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Awe Naturel: Say Yes to a Wedding at One of California's National Parks
For 101 years, the National Park Service (NPS) has been giving Americans reasons to get outdoors—to hike, watch wildlife, gawk at geological phenomena, camp, relive history and more. Given the impressive array of dramatic panoramas that national parks offer, from pristine shores to big-tree backdrops combined with historic hotels and a budget-friendly permit price, throwing a wedding in one should be added to that list of outdoor options.
From the famed prison island of Alcatraz to the waterfalls of Whiskeytown, California boasts 28 vastly different national parks within its borders, more than any other state, which gives you a lot to consider. This list of the bucolic best will help you find your park—and your venue.
The crown jewel of California’s park collection, Yosemite (travelyosemite.com) boasts an unparalleled beauty that’s been 10 million years in the making. Within nearly 1,200 unspoiled square miles, couples will find vast meadows, alpine lakes, towering granite cliffs, ancient sequoia groves and breathtaking overlooks.
In addition to saying “I do” at the base of Yosemite’s signature waterfall or atop snowcapped summits, there are indoor options aplenty, such as the little New England–style Yosemite Valley Chapel. Built in 1879, it is now the oldest public-use structure in Yosemite. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the 1927 Arts and Crafts resort formerly known as The Ahwahnee, lives up its new name with high ceilings, stained glass windows, hand-stenciled beams, massive stone fireplaces, exquisite paneling and a grand lawn. Big Trees Lodge, which hosts events for 80 in Wawona, projects a Victorian ambiance with its white clapboard exteriors, a sunroom, wraparound porches and period furnishings. It also has the bonus of its proximity to wildflower patches and to one of only 12 covered bridges in the Golden State. An on-site pastry chef eliminates cake-delivery concerns.
Tie the knot at the Majestic Hotel in Yosemite || Photo courtesy of Yosemite Hospitality
Pad the wedding weekend with activities such as ice-skating (winter only), horseback and bike rides, art classes, golfing, birding, rafting, fishing and discovering your inner Ansel Adams at photography workshops. Overachievers can even hike Half Dome and get hitched!
Golden Gate Area
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a cluster of parks in San Francisco and Marin County that includes Muir Woods, Fort Baker and The Presidio (see page 60). Despite being next door to modern civilization, the 19 distinct ecosystems—including forests, beaches, coastal headlands, marshes—will leave everyone feeling worlds away. Throw in lookout points with priceless views of the bay and the Pacific, high-quality hotels, and centuries of colonial and military history make this a dream destination.
“Location, location, location”—the luxe LEED-certified Cavallo Point Lodge’s (cavallopoint.com) address in Fort Baker might be the reason this phrase was coined. Watch the famous fog roll in and envelop the namesake bridge from many points on the property, including the main event lawn and the former chapel turned elegant banquet hall. Most guest rooms, housed in converted officers’ residences and featuring walnut furnishings and ornate carved plaster ceilings, face directly at the twinkle of lights from the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz and San Francisco’s skyscrapers. Farther up the hill, contemporary units with gas fireplaces and radiant-heated floors are available for those who prefer present-day amenities.
Whether you have 10 or 250 RSVPs, Cavallo has a site that’s just the right size, from a curtained-off section in the Murray Circle restaurant to the handsomely appointed wine storage that’s cheekily named La Mariposa Borracha (“the drunk butterfly”). The elopement package, which comes with two 60-minute spa treatments for the happy couple, might encourage pairs to whittle down the invitation list. For those big days (as many as 180), the Callippe Ballroom can’t be beat; you’ll be hard-pressed to find evidence of its past life as the base’s gymnasium. The Napa-style terrace and fire pit offer views overlooking the parade lawn. The foyer’s nooks are perfect for photo booths, gift tables or lounges.
As the home of the first nonnative settlement on the peninsula, a Spanish garrison, The Presidio (presidio.gov) marks the spot where San Francisco was founded. The urban park is a fantastic place for married life to commence, thanks to the variety of venue types, a catering partnership with two-time James Beard award honoree Traci Des Jardins, and acres and acres of greenery and photogenic vistas. The park is also home to two historic chapels: the original house of worship from 1864, the Chapel of Our Lady (complete with hand-painted wood beams and a courtyard perfect for cocktail hour), and the Presidio Chapel, a Mission Revival chapel constructed in 1931.
Adjacent to both chapels is the Officers’ Club, which has three separate venues that are ideal for hosting the post-church reception. Moraga Hall dazzles with dark wood beams and chunky chandeliers fit for a castle. Its upstairs counterpart, the Ortega Ballroom, is more of a blank beige canvas for as many as 250 guests, while the open-air Hardie Courtyard is ideal for small receptions or cocktail hours.
Presidio Social Club offers retro vibes in a chic setting || Photo courtesy of Presidio Social Club
Another option is the Golden Gate Club with its views of the bridge, Alcatraz and the forest. While the Spanish Colonial–style building boasts eight different indoor spaces, the most popular is the 1949 Ventana ballroom, because of the floor-to-ceiling windows, a giant wall for projections of home videos or monograms, a working fireplace and an interior balcony, and the fact that it can accommodate the largest galas (385 guests).
