Story and Photos by Carol Canter.
I whirled around the skating rink in Yosemite National Park, under a full moon illuminating Half Dome. As fingers and toes stiffened with cold, I’d stop to thaw out by the fire pit, pinching myself to make sure it was real — that the sheer granite face of this monolith bathed in silvery light was more than just a lofty figment of my imagination.
The great granite slab, along with other iconic park monuments like El Capitan, was carved, shaped, polished and sheered by glaciers that moved through during the Ice Age, scouring out a valley that today is seven miles long and one-mile across at its widest point. The glaciers, mightiest of all sculptors, smoothed 4,000-foot walls and modeled the massive arches, turrets, domes and spires that define Yosemite Valley and give it the aura of an open-air cathedral.
Yosemite in winter is California’s best-kept secret. Summer crowds are gone and prices are down, but the scenic splendor is at a peak. Thousand foot waterfalls still cascade, but now great white snow cones build up from the icy spray at their base. Boulders in the Merced River soften into fat white mushrooms while ice crystals twinkle and snow-etched mountains reflect in the rippling waters. Set at an elevation of 4,000 feet, Yosemite Valley enjoys mild winters, with average daytime temperatures in the low 50s. Days are often sunny with bright blue skies, and some 29 inches of snow each season.
Even if snow or rain obscures the vistas that have made Yosemite famed throughout the world, when the precipitation ceases, or a gust of wind blows the misty curtain aside, you’ll experience an “ah” moment as El Capitan or Cathedral Rocks suddenly emerge into sharp focus. When the sun lights up Yosemite’s snow-clad valley, the urge to explore takes hold, and the park obliges with a myriad of activities from the strenuous to the simple.
You can ski Badger Pass, California’s oldest ski mountain, take a guided snowshoe tour or an expert-led photography walk, ice skate, hike, and at the end of a fun-filled day, cozy up to a blazing fire at one of the park’s legendary hostelries.
An easy half-mile walk from the trailhead to the base of Yosemite Falls makes North America’s highest waterfall fully accessible to visitors.
The morning’s first sunbeams turn the mist of the falls into rainbows, and begin to thaw the frozen ice spray that built up overnight. As the falls thunder almost 2,500 feet in two separate and thrilling drops, the booming sound becomes a winter wake-up call.
One crystal clear day, my husband and I took a late morning walk to Mirror Lake from the Ahwahnee Hotel, the park’s distinctive lodge hewn of Sierra granite. We had the trail to ourselves, padding silently as our boots made fresh tracks in virgin snow. The road narrowed to a footpath, climbing to a vantage point over the lake. Memories flooded us, recalling our first winter hike here when our children were young. We’d pulled our five-year-old, then our slowest hiker, on a pink plastic sled all the way to Mirror Lake. Evergreen branches, brushed with snow, leaned and strained under their load, powdering us as we passed below. The sunshine kept us warm on that crisp January day. We sat on the banks of the iced-over lake and enjoyed a sun-drenched picnic lunch, watching the reflections of the massive valley walls on the ice. The rays felt as sensual as those on a tropical beach, the swaying palms replaced by a panorama of granite cliffs.
After lunch, we crammed our family of four on the sled, picking up speed for a boisterous downhill run. A passing cross-country skier alerted us with a cry of “Avalanche!” in time to watch a colossal powdery load dislodge from a remote precipice.
For us, it was thrilling, safe and distant, yet a pale echo of the experience encountered by John Muir, the great Scottish naturalist and Sierra Club founder. Writing in The Yosemite, his intimate 1912 guide, Muir describes a climb he took after a heavy snowfall to the top of a commanding ridge just over 3,000 feet above the valley. The climb, with Muir mostly waist deep in snow, took nearly the whole day, and by sundown, he was still several hundred feet from the summit.
“But I was not to get summit views of any sort that day, for deep trampling near the cañon head, where the snow was strained, started an avalanche, and I was swished down to the foot of the cañon, as if by enchantment. The wallowing ascent had taken nearly all day, the descent only about a minute. When the avalanche started, I threw myself on my back and spread my arms to keep from sinking.”
Admitting how fortunate he was to have come to rest atop the debris pile without a bruise or scar, he says, “This flight in what might be called a milky way of snow-stars was the most spiritual and exhilarating of all the modes of motion I have ever experienced.”
It was this same passionate adventurer, Muir, who became a tireless advocate for Yosemite, and through vigorous lobbying efforts with Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, persuaded Congress to establish Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890. Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, in the southern section of the park, were added in 1906.
