Learn to love winter camping this Solstice
By Leonie Sherman
The winter solstice is coming! December 22 will be two seconds longer than December 21, and within a month we’ll be gaining a minute and a half every day. Even though this marks the tipping of the scales, the turning of the season, the return of the light, it also marks the beginning of the coldest, snowiest months. What better way to celebrate than by spending a night at 7,200 feet, perched on the lip of California’s most dramatic valley?
Glacier Point boasts iconic views of Yosemite, from a promontory 3,200 feet above the valley floor. During summer months, the road is clogged with RVs, and tourists crowd the parking areas. Most spend less than an hour and go home with photographs of the panoramic view which features Half Dome and thundering Nevada and Vernal waterfalls. Just a mile away is the bald top of Sentinel Dome, with an even more breathtaking vista and the weathered remains of a Jeffrey pine Ansel Adams made famous.
The road closes with the first snow. Even a thin white blanket brings a hush to the surrounding forests and meadows. Rodents and deer abandon the area for warmer climes lower down. Some birds remain, crouching in the shelter of trees or flitting from branch to branch despite the frigid temperatures. Life slows down when cold seeps in and darkness takes over.
During winter, the metal gate that bars automobiles welcomes wilderness lovers and winter adventurers. For the past 35 years, the park has groomed the ten and a half miles of road to Glacier Point. They start as soon as there’s enough snow and provide maintenance through March. Those two smooth sets of skiable tracks encourage winter exploration of Yosemite’s back country and make skiing easier and safer.
Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area is the start of any winter Glacier Point expedition. The concession has hot food and there’s a Nordic ski center with rental equipment and knowledgeable staff nearby. Permits are required for overnight travel; the Wilderness Center, located in a quaint A-frame cabin, is open from 8am-5pm. Rangers are happy to help you plan your trip.
Two ski huts are accessible from Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. The Ostrander Hut involves a strenuous ski along an unmarked route and often takes experienced parties over eight hours. Bunks cost $50 a night and reservations are required. A moderate ski to the end of the groomed Glacier Point road brings you to Glacier Point Ski Hut — a cheery hut where dinner is provided. The following morning’s breakfast and a sack lunch are also included in the price; $137 per person per night for a self-guided party of six or $350 each for a guided tour. These huts glow amidst the snowy surroundings and welcome the weary winter traveler.
But maybe hot cocoa and a crackling fire aren’t the best ways to celebrate the winter solstice. Maybe to fully appreciate the depth and meaning of the longest night of the year, you need to spend 14 hours in a fluffy down cocoon listening to the wind whisper through branches. Glacier Point is the perfect place to learn to love winter camping.
Don’t let fear of long nights and frozen fingers discourage you. With the proper gear, a good book and an old friend, that frigid night you’ve been dreading will become one of your warmest and most treasured memories. Though you’re a ten and a half mile ski from basic medical treatment, the Glacier Point hut keeper can help with emergencies. If events turn catastrophic, a snowmobile can reach you in less than an hour. The groomed track allows a beginning skier with decent aerobic conditioning to get to Glacier Point in a casual day.
The journey begins with a mellow downhill cruise of almost five miles, past meadows and summer campgrounds, with kiosks and bathrooms buried beneath loads of snow. The road turns uphill and the dramatic snowy summits of Red and Grey Peak come into view. The grand vista of the Clark Range with the rounded bulk of Mt. Starr King in the foreground is visible for the next few miles of relatively level skiing. Flat benches along the road’s shoulder invite a leisurely lunch break when the sun is shining.
The road levels off for a few miles, through a forested section and past rolling meadows. The final miles beyond Washburn Point to the end of the road are steep with some sharp turns. On a warm afternoon this provides a safe joyride; in icy conditions it’s a scary roller coaster requiring focus and humility. Sharpen ski edges and be prepared to snowplow. Once you’ve safely arrived at Glacier Point, pick a spot with morning sun to camp or build a shelter for the long night ahead.
As the night approaches, violet and fuchsia streak the sky, fading to indigo. In the distance, range after range of snowy silent peaks glimmer in cold blue tones. The polished granite of Yosemite domes and the movement of waterfalls reflect the last light of autumn. The lowest sun angle of the year means a prolonged twilight. I’ve been so caught up in the transcendent light show that only when night finally clamped its jaws shut did I realize I was shivering. It took me three hours to thaw out, even with a -20 degree sleeping bag. It’s easier to stay warm than get warm; enjoy the sunset, but plan accordingly.
Relax into an evening where your only task is to stay warm and enjoy yourself. Once you’ve cleared the mental hurdle of lying down for 14 hours, you can begin to appreciate the simplicity of staying warm, dry and entertained in a cold harsh environment. Bring that book you’ve been meaning to tackle- forced inactivity will inspire literary ambition. Or load your phone with podcasts or books on tape and let a soothing voice lull you into slumber. Sleep is like free medicine and winter camping allows you a triple dose.
After so long in your cozy cocoon, you’ll want to rise to appreciate the return of the light. Muted tones of orange and rose creep across the face of Half Dome and illuminate the vast canvas of snow. A thermos is a critical piece of gear — make tea the night before and it will still be steaming hot the next morning, without the pain of trying to start a camp stove in the pre-dawn chill. Then you can savor a hot beverage and breakfast from the relative shelter of the Geology Hut, an open air structure with stupendous views.
The return ski passes trails worthy of exploration: you can cut fresh tracks on Sentinel Dome, or gawk at the sheer drop-offs and heart-stopping views from Taft Point and Dewey Point. The warmth of Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area amenities beckons, but why rush? Savor the last moments of winter beauty as you push up the final miles to your car, already plotting your next seasonal celebration.