosphere," he says. "You can smell the wood smoke from the fire pit. And you get to be outside and feel the cold."
IF YOU GO:
What: Ice skating in Yosemite National Park
When: 3:30-6 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. daily; 8:30-11 a.m. and noon-2:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays
Where: Curry Village Ice Rink in Yosemite Valley, Calif.
Cost: $8; $6 for children 12 and younger; skate rental, $3
Details: (209) 372-8319, www.yosemitepark.com and click on activities, winter activities and ice skating.