Yosemite: Snowcapped & Splendid

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For many of us, camping evokes memories of swimsuits and lakes, campfires and caramelized s’more skewers, along with the occasional sunburn and pesky cloud of mosquitoes. Kids piled into station wagons. Excess layers were left at home. Flip-flops and faded, patterned shorts became the norm.

It has been a while since I have experienced a trip inline with this nostalgic notion. In fact, Mitch and I have enjoyed our last few camping trips directly in the wake of winter. Last year, we explored Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Joshua tree, and Yosemite National Parks, and we just returned from the latter for the second, consecutive year.

In full disclosure, I should mention we are fortunate enough to live in an area where day trips to beaches and bodies of water are well within reach, 365 days a year. We realize spoiled is an understatement. Though we have found when it comes to visiting most National Parks, a trip during the winter season is more than ideal. Reason being, people from all over the world gather when it is most convenient. Summer means trails and roads are accessible to those not willing to brave variable or extreme conditions, school is on an extended hiatus, and packing is both straightforward and lightweight.

The downside, however, is that during the warmer months, parks like Yosemite come closer to representing Disneyland versus a place John Muir would have so lovingly favored. And even though the valley’s waterfalls, gorges, and granite should speak volumes over any rowdy crowd, it can be hard to ignore the other thousand people, waving iPhones and Face Timing, as you attempt to take in the magnitude and grace of Yosemite Falls.

Luckily, the bite of chill and the threat of ice have the propensity to clear a crowd as fast as a shark sighting on the coast. So for the last two years, Mitch and I emerged on Yosemite’s valley floor, right alongside fresh-fallen snow. And we have been accompanied by only a small collection of strangers, also there to experience the grandeur of the season.

Last winter, we navigated the camper from Paso Robles, California, and settled our rolling chalet amongst trees and drifts in the Upper Pines Campground. Though this year, with a broken truck in the shop, this accommodation was not an option. Without wanting to cancel our trip, we opted for booking a canvas tent at Half Dome Village. We decided on a heated tent, versus its non-heated counterpart at half the price, and agreed this to be a luxury in celebration of our anniversary – a gift to ourselves for surviving one another for four years.

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The tent was primitive, yet pleasant and cozy; the furnace handled the space with ease. We chose a three-bed dwelling, simply because it was the same price as one. This offered us plenty of space to strew the next day’s hiking paraphernalia, or jump from bed to bed in case the childish desire arose. Our cooler occupied the metal bear box residing just outside. Its contents held two days of meals, including homemade spaghetti squash pasta, packed into jars, and a variety of other snacks, which would be thrown into backpacks and toted around.

Friday night was mellow in the village, with few tents occupied. But with only select camping locations open during the winter season, Saturday was significantly busier. In all honesty, I was much more worried about a human getting the drunk munchies and raiding our container of goodies than any grumbling bear.

Our trip was sandwiched in between work and trainings, which meant we had one full day in the park. We made good use of it and woke early on Saturday, filled our bellies, and threw on our packs. Our destination was Glacier Point, which just so happened to tower 3200 feet over our camp.

Glacier Point’s elevation sits just under that of Half Dome. Undoubtedly, it is a popular viewpoint. The outlook’s close proximity to the prestigious dome allows for a stunning interpretation of the granite wall and its rounded apex. This view cannot be found from the valley floor, nor from Tunnel View, which reveals a shallower and wider panorama.

During summer, tourists pack into their cars and drive up to the point, only to cluster and wait for photo opportunities. I picture Matterhorn Mountain, less the Mickey Mouse ears. These sought-after snapshots feign a serenity that is likely nowhere to be found.

However, since our trip was in the midst of winter, the road that meanders to the lookout was closed for the season. In all transparency, this road closure brings me great joy. Only those who put in the work get to soak up this snow-capped view.

Mitch and I met up with a few friends near its base and began the trek out of the valley. (There may or may not have been a shot of whiskey beforehand.) With a distance of 4.8 miles one-way and a hefty elevation change, the incline did little, if any, leveling off. Combined with a slick trail still shaded from the afternoon sun, the ascent required most of our mental energy – and plenty of stabilizing muscles.

We played hopscotch avoiding icy patches in exchange for virgin snow. Though I have to say, I delighted at the distraction; it pulled my attention from tiring hamstrings and groaning calves. As we climbed, we were met with softer snow, rather than precarious ice. I finally felt secure enough to look away from my toddling feet.

