Winter usually draws a lot fewer visitors to Yosemite National Park. For one, Tioga Pass Road, the one and only ribbon of asphalt going through the heart of the park from east to west, is closed. Even if you’d still wanna take up the drive to the park, which can be 4 hours and more from the Bay Area, you need to prepare for close to freezing temperatures and a vastly altered picture of the park than were you to visit in the summer months.
The Valley in the Winter
This Presidents Day weekend however was different in many ways. The winter has not brought the expected amount of precipitation. With snow coverage at a relative low and a warm front moving in just in time for the weekend, many folks took advantage of the three day weekend to head to Yosemite. And so did a friend of mine, Stephanie, and I.
Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society.
John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938) page 350.
I was taken aback by how busy everything was. While traffic on Saturday was not too bad, the accommodations in the Valley certainly were. It turned out that even Curry Village had to put the “sold out” sign up and ditto Upper Pines Campground turned out to be full. Surprised we were indeed, but had planned to stay at Camp 4 all along. A bare bones campground, usually frequented by climbers, but with bear lockers, drinking water faucets and flush toilets, it still provides enough for a two night stay in Yosemite.
After “checking in” and finding a reasonable spot to pitch our tent, we unloaded the car and, first things first, had a little lunch before hitting the nearby Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. Passing climbers trying their luck on nearby faces, with their gear and bear cans securely parked on their crash-pads, we reached the falls viewing area. Myriads of people frequented the area and the paved path leading up to it, some folks venturing even closer to the base of the falls and onto the rocks to get a better view and, presumably, they enjoyed getting wet.
Not a fan of huge crowds, we ventured back and decided to head up Yosemite Falls Trail, which we had some serious trouble finding, to Columbia Rock for an elevated view of the Valley. Naturally, with our late ascent up the switchbacks around 4pm, we were met by more than a dozen people heading down the trail, already done with their hike. “You guys have headlamps?”, one passer-by asked. While I was initially grateful for his seeming interest in our safety, on second thought, his mindfulness could also have been mistaken for rubbing in his knowledge superiority before his friends. “No, we have night vision!”, was what we should have answered, we joked later.
The forty minute ascent, covering around 1000 vertical feet, left me more exhausted than I would have liked. Running for miles on mostly flat surface at sea level is, after all, not the same as hiking up switchbacks at around 4000 feet of elevation. That is, at least, what I told myself.
Reaching Columbus Rock way before sundown, it gave us a grandiose overview of the Valley, with Half Dome to the east and Sentinel Rock and the Valley floor with the meandering Merced River right in front of us. Heading down and back to our campsite concluded the day. Almost. After two unsuccessful attempts, I managed to get a campfire going with firewood we had purchased earlier at the Yosemite Village Store (and almost got stuck in the mostly unplowed parking lot, but escaped thanks to the four wheel drive). That proved to be popular with other folks we shared the campsite with which turned out to be exclusively climbers and, feeding the cliche, Subaru owners. I almost felt inferior, not being able to join their conversations about “5.10 climbs”, “anchor building” and “multi pitch climbing”.
Snowshoeing to Dewey Point
On Sunday, we retraced back our steps for a bit and headed out of the Valley to the ski area of Badger Pass, about a 40 minute drive. We managed to get there fairly early, around 10am, as the parking lots were filling up quickly. We put on our snowshoes and together with other folks, using either skis, snowshoes or plain boots, headed along snow-covered Glacier Point Rd. After about .8 miles, we turned off to the left and followed the snow trail to Dewey Point via the ridge. Despite the full snow coverage, trail #14 was clearly visible at all times. 95 minutes after we had left the parking lot, we got to the Dewey Point overlook, admiring in awe the beauty of the Yosemite Valley below us. Water came flowing down Ribbon Fall to our left, the Valley opening up in the center, and Half Dome and Sentinel Dome just off center to the right.
We were in good company, with about two dozen people at the overlook when we arrived. This being as good as it gets for a lunch spot with a view, we decided to grab a spot on a rock that had just been vacated by a couple, and made that our lunch spot. After about an hour, we put our snowshoes back on and headed back to the parking lot via the easier Meadow Trail, with less elevation change than the path via the Ridge Trail. On our way back to Yosemite Valley, we stopped at the Tunnel View Vista Point, where in the summer the parking lot fills up quickly for the magnificent view opens up just ahead with El Cap towering on the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right and, anchored between the rock faces left and right, Half Dome in the center of the view.
At the campfire that night, while drinking beer with names like “Hops of Wrath“, we talked some more with our fellow campmates. Ngan, a climber for seven years from San Jose, comes to the Valley regularly. She undertook a “self-finding” trip, lasting several months, with her car towards the end of of 2012, after drifting more or less aimlessly through life. Her trip, which she did by herself and took her north from the San Francisco Area, through parts of western Canada and Yellowstone, was meant to give her clarity on what she wanted out of life. She reached her turning point when once driving alone in her Subaru, fumbling around with her phone which eventually fell out the window and with it all, she lost several photos and contact info of friends and acquaintances. For Ngan, it was a sign to turn back home and say goodbye to a life of uncertainty and temporary jobs, like working in a climbing gym. Today, she works at an accounting software firm in San Jose.
A trail that once was
Monday marked our final day in the Valley for the weekend and after Dewey Point, we picked an even harder to reach lookout spot: Sierra Point. Possibly the best short scramble in Yosemite Valley, according to summitpost.org, we left the car at the parking lot between Lower and Upper Pines, walked past the Nature Center at Happy Isle and onto the Mist Trail. Without any guidance from trail markers, since there is no official trail any more, we scrambled up the slope over boulders easily the size of an SUV. However, after about 50 minutes of scrambling, we noticed that we had veered too much to the left and were too high up already, having missed the remnants of the old trail. So we backtracked down and headed south until we finally encountered trail carets, marking the way until the trail finally became clearly visible. After a total of 2 hrs and 10 minutes, we reached Sierra Point, the steel railings still solidly in place. Heated up from the ascent, we took a half hour break, snacking and soaking in the amazing view of four waterfalls at once under sunny Yosemite skies.
From up there is was already apparent, but on the way down and back to the car, we noticed clouds rolling in and foreboding a winter storm coming. Perfect timing, since we had packed up everything already in the morning so it was only a matter of getting the mud-covered boots off, hopping in the car, leaving the serene Yosemite landscape behind and heading back to civilization.