Record snowfall turns Yosemite into winter wonderland

Snow turns Yosemite into a winter wonderland

Dick Ewart of the Yosemite Conservancy shows off El Capitan, Mount Hoffman and other wonders of the Yosemite Valley after a record snowfall.
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Dick Ewart of the Yosemite Conservancy shows off El Capitan, Mount Hoffman and other wonders of the Yosemite Valley after a record snowfall.

I have visited Yosemite dozens of times, but only recently made my first trip in the winter. Viewing the park’s familiar features, such as the slate-gray walls of El Capitan and Half Dome, topped with fresh dollops of snow, made me see the place anew.

I had been to Yosemite, but it didn’t look like this.

If you’ve never seen Yosemite in the winter, this is the year to do it. Heavy snow has transformed the park’s higher elevations. The measurement station at Tenaya Lake, for instance, recently recorded snowfall that was twice the average for April 1, more than a month and a half away. With the capriciousness of California weather - years of drought followed by record snow and rain - it could be years before Yosemite gets this much snow. And warm spring weather could soon melt all that snowfall - so don’t wait if you want to see this winter wonderland.

What could be better for any outdoor enthusiast than exploring Yosemite, which the naturalist John Muir called “the grandest of all the special temples of nature I was ever permitted to enter”? Seeing it covered in snow is like frosting on a cake. Don’t take my word for it; look through books by the photographer Ansel Adams and see how often he photographed Yosemite in winter. In his black-and-white photography, the snow shimmers on the page.

Better yet, go to Yosemite and see for yourself, and enjoy winter activities that get you into the snow. On my recent weekend trip, I snowshoed one day and downhill skied the next, adding great fun to the aesthetic pleasure of seeing one of my favorite landscapes streaked in snow. The higher elevations in Yosemite can only be accessed by two roads — Glacier Point and Tioga. The latter road isn’t plowed, making Glacier Point Road the sole route to popular winter sports in the park.

The plows on Glacier Point stop at the ski resort previously called Badger Pass and now named Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area because of a legal dispute with the past operator. Here you can you downhill ski at a resort with chair lifts and rent cross-country skis or snowshoes to explore a network of trails that start at the resort.

Badger Pass was one of California’s first ski resorts when it opened in 1935, and while it has long been surpassed by bigger resorts, it continues to serve as a charming place to downhill ski and as a gateway for other trails and activities. You can ski bigger mountains, but there’s only one resort in Yosemite, and skiing in the iconic park is truly a treat.

Starting at the resort, I went on a guided snowshoe tour with the Yosemite Conservancy, the nonprofit arm of the national park that leads trips for the public and raises funds for projects in the park. While I had enough snowshoeing experience to do the trip on my own, I had been impressed by the level of expertise shown by the conservancy’s naturalists on a trip I took last year to Yosemite’s Lyell Glacier.

I was also impressed with how the conservancy’s naturalists handled three groups of about 10 people each on the trip to Dewey Point. They provided technical assistance for members of the group without snowshoeing experience, while highlighting interesting features on the 7-mile round trip from Badger Pass to a view of Yosemite Valley and back.

The trail wound through snow-covered pines, across meadows and up and down hills before ending at Dewey Point, elevation 7,385 feet and overlooking Yosemite Valley. The trail was covered by about 10 feet of packed snow and surrounded by piles of snow that looked like whipped cream with sugar sparkles. I joked that the snow didn’t look real and the guides had spray-painted it the night before.

Former park ranger and now Conservancy naturalist Dick Ewart pointed out beautiful sights along the way, such as Yosemite Falls on the other side of the valley, framed by snow-covered trees on this side of the valley. (The park’s waterfalls, needless to say, are flowing fabulously.) He told us about interesting bits of biology, like how sugar keeps trees from freezing in the winter.

He encouraged us to smell the Jeffrey pine tree. I pressed my nose against a particularly fat one and caught the unmistakeable whiff of butterscotch.

Ewart did the same thing when he escorted the First Family on a hike at Glacier Point during former President Barack Obama’s Yosemite visit last summer. He said Michelle Obama asked about the Jeffrey pine.

“‘Oh, it’s a Jeffrey pine - come over here and smell it,’” Ewart said he responded. “We were all hugging it and smelling it and I’m sure the Secret Service was going, ‘What are they doing?’”

A little while later, Ewart pointed out some Yosemite Valley landmarks to us — such as Ribbon Falls, which is the tallest single waterfall in the park. People mistakenly think that distinction belongs to Yosemite’s namesake falls, which is made up three separate sections. Ewart then jabbed a finger toward Mount Hoffman, and repeated Muir’s wisdom that it is the best location from which to see the whole park because it stands in the middle of the park.

As interested as I was in his stories, I was more preoccupied with the the snow-covered valley in front of me. Half Dome looked stately with its snow cap like a bald eagle’s white-feathered head.

The next day, a thousand feet higher at the top of Badger Pass, I watched the fog fill the valley along the Merced River, stretching for miles. And I was nearly surrounded by the ridges of snow-covered peaks in the distance.

Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, encouraged the development of Badger Pass, according to a history of the resort. He wanted skiing and other wintertime pursuits to attract people to Yosemite, believing that would help them better appreciate nature. Honestly, I came for the nature first and the activity second. But skiing and snowshoeing make nature-watching a lot more fun.