When it comes to summer vacations, many people make Yosemite National Park, with its sheer granite cliffs, thundering waterfalls and endless forests, their destination. But the park, which encompasses almost 1,200 square miles in the Sierra Nevada, can be just as breathtaking in winter.
"A lot of people don't understand how spectacular Yosemite can be in the winter," says Kenny Karst, public relations manager for Delaware North Cos. Parks & Resorts at Yosemite Inc., the park's primary concessionaire.
Snow has just arrived in Yosemite, so this is a good time to plan for a few weeks from now.
For those planning a winter trip to the park, there are several things to remember, says Dick Ewart, a Yosemite National Park ranger since 1975. "You need to be prepared," he says. This includes carrying chains (and practicing putting them on at home before your trip), flares, jumper cables, a shovel, a windshield ice scraper and extra food and water in your vehicle. Bring a warm jacket, gloves and "winter shoes, not summer loafers," he says.
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The National Park Service has a fleet of snowplows operating 24 hours a day; road and weather conditions can be checked by calling 209-372-0200. Trail conditions can be checked by calling the Valley Visitor Center at 209-372-0299 or stopping by the center, located in Yosemite Village. More information also can be obtained at yosemitepark.com.
"You've come to Yosemite to enjoy nature, so take your time," Karst says.
Here are seven ways to enjoy Yosemite in winter.
Visit Lower Yosemite Fall
Open year-round, this 1-mile paved loop trail is wheelchair-accessible and stroller-friendly. Park your car in the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls lot in Yosemite Valley. Start your walk at the Yosemite Falls trailhead, across from the lodge at the entrance to Camp 4. You will meander among Ponderosa pines, incense cedars, California black oaks and canyon live oaks, gaining about 50 feet in elevation as you make your way to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Depending on temperature and precipitation, you may see ice buildup on the fall; the best time for this is early in the day.
"The sun starts to melt it, and you can hear the ice melting and cracking and falling off," Dick Ewart says.
Kenny Karst says that "sometimes you can hear the crashing ice from Upper Yosemite Falls clear across Yosemite Valley in Curry Village."
Walk to Bridalveil Fall
Leave your car in the Bridalveil Fall parking lot in Yosemite Valley and head to the trailhead at the lot's southeast corner. This is a 1-mile out-and-back walk on a paved trail among oaks, incense cedars and Ponderosa pines. You'll climb less than 50 feet -- with 20 to 30 feet of that at the end of the "out" portion. Depending on temperature and precipitation, there can be ice buildup on the falls; as the temperature warms, the ice breaks off. The trail is open all year.
"You can walk up pretty close to the waterfall," Dick Ewart says. "You're on the shady side of the canyon, so the ice stays frozen a little longer."
Ice skating at Curry Village
Since 1928, visitors have ice skated in the shadow of Glacier Point and Half Dome at this outdoor Yosemite Valley rink. Weather permitting, the rink is open seven days a week from mid-November to mid-March. Weekday sessions are 3:30-6 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. Weekend sessions are 8:30-11 a.m., noon-2:30 p.m., 3:30-6 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. Cost is $8 a session, $6 for ages 5-12, free for kids 5 years and younger. Skate rental costs $3. Season passes are available for $105.50, $53.50 for ages 5-12. There is a warming tent and outdoor fire pit. Concessions include hot chocolate, apple cider, coffee and s'more-making kits. A Zamboni grooms the ice between sessions.
Hike to Mirror Lake
When embarking on this 3-mile out-and-back winter walk, leave your car in the Yosemite Valley Stables parking lot (the stables are closed in winter). You will walk along a paved road that is mostly flat; there is about a 200-foot incline at the end of the "out" portion. Depending on temperature and water level, some or all of the lake may be frozen, the park's Scott Gediman says. There also are spectacular views of Half Dome and Mount Watkins.
"It's beautiful and peaceful," Gediman says.
Snowshoeing at Badger Pass
Ranger-led snowshoe excursions are an enjoyable, educational way to spend a few hours at the Badger Pass Ski Area, which is open daily 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. mid-December to April 1. Badger Pass is on Glacier Point Road 5 miles from where it intersects Highway 41. Glacier Point Road is 17 miles from the park's south entrance at Highway 41. Ranger-led trips, which last 2 to 2½ hours, cost $5 and leave at 10:30 a.m. daily. They are open to ages 10 and older.
"It's just a smooth landscape. Everything's soft and white. You're walking among white snow and green trees," says Dick Ewart, who leads excursions. "We look for animal tracks and talk about the plants and animals. It's a fun, beautiful hike as well as an educational trip."
Visitors can venture out on their own by renting snowshoes from the Badger Pass Cross-Country Ski School. These cost $19.50 (all day) or $16.50 (half day). Downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing are other activities offered at Badger Pass.
Sledding at Crane Flat
Located on Big Oak Flat Road (10 miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park at Highway 120), the area is closed to campers and used as a sled run seven days a week from about mid-December to late March. Plows keep the road and parking area clear of snow. Visitors bring their own sleds. Some folks pack picnics and make a day of it.
"There generally are three or four runs. You make your own," says Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman, who also is a ranger.
The campground sits on a hill at a little more than 6,000 feet elevation. In winter, snowbanks and dense forests of Ponderosa pines and incense cedars make this a wonderland.
"It's free. It's beautiful. It's easy to get to," Gediman says.
View from Columbia Rock
Leave your car in the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls parking lot in Yosemite Valley, and start this 2-mile out-and-back hike at the Yosemite Falls trail head, which is across from the lodge at the entrance to Camp 4.
You will follow the trail one-third of the way to Upper Yosemite Fall, climbing 1,000 feet among Ponderosa pines, incense cedars, California black oaks and canyon live oaks. When you reach the railing overlooking the Valley, you are at the Columbia Rock viewpoint.
"It's on the sunny side of the Valley, and you're looking at Half Dome and Glacier Point," Dick Ewart says.