Yosemite National Park: A winter wonderland, with a short hike on Lower Yosemite Fall Trail

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A visit to Yosemite National Park* is special at any time of the year, but in winter it can be particularly magical. This was my first visit in several years, and the first in even longer during the winter. The main premise of the trip was an opportunity to ice skate at the seasonal outdoor rink in Curry Village* with a couple of girlfriends. This post describes the entire visit, which included a short hike on the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail.

The dates had been selected some 7 months prior to the trip, when one of my friends found a limited-time sale on hotel rooms in Yosemite Valley and alertly snagged a room at Yosemite Lodge* for two nights. When the reservations were made, of course we had no idea whether there would be any snow at all, either before, during, or shortly after our visit. We found that the park’s Facebook page was a good source of up-to-date information about weather and driving conditions.

As it turned out, the day before our arrival the valley received over a foot of fresh snow, turning everything into a beautiful snowy fairyland. We were fortunate to have the use of a 4 wheel drive vehicle: fortunate since the Park Service required chains on all other types of vehicle. Indeed, most of the park roads were snow-covered when we arrived, and the parking areas had not been fully cleared of snow, making for challenging parking space entry and exit.

Our plan was to drive in on CA-140, the most forgiving access route during the winter. However, two days before the trip it was closed due to a landslide covering a small section of the roadway not far from the El Portal entrance, with an undefined re-opening date. So the best approach was via CA-120, which climbs up to about 6200 feet elevation within the park at Crane Flat.

When we arrived at the Big Oak Flat entrance, at about 4900 feet elevation, we were informed that the road was closed about 9 miles inside the park due to an accident involving a bus and two cars, with an indefinite re-opening time. Since there were no other options to get to the valley, we decided to wait for a while and hope the road re-opened. While we waited we enjoyed the beautiful snow-covered trees. When evergreens have so much snow piled on the boughs I refer to them as “fairyland trees”.

image of so-called fairyland trees near the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park

So-called fairyland trees near the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park

We had set a cut-off time: if the road was not yet open, we would have to retreat to a lower elevation outside the park to find somewhere to stay for the night. Suddenly, after about an hour and a half – and rather close to our cut-off time – we got word that the road was open. It is worth noting that, outside the park boundary, the pavement was fully clear of snow, and inside the park the road was covered with snow. So, even with 4 wheel drive, I proceeded carefully. Although the road had been plowed multiple times, with nice clean edge cuts, the snow banks on either side were fairly high. This view is not far from Crane Flat.

image of snow banks lining Big Oak Flat Rd (CA-120)

Snow banks lining Big Oak Flat Rd (CA-120)

Due to the wait and slower than normal driving speed, it was after 4:30 pm when we reached the floor of Yosemite Valley and the junction with CA-140. The valley itself was already in twilight, as the sun had set behind the surrounding cliffs about an hour earlier. A magical combination of residual clouds from the recent storm and rising moisture from the valley floor resulted in beautiful wisps of mist floating around the granite valley walls. Although we saw Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan as we drove by, we knew we would return the next day – hopefully in sunlight.

image of twilight mist in Yosemite Valley

Twilight mist in Yosemite Valley

After we got checked in and carried our luggage to our room, we went over to the skating rink to find out whether it would be open for the planned evening skating session. We found that only about half the ice surface had been cleared of snow – this is done using a snow-blower – so a skating session was out of the question.

The next morning we looked out our window to see sunshine beginning to appear high above us at the top of the valley wall. Outside the cafeteria where we had breakfast there was an entire family of snow people, including an adult, two children, what appeared to be a dog and a cat, and one more very small figure. I was impressed that the adult had been outfitted with a snowy knit cap!

image of snow person grouping near Yosemite Lodge*

Snow person grouping near Yosemite Lodge*

After a leisurely breakfast we embarked on a short hike on a loop trail to Lower Yosemite Fall. The GPS track shows an overview of our walk, which included the loop trail and a subsequent jaunt over to nearby Yosemite Village. The entire walk was about 2.5 miles, with only a nominal (<50 feet) elevation gain. The orange dot on the GPS track shows where we started walking, just outside our room.

