Winter camping in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley to Merced Lake
14 miles / 23 km (three nights of winter camping)
28-31 December 2014

It was two days after Christmas. Full of eggnog we drove to Yosemite National Park and stayed at the infamous climbing campground, Camp 4. Unfortunately I didn’t wake up the next day with magical climbing powers just from sleeping there.

Our plan for the next four days was a relaxing hike up to Little Yosemite Valley to camp for the night. From there we’d walk to Merced Lake and camp for two nights before walking all the way out on the last day.

Parking Smokey the Subaru we took all food and our camping box and packed them, along with a lot of trust, in the bear boxes of Happy Isles Trailhead. From there I plodded up the asphalt start, happily letting day hikers with one water bottle step lightly past me.

Dikko and I automatically followed the trail we’d taken with my sister in November the previous year. What we didn’t know was this ‘shortcut’ to Vernal Falls was closed because of ice. Somewhat dumbly we figured the warm weather and number of tourists heading up the trail meant the it wasn’t too icy.

It was icy. People were on bums or all fours, precariously sliding about. I was more worried about being taken out by a flying body than slipping myself. I carefully tapped my way up the steps and reached an icy rail for support. Dikko decided to take the time to don his snowshoes, the teeth at the front giving good purchase.

Above Nevada Falls the frozen crust pushed by water underneath

Above Vernal Falls the frozen crust pushed by moving water underneath

Home-made German honey biscuit Christmas Tree from my sis in Australia!

Hard to see but this is one of the home-made honey biscuits! Yummo!

We lunched at the back of Vernal Falls, including one of many home-made, German honey biscuit from my sister, sent all the way from Australia for Christmas! It was bliss, not to mention the icing artistry tasted pretty awesome too.

We carefully trudged up passing the impressive Nevada Falls before reaching Little Yosemite Valley. With plenty of time we set up camp and huddled in our down jackets on damp pine logs, a boiling saucepan giving the illusion of warmth. A lone other hiker had a roaring campfire and, as I crept in to our tent for the night, I admired the effort.

The following morning we leveraged the way we’d structured our trip to have a relaxing start. I only moved when the sun seemed to be penetrating the thick pines. We’d be heading to Merced Lake today and I was looking forward to seeing what Yosemite held beyond the valley.

A laminated card attached to a post shows the restricted area

A laminated card attached to a post shows the restricted area (pic by Dikko)

Impacts of the fires in September 2014 in Little Yosemite Valley

Impacts of the fires in September 2014 in Little Yosemite Valley – Half Dome in the background

In September 2014 there’d been a large fire in the area, and many hikers were evacuated by helicopter. The scars of the fire were nothing but stark. Hollow trunks still smouldered months later, and the National Parks office had enforced a restricted area where you were not allowed to camp for risk of falling trees.

It felt more like an avalanche-prone zone than a peaceful forest. I valued the different landscape, the smell of the blazed pines and the colors – a bluest of Californian blue sky, grey granite, black trunks and white snow.

The trail meandered, typically following the Merced River and leading us further into the backcountry. We passed one other hiker who was on a day walk. Our snowshoes were practically comical as there were minor patches not worth the trouble. While the snow increased, I noticed the only other footprints were those of coyotes, who for whatever reason tracked right on the hiking trail.

Walking in to Merced Lake

Walking in to Merced Lake – the trail crosses a few icy sections like this

Reaching Merced Lake around 4pm we worked efficiently to set up camp before dark. It was confusing where to camp with no clear existing sites in the snow, so we set up near an existing fire ring and pitched our tent on snow-free pine needles under a generous tree.

I was happy to go to bed early and wriggled about to create my winter camping sleeping set up. Inside the sleeping bag I wore Smartwool thermal pants and thermal top, then a cheap balaklava that allowed me to twist my hair at the back so it didn’t let any cold air in around my neck or ears. I’ve found this better than a beanie that eventually always falls off or twists around pulling my hair while I sleep.

Anyway, what man wouldn’t want to share a tent with a woman who looks like Sir Douglas Mawson?

The third day it was sunny with little wind. After relaxing with breakfast and coffee, Dikko decided he wanted to explore further along the river. He kitted up and went for a walk. With the intent of reading I spent more time gazing at pines and eating home-made biscotti (another treat all the way from Australia, this time from my mum!) with cups of tea that cooled faster than I could drink them.

