Perhaps John Muir said it best: “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” Every year, close to 4 million people stream into Yosemite National Park in California to share his wonder. They come in cars, campers, motorcycles and motorhomes. Whether it’s for hiking, fishing or simply marveling at the cascading waterfalls and sheer granite cliffs carved by glaciers more than 30,000 years ago, Yosemite is surely one of the most visited parks in the U.S. Tourists from all over the world make the journey to see and explore and be amazed.
The park itself encompasses some 1,189 square miles of deep valleys, lush meadows and groves of ancient giant sequoias, much of it designated wilderness. Yosemite Valley is the main draw, shadowed by the 3,042-foot face of El Capitan and the awe-inspiring Half Dome, rising nearly 5,000 feet from the valley floor. The Merced River wanders through its forests and campgrounds after cascading over the edge of the 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls, the highest in North America and sixth-highest in the world. Of course, there are museums, art galleries, clothing and equipment stores, souvenir shops and restaurants – enough to keep you busy for a week without ever leaving the valley floor.
And that’s exactly the problem: people.
Along with all of the above, during peak season, you will be standing and hiking in lines that – at their most extreme – resemble leaf-cutter ants in the Amazon jungle. Despite rules and regulations, if
you’re camping, there could be generators, loud music, barking dogs and wild munchkins on mountain bikes. There are no hookups in the park, and the lines at the public restrooms can try your patience. An army of summer help works to keep them clean.
No worries, though. If you didn’t make reservations back in February or March, chances are everything is full, especially if you’re driving a large motorhome.
It does bring to mind a famous quote by American ecologist Aldo Leopold. He warned, “All conservation of wilderness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”
I am happy to report that the essence of Yosemite has survived considerable fondling since it was first established in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln, and later, in 1906, when President Theodore
Roosevelt signed the bill for the creation of a unified Yosemite National Park. The lines have been getting longer ever since.
We stood in the crisp morning air and watched the early fog slowly unveil El Capitan’s Wall of the Early Morning Light. There was a sense that we were inside one of the grandest cathedrals on Earth, and the main service was just about to begin. We were alone except for a couple of jet-black ravens preening each other on a mound of snow. It was January, and all that was missing from Yosemite Valley were the crowds and the bumper—to-bumper traffic. Everything else was open.
We spent the day at Yosemite Village. The visitors center/museum is always our first stop to find out what’s happening, and, of course, to watch the spectacular film, “Spirit of Yosemite.” This 55-minute big-screen presentation, winner of Best Non-Broadcast Program at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, is an absolute must. We were fortunate to see Julia Parker, the world-famous Native American and renowned basket weaver. Now in her 80s, she is often at the museum demonstrating her weaving skills and showing folks how her people process acorns. Hopping on a shuttle bus, we headed for lunch at the magnificent Ahwahnee Hotel, a favorite of presidents and royalty.
We had arrived the previous evening. Both Upper and Lower Pines campgrounds are open year-round. No reservations are needed in the winter, Dec. 1 through March 14. Motorhomes up to 45 feet in length are allowed. Last year’s restrictions on Highway 140 have been lifted.
Despite its elevation of about 4,000 feet, the valley floor does not receive that much snow. All roads are kept open and sanded, so 4×4 vehicles or chains are not needed, unless you are lucky enough to arrive during a snowstorm. After a great dinner at Yosemite Lodge, the free shuttle delivered us back to Upper Pines, where our Tortuga Expedition motorhome was warm and waiting. (Be sure to carry a flashlight.)
The next morning we drove up Northside Drive, crossed over to Wawona Road and after a stop at the Tunnel View Overlook (a great place for photos), we turned east on Glacier Point Road and continued through snow-laden trees to Badger Pass. This is California’s original ski area and has been a favorite for generations of families. Unpretentious, friendly and affordable, it may be the best place in the West to learn to ski or snowboard, with 85 percent of its slopes devoted to beginner and intermediate levels.
For those who prefer a slower pace, free cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are available on a network of groomed trails.
For the more adventurous, there are backcountry ski tours led byYosemite Mountaineering School ski guides. You can stay overnight in a warm, cozy ski hut and enjoy food prepared for you by your guides. Sitting around a crackling fire, you may even get a few tips on skiing while learning about Yosemite ecology and wildlife. Badger Pass is a full-service ski resort offering ski and snowboard instruction, rental equipment, a ski shop, child care, and a cafeteria and lounge. It’s open mid-December through mid-March, conditions permitting.
We opted for some cross-country skiing on the easy intermediate trails, groomed for both classic and skating techniques. After lunch, we unpacked our downhill skis and hit the slopes for a couple of hours.
The fresh powder was excellent. We wanted more, but our fuel gauge was bumping empty. There is no fuel in the valley, and no overnight camping at Badger Pass, so we backtracked down to Highway 140 and El Portal.
After fueling up at the Shell station, we made ourselves at home in the clean Indian Flat Campground. If you are driving a big coach
and just want to dip into Yosemite Valley for the day in your dinghy, Indian Flat Campground is a great place to stage from. Unlike others, it is open all winter.
After another day of skiing, we couldn’t resist one more visit into the valley. Evening was just coming on, so we strolled out to Mirror Lake to catch the last light on Half Dome. Instead of the elbow-to-elbow summer crowds, we shared the view and reflections with only two other couples. Winter was magic.
Later in February, we might have headed for a meadow viewpoint slightly east of El Capitan near the base of the mountain to witness the phenomenal firefall. Firefalls were once created with fire in Yosemite National Park. A large fire was started atop Glacier Point and red-hot embers were pushed off a sheer granite wall in the evening. It was Yosemite’s version of fireworks. Park officials realized it was a fire hazard in the 1960s and the practice was stopped.
These days you can see and photograph a natural firefall, but the conditions have to be just right. Photographers gather during the last two weeks of February when the sun shines a golden spotlight down the center of Yosemite Valley. With perfect conditions, the light catches Horsetail Falls off the side of El Capitan as the sun sets in the west. Sunlight shining through the waterfall creates the most brilliant colors, setting the falls on fire.
The easiest way to find that meadow (1.7 miles west of Yosemite Lodge) is to look for a lot of cars parked along Northside Drive for no apparent reason. You have gone too far if you get to the large parking area directly in front of El Capitan. Wintertime can bring clouds and storms that block the sunlight, so timing is everything.
Another way to see some of the best Yosemite has to offer is to take a guided bus tour. These depart from Yosemite Lodge, and the driver knows where to stop for the best photos. With little traffic and plenty of time, you can snap memories or set up your tripod and try for an Ansel Adams masterpiece. For certain, with the light always changing, it is difficult to take a bad picture.
Patches of snow littered the ground as we walked across Sentinel Bridge. The crisp air was invigorating. A light mist rose off the meadow and the riffles in the river. It was quiet. We were all alone. We could almost hear the words of Galen Clark, the first guardian of the Yosemite Grant:
“I have seen persons of emotional temperament stand with tearful eyes, spellbound and dumb with awe, as they got their first view of the valley from Inspiration Point, overwhelmed in the sudden presence of the unspeakable, stupendous grandeur.”
It was winter in Yosemite, and we had seen the quiet side of this national treasure.
For More Information:
DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite
Indian Flat Campground
Yosemite National Park