Yosemite winter in a drought

11:51 a.m. on February 13, 2014 (EST)
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After my usual very busy Advent and Christmas season, including Lessons & Carols and five Christmas Eve services, I was definitely ready for a few mountain days away. The siren song of Yosemite was calling, so on Sunday afternoon I jumped into the Forester and headed towards the Valley. Got in to the Upper Pines campground just after dark, and it was already pretty cold. Set up my tent in the dark, which warmed me up a bit, then made a quick dinner, complete with red wine and dark chocolate for dessert, next to a roaring campfire.

My goal for the next day, was to do an epic hike, and the day did not disappoint. The Snow Creek trail is the least known trail from the Valley floor to the Valley rim. It is steep and gets a lot of sunshine, and is in fact considered so difficult, that it is not recommended in any hiking book I can find. It has been on my bucket list though, so I decided that today was the day!

The hike starts out near Mirror Lake, on the paved road, and was pretty crowded with tourists. This first part was icy and cold, and I looked forward to hitting the Snow Creek trail proper, and getting out into the sunshine. The Snow Creek trail immediately starts climbing steeply up the valley wall. Within thirty minutes, all of the layers came off, and I was warm for the rest of the hike. Solitude is not something one finds easily in Yosemite Valley, but this trail is difficult and off the beaten track, so the only other people I encountered were a few backpackers. I even met a couple schlepping snowshoes and a snowboard up the trail! They were going to have to travel a ways to find significant snow… the trail was completely snow-free all the way to the valley rim. Indeed, it felt more like early fall than mid-winter, with the trail in excellent shape all the way up.

I had set a turn-around time of 1:30 to reach the top… I didn’t want to be hiking back in the dark. At the top, the trail levels out and travels through quiet forest. A small group of backpackers pointed out a rocky overhang on the edge of the valley, which promised excellent views. So I wandered off trail and found it… at exactly 1:28 pm! The views were stupendous… looking up Tenaya Canyon… Half Dome straight across… and back down the valley from where I’d come. After a quick snack, I headed back.

Now, I must confess that I missed the trail going back and got a bit lost. The terrain was getting woodsier and steeper, and I started to get a little panicky, and wondered if I was going to spend the night out in the wilderness. I realized I had gotten to far to the east, so headed back down slope and westward, hoping to see something familiar. Suddenly, I found myself standing on the trail. Thankfully, I hadn’t wandered too far before realizing my mistake. I motored back down the trail, hammering my toes, knees, and quads as I went. By the time I got back to Mirror Lake, I was pretty knackered. As I walked back to the paved section of the trail, I noticed a group of people out on a snowy section in the meadow. There were trucks around, and a campfire had been lit. I saw a ranger and asked her what was going on. She said that James Franco was out there making a movie called (what else?) “Yosemite,” due to be released next year.

I walked all the way back to my campsite, having had a 9.5 mile day with over 2700′ of up and down. I was tired and sore, and ready to kick back. Got a good campfire going, made a tasty dinner, consumed a few recovery beverages, and climbed into the tent early, with sleep shortly after.

In the morning, I wandered over to the Ahwahnee hotel, and sat in front of their fireplace with a pilfered cup of Peets, and warmed up. After breakfast, started getting things packed up. Spent the rest of the morning wandering the valley and playing with photography. Then a quick picnic lunch, and on the road back home. The drive home was pretty uneventful, until Stockton, when a pickup truck right in front of me loaded full of junk, dumped an old barbecue out onto I-5. Managed to avoid hitting it, but it got my heart rate up, and made my language quite colorful.

People sometimes ask why I go to Yosemite so often (this was my third visit this year). Yosemite, despite the crowds and tourists, holds a special place in my heart. It is the place where I discovered my love for hiking in the mountains back in 1996, and the “Cathedral” which still fills my spirit with peace and joy. I never tire of it. That’s it in a nutshell.

Now planning a backpack trip into Hetch-Hetchy after Easter. Can’t wait!


9:43 a.m. on February 14, 2014 (EST)
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Sounds like a nice little walk there.  Glad you found your way back to tell us about it!

1:25 p.m. on February 14, 2014 (EST)
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Agreed LS, nice report David.


Regarding losing the trail: I've done similar things so many times, I can totally relate to the feeling. Sometimes it's hard not to get panicky.

But more often I get intense feelings of shame when I think I'm going to have to have a "lost" experience and possibly be late coming home / late for work on Monday. Which is strange because I’m almost always solo and no one knows yet so why am I embarrassed? We’re funny creatures.

6:03 p.m. on February 14, 2014 (EST)
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I spent the months of Jan-May 1980 living in Yosemite winter camping. That winter it got record snowfall's. One night in early January that year 4 feet of snow dropped in one night. And being called Sierra Cement because it is so wet usually from moist air off the Pacific it solidifies over night. I stayed in a friends dorm room that worked for the Yosemite lodge and the next day it took me hours to dig my tent out of the snow that fell around it.

Snow in the high country was so deep I used to stick to hiking the Tioga Road and the Glacier Point Road so I could find my way. But often as well I got lost trying just to hike back from Mt Lyell, Little Yosemite Valley and Porcupine Flats. I even almost stepped off Glacier Point in a white out snow storm after hiking up the road there from Badger Pass.

But all the snow made it easy to learn how to build snow caves and igloo's. I had them on the top of El Capitan, near the Tioga Road at Tenya Lake and near Mt Lyell. 

So its interesting to hear how little snow the Sierra has gotten this winter.

May 22, 2018
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