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Though the trees had been dusted with snow the day prior, the sun had since melted away the white chocolate coating, illuminating each leaf, needle, and stem. The afternoon glow weaved its way through the woodland, refracting light around trees both barren and dense. Any leftover rays seemed to soak into a bright blanket that covered the forest floor.

Despite the early ice, the five of us made quick work of the path. Two and a half hours later, which included a late morning pit stop for snacks and stretched limbs, the summer lodge came into sight. Buttoned up and void of visitors, it was a peaceful homage to the season’s dormancy. We made a few jokes about heading in for a soft pretzel or a big gulp, and then took a hard left for our final destination.

Half Dome had come into sight a few times on our ascent, peeking through foliage as the trail bulged and wound. But at last, she was wholly exposed. And there we were, standing at eye-level.  

Seats were taken, lunch was eaten, and only three other groups of hikers graced the scene. One attention-seeking crow let himself be known by shrill calls and the occasional photo bomb. The adrenaline junkies climbed onto the iconic outcropping that juts over the valley floor. I was not one of them. (Side note: another hiker mentioned I could head out there, too, and that he’d be happy to take a picture of the five of us. I told him thank you, but that I valued my life.)

Everyone’s attention was directed toward Half Dome, though the Sierra’s that peppered the landscaped behind her emanated a subdued beauty. In contrast to Yosemite Valley’s smooth floor and severe edges, these pinnacles were less grand and melted against one another. Together, they created a seamless cascade of white ridges. The collection looked more like the result of a delicious, homemade cake smothered with buttercream frosting.

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After some time, we began our descent. Although it had been hours since our initial departure, I wasn’t hopeful that the section of slick ice would be melted into a tangible slush. The day had been clear, with only wisps of clouds moving across the sky. But still, the winter sun had never fully settled over us and, instead, only winded indirectly through the forest. Lucky for us, the warmth of the air alone seemed to do the trick. As we made headway, frozen water softened beneath our shoes’ tread.

We made quick time down the mountain with enough daylight for a pre-dinner brew at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. With a name like that, you can imagine how popular backpack-clad hikers are. Especially once we told them we wouldn’t be ordering any dinner.

I proceeded to drink my water, and then Mitch’s, too, as our table was never revisited. Still in my post-hiking buzz, their negligence allowed me to feel camaraderie with Patagonia-founder, Yvon Chouinard, who spent much time in Yosemite. I recalled him mentioning he used to eat canned cat food and sleep in his car, circa 1960. Dirt bag-life at its finest. True, I doubt I could be persuaded into eating a can of Friskies. I’m more of a Fancy Feast girl, myself.

With epic views and sore glutes under our belts, our heads hit the pillow at 7pm. In hindsight, my judgment of the boisterous, Saturday night “drunkies” who kept me up and put my prepared food at risk, was a little harsh. I guess we picked the early bird special and a dose of prune juice on a night most people pick whiskey on the rocks… and then keep ‘em coming.

Sunday was uneventful in comparison, but that’s exactly the way we wanted it. With nowhere to be for a few more hours, we sat in Half Dome Village’s breakfast lodge alongside paying patrons. We procured a spot in the back so we were less visible – me, with a smoothie I had made at home (two days prior and yet, surprisingly, still cold), and Mitch, with a few packets of plain oatmeal, which he supplemented with the establishment’s honey.

Indulging in what I though was a Tea Au Lait (tea in steamed milk), I accidentally ordered a latte and gave the second half to Mitch, for fear I’d rattle out of the car on our way home. Luckily I sat still long enough to journal onto recycled napkins. Mitch dove into a book. It was a blissful morning.

Void of the camper and its high center of gravity, the drive home was an easy feat. It surprised me how quickly we came into Fresno and its garish bustle. The tranquil park is quite literally in the city’s backyard. It made me wonder… what did this place look like before broken concrete and decaying buildings?

As Mitch navigated impulsive drivers and urban traffic, my mind drifted to the glaciers that molded Yosemite Valley. The expanding and settling and carving and melting took hundreds of thousands of years. I looked out the window at the dilapidated structures, which were shiny and new less than one century before. They suddenly seemed laughable and far less appealing.

Regardless of where and how we choose to live, we need these trips into wilderness to revisit our source. Just like Yosemite, our human brains have been meticulously carved over eons. This is our nature: slow moving and savoring, meditative and methodical. And like these grand landscapes in the era of winter, we, too, have a silent strength – which is one thing that simply can’t be found amongst the noise.

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RoamKacey WaxlerComment