As we gazed over Tuolumne Meadows and countless snowy pinnacles, we saw not a soul and scarcely a sign that people had ever been there. It was hard to believe we were in one of the world’s most popular parks, visited by millions every year. Two friends and I carefully hiked the final steps over rock and ice to reach a patch of bare granite on the 9,450-foot summit of Lembert Dome. An amazing view from the peak rewarded our effort.
Such rich experiences await Yosemite visitors in winter, when snow covers the high country and most only a relative 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.
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 (#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 the Dewey Point Ridge Trail (#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.
This trek provides a great introduction to overnight winter touring and camping. While the 10.5 mile distance from Badger Pass to Glacier Point requires commitment, the route along a paved road is often machine-groomed. Trade in your snowshoes for skis on this outing, which features fun descents on long, gentle slopes.
While some speedsters make this round trip in a day, most enjoy a night or more at one of the Sierra Nevada's finest viewpoints. If you do so, your first decision is whether to camp or stay at Glacier Point Ski Hut. Camping is free and quite comfortable in good conditions for those properly equipped. Glacier Point Ski Hut provides its guests with bunk beds and hot meals for prices starting at $120 per night. Reservations are required; contact concessionaire Delaware North at (209) 372-8444 or through yosemitepark.com.
Your journey traces Glacier Point Road the entire way so route finding should not be a problem. First the road climbs about a mile to Summit Meadow. Next comes a two-mile drop to Bridalveil Creek Campground. After crossing Bridalveil Creek Bridge a half mile later, enjoy your last descent for a while. As you pass a sign for Horizon Ridge Trail, you'll begin a three-mile climb that gains about 800 feet. During this segment on clear days, you will get a fantastic view of the Clark Range, an impressive series of peaks to the east. The route flattens in the final miles as it passes Sentinel Dome to the northwest. Then descend on the road's switchbacks as you pass an awesome Half Dome vista and arrive at Glacier Point.
Be forewarned, a visit to snowbound Glacier Point may instill a lifelong love of winter adventure.
With 21 miles for the round trip, this outing takes most everyone two days or more. If traveling overnight, get a free wilderness permit at the Badger Pass A-frame rangers’ office.
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 experience a breathtaking Yosemite that few will ever see.
— Matt Johanson authored “Yosemite Adventures,” a guidebook of 50 favorite hikes, climbs and winter treks. His writing can be found at www.mattjohanson.com.