Home » 2018 Yosemite in Winter

Yosemite Valley, CA

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 4:15pm by Lolo
245 miles and 5 hours from our last stop - 5 night stay


Day 1 - Arrival in the Valley

Hello again Half DomeHello again Half DomeWe arrived in the Valley around 3:30 in the afternoon, giving us just about an hour of daylight left to run around taking photos. The only downside to these spectacular tall granite walls is that they make the short days of winter even shorter. Still, they are well worth the trade-off.

Corny as it might sound, every time I enter this Valley, it feels like coming home.

We didn’t tow the Subaru behind this trip, so we were going to have to maneuver around the Valley and find parking in our motorhome. One thing we didn’t realize when deciding to come here this time of year was that mid- to late- February is the time of year when Horsetail Falls normally puts on its show, so the Valley is packed to the brim with tripod-wielding photographers.

The barren trees of winterThe barren trees of winterWhen conditions are right - clear skies and enough snow for the waterfall to flow - there is a “firefall effect” in which the flow glows orange during sunset. The phenomenon only happens during mid- to late-February (usually peaking February 17 - 19), because during that time the setting sun hits Yosemite Valley at just the right angle to illuminate the upper reaches of Horsetail Fall.

Thousands of people come to the Valley during this time period to see the “Firefall,” and it has created a traffic nightmare as people just stop in the middle of Northside Drive and leave their cars to get to a good photo vantage point.

View along Four Mile TrailView along Four Mile TrailAs a result, in 2018, the National Park Service decided to test a new traffic pattern. The section of Northside Drive, from Yosemite Valley Lodge to the El Capitan Crossover, was closed to anyone without a permit to park within the “event zone.” Each day 300 free permits are made available (250 can be reserved online ahead of time and 50 are issued each day on a first come, first served basis). Since Northside Drive is the only way to exit the Valley normally, the rest of the roads were changed from one-way to two-way.

However, the 2018 winter so far had been a dry one, so there was no water flowing in Horsetail Falls. In other words, it was a dud. However, undaunted the Park Service continued to enforce their new traffic pattern, despite the fact that it was no longer needed.

So, we parked alongside the road in the non-event zone and got some pretty eventful photos anyway. Even barren trees are beautiful in this Valley.

Day 2 - Hiking the Four Mile Trail

Setting off on Four Mile TrailSetting off on Four Mile TrailThere aren’t any hikes in and from the Valley left that we haven’t already done, but doing them in different seasons sort of makes them new again. We decided to do the Four Mile Trail up to Glacier Point, with a 3,200-foot elevation gain. I have a bone to pick with the person who named this trail. If they can rename the Ahwahnee Hotel the Majestic, I can rename this 4.8-mile hike the Five Mile Trail.

This is a great hike, but a very strenuous one as well. We started from the Valley Floor and after a brief flat area wandering through some boulders, which we had played around on with the boys before, we began to climb. In fact, from that point on, all we would do is climb, as we had a lot of vertical feet to gain.

What sign?What sign?It wasn’t long before the trail became snow-covered - not deep, jbut ust a few inches of packed snow. Unfortunately, we had not brought along our Yaktraks, but they weren’t really needed as long as conditions didn’t get worse.

The scenery started slowly, since we had to get above the Valley trees first, but once we did, all the icons of the Valley come into view - Yosemite Falls, Cathedral Rocks, El Cap, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, North Dome, and more. It was like a tour of Yosemite’s greatest hits. The tremendous views were a great distraction from the fact that we were climbing and climbing along a continuous series of switchbacks.

It's snowing on Half Dome!!It's snowing on Half Dome!!At about 3 miles, we came to a gate with a sign that said “Trail Closed - Do Not Enter.” It didn’t look so bad beyond the gate, and there were other footprints forging on, so rightly or wrongly, we decided to duck under the gate and just go a “little bit” further.

We went another half mile to the turnoff for Union Point, a great viewpoint and place to have lunch. As we sat there eating, ominous clouds started moving into the Valley. By the time we finished lunch, it had even begun to lightly snow.

