(Published on January 25, 2015, by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates.)
Opaque mist freezes instantly, forming massive snowcones below Yosemite Falls. A trick of the setting sun turns Horsetail Falls into a glowing ribbon of fire, illuminating the granite walls. And clumps of frazil ice flow across creeks, transforming them into giant moving slurpees.
Some four million people visit majestic Yosemite National Park every year, but only a few hundred thousand will ever see such scenes, behold the pristine magic and the cushioned silence of the season. The vast majority visit in the summer, when the valley floor resembles freeway rush hour. But the winter season is Yosemite’s best-kept secret, a season of serenity, grandeur and utter peace.
“The solitude in the winter, and the light with the reflections off the snow — it’s pretty spectacular,” says Jerry Edelbrock, vice president of the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy.
It’s not just the beauty of the landscape that tempts. Yosemite’s hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating and other outdoor pursuits are irresistible. The oudoors beckons in winter, thanks to a collaboration between the National Park Service, the Yosemite Conservancy, which offers snowshoe trips, a snow hut and other enticements, and Delaware North, the park concessionaire, which handles skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and other programs.
The most undemanding and consistently available activities lie in Yosemite Valley, where the range of guided tours includes nature strolls, night hikes under the starry sky, indoor tours of the historic Ahwahnee Hotel and photography walks, including a “Firefall” hike to Horsetail Falls in February, when sunset turns the waterfall into a flaming red stream.
But it’s up in snow country where exploring this glorious park in winter most resonates. Meandering snowy trails, white-dusted trees and ridges that deliver heart-stopping views of the valley monuments below demand that skis or snowshoes be put on feet to carry city-weary bodies into the magnificent scenery.
The easiest way is snowshoeing, which is as simple as walking, including an effortless tromp up and down inclines like a wall-climbing superhero. Compared to the skill and stamina required to traverse hills on cross-country skis, this is a cinch.
Whether snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, those wishing to get out there should check the status of the many trails in the high country that still have snow cover and hope that Mother Nature will send some storms soon. January has been disappointing in that regard but February statistically sees more snow.
When that happens, there are many compelling outdoor activities beginning at the Badger Pass ski area up on the edge of the valley. This area depends on natural snow so Badger Pass opens and closes based on the amount of white stuff that has descended.
One of the most popular activities starting at Badger Pass is a full-moon snowshoe walk that winds through the forest up to a star-lit ridge.
“It’s incredible to be up there with the dark skies and chill in the air,” says Lisa Cesaro of Delaware North. “You can see the full moon and the cliffs lit up.”
As a beginner herself, Cesaro also learned to snowboard and cross-country ski via lessons at Badger Pass, which rents equipment and operates lifts for the lower-adrenaline slopes during snow season.
“It’s one of those places where you can fall,” she says, “and you don’t feel like anyone will laugh at you.”
When Badger Pass is open, it’s the gateway for some wonderful cross-country and snowshoe routes. Whether you opt for one of the guided snowshoe trips or hit the trails on your own, a must-do is the trail that takes you to Dewey Point through meadows and forests to the rim of the valley, with the famed granite monoliths laid out below.
“That view is absolutely incredible,” says Zach Irwin, from the Yosemite Mountaineering School.
More physically fit visitors will want to opt for breathtaking Glacier Point, which is accessible by a 10-plus mile cross-country ski route that is open when the snow supply permits. “It’s really quiet,” Irwin says, “and with the snow on the peaks around there, it’s very dramatic.”
Irwin’s organization operates the park’s most lavish — for a ski hut — overnight accommodations at Glacier Point, where skiers can find warmth, meals, “big leather couches,” Irwin says, and bunk beds. No showers or flush toilets, however.
Even if snow doesn’t make a strong recovery this season, the hut will still be open for hikers climbing up the five-mile trail from the valley, then staying overnight and enjoying the beauty and solitude of Glacier Point.
The most remote lodging for intrepid skiers is the famous circa-1941 Ostrander Hut. Situated near a snowy lake, the hut is so popular on weekends that lotteries are held every year for tickets. But insiders know that reservations for weekdays are relatively easy to acquire.
The name of one section of the route — Heart Attack Hill — explains what sort of skier should take this journey. Nevertheless, it’s an unforgettable trip even with the significant lugging involved. All food and other essentials must be packed in by skiers and all trash packed back out.
However one chooses to experience Yosemite in winter, it’s utterly unlike its summer version. Who wouldn’t want to trade bus fumes and crowded concessions for fleece-coated trails where the closest sign of living creatures might be the asymmetric footprints of a snowshoe hare?
Winter Activities in Yosemite
National Park Service – offers trail maps online for routes in the Badger Pass, Mariposa Grove and Crane Flat areas. www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/brochures.htm
Ice Skating at Curry Village – $10-10.50 per person. Skate rentals: $4. www.yosemitepark.com/ice-skating.aspx
Badger Pass Ski Area – (Check to see if this center is open, since it’s dependent on the snow supply.) Lift tickets: $27-48.50; Rentals (alpine/snowboard): $21-37; cross country: $11-31.50; snowshoes: $21-24. Lessons: $35-128.50. Snow tubing rates: $17 per person. www.yosemitepark.com/BadgerPass.aspx
Cross-Country Trips – One or two-night guided trip to Glacier Point ski hut: $350-550 per person (includes food, lodging). Non-guided nightly food/lodging at Glacier Point ski hut: $116-146 per person. www.yosemitepark.com/glacier-point-hut.aspx. Hiking trips to the hut are being offered at the same rates if no snow appears. Call (209) 372-8444 for information. Nightly lodging at Ostrander Hut: $34-55 per person. www.yosemiteconservancy.org/ostrander-ski-hut. (Whether the hut will stay open if there’s no snow will be evaluated weekly.) Custom back-country guided tours: $179-317. www.yosemitepark.com/BadgerPass_BackcountrySkiTours.aspx
Guided Snowshoe Walks – Full-moon snowshoe walks: $15 per person. Snowshoe rentals: $5. www.yosemitepark.com/full-moon-snowshoe-walks.aspx. Beginner’s snowshoe tour (including rentals): $11-21 per person. Dewey Point walk or Tuolumne Grove walk tour: $60 (with rentals) per person. Crane Flat walk: $18.50 (with rentals). www.yosemitepark.com/BadgerPass_Snowshoeing.aspx. Snowshoe walk or hike Mariposa Grove: $99. www.yosemiteconservancy.org/outdoor-adventures/snowshoe-mariposa-grove-trip-2. Dewey Point tour #1. www.yosemiteconservancy.org/outdoor-adventures/snowshoe-Yosemite-dewey-point-March7. Dewey Point tour #2. www.yosemiteconservancy.org/outdoor-adventures/snowshoe-yosemite-dewey-point-march21. Cost per person: $99.
“Firefall” photography workshop at Horsetail Falls: $399 (includes camping and park entry). www.yosemiteconservancy.org/outdoor-adventures/photography-horsetail-fall-winter-landscapes. Starry sky program: $7.50 per person. www.yosemitepark.com/starry-skies.aspx.
Interpretative programs (tours of Ahwahnee, naturalist strolls, photography walks); first two are free; check prices on the latter. www.yosemitepark.com/nature-program-list.aspx