Catching the winter sunset behind Half Dome, the 87-million-year-old granite landmark in the heart of Yosemite Valley, is as easy as bundling up and stationing...
“Yosemite Valley to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
Photographer Ansel Adams
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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK Catching the winter sunset behind Half Dome, the 87-million-year-old granite landmark in the heart of Yosemite Valley, is as easy as bundling up and stationing yourself at a bridge overlooking the Merced River around cocktail hour.
If you’re lucky, the sun will bounce off the clouds at just the right moment, spreading a pinkish-red flame across the sky an effect known as the alpenglow.
Chasing the sunrise is a different matter. I discovered this just after 6 a.m. as I pulled on my parka and hiking boots and left my hotel room in the darkness.
Californians Richard and Susan Boone were among a handful of others out early, too. We met as we walked along an icy path toward Yosemite Falls, and they invited me to join them for the morning vigil.
For the next 45 minutes, we stood talking and shivering in the cold. The sun rose over the Sierra Nevadas, but the sky was clear. No clouds. No alpenglow. We would be rewarded instead with a bright, sunny day, and for now, a dawn view of the moon hung above the granite face of El Capitan.
An hour later, friends and I were having breakfast in the dining room of the Ahwahnee Hotel, a luxury lodge opened in 1927 and still the park’s showpiece accommodation.
We sat next to a picture window under a ceiling made of sugar pine trestles. Dave Weller, who has worked in the park since 1972, brought raspberry crepes and oatmeal and explained that the alpenglow is only visible about 20 percent of the time.
Since we were there for only a long weekend, the red hue made famous in so many photos of the park might elude us, he said but we would also miss the crowds, traffic, parking problems, and “no vacancy” signs for which Yosemite is famous in spring and summer.
“During April, May, June, July … nearly every table in here is taken,” Weller said, gesturing to the nearly empty dining room. Only five tables were occupied, and he and the other waiters had time to chat.
Nearly 4 million people visit Yosemite each year, but only about 100,000 a month visit in the winter compared with 600,000 in peak season.
“Winter is the only time we come here,” Richard Boone told me as we walked at sunrise. He and his family visit every year to ski, snowshoe and hike. “You just fall in love with it. You can’t help yourself.”
Yosemite has a downhill, snowboarding and cross country ski area called Badger Pass. With a top elevation of 8,000 feet and an 800-foot vertical drop, it’s not Aspen. It’s not even Alpental, and although the snow makes for great family fun, it’s not the real reason for someone from Seattle to make a trip here in winter.
The star attraction is Yosemite Valley, a seven-mile stretch of meadows and forests, cut by the Merced River and surrounded by plunging waterfalls, granite rocks and half-frozen lakes. Three weeks ago, the valley floor was covered in snow, but rain is more common this time of year. Either way, the weather daytime temperatures average of 30 to 55 degrees and the terrain are ideal for hiking.
Yosemite boasts two of the world’s tallest waterfalls. El Capitan, a 3,500-foot hunk of sheer granite, is the tallest unbroken cliff in the world. Near the park’s south entrance is the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, where some of the trees are nearly 3,000 years old.
With just three days to explore and so much to see, we scrapped plans to rent skis, even snowshoes, and instead just set out each day to walk Yosemite in winter.
Rivers and waterfalls
In the summer, as many as 70 people might join one of the park’s free guided ranger walks. But on this winter afternoon, just eight of us showed up for Margaret Eissler’s hour-and-a-half “Rivers and Waterfalls” walk.
The greatest alterations in Yosemite Valley were made by glaciers 500 million years ago when the Sierra Nevada region was submerged beneath a sea. The first of at least three glaciers extended down the Merced River canyon, while the last left a moraine of rock debris damming the river back into the valley.
“Water, in all its forms, had everything to do with this place,” she Eissler said.
Once a flutist for the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, Eissler has worked at Yosemite since 1985, and one of her favorite spots is the 81-mile stretch of the Merced that runs through the park.
“It’s where the history of life developed in this area,” she told us as we walked in the snow to the river’s edge. “In the spring, it’s a raging torrent. I may not even feel comfortable standing here.”
This afternoon, the river was so calm we could see the reflections of trees in its glassy surface. “Sometimes, it’s so loud, you hear it all the time,” Eissler said. “Other times, it’s very quiet, and you can hardly hear it at all.”
Somewhere in her pack, she had the hikers’ 10 essentials matches, water, first-aid kit etc. but she also made room for a small tape recorder, a few rocks, a copy of Nature Conservancy magazine and some index cards with famous quotes about rivers.