GPS track

GPS track

The trail is well-designed to showcase Yosemite Falls: both Upper Yosemite Fall and Lower Yosemite Fall. (Note the traditional use of Fall for a single waterfall and Falls for multiple falls.) The upper fall is 1430 feet high, the lower fall is 320 feet high, and between are the 675-foot-high Middle Cascades. The total height of Yosemite Falls is 2425 feet, the tallest in the United States and 5th tallest in the world. In the summer, after the entire seasonal snowfall has melted in the 50 square mile watershed of Yosemite Creek, the Falls dry up until the water flow resumes the next season. In the winter, as the creek tumbles over the cliff it freezes; we could hear sounds that we thought were ice crashing down the cliff side, as described in an interpretive sign.

image of Yosemite Falls viewed between majestic trees lining the trail

Yosemite Falls viewed between majestic trees lining the trail

About 0.4 mile from the trailhead and up a slight climb there is a wonderful viewpoint for Lower Yosemite Fall. Nearby there is a bridge that crosses Yosemite Creek. In the spring, at the height of the water flow, mist from the lower fall creates a shower even at the bridge, perhaps 100 meters from the fall itself.

image of Lower Yosemite Fall

Lower Yosemite Fall

We continued around the loop, with glimpses through the trees of Half Dome and other sights high up the valley walls. Near the end of the loop, as we walked along Northside Drive, I noted tall piles of snow on the tops of fence posts, one indication of the amount of snowfall in the most recent storm.

image of snow piles on top of fence posts

Snow piles on top of fence posts

Between Northside Drive and Southside Drive, across from the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, there is an open meadow. Quite a few people were out in the meadow walking around, building snowmen, and taking pictures of Half Dome. Except for a single interesting-looking tree, the view was unobstructed.

image of Half Dome viewed from the meadow near Yosemite Falls

Half Dome viewed from the meadow near Yosemite Falls

After walking to Yosemite Village and having lunch, we took the Yosemite Valley Shuttle back to our room and embarked on a driving tour, so we could see more sights and enjoy the bright day. Not far from Curry Village* the park road passes another meadow, where there was a slightly different view of Half Dome.

image of Half Dome viewed from the meadow near Curry Village*

Half Dome viewed from the meadow near Curry Village*

Across the meadow there was a nice view of North Dome, still illuminated by sunlight while the meadow itself was already in shadow at 3:15 pm. A bit of mist hovered over the meadow, where park visitors played in the snow and built snow men. (There is one directly below North Dome, almost hidden by the mist.)

image of snow-capped North Dome

Snow-capped North Dome

I noticed a couple of youngsters delightedly making snow angels in the meadow.

image of snow angels in the making

Snow angels in the making

In this view Half Dome, like North Dome, is bathed in sunlight while mist floats over the meadow below. This picture does not do full justice to the beautiful view and the contrast and interplay between sunlight and shadow. Note, also, the coloration that looks remarkably like a human face.

image of Half Dome above the meadow

Half Dome above the meadow

Next we headed west, following the signs for valley exits, along Northside Drive, to look at that part of the valley. There is a section posted “No stopping next ½ mile,” where there are several car-size boulders across the road from the rock face. You would not want to be in the way when one of them came crashing down from above! I think this section is below the Three Brothers. After rounding a curve there are beautiful views approaching El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world. Its top is over 3000 feet above the valley floor, and its sides just go straight up.

image of El Capitan viewed from the east

El Capitan viewed from the east

There is a nice view to the south, across the valley and between tall trees, toward Cathedral Rocks.

image of Cathedral Rocks

Cathedral Rocks

Near the junction where CA-140 and CA-120 enter the valley there is a large pullout known as Valley View. From here there is a beautiful, peaceful view of the Yosemite Valley. El Capitan is at the left and Cathedral Rocks are at the right, both overlooking the Merced River. A lovely mist layer floated over the small meadow. A sign near the river’s edge denotes the high water mark for the January 1997 flood. I estimate that the mark is around 15 feet above the current water level, an indication of how widespread the flooding must have been.

