Two days in wintry Yosemite Valley

Yosemite’s towering granite walls never cease to amaze me. I still remember the first time my eyes gazed upon the valley, and up to that point, I really had very little interest in the outdoors. I was 20 years old and the magic of Yosemite planted its seed in my mind, sending me on a mission to experience the outdoors as I had never done before. Just a few months later I did my first backpacking trip in Big Sur, and things took off from there. (I have definitely learned a lot since that first three-day, water-deprived, tentless backpacking trip that I completed in jeans.)

Now since I was up in Santa Cruz for the 2018/19 holidays and fresh off the adrenaline rush of seeing Free Solo, Madison and I decided to make the hop across California’s Central Valley and head up into the Sierras for a quick excursion to Yosemite.

The countless avid readers of my blog will remember that my summer 2018 plans to go to Yosemite, which included a permit to hike the famed Half Dome, were postponed due to the Ferguson Fire. Regardless, we ended up making the most out of that trip, but we were determined to come back.

We chose an interesting time to go to Yosemite, due to the physical and political climate.

I had never been to Yosemite in the winter or done any sub-freezing hiking for that matter. I knew the temperature would pose its own set of challenges and lessons to be learned.

On the other hand, the United States government had just partially shut down. President Trump’s $5 billion ransom to secure funding for a ‘physically imposing’ structure at the southern border had put the National Park funding on the chopping block.

Despite some widespread sensationalized articles circulating online, the government shutdown in Yosemite went largely unnoticed by me, other than the evident scarcity of park rangers. We were not drowning in trash and feces as some of the articles had made it seem.

We packed our warmest clothes, splurged on an off-season priced hotel not far from the valley entrance, and headed off for a quick two-day trip in Yosemite.

Madison Snively sits on a ledge at an overlook of Yosemite Valley.
Getting the classic shots at Tunnel View as you enter Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Valley with snow blanketing Half Dome and Clouds Rest.
Peering up into the high Sierra and its snowpack from Tunnel View.
Bridalveil falls trickles over the edge during the winter in Yosemite.
Bridalveil Falls, the first prominent waterfall you see upon entering the valley, was mostly frozen over. It is also one of the most accessible and easy to get to, so it is typically crowded with tourists. This day was no exception.
Tourists climb on rocks at the base of bridalveil falls.
I got lots of shots of coordination-lacking people trying to climb up icy rocks in the river bed to get closer to the falls, but this girl’s outfit choice in near-freezing temperatures was something else.
A couple jumps for a photo in front of El Capitan.
Several jump photo attempts later and Madison still couldn’t get her feet off the ground. Here we are mesmerized by the immensity of El Capitan, thinking about those who are crazy enough to climb it.

After a day spent taking in the scenery, it was time to hit the trails. We decided to tackle Yosemite Point via the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. I had only ever hiked on the south side of the valley (Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, etc.) and Yosemite Point’s 10 mile hike with 3,600 feet of elevation gain on the valley’s north face seemed like the perfect challenge without pushing our limits in the icy conditions.

Yosemite Falls, among the highest waterfalls in the world at 2,400 feet, is one of the main attractions of the park. In the spring and summer it’s a rushing torrent of water, but during our winter visit it was just a relative trickle. However, the snow and icy version of the waterfall sheds a different light on its beauty.

Madison Snively poses for a photo above Yosemite Valley.
Starting to rise above the valley floor on our hike to Yosemite Point. The low winter sun makes for great lighting for most of the day. We started the hike in 27 degrees Fahrenheit, so the sun peaking into the valley was greatly welcomed.
The morning sun shines on the back of Half Dome.
Waiting for the Half Dome lottery to open so we can get our redemption at this granite peak.
Water trickles over the edge of yosemite Falls.
Upper Yosemite Falls from top to bottom. This is not the entire waterfall, as it continues with multiple drops beyond the frame of the photo, but the manner in which the snow and ice had piled up like a volcano was particularly interesting.
Snow piles up in a mound at the base of Yosemite Falls.
Closer view of this snow volcano.
Mountain lion footprint in the snow in Yosemite.
There are some big cats wandering about somewhere up here. This one was about the size of a child’s hand. Going off this information, definitely mountain lion tracks. Too wide to be a coyote and too big to be a bobcat.
Snow covers the trail en route to Yosemite Falls.
As the trail approached the top of Yosemite Falls, it passed the snow line, where hiking got a little more tricky.
Resting on a railing above Yosemite Valley.
Looking down 3,000 vertical feet at Yosemite Village from the top of Yosemite Falls.
Snow and ice cover the trail near Yosemite Falls.
When you continue past Yosemite Falls and keep heading up to Yosemite Point, which is 700 feet higher, the trail conditions get even dicier. Some sections were completely iced over, so we were proceeding with caution and looking for the places where we could walk on snow, which has much more grip. Some more prepared people brought crampons, which are metal spikes that you attach to your footwear for traction.
A snowy trail winds between trees above Yosemite Falls.
There were really no dangerous sections, just careful walking as we neared the peak.
Evan Quarnstrom poses for a photo with Half Dome in the background.
Yosemite Point with Half Dome across the valley. 6,936 feet above sea level. By midday the temperature had risen into the high 40’s / low 50’s (Fahrenheit) with no wind, pleasant enough to hike in shorts.
A couple takes a photo with Half Dome in the background.
We swapped photo duties with an Australian couple. We were mostly alone, but there were only five people including us at the lookout. Better than the hoards of people in the valley floor.
Lost arrow spire looms above Yosemite Falls.
This formation is probably my favorite feature of the hike. Lost Arrow Spire is a detached pillar that rises from the main wall. It’s hard to get a good view of it from above because the cliff’s edge is gently sloping, as opposed to the dramatic drop that you get at Yosemite Point. The photo doesn’t quite give it justice, but in person this spire is massive and amazingly far away from the cliff. There are even climbing anchors on the top. Count me out.
The granite formation of lost arrow spire comes off the wall of the valley.
A view of Lost Arrow Spire from below. It blends into the wall so well, that it can easily go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
Madison Snively contemplatively sits on a log in Yosemite Valley.
Back down to the valley floor, embracing the heater of the car as the temperature plummeted back down to freezing around sunset.

When all was said and done, it was a refreshing change to see Yosemite during a different season. The valley is most well-known for its Spring and Summer looks, but I enjoyed the winter just as much. The snow, ice, and relative lack of crowds showed its beauty in a unique way that is worth experiencing.

Now let’s hope we win the Half Dome lottery again in 2019. We’ll be back!

5 thoughts on “Two days in wintry Yosemite Valley

  1. Another great piece! Thanks. My visits to Yosemite, clearly one of the most-beautiful places on earth, have been rather less strenuous: A nice room at the Ahwahnee Hotel (now known, apparently, as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel) can be as nice a place to spent the night as a tent; plus, the Ahwahnee has a heated pool and a fine dining room! Ah, but if I were 60 years younger … !

    Liked by 1 person

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