Walking in a Winter Wonderland...

Published: January 13th 2009
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Yule time is a special time of Christmas trees, carols, cheer, church, family, friends, gifts, candy and Santa Claus. Nearly anyone who lives in the Northern Hemisphere can relate- December 21 is the death of darkness when the days only get longer. Others can relate to the birth of Jesus on December 25. We welcome the light of the world by bringing a conifer tree into the home, singing songs and giving gifts. There's just something about the mystique of the snow and the forest that seems to echo the solitude and splendor of Winter.

How fortunate to be able to drive just 3 hours north on Christmas day and find yourself amongst the forest, snow and mountains of Yosemite! Perhaps the most impossible of landscapes Mother Nature has provided humans, this time of the year the 3.5 million annual visitors were all very far away. A strong Pacific storm, a blizzard in fact, dumped 1 meter of snow the night before in the entire Sierra Nevada. In turn this caused trees to fall over and roads to be closed. After spending Christmas with my family, Laetitia and I chased the tail of this storm north from Fresno into the majestic mountains of California.

I agreed to be a guide during the holiday for a fellow travelblogger. Stopping for 4 days in California before a 2 week adventure in Costa Rica, laetitiaaroundtheworld got the full American Christmas of food, presents and a Protestant Church service. Then it was off to the fabled valley of Yosemite and finally Big Sur. We drove a total of 1,159 km through Central California in 5 Days, and this trip to Yosemite this was the first leg!

There are 3 major highways into Yosemite Valley. The southern freeway(Highway 41) is arguably the most efficient, with just 90 relatively straight foward kilometers from the flatlands of Fresno to the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias at the park's southern entrance. Leaving from Fresno there was blue skies to the west, and grey clouds to the east. Chasing its tail as the passing storm moved east, we saw the gifts in its wake: rain and snow. So much snow in fact, so low, that the first patches appeared at under 1000 meters which is rare for this part of California. Just outside Fresno Laetitia said "how strange to see palm trees and in the distance snow covered mountains." This is why I love California and Chile!

Once were within
Upper Yosemite Falls PanoramaUpper Yosemite Falls PanoramaUpper Yosemite Falls Panorama

a free fall of over 1,430 ft (436 m)
striking distance of the entrance to Yosemite, wet snow became ice on the road making chains mandatory. After a quick stop we were on our way again through the snow covered forest above Oakhurst. It was truly magical- for what is in summer a bland continuity of manzanita bushes, oaks and assorted pines became a scene from a fairy tale in winter. Just 10 miles shy from Yosemite traffic stopped. We got out of our cars as everyone else did, sliding on the icy road and watching as impatient assholes who obviously have little experience driving in snow first pass, then slide into embankments! Do they think all traffic is stopped because the road ahead is passable? It was comical to watch the man get out, put chains on (finally, but onyl one tire?) and try to get out of the snow. Word came from a local that someone had slid into a snow drift on a steep curve and we were waiting for a towtruck to pull the car out.

As we waited, we heard a abrupt, almost unoticable noise in the distance. 10 minutes later a man who had walked all the way up the chain of cars returned with news: A large pine tree had just fallen on top of a car with 8 people! No one was hurt, but its a virtual guarentee that no one is getting to Yosemite through this road anytime soon. I decided it was best to be first to turn around the car and get into Yosemite through another route. So that's what we did, going back downhill, taking off the chains, driving through more snow flurries and very heavy rain. By the time we got to Mariposa it was totally dark with 2 hours left to drive. Following the Merced River with no other cars in sight, the biggest concern about the central route into Yosemite along highway 140 is landslides. Soon the rain turned to snow, and we arrived in Yosemite at 11pm. What should have been a 3 hour drive took 8 hours!

I've been to Yosemite dozens of times, but even in the dark I knew I had never seen it like this. Snow, LOTS of snow. Over a meter of snow, so much I could not find the usually easy entrance to Curry Village. Parking consisted of driving through 2 feet of snow, spinning tires and finding a decent spot so as not to get stuck the next day. I didn't have the chains on!

We found reception, our tent cabin and quickly fell asleep. Not that sleeping was terribly easy, for right across from us a tree had recently fallen on another tent cabin!

The next day was something happened that I had hoped for- crystal clear blue skies. This is the nature of storms in the Sierra Nevada. When they come, they dump meters of snow- then they leave quietly, leaving in their wake blue skies for weeks. It was magical, Yosemite Falls had even frozen overnight and was just a trickle. We drove up to to Tunnel View, hands down the best "Holy Shit!" view of Yosemite Valley. We stopped at the El capitan overlook and watched as avalanches and ice went into a 400 meter freefall before making a thunderous crash as the landed in the valley. After a quick change, the journey up to Yosemite Falls began in earnest.

