We were stuck. Stuck in traffic. First on 680 towards Dublin and then on 580 heading west to Tracy. But what else would you expect, leaving the San Francisco Bay Area on a Friday around five in the afternoon except a carmageddon shitshow. My friend Ethan and I were bothered by it, no question, however we only had to think of what we had set out to do this weekend to take our minds off a situation we could not control anyways. While vehicles around us with roof racks filled with skis were on their way to Tahoe to hit the slopes (paying north of $100 for a day pass) on this last weekend in January, we had loaded my recently purchased 2006 Toyota RAV4 with hiking gear and snow shoes ($25 rental fee for up to five days) and set out for the 4 hour drive to Yosemite Valley.
Mind you, this was not supposed to be a regular winter hiking trip. We were on a mission to find one of the secret and secluded Yosemite cabins and stay there for the night. The one we had in mind was called Willow Creek Cabin, a rustic accommodation off the beaten trail we hoped to find on Saturday. If unsuccessful, we would face a cold night at high elevation, cause we did not bring a tent. If that wasn’t motivation enough, I don’t know what is.
I navigated my trusty SUV through thick fog beyond Oakdale on 120, congratulating me for picking a model with fog lights, pushed the V6 (why else would you buy one) up Old Priest Grade Road, a two mile stretch with points reaching a 20 percent grade, passing Conrad Anker co-owned Priest Station Cafe and finally making it to Yosemite Valley around 10:30pm. A heated tent at Curry Village, a tented camp offering accommodations for people who don’t want to shell out $100+ for a night stay in the valley, but not quite desperate enough to pitch a tent in one of the campgrounds in sub-freezing temperatures, gave us shelter for the night.
Breakfast was consumed the next day in the parking lot in the back of my car, since a camp stove fire seemed like a bad idea inside a canvas tent. Well nourished we shouldered our packs and took the Yosemite Shuttle to stop 17 for the Mirror Lake trailhead. The sun was just about to come up and a sunny day with few clouds announced itself. Ice and snow, covering the valley floor up to two to three inches, made progress along the trail slippery, but manageable. In the shadow of Half Dome we followed the trail, which hugged the west-facing edge of the Lower Pool and Mirror Lake itself, until it connected to the Snow Creek trail.
After a mellow start, Snow Creek trail brought us up in elevation, thanks to a total of 107 switchbacks, luckily mostly snow free due to its southward orientation. Shedding layers was necessary very early in the ascent, but seeing Half Dome, Clouds Rest and the Quarter Domes from our elevated viewpoint made us, at least temporarily, forget our burning quads and calves. On top of the switchbacks, at an elevation of 6,700 feet, we finally encountered conditions that warranted putting on the snow shoes we had strapped to our packs. From here on, we faced deep wintery conditions and the additional footwear made progress a whole lot easier.
Despite the snow cover of two to three feet at this point, we had no trouble following the route. We alighted upon tracks in the snow left by skis, snow shoes and even boots, sunk about one foot deep into the soft surface with each step. Beyond a trail junction pointing out distances to Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows, we were left confused for a moment. We had to leave the trail eventually, since the cabin, that we much knew, was located off-trail on the eastern edge of a clearing. Off we went into uncharted (at least as we were concerned) wilderness, crossing back over the creek by means of a sketchy snow bridge and made it to a clearing in the forest. Not long after walking along the side of the clearing on pristine snow, Ethan spotted the back wall of the cabin through the trees to our right.
Amazed by the sight of civilization in the wilderness, we snapped a few pictures of the cabin from the outside. It was bigger than I had imagined with floor space of around 400 square feet, measuring about 15 feet from the ground to the gable of the saddle roof, whose north facing side almost reaching all the way to the ground. The shingles covering the facade were darkened by the wet conditions and the constant exposure to the elements. The window shutters, painted in a green and white zigzag pattern and reminding me of alpine harborages in Europe, were all properly shut.
We hesitated a bit before opening the main door, which was locked, if you can call it that, with a carabiner. What were we expecting to find? Dead bodies? A bear rummaging through whatever previous visitors might have left out carelessly? It turned out, there was nothing of the sort. The main entrance led to some sort of work room, with a work bench in the near right corner, with all sorts of tools and equipment piled up on top of it, and a stack of firewood in the far corner, which could probably last for at least a month. A door to the left led to the actual living quarters, with a living room to the right next to a little vestibule. A staircase in the center of the building directed to the attic, which presented two equally sized sleeping rooms with two fold-down bed frames each. Additional sleeping quarters with two bunk beds were located on the ground floor opposite the living room. In the far left corner, a kitchen completed the setup, with a gas powered grill, a sink, cupboards, utensils and two big pots for melting snow.
We inspected the premises thoroughly and after setting down our packs, we set out to collect snow and start a fire in the wood-burning stove in the living room to warm ourselves up and make the place even cozier. Not too familiar with the physics of a wood-burning stove, we struggled a bit at the beginning, attending to the fire constantly, but eventually we discovered how to use the setup to our advantage. Happy to be inside, close to a stove that provided us with warmth, we settled down at the wooden table, glad not having to suffer outside in a tent in the snow during what would become a freezing night with temperatures in the single digits. After dark we helped ourselves to one of the kerosene lanterns, of which there were four in the cabin, to provide us with a light source while we were making dinner and enjoyed a game of chess (at which I suck by the way). We retired to our upstairs sleeping quarters early, but only after locking the front door to keep out any unwanted visitors. You never know who comes knockin’ on the door of your own private cabin at night in the Yosemite Wilderness.
 The name of the cabin isn’t actually Willow Creek. The Yosemite cabins, even though most of them are marked on topographical maps of the park, are unknown to the regular visitor and even most avid backpackers who come to the park regularly have not heard of them. Since they can’t be reserved (unlike the High Sierra Camps) those who know about them want to keep them out of the public eye as much as possible, for overcrowding and everything that comes with it can ruin such locations and premises. So I changed the name of the cabin for this story and not reveal more than you need to know.