We headed to Yosemite for a winter backpacking trip with one goal: Find snow and set up a tent. My boyfriend Sam had never camped in the snow or backpacked specifically in Yosemite National Park and so, as a fan of both, I wanted to personally share with him one of my favorite activities in one of my favorite places in the world.
We live in Berkeley and work freelancer schedules, so we jumped in the car on a Tuesday and headed up to Yosemite Valley. We spent our first night in the emptiest Camp 4 (the only first come, first served, walk-in camp in Yosemite Valley) I’ve ever seen; just a handful of tents and absolutely no competition for a site. It was wonderful and we celebrated with hot ramen and an early bedtime, tucked away in our cozy sleeping bags beneath the stars.
Even though the Valley has seen plenty of snow in its years, there was none when we arrived. No chains needed to get into the park, no snow, no chance of snow, and plenty of sunshine during the day.
Armed with a wilderness permit and our packs, we hiked up Nevada and Vernal Falls. The Mist Trail, one of the popular Summer day hikes, is normally closed in the wintertime, but with a record drought in California this year, the stone steps up the side of the waterfall were exposed. We passed few people on the way up and had the entire top of both iconic falls to ourselves.
I’ve never seen it like this; in all my years of hiking Yosemite, there’s been a line to take a photo next to the falls. This year? We took our time.
We hiked all the way to Merced Lake, through burned trees still recovering from the big Yosemite fire that raged here a few months ago. Some of the campsites are closed along that trail (they’ve burned down completely), so we did about 14 miles in the first day. Although it was beautiful, the trail wasn’t easy, with spots of ice on some of the rocks that we navigated carefully. When it feels just like spring, it’s easy to forget that it’s really still winter.
Our reward for the long first day was an incredible view of Merced Lake. A dry springtime on our side and a snow covered granite and a frozen water on the far side. Even more than that? We had the entire campsite to ourselves! It was backpacker’s pantry pad thai for dinner (yum!) and a round of cards (I won).
In the morning, we headed back down to Little Yosemite Valley. We set up our tent in the golden afternoon light and lingered over a chocolate bar. The stars were out in full force, and we could even see the winter Milky Way. Unintentionally, every night of our backpacking trip featured dark skies and bright stars, thanks to a perfect new moon. Sam even saw a shooting star!
In the morning, we were greeted by a stunning grey fox. She spent almost an hour sitting, watching us, chasing the crows near our campsite, and just padding around. We watched her until the sun started to get too high in the sky as we needed to head out for Yosemite Valley.
We went to Yosemite looking for real winter. I wanted to share backpacking in Yosemite and the beauty of solitary snow camping with my best friend. But this year, winter in Yosemite was not that. Despite a few big storms, California is still in the middle of a serious drought, and in the park, it shows. Instead of #findingwinter, we stumbled upon a beautiful Spring trip without any of the crowds.
Did we find snow and true winter camping? Nope. Did I share the magic of a perfect backpacking trip in the always incredible Yosemite National Park? Absolutely. Snow or not, we’ll be there every winter from now on.