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

A cold, clear January morning. We have strapped on snowshoes and are tramping the trail that runs from Badger Pass to Dewey Point above Yosemite Valley.

A dozen of us show up, snowshoe novices all. Karen, our leader ― this is a Yosemite Association hike, so we have a leader ― has given us introductory tips, the main one being "Don't step on your own snowshoes or you will fall on your face."

The morning is bright but cold, "28 degrees," Karen reads from her thermometer. Last evening's storm has feathered the trail and surrounding forest with snow. There are stops for water, for granola bars. Sooner than expected, we reach Dewey Point.

Here we gape. At 7,385 feet, the point is a granite prow that lunges out over Yosemite Valley. But I'm not awestruck. I'm befuddled. I can't tell where I am. All I see are massive gray granite walls outlined in snow, gorgeous but strange. I could be in the Himalayas. "Where," I ask Karen, "is Half Dome?" Karen stares at me quizzically. "Right there," she says. She indicates the large rock face looming straight in front of us. Oh.

But that's the point of visiting Yosemite in winter. The chance to see it new. In 1872, John Muir wrote ―

No. As much as I revere Muir, he's part of the problem. Yosemite is one of those places that too many people have loved too well for too long. John Muir's words, Ansel Adams's photographs, countless postcards and family snapshots ― all of these make it hard to visit Yosemite without feeling like you've already seen it a thousand times.

In winter, I hoped, things would be different. So I brought my wife and son up for a long weekend in January, looking to be astonished.

With a 9-year-old boy in tow, we also required snow fun. On our first day, he and I take the park bus from Yosemite Valley up to the Badger Pass tubing area. Here we climb into specially designed inner tubes, as pneumatic and brightly colored as Teletubbies, and slide down a slippery snow track.

I reach bottom first and rise from my tube. Gaining speed behind me, my son makes a realization: If he steers his speeding inner tube into my shins, he will send me flying into the air. So he does.

At this point I have my own realization. In winter, with far fewer visitors than in, say, July, Yosemite is a very small town. As I tumble upward, everybody looking at me is somebody I've already seen elsewhere in the park. Hello again! I want to say, I'm about to break my wrist!

As I land, I try to take solace in another bit of Yosemite winter wisdom, one shared by longtime park ranger Dick Ewart: "When people fall down in the summer, they swear. When people fall down in the winter, they laugh."

WINTER RHYTHMS

Yosemite winter days possess their own rhythm. Even the most routine national park activity ― the easy nature hike ― takes on the meditative pace of a pilgrimage.

On our second morning, we follow a ranger through a snow-softened valley meadow, acquiring the requisite bits of natural history. In winter, Yosemite's bears do not hibernate, the ranger says. "They're in a state of torpor. They hole up in their dens." But marmots do. "It takes five days for a marmot to wake up in spring."

Mainly, though, we drink in the Yosemite Valley: the play of bare oak branches against snow, the Merced River flowing dark as tea, and on all sides, the rising granite walls striped by silver waterfalls ― Yosemite, Bridalveil. The tops of both of these falls actually freeze at night, the ranger tells us. Yosemite is, you realize, an inherently wintry landscape, carved out by glacial ice. No wonder it shines in the snow.

RAVENS AND ROMANCE

One thing that surprises you about Yosemite in winter is that it is quietly, deeply romantic. I learn this fact on my snowshoe hike the next day, when, late in the afternoon, with all of us a little tired and happy for a chance to rest, Karen the guide pauses to tell us a story.

The story is about ravens, birds so common in the park in January that they could serve as Yosemite's winter totem. A couple of years earlier, Karen says, she'd been snowshoeing this same trail and had spotted a raven couple standing in the snow in front of her. Or a potential couple. The male flew down to present the female with a piece of bright green glass. The female raven was thrilled. She skittered around in the snow as if saying, Really? For me? Then both birds shot up into the air, circling each other, cavorting, in love.

Typical courtship behavior, an ornithologist friend told Karen dismissively. But Karen thought the moment represented something more. Ravens mate for life; the shining gift could have sparked decades of true love. Now, Karen says, each Valentine's Day she and her husband exchange pieces of green glass.

That night I have dinner with my wife and son at the Ahwahnee hotel. Rustic, regal, it is one of those public spaces that make everyone look their best. In its candlelit dining room, all adults are distinguished and glamorous, all children (including ours) strangely well behaved, like children in Masterpiece Theatre.

We order our wine. We order our Shirley Temples. We see snow falling softly outside, white petals against the enveloping night. I feel phenomenally fortunate. After a second glass of wine, I tell the raven story. If I had a piece of green glass, I say to my wife, I would give it to you.

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