Long Weekends: Yosemite, Unplugged

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations: News for Adventurous Travelers, November 1996

Long Weekends: Yosemite, Unplugged

In winter, see the park as the Miwok did: in solitude
By Andrew Rice

When the bumper-to-bumper traffic of summer disappears and the snow begins to fly, tranquility settles over Yosemite National Park. This is the time to grab skis or snowshoes and set out to explore the park's 350 miles of marked trails and roads. The ice-encased scenery is spectacular, the immense expanse of forest eerily quiet, and reservations at the park's overnight accommodations easy to come by. (Call Yosemite Concession Services at 209-372-1000.) Campers don't even need reservations: Unlike during the summer, they simply choose any vacant site at Lower Pines Campground. Of course, there are inconveniences to Yosemite in the winter. The famous waterfalls are barely trickling and frigid temperatures discourage outdoor activities after sunset. But, as compensation, the view of a snow-crested, starlit Half Dome from inside a warm tent is unparalleled.

Getting There. Tioga Pass from the east is closed from November to May, but the park entrances on state routes 120, 140, and 41 are open year round. The entrance fee is $5 per car per week.

Getting Around. Nordic skiing is one of the best means of transport in a snow-locked Yosemite. Twenty-six miles of free, groomed cross-country track originate at Badger Pass and dead-end at Glacier Point with a wide-angle view of the Yosemite Valley 3,000 feet below. Yosemite Cross Country Ski School (372-8444) leads guided midweek trips to a new stone overnight hut at Glacier Point ($170, including all meals, equipment rental, and instruction). The one-way trip is ten miles, but the groomed track makes it feel shorter.

An easier and equally scenic glide takes you to the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias, one of the primary reasons Yosemite was set aside as a national park. During winter you can see this grove much as the Miwok Indians did--alone and in silence. To reach it, ski or snowshoe (or hike, if the snow is thin) two miles up the closed summer access road at the park's south entrance. Beyond, several miles of loop trails weave through hundreds of redwoods, including the 2,700 year-old Grizzly Giant, 209 feet tall and almost 40 feet thick.

The greatest prize of California backcountry skiing, however, is a Sierra Nevada crossing. Yosemite Ski School leads two trips per season across the 50-mile-long Tioga Pass. Beginning on the east side of the Sierra, you'll ski to a rustic hut at Tuolumne Meadows. Then for the next three days and nights you'll explore the bowls of the Cathedral Range and finish with a morning descent to the valley floor. For a fit, intermediate to advanced skier, this tour offers the best of Yosemite--snow-covered alpine meadows, sweeping vistas, and mile upon mile of virgin track. The $435 price includes six days of skiing, five nights at the hut, all meals, and ground transportation.

Getting Down. Cross-country skiing is not the only possibility at a snow-covered Yosemite. Badger Pass Ski Area, a relic from the 1930s, is a four-chair downhill venue at the foot of Glacier Point Road. Tiny by today's standards, it's a fine slope for beginners and intermediates. And the price is right: Anyone staying in Yosemite accommodations Sunday through Thursday nights gets a free one-day lift ticket. Otherwise an adult skis for $28, a child under 12 for $13. For an extra $25, beginners get two consecutive two-hour ski or snowboard lessons.

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