As we gazed over Tuolumne Meadows and countless snowy pinnacles, we saw not a soul -- and scarcely a sign that people had ever been here. Atop the 9,450-foot summit of Yosemite's Lembert Dome, amazing views rewarded our chilly climb.
Yosemite may be one of the world's most popular parks, visited by millions every year, but in winter, snow covers the high country. The valley is still and serene. And rich experiences await intrepid travelers, who will discover grand scenery and solitude that the park's multitude of summer visitors could scarcely imagine.
Ready to explore Yosemite's winter wonderland? Strap on your snowshoes or cross-country skis and join us on a trio of treks.
Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
This is a great first winter outing for beginning skiers and snowshoers. A gentle path leads to dozens of beautiful giant sequoias, among the largest and oldest living things on Earth.
This easy 2-mile round trip can take about two hours to complete. From the parking area near the Crane Flat campground and gas station, go north past the restrooms and gate and down a forest road. The first sequoias come into view after a sharp turn. A side trail leads to the tunnel tree (sadly dead, but still standing) and then reconnects with the main path. Be prepared to hike uphill on the way back, gaining about 400 feet.
A marked, well-traveled trail from Badger Pass Ski Area leads to a spectacular viewpoint and an especially good view of El Capitan. The gentle route meanders through a peaceful meadow and forest before descending to the valley rim, where visitors can see deep into the snow-capped backcountry. This is a must for Yosemite winter enthusiasts, both skiers and snowshoers.
Start east on the often-groomed Glacier Point Road, climbing gently and then descending at Summit Meadow. About a mile from the parking lot, look for the signs for Dewey Point Meadow Trail (#18) on your left, breaking from the road and heading north. The next mile is easygoing through the flat meadow, along a creek and framed by lodgepole pines.
Then the trail drops, curves and becomes more difficult, joining with the Dewey Point Ridge Trail as it passes through denser trees before emerging for a final climb to the rim and viewpoint at 7,385 feet. You'll feel like you're looking off the edge of the world. Spend some time admiring The Captain, Cathedral Rocks and other landmarks.
When you're ready to return, you have a choice of routes. If the trip out challenged you, then it's best to return the same way. But if you're ready for variety, a few hills and a more rigorous segment, you might try the Dewey Point Ridge Trail (#14). To choose this option, retrace your steps about a mile to the trail junction sign, then turn right up the hill. The route rolls up and down like a roller coaster, and skiers, of course, will get a bigger payoff on the downhills than snowshoers.
The trail connects with Glacier Point Road. Turn right toward the Badger Pass parking lot, less than a mile to the west to finish the 7-mile round trip, which will take four to six hours.
This trek provides a great introduction to overnight winter touring and camping. While the 10.5-mile distance from Badger Pass to Glacier Point requires commitment, the route -- along a paved road -- often is machine-groomed. Trade in your snowshoes for skis on this outing, which features fun descents on long, gentle slopes.
While some speedsters make this round trip in a day, most enjoy a night or more at one of the Sierra Nevada's finest viewpoints. If you do, your first decision is whether to camp or stay at Glacier Point Ski Hut. Camping is free and quite comfortable in good conditions -- for those properly equipped. Glacier Point Ski Hut provides its guests with bunk beds and hot meals ($146 and up per night). Reservations are required; www.yosemitepark.com/glacier-point-hut.aspx.
Your journey traces Glacier Point Road the entire way, so finding the route should not be a problem. First, the road climbs about a mile to Summit Meadow. Next comes a two-mile drop to Bridalveil Creek Campground. After crossing Bridalveil Creek Bridge a half mile later, enjoy your last descent for a while. As you pass a sign for Horizon Ridge Trail, you'll begin a 3-mile climb that gains about 800 feet. On clear days, you will get a fantastic view of the Clark Range, an impressive series of peaks to the east.
The route flattens in the final miles as it passes Sentinel Dome to the northwest. You will descend on the road's switchbacks as you pass an awesome Half Dome vista and arrive at Glacier Point.
This 21-mile round trip takes most people two or more days to complete. If traveling overnight, get a free wilderness permit at the rangers' A-frame office at Badger Pass.
And be forewarned: A visit to snowbound Glacier Point may instill a lifelong love of winter adventure.
Matt Johanson is the author of "Yosemite Adventures," a guide to 50 hikes, climbs and winter treks.
Winter Travel Tips
To enjoy the mountains safely in winter, check the forecast before you go. If the weather is threatening, stay home.
Drive slowly and carry chains, even if above-freezing temperatures are predicted.
Carry overnight gear on long day trips, just in case.
Dress in layers, avoiding cotton.
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best -- and prepare to experience breathtaking beauty.
New to cross-country skiing? You can rent equipment and take downhill and cross-country ski lessons at Yosemite's Badger Pass. Find details at www.yosemitepark.com/BadgerPass.aspx.