Oh, the stunning beauty of California’s Yosemite National Park. And oh, the crowds that can ruin it — unless you’re willing to visit in the off-season.
Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands,” John Muir wrote more than a century ago. “Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”
It’s probably a good thing Muir never visited during a 21st-century summer, for as beautiful as Yosemite National Park remains, there isn’t much refuge during the peak season. This past August it took the smoke and distant flames of the Yosemite Rim Fire, one of the largest in California’s history, to put a dent in the usual hordes of tourists. But when you find yourself frustrated with the crowds, all you have to do is lift your eyes above them to the valley walls, which are adorned by timeless wonders — El Capitan; Half Dome; Bridalveil, Yosemite, and Ribbon falls; Sentinel Rock — to realize a visit any time of year is worth it.
Winter, however, can be extraordinary. The weather is still something of a crap shoot, as Sierra storms can blanket the valley in short order and make movement next to impossible (even in clear weather the snowpack usually makes it difficult to stray much beyond the valley). But in all my winter visits, I’ve never been disappointed.
My friend Jordan Kramer and I usually make the four- or five-hour drive from San Francisco through the East Bay hills and the wind farms near Livermore, past countless dormant almond, walnut, and fruit orchards, and through the foothills that open into Yosemite Valley.
We always hope to get some snow in the valley, but drier winters have been more common in recent years. The lack of precipitation, however, makes for good hiking in the valley itself. One of the best walks is along the trail to Mirror Lake and beyond through Tenaya Canyon, up a steep set of switchbacks along the Snow Creek Falls Trail. At the top of Snow Creek Falls, you can rest and enjoy a spectacular head-on view of Half Dome’s full 2,000-foot face.
On the other rim, the hike up to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall is strenuous, but when the trail is clear you can go all the way to the back of Half Dome, and even farther, if you have a permit. In my more youthful days — during a winter drought — I was crazy enough to climb in solitude to the top of Half Dome using cables that, although strung through stanchions in summertime, were dangling freely off-season. Sic transit gloria mundi.
On a recent visit in January 2012, not only was there no snow on the ground, but the backcountry was so dry that Tioga Road (Highway 120) was still open, something that hadn’t happened in recent memory. The park website lists closing dates going back to 1980, and none was later than December 11, with most in November or even October; a ranger suggested such a late closure hadn’t happened since the 1930s. In 2012, the road stayed open until January 17.
We couldn’t resist the late-season opportunity to take Tioga Road, so we headed all the way east to one of our favorite photographic locations, Mono Lake. Just a year earlier we had taken Highway 395 along the backside of the Sierras to Mono, and when we probed Tioga Road from its western end we found the park entrance blocked by 15-foot snowdrifts. This time there wasn’t a trace of snow. Tuolumne Meadow stretched unblanketed to the horizon, with the occasional coyote lurking near the road. The most memorable part of the excursion was when we walked on iced-over Tenaya Lake, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That sunny mid-January day we were joined by scores of people from neighboring areas who were equally fascinated by the rare opportunity to experience a frozen Tenaya. Ice parties and makeshift hockey games abounded.
For snow, we’ve had to drive the 20 miles to Badger Pass, higher up on the rim and the site of a thriving little ski hill and outdoor center. When there is snow, this is where the road ends, so Glacier Point — a few miles down the road — becomes inaccessible, at least by car. One can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis to explore the backcountry, including nearby Dewey Point, which affords a broad view of the valley. The road itself transforms into a groomed ski trail. When there’s no snow, it’s an easy drive to an empty Glacier Point, something one would never experience in other seasons. When Jordan and I made the trip recently, the only life we saw was a curious coyote circling our car; it seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see it.
In the mornings, we usually rouse ourselves early enough to catch the sunrise at Swinging Bridge, which affords a view of Upper Yosemite Falls reflected in an especially calm branch of the Merced, or else we check the full valley view from the Wawona Tunnel. This can be cold work, but there are no crowds. Feet and ears often scream their displeasure as we wait for the first rays to peek over the walls and touch Upper Yosemite Falls, and often by then most of the dawn color has disappeared. Still, it’s a great way to start the day.
For a spectacular sunset, we don’t have to go far from our usual hotel rooms at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, as the grounds yield a fine view of Half Dome bathed in the day’s last light. But for being one of the world’s most scenic places, Yosemite is pretty difficult to photograph. There’s a lot of lighting contrast, which fools a camera more easily than the naked eye, and dawn and dusk shots suffer from the height of the valley walls. One annual bonanza has as yet eluded me: the illumination of Horsetail Fall, which for just a few days in February can appear as a glowing red rope of water.
We’ve had our best sunset luck at Sentinel Bridge, which draws the gamut of photographers. Even in winter there’s usually not much room, as tripods quickly fill up the best spots. And there’s lots of conversation within the group, with the more experienced eager to share their knowledge. The show can be a little tepid, especially when there are no clouds to catch and reflect the waning sunlight, but sometimes it surprises. On our first visit we were about to quit for dinner when a guy with an impressive camera suggested, “Sometimes there’s a late burst of color on Half Dome.” Sure enough, five minutes later it was briefly bathed in crimson-gold before disappearing into the gathering dusk. Show over.
On our way back to San Francisco, we de-toured about 15 miles north to Hetch Hetchy Valley. Back in 1923, Hetch Hetchy — a part of Yosemite National Park whose beauty was said to rival or even surpass Yosemite Valley’s — was flooded, with Congressional consent, by damming the Tuolumne River to create a reservoir for San Francisco’s drinking water. There has long been a movement to bring down the dam and restore the original valley, though it has always — and recently — failed to gain electoral traction.
The drive to Hetch Hetchy isn’t far, winding through forested hill country. It was a fine day, but we didn’t see a single car on the road. For security reasons we had to check in with the ranger and learned that only two others had passed through that morning.
Some fine rocks tower over the reservoir, but the small section visible from the O’Shaughnessy Dam doesn’t really give a clue about the hidden wonders underwater. There are a few day hike trails in the area, which I’ll try to explore someday.
So far I’ve been to Yosemite half a dozen times in the off-season, and each time I have experienced the refuge and rejuvenation Muir wrote about so long ago. Even the blizzard that hit on one visit was a visual pleasure.
Just be sure to pack your long johns for the cold evenings, and prepare to have one of the world’s most beautiful places pretty much to yourself.
From the November/December 2013 issue.