Winter Wonderland along the Four Mile TrailWinter Wonderland along the Four Mile TrailBack at the main trail, we met someone hiking down from Glacier Point, who had gotten a much earlier start this morning than we did. He said the views were becoming obscured by the clouds, and the trail conditions were worsening by the minute. Perhaps continuing on would not be such a wise idea after all. We decided to turn back rather than take the chance.

As we hiked back down the switchbacks, it really started to snow in earnest. It was truly a winter wonderland. I absolutely loved it!!

By the time we got back to the car, the meadows were already covered with a lovely blanket of snow. Time to get the motorhome safely tucked back into our campsite in Upper Pines before it got any worse.

I knew what we would be doing tomorrow - wandering the Valley taking photos of every one of its icons.

We had one more full day on our own before the kids arrived from San Francisco late tomorrow (Friday) night.

Day 3 - Wander around the entire snow-covered Valley taking photographs

The Mighty El CapThe Mighty El CapWhen we opened the blinds the next morning, we were greeted with a lovely scene. The campground was covered in a pure white blanket of snow, and kids were already out, some still in their pajamas, throwing snowballs, making snow angels, and building snowmen.

I felt like a little kid waking up at Christmas. Herb was pretty excited as well, as he would get to spend the entire day wandering through the snow-covered Valley with his camera.

We decided to take the motorhome to use as a base camp for our day’s adventures, driving the entire Valley Loop, stopping at places to hike from along the way.

Middle Cathedral RockMiddle Cathedral RockOur first stop was Sentinel Bridge, where we parked the motorhome and took a short walk into the meadow. How different everything looked when covered in snow.

From there we continued on to the El Cap Crossover and parked on Northside Drive just past the blockade for the Firefall “event zone.” From there we took a walk over to Southside Drive and Cathedral Beach, one of our favorite spots to photograph El Cap.

Fortunately I was wearing my bright red down jacket, which contrasted so much with the brilliant whiteness of the snow that I could be spotted in any picture, no matter how far away.

Lolo enjoying the snowLolo enjoying the snowAfterwards, we continued along Southside Drive, parking just west of the Yosemite Chapel, and used that as a base camp for the rest of the day. After lunch, we separated. I set out for a long walk while Herb stayed closer to home with his tripod.

My walk, which turned out to be a 4-mile one, took me through the meadow, over to Lower Yosemite Falls, back across Sentinel Bridge where I said hello to Half Dome, past the Yosemite Chapel, and back. It was so pristine and peaceful. Herb looked pretty peaceful and happy as well.

After a brief break in the motorhome to get warm, we set out again, this time west through the meadow, across Swinging Bridge, and followed undeveloped paths across the meadow towards Northside Drive.

Herb doing what he loves bestHerb doing what he loves bestHerb moves a lot slower than me when he is photographing, so I found myself quite a bit ahead of him as the sun was beginning to disappear behind the granite walls. All of a sudden I came upon a spot where I had a great view of Sentinel Rock with the late afternoon light setting it aglow in brilliant red. It’s a phenomenon called alpenglow, which occurs as the scattered light from the setting sun hits the mountains. It was stunning.

I snapped a few shots with my iPhone, and then immediately ran back to find Herb, as I was sure he did not want to miss this. I got him back there just in time to take a photo or two before the show was over. He already had gotten one of Half Dome.

When photographing this Valley, it’s all about timing, whether it be the season or time of day. You could literally spend the entire day in one place, photographing it throughout the day, and each photo would be different.

Alpenglow on Sentinel RockAlpenglow on Sentinel RockHerb usually hates the cold, but today was so wonderful that I don’t even think he noticed it. He was so happy pressing the shutter that he never even bothered to put gloves on. My hands were freezing.

Around midnight, the boys and their girlfriends arrived for the weekend. Tommy and Erin had their new Promaster camper van, and despite the fact that it hadn’t been converted to a camper yet, they slept in it anyway on an air mattress. This did allow for a bit more roominess in the motorhome, although we have slept 6 in it. Soon, Andrew and Celeste would have a camper as well and then it would even roomier.

