We left the coast, writhing with anticipation of our mountain escape and curious if Yosemite would live up to all of its’ hype. We cruised through California’s rolling farm lands with the windows rolled down until we came upon a closed road. Flooded. Detour. Obviously, we had to take a look. Dane, eyes glazed with excitement and full of confidence in our van (with newly equipped snorkel), was ready for the challenge. While others were turning around, we made the crossing with one long-haired, leather-backed motorcycle rider fist-pumping us on. We passed through gold rush towns with worn wood false fronts, originally built early in the last century and impressively maintained. Old saloons, barbershops and leather work studios lined the streets where locals were perched on wood railings exchanging stories.
We hit highway #120 which climbs upwards in switchbacks high into the mountains. We summited the Rocky Mountain pass just as the sun was disappearing behind the peaks, leaving the valleys in the last light below. At this moment we noticed it was considerably colder out and snow patches started to appear on the roadside. Only an hour before we were passing through The surrounding buildings in the rugged mountainous area were quite old and rustic built with lots of brick, rock and worn wood from the harsh winters. Most of them dating back to the gold rush era in the mid 1800’s.
Darkness crept in along with more roadside snow we continued along the highway now descending down into the Valley. There were no other vehicles around at this point, making the road feel like our own bobsled track. Our anticipation was building and so was the snow pack as we twisted our through the sequoia forest. We knew we had finally reached the valley floor when the huge trees cleared to reveal a canopy of blazing stars among an ocean of blackness. It was so captivating, we killed our headlights and LED light-bars to embrace the nights’ glorious show and let the creamy silver moonlight guide us into camp.
Morning broke with light creeping into the valley over the mountaintops. We were keen to explore, but the freezing temperatures made it very tempting to just stay tucked in, under the warmth of our sleeping bags. We couldn’t waste a moment in Yosemite so we quickly dressed and put on our coffee and oatmeal. Once outside of the van we could see peek-a-boos of enormous mountain faces through the gladed camp surroundings. Over breakfast we decided to hike Yosemite Falls… the most difficult hike open at the time. Estimated at 6-8 hours with a 2900ft (850m) gain in elevation leading to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall at over 2400ft (740m). Knowing we had limited day light due to the surrounding giants, we quickly packed up the essentials and hit the road to the trailhead.
Being there in the middle of winter was certainly cold at times, but it definitely had it’s perks by it’s lack of tourists and hikers! We started off just as the sunshine started to trickle into the valley through the oak and sequoia trees leading along the trailhead casting soft yellow rays that warmed us up as the birds started to come out, greeting us as we passed. The trail itself was quite impressive with it’s naturalesque rock steps, retaining walls and switchbacks. As we climbed to and fro the sun poked through more and more as vista points started to reveal the snow-covered valley below basking in sunlight with the giant faces above.
It became apparent that we had overdressed very quickly. We found ourselves jumping behind rocks to shed our unneeded base layers and re-buttoning up just as other hikers passed by with a giggle. At this point the trail turned to snow and started to traverse along the mountainside towards the falls revealing a stunning view of the lower falls illuminated with rainbows with the valley of giants as a backdrop. We snacked and soaked in the sun and energy of the falls as we gazed up in intimidation at the next snow-covered climb traversing the whole height of the upper falls at nearly the same incline!
Once rested we pushed on with enthusiasm. This was an aggressive climb filled with steep slippery switchbacks between two rock faces. On the right, the backside of the upper falls. To the left a towering snow capped peak warming in the sun breaking off falling snow every now and then to keep us on our toes. Cresting the steep gully we entered a sparsely populated forest of tall snowcapped firs and cedars. We winded through them all while hopping over small creeks as the trail eventually opened up into a snow covered meadow that lead up to the cliffs edge. With much anticipation we dragged our tired legs on the final stretch which opened up to a panoramic view of the Yosemite valley below. Nearly everything covered in snow with the sun beaming down on us with an epic panoramic view before us.
It was only at this point we saw the trail continued… As we could not see the waterfall, there to the left was a small goat trail, tracked out in snowy show prints, that lead down to a final switchback on the cliff face to a small landing guarded by steel rails welded and bolted into the cliff face. If that wasn’t sketchy enough, with all the snow these guards were only knee height, so we were bent at the waist, holding on for dear life as we slid down to this cliff-side nook! Once there, we bravely peered over the edge at the stunning waterfall spraying into what seemed like an abyss of a postcard.
Climbing out of this perch, after we cooled down and digested lunch, may have been the most nerve racking of all: one step forward, slip half a step back, at nearly 1000m on a cliff side! Definitely not for the faint of heart. Once we crested the top (again) we took a few more moments (and photos) and then started the decent which mostly consisted of skiing our boots or sliding down the many switch backs. Nearing the bottom, the sun was high and our legs were rubber. As the last set of switchbacks were behind us, we saw a quick red blur to our left. We turned our heads to see a stunning red fox standing tall and looking over his shoulder with curiosity. With eyes locked we (not very stealthily) fumbled to find the zoom lens for the camera. Butterfingers.. that sly fox seemed to smirk as he trotted into the mountainside.
Returning to camp with a few hours of daylight remaining, we pushed ourselves to take it all in since we’d be leaving the following morning. We opted for a walking trail to Mirror Lake (a must see if you go visit Yosemite!) Shortly into our unguided, no map or directions journey the trail turned into a skating rink. Not just hardback snow, but thick ice. Other walkers warned us about the ice, since they had turned back and darkness was fast approaching but we shoe-skated onwards. A few miles later we arrived at this stunning, still lake, all to ourselves, with Half Dome in perfect reflection at sunset.
We hustled back to camp but surely got lost under the stars. Thankfully still with camera batteries to spare so we made the most of it. Truly taking in as much of the park as we could during this short visit. We’ll definitely be returning to see the sights unseen and re-visit the ones we did this time. Yosemite was a pretty magical place.