Whichever venue meets your standards, Inn at the Presidio (innatthepresidio.com) is the ideal spot to establish headquarters. The 22-room former quarters for unmarried officers balances history, hospitality and elegance. Nods to the past such as a wall of bugles and complimentary bike cruisers make fine fodder for social media.
Just down the road is the Presidio Social Club (presidiosocialclub.com), a retro space with a 1940s Americana vibe and menu items such as caviar-topped deviled eggs and Gruyère toast with tomato fondue. Ideal for showers, rehearsal dinners and post-party brunches, the club can handle a whole shindig for as many as 200 partiers, with a little creative jiggering. Buyouts are limited to twice a month, but the combination of the private dining room and Edison bulb–lit deck can cover couples from their walk down the aisle to the last dance.
Don’t let the morbid name or the fact that this is the hottest, lowest and driest park in the entire National Park system scare you off. Otherwise, you’d miss out on some of Mother Nature’s most spectacularly colored canvases and some truly bizarre terrain, including blistered salt flats and colossal craters. Besides, some of those characteristics come in handy when planning a party—an average of less than 2 inches of rainfall a year makes the need for a plan B practically nonexistent. This isolated valley is also, hands down, one of the best places to stargaze in the world.
Sunrise at Death Valley’s Zabriske Point || Photo courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts
The park is also home to the 66-room Inn at Furnace Creek (furnacecreekresort.com), an adobe-and-stone hideaway built into the hillside in 1927. Ceremony and reception options include the palm-dotted garden oasis; two private rooms (the biggest of which can handle 80 seated guests) connected by a foyer that literally sparkles from the borax specks in the wall; and the Marquez Room, a rustic rock-walled space bookended by giant wood-burning hearths and filled with vintage touches, such as intricate metal grates, a door entablature made of salvaged railroad ties, and lantern-like chandeliers. Be sure to book the standalone bungalow, which grants 24-hour access to the spring-fed and -warmed pool for the wedding night.
The Ranch at Furnace Creek in Death Valley offers activities to entertain the guests || Photo courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts
The inn’s sister hotel, The Ranch at Furnace Creek, just down the road, offers carriage rides; a golf course (the lowest-elevation course in the world); more economical, family-friendly lodgings; and a date grove perfect for a Western-themed welcome barbecue. There’s even a triangle to clang when the grub is ready. The miniature house-made loaves of nutty date bread make tasty favors.
Escape to the Old West at The Ranch at Furnace Creek in Death Valley || Photo courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts
Sequoia & Kings Canyon
Get two parks for the price of one in the southern Sierra Nevada, where there is no shortage of blue skies, fresh air or evergreen scenery. The sylvan glades of sequoias (the planet’s largest trees), huge mountains, immense caverns, big boulders and deep ravines prove that sometimes size does matter. The names of popular weddings spots like Giant Forest, Big Stump and Long Meadow second that adage. Weather varies tremendously depending on season and elevation. Winter can be a snowy wedding wonderland or a nightmare of closed roads, downed vegetation and inaccessible venues. It’s also entirely possible that some uninvited furry or feathered folks might crash your fete, a tale that would inevitably be told around the campfire for anniversaries to come.
Wuksachi Lodge (visitsequoia.com/lodging), a stone-and-cedar hotel opened in 1999, is nestled in the heart of the park. Encircled by soaring peaks, the lodge features cabin-chic prints, massive windows and interesting woodwork. Exchange vows alfresco in the amphitheater or on the log bridge, which, along with Beetle Rock and giant sequoia trunks, is an essential photo stop. Move into the banquet space, which can be broken into four smaller, 20-person sections or used in its entirety for as many as 100 invitees and a dance floor. Feast from the baked potato bar, and on menu items like cedar-planked salmon and cake pops. Toast the union with cocktails in the lobby lounge.
An oasis of luxury at Death Valley’s The Inn at Furnace Creek || Photo courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts
Park and Planning Etiquette
Live by backpacker code: Respect the resources, leave only footprints.
• This is America’s backyard, open to all, and restricting public use is frowned upon during open hours, so most outdoor areas cannot be cordoned off or closed.
• The aforementioned policy often leads to restrictions on time, amplified music and microphones, chairs and drones. (The last is a courtesy to the wild park residents.)
• Permits are necessary, and prices vary by park and sometimes, party size. Usually you can apply for permits a year in advance; site use is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.
• Top dogs like Yosemite greet millions of travelers a year, and summer is high season for both weddings and vacations. Consider off-season dates or shift start times to early morning or evening to avoid the peak crowd.
• If having Spot act as your ring bearer is vital, investigate park and lodgings regulations regarding pets.
• Hire planners and caterers who commonly work at your location, as they already know the rules about décor, food and flowers. For example, bouquets adorned with nonnative plants are frowned upon, and throwing birdseed, rice or flower petals is also a no-no.
• Research the bathroom situation! Visiting a pit toilet in formalwear is a nightmare for guests—and especially a decked-out bride.