Everyone was leaving the nest.

Day 4 - Hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail with the kids

Yosemite Falls HikeYosemite Falls HikeUsually when the boys and their girlfriends come to Yosemite, they spend most of their time rock climbing. However, the snow, as well as a few injuries, made that impossible. Instead, we decided to do a big hike - to the top of Yosemite Falls, a strenuous 7.2-mile round-trip hike that climbs 2,425 feet above the Valley floor. Just looking up at the top of the falls and thinking about getting there on foot from the Valley Floor is pretty daunting.

We have done this hike twice in the past, once in the summer, and another time during a Thanksgiving trip with the boys, when we actually did encounter snowy conditions during the last mile.

Happy family on the hike to the top of Yosemite FallsHappy family on the hike to the top of Yosemite FallsThis time we would be starting off in snow, but fortunately, this time we had Yaktraks, which are truly life-changing and make otherwise impossible winter hikes possible. They are lightweight, easy to put on, and affordable ($21 on Amazon) traction cleats that fit over your shoes, keeping you from slipping and sliding on the snow and ice. After getting caught in snow on this very hike that Thanksgiving trip, we got them for each other for Christmas.

The trail begins next to Sunnyside Walk-in Campground (known to climbers as Camp 4), the rock climbers’ campground behind Yosemite Lodge. This hike doesn’t fool around. In the first half mile, it climbs steeply along a series of over three dozen switchbacks.

Trickling Yosemite FallsTrickling Yosemite FallsAt the 1 mile point, there is a short spur trail to Columbia Rock, where there is a breathtaking, 180-degree view of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome in the east to the Cathedral Spires in the west. It’s a great place to take photos, so we did just that.

In that one mile we had already climbed 1,000 feet in elevation, yet we still had not gotten a glimpse of the waterfalls. In fact, our first indication that we were getting closer to the falls was by hearing it, before we rounded a bend and it finally came into view. However, unlike past times, it was more of a trickle than a roar, for the same reason the Firefall was a dud - not much snow melt this winter.

Lolo contemplating the awesomeness of YosemiteLolo contemplating the awesomeness of YosemiteHowever, it still was pretty awesome, so we forged on. The last quarter mile before reaching the top is a series of torturous, seemingly endless switchbacks. At the top, there is an Overlook which is actually below the top, which looks down from above back up at the falls. To get to it you have to go down an intimidating series of steps cut into the rockface, made even more intimidating by the fact that they were covered in snow and ice.

Since we had already done this Overlook in the past when the waterfall was really flowing, and the stairs did look really precarious, we collectively decided to declare victory and head back down.

Hiking down from Yosemite FallsHiking down from Yosemite FallsAs always, going down a steep trail is often worse, especially on the knees, than going up. However, either I am getting in better shape as I age (or experience as I like to call it), or all the fun and laughter that comes along with hiking with the boys was a great distraction, because for some reason, the whole hike didn’t feel all that exhausting. In fact, it was quite fun!

We spent that evening, as we spend many cold evenings in Yosemite, cozying up in the Ahwahnee (excuse me, Majestic) Grand Lounge reading and playing cards. While I was there I made reservations for tomorrow's Sunday Brunch, something which has become a bit of a customary way for end our weekends with the kids in Yosemite.

Day 5 - Ahwahnee Brunch, Run around the Valley, and Departure

Ahwahnee BackyardAhwahnee BackyardAs I mentioned above, it has become something of a Gaidus Family tradition to wrap up every visit to the Valley with Sunday Brunch in the Ahwahnee Dining Room. Plus, Erin, our newest addition to the family, had never eaten here before, so we thought it was about time she did.

Although the food is quite good, it’s the setting that I savor the most> With its 34-foot-high beamed ceilings, granite pillars, chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling windows, the dining room is truly “majestic,” although I will never call this iconic hotel by its new name.

Another tradition is walking the meal off a bit in the Ahwahnee backyard, enjoying the view of Royal Arches and strolling along the Merced River.

