Yosemite in winter

Explore the world's best park without the crowds. Here's where to stay and 3 things you don't want to miss

Peter Fish


The short vacation glides forward, like a skier in new snow. There is skiing, back up at Badger Pass, and also cups of hot chocolate. There is Scrabble by the Ahwahnee fireside, and whiskey at the Ahwahnee Bar, and, best of all, ice-skating at Curry Village, where you whirl around genteelly on bumpy ice in the shadow of Half Dome while a scratchy PA system plays "Love Will Keep Us Together."

"I didn't break anything," says one dad as he pulls off his skates and sits down to grill s'mores on the rink's firepit. "I call that a win." I do too.

But suddenly it's our last morning in the park. I wake up early and sore from ice-skating and grumpy about having to go home. My wife and son being marmot-like slow risers, I decide to start packing.

I carry a suitcase into a very cold winter dawn. No sun yet, but the sky has brightened from black to deep blue. A crescent moon casts silver light across the valley.

It is silent except for the crunch of snow under my boots. Then other noises: the slam of a car door, more boots on snow. In the moonlight, I see two guys in backpacks struggling beneath the weight of climbing gear ― ropes, pitons, axes.

I had seen them before, of course, in line for lunch at Yosemite Village. Now I ask where they're going. Washington Column, they say, an 1,800-foot-high granite wall on the valley's north side. They'll climb all day and bivouac 1,000 feet up the side of the cliff tonight.


I don't climb; I am in awe of climbers. I slow them down with dumb questions. Where did they learn to climb? How long have they been climbing in Yosemite? And, finally, "Is it different climbing in winter?"

"Yeah," one says, "it's &%&%&% cold."

"Actually," his buddy says, "this is our first winter climb."

There's light now, just enough to let you take a snapshot with a disposable camera, which they ask me to do. They pose, grinning and maybe a little scared. I snap the picture and they head off.

Now the sky is bright and pale, like the inside of a shell. The crescent moon is fading. The valley is waking up.

Right then, I feel that I've taken in Yosemite's winter on my own terms and at last have room to hear what Muir said about it: From wall to wall of our beautiful temple, from meadow to sky was one finished unit of beauty, one star of equal ray, one glowing sun, weighed in the celestial balances and found perfect.

Maybe minutes later, maybe an hour, I hear it. A crack, then a crash, like a cannon shot but vastly louder. The ranger had told us about this phenomenon too, but I hadn't expected to experience it. When morning sunlight warms the frozen top of Yosemite Falls, the ice melts, splinters, falls in sheets to the base a thousand feet below. The noise of that fall is thunderous.

You hear the word "daybreak," but this is the first time I understand what it means. Day is breaking, with an icy roar that bounces from one side of the valley and back again. It's a sound I've never heard before. Something astonishing, something entirely new.

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