A snowy romp never felt better. Skiing along the rolling hills from Badger Pass to Dewey Point separates the adventurous from the tourists and delivers a breathtaking view of mighty El Capitan. I arrived just in time for sunset and, after a comfortable night in my bivvy sack, caught a glorious sunrise on the granite giant the next morning. I was the only soul there, and it was hard to believe I was in one of the world’s most popular parks, visited by millions every year.
Such rich experiences await Yosemite visitors in winter, when snow covers the high country and only a few brave the elements. But those who do journey to the mountains discover grand scenery and solitude which the park’s multitude of summer visitors could scarcely imagine.
Consider these worthy treks into Yosemite’s winter wonderland.
Lower Yosemite Fall
Yosemite Falls puts on quite a show in winter. Water freezes on the granite behind the waterfall overnight. Then during daylight hours, ice melts and comes crashing down, forming a giant snow cone at the base. John Muir once climbed it with an ice ax, but I don’t recommend it.
An easy walk leads straight to Lower Yosemite Fall in just a quarter-mile. Hike the paved trail from Northside Drive. During most of the winter, visitors can make the trek in hiking shoes or boots (watch out for slippery ice, though). If snow falls deep enough to cover the valley floor, then snowshoes or cross country skis may be needed. Return the way you came, or for more variety, complete the one-mile loop hike, taking about an hour.
Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
Here’s a great first winter outing for beginning skiers and snowshoers. A gentle path leads to dozens of beautiful giant sequoias, among the largest and oldest living things on earth.
From the parking area near the Crane Flat campground and gas station, go north past the restrooms and gate and down a forest road. The first sequoias come into view after a sharp turn. A side trail leads to the tunnel tree (sadly dead, but still standing) and then reconnects with the main path. Be prepared to hike uphill on the way back, gaining around 400 feet.
This two-mile round trip takes around two hours.
A marked, well-traveled trail from Badger Pass Ski Area leads to a spectacular viewpoint and an especially good view of El Capitan. The gentle route meanders through a peaceful meadow and forest before descending to the valley rim where visitors can see deep into the snow-capped backcountry. This is a must for Yosemite winter enthusiasts, both skiers and snowshoers.
Start east on the often-groomed Glacier Point Road, climbing gently and then descending at Summit Meadow. About a mile from the parking lot, look for the signed Dewey Point Meadow Trail (No. 18) on your left, breaking from the road and heading north. The next mile is easy going through the flat meadow along a creek and framed by lodgepole pines.
Then trail drops, curves and becomes more difficult, joining with the Dewey Point Ridge Trail as it passes through denser trees before emerging for a final climb to the rim and viewpoint at 7,385 feet. You’ll feel like you’re looking off the edge of the world. Spend some time here admiring The Captain, the Cathedral Rocks and other landmarks.
When you’re ready to return, you have a choice of routes. If the trip out challenged you, then it’s best to return the same way. But if you’re ready for some variety, a few hills and a more rigorous segment, then you might try Dewey Point Ridge Trail (No. 14). To choose this option, retrace your steps about a mile to the signed trail junction and turn right up the hill. The signed route rolls up and down like a roller coaster. As usual, skiers will get a bigger payoff on the downhills than snowshoers. The trail connects with Glacier Point Road. Turn right towards the Badger Pass parking lot, less than a mile to the west.
This seven-mile round trip takes between four and six hours.
Unfortunately, pandemic restrictions have limited Yosemite to daytime visits, which preclude outings to overnight destinations like Ostrander Ski Hut, Glacier Point and Tuolumne Meadows. That’s a shame, but there’s always next year.
To safely enjoy the mountains in winter, drive slowly and carry chains. Check the forecast, and if it’s threatening, stay home. Dress in layers, avoiding cotton. Carry overnight gear on long day trips, just in case. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Unprepared folks have experienced many winter woes, but those who properly plan and prepare may acquire a lifelong love of winter adventure.
Matt Johanson authored “Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbs and Winter Treks” and “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”