Post-brunch happy familyPost-brunch happy familyBefore heading back to the city, we decided to go for a family run - well sort of. Andrew and Celeste went for a long 10-miler, Tommy, Erin, and I went for a more leisurely 4 miler, and Herb and his tripod went for a photographic stroll.

After the kids left, Herb and I spent the remainder of the day wandering the meadow.

Tomorrow morning it was time for us to head home as well. Another great trip to Yosemite - is there any other kind?


Yosemite National Park lies near the eastern border of California in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Its spectacular waterfalls, soaring granite cliffs, and lush meadows are just a few of the reasons it is considered by many to be nature’s ultimate masterpiece. In the words of John Muir, “it is surely the brightest and the best of all the Lord has built.”

This description will focus on Yosemite Valley, which is the section of the park we visited. Although the Yosemite Valley is just a small portion of Yosemite’s 761,268 acres, it is part receives 95% of its visitors. In fact, an estimated 4.1 million people visit the Valley each year, making it extremely crowded.

Two one-way roads traverse Yosemite Valley: the east-bound Southside Drive and the west-bound Northside Drive, which wind through woodlands and meadows along the base of the 3,000-foot-high granite cliffs. As of today, cars are still allowed to enter and drive through the valley, but visitors are highly encouraged to park their vehicles and use the park’s free shuttle bus, which stops at the major attractions in the valley.

Virtual Tour of Yosemite Valley Highlights

  • As you enter the valley, the first sight you’ll see is the 620-foot Bridalveil Falls flowing down from a hanging valley to the valley floor. From the parking area, a short paved path leads to the base of the falls. This is one of the few falls in Yosemite that does not completely dry up in the summer.
  • Just past the Bridalveil Fall parking area, the Southside Drive begins to trace the Merced River. Soon El Capitan comes fully into view. This 3,000 foot high granite cliff is the largest single piece of exposed granite in the world and one of the most famous landmarks in Yosemite. If you look closely, you might see small dots that are actually rock climbers along its face.
  • Continuing east on the Southside Drive are two riverside picnic areas and beaches: Cathedral Beach and Sentinel Beach.
  • Right after the Sentinel Beach parking area is the trailhead for the 4-Mile trail, which ascends more than 3,200 feet from the valley floor to Glacier Point and one of the most spectacular views of the valley.
  • A short distance further is Swinging Bridge, another picnic and swimming area. This area is also the westernmost point of the 8-mile bicycle loop that goes through the eastern part of the valley. From this point on, the bike path parallels the road.
  • Next stop is the picturesque tiny Yosemite Chapel where many outdoor enthusiasts choose to exchange wedding vows.
  • Now you enter the congested and developed portion of the valley.
  • Right past the chapel, you can either take a left onto Sentinel Bridge towards Yosemite Village and the park exit, or you can continue straight towards Curry Village, the campgrounds, and Happy Isles Nature Center. For now, let’s stop at Sentinel Bridge for what is probably the most spectacular Half Dome viewpoint in the park. It’s a great spot for a photograph of Half Dome with the Merced River in the foreground.
  • Continuing east on the Southside Drive, you pass Housekeeping Camp and Curry Village. Curry Village has lodging, restaurants, bicycle and raft rentals, a grocery store, and other shops. Curry Village is also one of the main parking areas in the valley.
  • From Curry Village you can either take Northside Drive across the Ahwahnee Bridge back to Yosemite Village and the park exit, or continue east to the campgrounds. The Happy Isles Nature Center is also this way, but only shuttle buses are allowed on the road to it.
  • The Happy Isles Nature Center features exhibits on the natural history of the park. It also serves as the trailhead for some of the best hikes in Yosemite. 1.5 mile trail leads to the top of Vernal Falls and then continues another 1.5 miles to the top of Nevada Falls (two waterfalls that flow even in the summer time). From there you can continue even further into the backcountry of Yosemite, including the cable route up the back of Half Dome.
  • From Curry Village, the Northside Drive crosses the Ahwahnee Meadow, a wonderful spot to gaze at Half Dome during sunset, and enters Yosemite Village, the main center of visitor services in the park. Here you’ll find the park’s main Visitor Center, restaurants, lodging, shops, a grocery store, a post office, a medical clinic, the Ansel Adams Gallery, an Indian Cultural Exhibit and more. It’s also a good place to park your car and jump on the shuttle.
  • A short dead end road from Yosemite Village leads to the majestic old Ahwahnee Hotel, which has played host to Queen Elizabeth, President John F. Kennedy, and Clint Eastwood, to name a few. This beautiful six-story rock structure offers tremendous views from every room. Within the hotel is the elegant and quite expensive Ahwahnee Dining Room (jackets required for dinner).
  • Back on the Northside Drive heading west from Yosemite Village, the next stop is the Yosemite Falls parking area. At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America. It is actually three waterfalls in one, with an upper, middle and lower section. A short walk from the parking lot along a paved walk leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. This is the most visited landmark in the valley. Except in summer when the fall temporarily dries up, you’ll be sure to be covered in spray.
  • A little further west on the Northside Drive is Yosemite Lodge, which marks the end of the developed area of the park going west.
  • Right after Yosemite Lodge is Sunnyside Campground/Camp 4, a place where most rock climbers choose to congregate. From this campground begins the popular and strenuous Yosemite Falls hike, which ascends 2,600 feet from the valley floor to the top of the Upper Falls. The views from the top are incredible.
  • Continuing west, there is nothing but woods and meadows from which to enjoy the views. Along the road there are several pullouts where you can stop and walk down to the Merced River for a swim. Just after the El Capitan Bridge, you’ll come to the El Capitan Meadow where you’re sure to find people looking through binoculars at the miniscule rock climbers clinging to the granite face.
  • Just to the west of El Capitan, Ribbon Falls plunges over 1,600 feet down to the valley floor. It is the seventh highest waterfall in the world. However, it too dries up in the summer time.
  • Finally the road nears the end of the Northside Drive at Valley View where El Capitan, on the left, and Cathedral Rocks, on the right, frame a magnificent valley view.