Me enjoying a piece of my Mum's homemade biscotti all the way from Australia!

Home-made biscotti and sunshine (Pic by Dikko)

Dikko as he left to go exploring further up the "trail"

Dikko as he left to go exploring for a few hours

Finally inspired to act, later in the day I became motivated to build a fire. Surely I could fashion something dry to burn from somewhere? I carefully selected wood that was already fallen and sheltered from wet snow or ice. Sprinkling my little nest of sticks MSR fuel, I lit the twigs and slowly fed the kindling on. Dikko returned from his walk and, after coaxing the fire further, we went together to collect water.

Collecting water from the Merced River to treat by boiling (too cold for SteriPen)

Collecting water from the Merced River to treat by boiling (too cold for SteriPen) (pic by Dikko)

Step aside Sir Douglas Mawson, I got this fire covered

Step aside Mawson, I got this fire covered (pic by Dikko)

The fire made all the difference that night. We were able to sit out below freezing and peer at the stars. Plane lights flew their usual course across the Sierra Nevada, and satellites whizzed thousands of kilometres beyond. A long log that had been near the firepit all along proved perfect for feeding the fire, though it burned surprisingly quickly. As the embers glowed and the heat disappeared, we called it a night.

The fourth, and final, day of our winter camping trip in Yosemite National Park was another beautiful clear day. We’d expected good weather from the forecast but, as always in the mountains, you never know what the weather has in store. We were grateful for the blue skies and packed camp, ensured the fire was well out, then retraced our steps back toward Little Yosemite Valley.

Walking out

Walking out – Dikko coming down an icier section

Not long after the photo above was taken, I found some shiny Apple headphones on the trail. Obviously being dropped recently I wondered how far away the owner was. Walking further there was a young man with a large backpack waltzing across the icy sections of the trail. I say waltzing because his nonchalant approach was quite amazing on sections where you could easily slip. I asked if he’d lost some headphones and he had. Returning them we followed him on the trail and I decided he was quite inexperienced. I wondered what made him decide to winter camp alone.

Reaching a steeper icy section I shouted to the other hiker to stop. He was about to go down the most exposed part of the trail with footwear akin to sandshoes. I told him we’d be putting our snowshoes on and he should do the same. Thankfully he followed suit.

I went down the slope first, facing toward a cliff with the small 15m drop behind me. Watching the solo hiker come down I cringed as solar lights and a sleeping bag tied to the outside of his pack swung about his legs. I waited for him, grabbed the sleeping bag, unclipped it and went down.

You’d think I was being helpful, but in fact I was protecting my own interests. If he’d fallen we would’ve had to have helped and rescued him, and that wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my time in Yosemite. I was frustrated someone so inexperienced was in this environment alone. Perhaps instructing him grumpily was a nice thing to do after all. Safely down he asked directions about the walk out, so I showed him on our map and he carried on ahead.

We tried to make good time along Little Yosemite Valley, back past the burned trees and behind Half Dome, down to Nevada Falls. This time we took the detour to avoid the ice below Vernan Falls, the trail winding back up the hill and making me question many times if the detour was worth it.

Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls at dusk

Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls at dusk (pic by Dikko)

Rigidly I hobbled down further. My knees and ankles were being smashed by the hard, asphalt-covered and long detour we were now on. A few day hikers passed us as the sun dipped behind the giant granite. About a third of the way down from the top I heard a yelp. Dikko’s ankle had really given up. He was able to walk, just without his pack.

I repacked my bag and added as much as I could from Dikko’s bag. Then, compressing his backpack as much as possible I wore his bag on my front. If I thought my knees were stiffening before they certainly were with 40+ kg to carry. I peered over the front bag and continued to hobble down into the dark.

Reaching the end of the trail I was super relieved. I wonkily jogged back to Happy Isles Trailhead, where I grabbed the gear from the bear boxes and cranked the car heater, heading back up the road to pick up Dikko. We’d planned to camp in the tent that night but all plans were out the window with the time it’d taken to get down.

Our winter camping trip ended with the two of us, smelly and bedraggled, eating a gigantic pizza amongst perfumed and tidy park visitors of Currie Village. Full of pizza we drove around and totally lucked out to get a room (albeit for a price) at the Yosemite Lodge. Every convenience like hot water from the tap was a fun luxury, and if you feel like that then it’s not a bad way to end a trip (or a year for that matter!)

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