I wasn't sure if the trail would be totally impassible without snowshoes. Basically a series of switchbacks, the trail to Columbia Rock and then Yosemite Falls seems impossible from the bottom of the valley. But up it goes nevertheless, and thankfully we were not the first ones on the trail that day. After an hour or two we reached Columbia Rock- and the view was breathtaking. The misty clouds were forming from sublimated snow and evaporated rain, clinging to the forested granite cliffs as a child clings to its mother. The valley below us was glistening in the snowy gift mother nature had given the night before. Half Dome looked on with benevolence. It was truly the most beautiful thing I had seen in the past few years!

We took many pictures and realized it might be best to descend before it got too late. Our feet wet and cold, our senses tuned, our attitudes giddy we went down the trail talking about this or that. Our chatter was the very reason I was so shocked to run into a Black Bear on the trail, 10 meters away! He was as shocked as we were, very large, a Yosemite Bear and very close- all reasons for me to be very afraid. This first moment is the most crucial. Is he a wild bear uninterested in my food? Is it a momma with a cub? Does he feel threatened? I followed the bear sighting protocol, and slowly we stepped backwards uptrail while I spoke out loud to the bear. "We aren't going to hurt you Mr. Bear! Im sorry we surprised you, we are just trying to get back home Mr. Bear!" After a brief stare, he turned downhill and walked away. WHEW!! I had NO idea what I was going to do if he came towards me. This bear was about the 8th bear I'd seen in the Sierra's in 8 years of trips- but he was by far the largest! This is probably because we was fat for hibernation, and had had enough of the cold and snow and finally decided to make a den for the winter. Yosemite Valley bears are notoriously active all year long and actively seek out human food. Fortunately this bear was totally wild and looking back, as just as frightened as we were!

When we made our way down trail, Mr. Bear had continued uphill, cutting a switchback. He climbed over large boulders with his massive paws, always looking back at us to make sure we weren't going to cause trouble. Wow. What an experience with what some call the apogee of mammal evolution, the Bear. They can run 50 km an hour, climb trees, have eyesight as good as humans, a sense of smell like a dog, the endurance of horse, the strength of an ox- yet still they choose to avoid humans instead of devouring us for dinner! No Stephen Colbert I disagree, bears are NOT Godless Killing Machines!


A Zen Master was serving tea to the King of a Great Empire. He poured his cup full, and then kept on pouring. The King watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!" "Like this cup," the monk said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


My truck!My truck!
My truck!

FYI, it gets 25 mpg (11 km per liter)

13th January 2009

Wow! You've got some beautiful scenery around there! Absolutely stunning photographs as usual. Yosemite looks like an amazing place - I hope to see it myself one day. :) Enjoy your snowy holidays!
13th January 2009

Great blog!
Eheh! Well done :-) Great blog and pics as usual and reminds me lots of happy memories! Thanks again for being such a great host and giving me the chance to discover Yosemite and Big Sur (looking forward to read that blog too!) Merci!!
13th January 2009

Beautiful photography
I've been wanting to visit Yosemite in the winter. Now I know why. Love your photos.
13th January 2009

Beautiful photography
I've been wanting to visit Yosemite in the winter. Now I know why. Love your photos.
13th January 2009

Hi there. Great to see your photos of Yosemite in winter. I had a great time there in september but haven't yet posted my blog. I've been trying to draw itinerary lines of my trips on maps with no success. The map of your trip looks great, could you tell me what website you've used and give me a few basic tips on how to do it? Many thanks and best of luck in your journeys. Jose
13th January 2009

Thanks to All!
Thank you all for the comments, comments always make me happY! As for the map, it was done on maps.google.com Instructions are on the page, but basically you select a start point, and end point, and then add destinations. you can also drag the destination flags if you want to make it more accurate!
13th January 2009

That's a real winter wonderland
Thanks for cheering me up on a grey English evening. Stunning snowy photos. You're on my recommended list now.
13th January 2009

What stunning photo's! I especially love 'Enchanting Forest'. We don't really get that kind of thing in much of Oz. Becautiful.
14th January 2009

Awesome photos!!! I've never seen photos of Yosemite as good as these. It makes me want to go there! I've never been there, so I'm adding it to my "Bucket List".
15th January 2009

Beautiful winter
Can't beat the blue skies in winter, looks great. Nice bear shot, too!
21st January 2009

Stunning Images
Stunning crystal clear images, the cold wintry light makes Yosemite look even better at this time of year than the summer months. You should be rightly proud of those photos they are beautiful. Well done!
30th June 2009

Incredibly inspiring
Stephan. I already want to travel so badly. This makes me want to just DO IT! Thank you.
26th November 2010

Yosemite in winter
We were told by our guide that if we wanted to have a look at the true beauty of the Yosemite in winter then we have to manage to get up early in the morning. we just made it and had the enchanting glimpse of the frozen falls and hear the sounds made by the ice while it begins to break down loose. http://www.travelamerica360.com/yosemite-in-winter.html

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