Several guided bus tours are also available. The 2-hour Valley Floor Tour is a great way to get acclimated. Visitors ride through the valley in an open tram while a guide leads a informative discussion of Yosemite’s history and geology. There are many photo stops along the way. In addition, there are bus tours out of the valley to Glacier Point, the Mariposa Grove of sequoia trees, and Tuolumne Meadows.

Although much of Yosemite can be enjoyed from the comforts of your car or a shuttle, the best way to truly experience Yosemite is do get out and experience it more directly..

Things to do in Yosemite

  • Hike one of the many trails around the valley, ranging from an easy walk to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls to the strenuous 16-mile round trip hike up the back of Half Dome via cables
  • Take an overnight backpacking trip
  • Bike along the 12 miles of bicycle paths that loop through the Valley. Rentals are available at Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge.
  • Rock climb in one of the premier climbing places in the world
  • Raft down the calm waters of the Merced River through the valley. Rentals are available at Curry Village.
  • Swim or tube in the Merced River. Besides the designated beaches, there are many pullouts along the road from which you can walk down to the river.
  • Join one of the many ranger walks, which are offered daily
  • Take a free art class at the Yosemite Art and Education Center
  • Photograph the amazing scenery of the valley and surrounding granite cliffs
  • Browse the Ansel Adams Gallery and see some of the photographs that first made Yosemite famous
  • Relax in the meadow while gazing up at Half Dome or El Capitan
  • Dine at the 5-star Ahwahnee Hotel, where presidents and royalty have stayed

Although many try to see Yosemite in a day, it is best to devote several days to seeing all the park has to offer. Besides the numerous hotels, lodges, and cabins in the Valley, there are three RV campgrounds: Upper Pines (238 sites), Lower Pines (60 sites), and North Pines (81 sites). That’s less than 400 campsites to accommodate all the people that want to camp here.

Since these campgrounds usually fill-up within the first hour they become available, it is essential to make your reservations as soon as possible. Campground reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time. For example, if your arrival date is July 15 through August 14, the first day you can make reservations is March 15. The National Park Reservation System can be found at www.recreation.gov. Good luck!

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