How to have Yosemite all to yourself

This February I had the good fortune of being in one of my absolute favorite places, Yosemite. In the past few years I have had some trips to the park during the off season but this was the first time I experienced a feeling of solitude the entire time I was there. The valley was quiet the Friday morning we rolled in, with barely a soul in sight. The trails were empty. I took in nearly every view in a silence that is usually only possible if you are the first to summit. On top of it all, I awoke each morning to an incredible view of the sun rising behind Half Dome. Sheer bliss.  (Looking for the "secret" to having this type of experience? You will find it at the end of this article.)

For the past few years a group of friends has been doing a cross country ski trip to the Glacier Point Ski Hut. Having missed these trips for various reasons, I decided early this year that I was all in. This would be my first cross country ski trip (one of my adventure goals for the year) and I had been looking forward to the new experience. I hoped that the lack of snow early in the season was just a sign that it would dump in February and March. Unfortunately, that was not been the case for the water hungry Sierra. In the weeks leading up to this trip there was literally no snow on the ground and not a storm in the forecast. With no snow, I assumed we would be hiking the 10 miles from Badger Pass rather than skiing it. A few days before the trip we were notified that our route would have to change, and that we would check in at The Mountain Shop in Yosemite Valley and hike up the Four Mile Trail. We also learned that snow was in the forecast for the weekend (yay!) but this could mean an evacuation from the lodge if they were forced to close the Four Mile Trail due to icy conditions (aka dangerous to the average hiker who only comes to Yosemite with Keds).

Deterred not, we left Santa Barbara after work on Thursday and stayed in Oakhurst that night. Waking up Friday morning I felt like a kid about to go to Disneyland for the first time. Apparently my mood was obvious because one of my friends, in a groggy voice, asked me how much coffee I had already. (Translation, why are you so hyper this early?) What can I say, I’m a morning person. Sorry, not sorry. hehe… We headed to Yosemite Valley and stopped just before the tunnel to catch a view of Half Dome nestled among the clouds. Turns out if was a good stop, since the clouds had it covered up by the time we got to the Tunnel View.

Half Dome hidden in the clouds

When we got to The Mountain Shop our fears of potential evacuation were alleviated. They did not think this storm was going to bring much snow, so we should be good. The clouds were starting to gather at this point, so we parked the cars, put on our pack covers, and started off across the valley towards the Four Mile Trail. We were welcomed by a fearless bobcat, apparently out for a morning stroll. After this interaction, my friend Whitney proclaimed, “Well, I can go home happy now.” It is not the average day that you are feet away from a bobcat. 

Yosemite Falls

We started up the trail, which is a pretty grueling climb with a pack. Luckily, one really cush thing about the Glacier Point Ski Hut is that the hut master, Ryan, cooks you breakfast and dinner, and provides a decent spread of sandwich makings and snacks for to-go lunches. Not having to carry food up the 3,000 feet gained in elevation made a big difference. (Ok, maybe it just left more room for whiskey and beer.) Either way, the 5+ miles from the Valley to Glacier Point with a decently loaded pack is one of the most strenuous short hikes I have done. After some gorgeous views of Yosemite Falls and a celebratory beer or two along the way, we were greeted by a nice fire at the hut as it started to snow. 

The start of the Four Mile Trail

View of Yosemite Falls from Four Mile Trail

About halfway up Four Mile Trail

After a night of game playing, whiskey sipping, and meeting new friends, I awoke with the sun. Though I easily could have rolled over and slept on my bunk for another hour I could not wait to get a good look at Half Dome, which had been covered by clouds the day before. I pulled on my boots, grabbed my camera, and enjoyed watching the sun rise and the clouds dance around Half Dome. It seemed the clouds, like me, had a magnetic pull to the awesome rock. Eventually they moved enough for me to see my new favorite spot in the Park, Clouds Rest (aptly named), which is just past Half Dome from this view. I sat and soaked in the quiet and beauty of the freshly dusted Sierra. Soon, the rest of the crew poured their coffee and joined me outside. Before long we were packed up for our day on the Panorama Trail.

A moody Half Dome (Clouds Rest is in the clouds behind it)

Half Dome and some awesome adventure buddies

In a typical year with lots of snow, the group’s usual plan is to stay relatively close to the hut, either skiing or snowshoeing to Sentinal Dome or Taft Point. This year we made the best of our rather snowless situation and decided to hike the Panorama Trail to Nevada Falls. This was a hike I had never done before, so I was quite excited to see what it had in store for us. We passed over Illouette Falls, slightly slipped our way down some icy granite, and made our way to the top of Nevada Falls for a very frosty lunch stop. While we were hiking, the clouds came back we made our way back to the hut in a flurry of perfect snow. A couple of people in the group had never been in falling snow before, and I can only imagine that this felt like being in their own Yosemite snow globe. It was absolutely still and perfect.

Heading off on the Panorama Trail

Illouette Falls, above the fall

After two gorgeous days and snowy nights in the lodge, it was time to say goodbye to our view of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Nevada and Vernal Falls, and the vast eastern Sierra. We made a quick sunset hike to Sentinel Dome to soak in the 360 degree views, then began the hike down Four Mile Trail. The way down may have been far easier on the lungs but left me with a reminder of the trip for days to come (steep downhills leave this girl’s legs nice and sore). 

Sunrise over the eastern Sierra

The reward for our sunrise hike up Sentinel Dome

What is the secret to having Yosemite all to yourself?  

Simple. Use the off season to your advantage. If you want to experience a national park without the crowds, there is no time like the off season. This may not be some huge secret  but it is clearly a strategy that still works even in the most crowded parks. 

There are several options in the valley for camping or finding a heated room. Or there is the Glacier Point Ski Hut. It is a little more work to get there but worth every bit of effort if you're up for the challenge. If you would rather camp but still want to views at Glacier Point, you can just ski/hike in and camp (no permit required November-April). Be sure to check to see if the Four Mile Trail is open for hiking or Badger Pass is open for cross country skiing. If you decide to take advantage of the warm fire and hot meals at the hut, be sure to plan early. The Ski Hut is only available in the winter and is open for a limited number of weekends, so it fills up fast. You can reserve a spot up to a year in advance (and people do).