The Mariposa Grove, 36 miles south of Yosemite Valley at Wawona (meaning “Big Tree”), merits a pilgrimage to experience the largest living things known. Some of these giant sequoias, also named Sierra redwood, weigh more than two million pounds and have been growing for nearly three millennia. Muir aptly deemed them “King of the conifers.” The 2,800-year-old Grizzly Giant, presiding elder at the grove, boasts a diameter of nearly 31 feet at its base. To pay respects to this ancient survivor, along with some of the 500 other trees when they tower above a carpet of snow, cross-country skiers can glide through the grove’s 250 pristine acres. Snowshoes provide an alternative mode of transport for a winter visit to this arboreal sanctuary, though it’s for the hale and hearty, beginning with a two-mile walk from the parking lot to the grove.
Those who haven’t yet tried snowshoeing should head to Badger Pass, 22 miles from the grove on the road to Glacier Point, for a ranger-led walk. After five minutes of instruction – “don’t trip over your own shoes … or anyone else’s, stay off the cross-country ski tracks” – the group sets out across untouched snow beneath tall lodgepole pines and firs whose lichen-covered barks shine dazzling chartreuse.
Our ranger explained the wonders of the park’s flora and fauna. As we learned of the web of activity going on a few feet below our snowshoes in the subnivean layer between the insulating blanket of snow and the ground, she pulled out of her pack some stuffed former residents of the zone: a weasel, squirrel, meadow mouse. Above the ground, she pointed out claw marks etched into the barks of several trees. We moved more gingerly after that, not wanting to awaken a hibernating black bear! During rest stops, our ranger also spoke of the management of a park that hosts over three million visitors each year, most of them in summer. Fewer than 100,000 come in January, compared to over a half million in July.
The ascent of Badger Pass is rewarded with a panorama that sweeps 12 miles across to Clark Range, the 11,000-foot peaks that mark the park’s eastern boundary. To the north, we were able to make out the rounded back of Half Dome. We determined to return for a guided full-moon walk, to watch the moon rise over these distant mountain peaks.
At the Wawona Hotel, a Victorian-era National Historic Landmark built in 1879, we slept the deep sleep of the well-exercised. The warm and cozy two-story white buildings with broad verandas, period furnishing and vintage photos, are set among sweeping lawns and evergreens. The state’s oldest resort hotel provides a fine base to visit the park’s southern attractions: four miles to Mariposa Grove, 18 to Badger Pass. Evenings, we’d gather in the parlor to share unabashed camaraderie with guests from around the world, as singer and pianist Tom Bopp performed vintage songs from Gershwin and Porter to Hoagy Carmichael, engaging audiences with stories and music as he has since 1983.
For those staying in the valley, where Yosemite Lodge is set a snowball’s throw from its famous namesake falls, a moonlit walk is the perfect nightcap after dinner.
At the fabled Ahwahnee, built in 1927 by L.A. architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood to echo the grand scale of the surrounding scenery, floor-to-ceiling windows frame no less a spectacle than Glacier Point, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. What museum could possibly compete, especially when long dangling icicles refract a million points of light! Even the artwork within the hotel, a National Historic Landmark, is considerable. Inside the monumental Great Lounge, anchored by giant stone fireplaces, Middle Eastern rugs adorn the walls, and Native American geometric designs appear on massive beams and stained glass panels atop each window.
The dining room, glorious by day, is utterly romantic by night, as huge wrought iron chandeliers cast light on 34-foot ceilings supported by beams of polished sugar pine. If dinner’s not an option, at least enjoy breakfast or lunch in the light-filled room, while drinking in the vistas with your morning coffee. When you’re ready to bundle up and head back outside, observe the Royal Arches, the sheer 3,000-foot rock face that backdrops the hotel; then notice how the Ahwahnee’s façade of granite boulders and redwood-stained concrete beams is a truly inspired design.
When it came time to leave the park, we paused for a final look at Half Dome.
Having viewed it from countless angles on our many walks and climbs, and pondered its reflection in the flow of the Merced River, we realized it is the iconic image that all of us, especially in the West, have stored in our collective consciousness. It represents California’s great wilderness, the release valve when urban pressures come to bear.
Ansel Adams’ famous “Moon and Half Dome” photo (1960) captures the snow-streaked sentinel illuminated by moonlight as perhaps no other photographer has, paying a lasting tribute to Yosemite’s ethereal winter splendor.
IF YOU GO: Yosemite is open with some services limited due to COVID-19. Reservations required. Visit the National Park Service site for more pandemic information: www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/covid19.htm . Lodging at Yosemite National Park ranges from The Ahwahnee, a National Historic Landmark within the park to Tenaya Lodge & Cottages outside the park’s South Entrance. Click here to view 32 different options ranging from tent cabins to vacation homes and inns: https://www.
Different versions of this article previously appeared in Odyssey, the magazine of Chevron Travel Club; In Paradise, the Hawaiian Airlines In-Flight magazine; and California National Parks, published by Bay Area Travel Writers.