image of Yosemite Valley, viewed from Valley View

Yosemite Valley, viewed from Valley View

At the Pohono Bridge we turned left to return through the valley along Southside Drive. A short distance past the junction with Wawona Rd (CA-41) we enjoyed an unobstructed view of El Capitan across the valley.

image of El Capitan viewed from the southwest

El Capitan viewed from the southwest

At the Swinging Bridge picnic area we stopped again to walk closer to the Merced River and enjoy views. Perhaps surprisingly, a family group was having a winter barbecue in the picnic area. In the fresh air the grilling hamburgers smelled really good, and we told them so!

From the picnic area there is a dramatic, head-on view of Upper Yosemite Fall, including the famous ice cone that forms at its base during the winter. The cone looks like it is about 20% of the height of the fall, or nearly 300 feet tall! The maximum documented height of the ice cone is 322 feet.

image of Upper Yosemite Fall viewed from Swinging Bridge picnic area

Upper Yosemite Fall viewed from Swinging Bridge picnic area

In some areas the mist above the Merced River and nearby meadow was especially dramatic.

image of dramatic mist above the Merced River

Dramatic mist above the Merced River

Looking toward the mouth of the valley, to the west, we could see clouds beginning to come in, perhaps a preview of an expected small storm overnight or the following day.

image of clouds at the west end of Yosemite Valley: signal of an approaching storm?

Clouds at the west end of Yosemite Valley: signal of an approaching storm?

As dusk proceeded to fall, we made a brief stop at the historic Yosemite Valley Chapel, built in 1879 as a nondenominational church serving valley residents and visitors.

image of Yosemite Valley Chapel

Yosemite Valley Chapel

After dinner we packed up our skating gear and headed over to the skating rink once again, hopeful that the evening skating session would take place. We found a staff person driving the Zamboni around the rink, alternately doing dry cuts and dumping the scraped shavings outside the rink. Alas, to truly smooth out the ice surface after the snowfall required a couple of hours of resurfacing. We watched for nearly an hour, chatting with other hopeful skaters, before returning to our room.

With no new overnight precipitation, we went back to the ice rink again for the 8:30 am session. The third time was the charm, and we were able to experience outdoor skating in a spectacular setting, with views of Half Dome and Glacier Point.

image of posing on the ice rink in front of Half Dome

Posing on the ice rink in front of Half Dome

The session wasn’t too busy, and we especially enjoyed watching this father-daughter pair practicing edges and turns down the center of the ice, sometimes in unison and sometimes in mirror paths.

image of skaters at the ice rink

Skaters at the ice rink

After skating we checked out of our room, drove to The Ahwahnee Hotel,* and went inside to admire the dining hall and lounge. What a spectacular building and setting! After a quick lunch we decided to make yet another loop around the valley before departing. By early afternoon the clouds we’d seen the previous afternoon began to intensify, and mist seemed to be everywhere. At the west end of the valley we stopped once again to view El Capitan across the valley through the mist, from the same location visited the previous afternoon (see above) – a simple example of how this beautiful place can change with weather.

image of El Capitan through some mist

El Capitan through some mist

On the way toward the valley exit there is a pullout at just the right place for a view of Bridalveil Fall across the valley. In most places the fall is obscured by trees, but here there are a couple of spots with just enough of a gap between the trees to allow a clear view of this beautiful waterfall.

image of Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall

Finally it was time to follow the signs for CA-120 and our route home. I had targeted 2:30 pm as a “latest” time to leave the valley and was surprised to note that we passed Pohono Bridge for the last time within 5 minutes of that time. It had been a magical visit, indeed.

*Within days after returning home a press release was issued by the Park Service regarding legal issues over trademarks for some names in Yosemite, reportedly even including the name of the park. I have to say that this is a very sad and unsavory situation. The names in question were clearly in the public domain for many years before the now-outgoing park concessionaire acquired trademarks. I certainly hope that a satisfactory solution can be put into place that involves neither permanent name changes nor holding the National Park Service ransom for ridiculous sums of money to regain exclusive use of names historically in the public domain.

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