She switched on the recorder and played a tone poem from the Czech orchestral piece “The Moldau,” with flutes interpreting the movement and sounds of the Molda River as it flows from its source in the Bohemian mountains to Prague.
The Merced’s channel was deepened and widened over the years, and its flow changed, but a restoration program begun after a flood in 1997 is helping to return the river to its natural condition.
Eissler passed out the index cards, and we each read a quote aloud. Mine was from a Japanese conservationist named Tanaka Shozo.
“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers,” it said, “but of the human heart.”
Yosemite contains nearly 40 types of native trees, but its most famous are the giant sequoias, some standing more than 290 feet tall. In terms of total volume height and girth they are the Earth’s largest living things.
Mid-May through October, a one-hour tram tour transports tourists through the Mariposa Grove where more than 500 trees are spread out over 250 acres.
In winter, the road is closed and the area is open only to those up for a six- to eight-mile, round-trip trek.
We considered skis or snowshoes, but it was clear and sunny, and the snow was hard-packed enough to walk on in hiking boots.
Our first glimpse of a sequoia came about two miles into our walk. It was a giant tree with a burned out trunk large enough to crawl inside. We continued walking along a narrow path, past a gift shop closed for the winter, into what’s known as the lower grove. There we spotted a downed tree with its roots exposed. Called the Fallen Monarch, the tree fell more than 300 years ago and was made famous in an 1889 photo of U.S. Calvary officers and their horses standing on top.
We picnicked under a tree called the Grizzly Giant. At 2,700 years old, it’s one of the oldest living sequoias, and it reminded us of Ents, the walking and talking fantasy trees in “The Lord of the Rings.” Its top limbs were outstretched like giant arms, one almost 7 feet in diameter.
So many people use the 4.5-mile Mirror Lake loop trail in summer that a sign directs cyclists to park their bikes at the base of the hill and walk to the lake to avoid running into pedestrians on the way back down. By late summer, the lake really a shallow pool on the Tenaya Creek dries up, but it runs high in winter, with ice and snow formations that transform its appearance.
Some of the park’s black bears are out this time of year, and a sign at the trailhead warns that this is also mountain-lion territory. Luckily, the only living things we ran into on a late-afternoon walk were a few cross-country skiers and a group of students from South Korea.
Ice harvested from the lake once made it possible to store food in Yosemite, and in the 1870s, a bath house and dance pavilion were built over the water.
Mirror Lake today is preserved as a natural area, and the views and reflections of Half Dome, the Tenaya Canyon and the granite walls of Mount Watkins are the reasons to come.
This is a prime nesting spot for peregrine falcons and spotted bats, two of the park’s endangered species.
Interpretive signs explain that the black, rootlike portions of the bracken ferns which grow here were harvested and used by the Miwok and Paiute Indian tribes to make geometric designs in the kinds of woven baskets for sale in park gift shops and on display in the park museum.
“What’s so interesting about Yosemite is the way things change minute by minute,” said Ann Quintero, a photographer from Sacramento who’s been coming to the park for 35 years.
We met on a camera walk guided by Sara Bateman, a Washington resident who graduated with a degree in photography and anthropology from The Evergreen State College, and now is a guide for the Ansel Adams Gallery in the park.
Adams, known for his black-and-white landscape photos of U.S. national parks, most especially Yosemite, died in 1984 at age 82. He lived in Yosemite Valley until the 1960s with his wife, the former Virginia Best. Her father, a painter, owned Best Studio, which was passed on to the couple and is now the Ansel Adams Gallery, owned and operated by his family.
Quintero and I were huddled with about a dozen others on the Sentinel Bridge at sunset, cameras on tripods poised over the Merced River as we waited, once again, for the alpenglow to appear over Half Dome. But it had been another cloudless day, and once again, the sky failed to light up.
The view of Half Dome from here is the same one that appears in a 1938 photo Adams took in winter. But most people who come to Yosemite attempting to duplicate his photos go away disappointed, Bateman said.
Her advice: Create something unique on your own by looking for a different angle, or shooting at a different time of day.
“Try it around 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” she suggested. Light passes over the valley, creating shadows and colors different from those at sunrise and sunset.
A dozen of us who had joined her walk followed her across a snowy meadow scattered with frozen milkweeds. Behind us was Yosemite Falls, and as we turned around to shoot, a rainbow appeared. It could have faded at any moment, but Bateman encouraged us to take our time and look for an unusual angle.
She led us past a circle of tall pines, and there we saw our picture the upper and lower portions of the falls framed behind the blackened branches of a lone tree and a misty band of fog above a layer of snow.
As for the alpenglow, we finally did see it from the window of our plane as we flew over the mountains back to Seattle.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com