Crane Flat in Winter

By Leonie Sherman

The last time I tried to hike to the Tuolumne Grove, one of Yosemite National Park’s three groves of giant sequoias, I had to turn back. There was no injury or emergency, there were just too many people. I’m glad they are stalking selfies with sequoias instead of hunting for bargains at the mall, but I cannot contemplate the splendor of the largest living things on the planet in a chattering crowd.

So I returned on a frosty afternoon in the dead of winter. Light was fading already at 3:30. I hastily threw some food, water and a headlamp into a daypack, bundled up and stepped into my skis. Packed snow and a firmly broken trail revealed others had come before me, but I saw only one other person. I passed him within a hundred yards of the parking lot, heading back from his own private audience with the trees.  The only sounds as I proceeded on my pilgrimage were my squeaky bindings groaning as I sped down the icy steep trail through a forest of snow laden sugar pines and white fir. The first sequoiadendron giganteum appear about a mile down the trail.

In another quarter of a mile I stopped, alone, in one of the last 75 groves of giant sequoias.  They are one of the rarest American trees, occurring in a narrow band, 260 miles long, only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada between five and seven thousand feet. Their trunks, furrowed with age, scarred by millennia of hard living, blackened by fire, shimmered in the evening light against sparkling snow. North Crane Creek burbled in the narrow ravine. No birds sang. Their massive branches were flocked with heavy snow, reaching up to the brilliant blue sky. The stillness of the winter afternoon magnified their immensity and my breath hung heavy in the air as I craned my neck.

The tiny human mind struggles to grasp the scale of their splendor with only visual cues. A dozen adults with their arms stretched wide could not encircle the base of these massive trees. The roof of a ten story building would not touch their first branches. Two dozen couples could dance on a floor made from a cross section of a single tree. In pioneer days a man on horseback rode through the hollowed trunk of a downed tree in Calaveras Grove without having to bend his head. A single tree may contain more wood than several acres of old-growth Pacific Northwest timber. Loggers struggled for days with cross cut saws and axes to bring them to the ground.  In the late 1800s, a team of four needed 22 days to topple one of the largest trees.

When that giant thundered to the ground, the earth shook and the roar echoed a mile away. After the dust settled, most of the trunk lay shattered and worthless. Their wood is weak, brittle and light.  Its extreme resistance to rot made the largest tree on the planet valuable for fenceposts and shingles.  Naturalist John Muir, who helped sway public opinion towards preservation, reckoned the heartwood of these giants was almost impervious to decay.

Sequoiadendron giganteum, commonly called the giant sequoia or the Sierra redwood, is the world’s most massive tree.

I skied a half mile around  the grove. Each of the behemoths I was marveling at began life as a seed the size of a pinhead, with a one in a billion chance at growing into a colossus. And while their coastal redwood cousins, the tallest trees on earth, start making seeds after only five or ten years, sequoiadendron giganteum don’t begin producing cones for two centuries. Each cone can take over a decade to mature. Hyperactive chickarees speed up seed dispersal- they eat the fleshy scales of up to 10,000 sequoia cones a year, leaving the tiny seeds behind. But the seeds need to land on bare mineral soil in order to germinate. A century of fire suppression has brought dense undergrowth to historically open park-like stands. And while sequoia may resist millennia of natural fires, the intensity of climate change driven flames threatens to decimate our last remaining treasures.

Tuolumne Grove in winter filled me with wonder, but strolling on skis among snow-laden titans, as light fades and the mercury plummets is an invitation to hypothermia. Long after I began shivering but before my teeth started chattering I said my farewells and began the climb back to the car. My adventure was only beginning.

Tuolumne Grove is just one of the wonders of cross country skiing in the Crane Flat area. In summer it’s the last gas station before entering the high country. In winter it’s the end of the plowed road and the start of a cross-country skiing wonderland. Without the grooming or crowds of Badger Pass and the Glacier Point Road, Crane Flat is perfect for skiers of any ability and inclination who don’t mind breaking trail. Located roughly half an hour drive from Yosemite Valley, El Portal and Hogdon Meadow Campground, accommodation options are almost as varied as the terrain.

The next morning I rolled out to the Clark Range Vista, following an old logging road along a mild grade with very little elevation change. The Merced Canyon came into view to the south as I passed through stands of large incense cedar, oaks and manzanita. The trail ends on a windswept ridge with great views of Mt. Clark, Mt. Starr King and Merced Peak. The terminus is about two-miles from the snow play area where I parked, just across from the gas station. I took a relaxing lunch break and was back at the car around three hours later.

In the afternoon I skied out to the Crane Flat Lookout, which I didn’t even know existed before I visited it blanketed in snowy splendor. The trail travels uphill on rolling terrain for two miles before the final climb to a windswept knob with panoramic 360 degree views of the park. In summer and fall the exposed hill is perfect for spotting fires. On winter afternoon it’s perfect for practicing turns and I enjoyed several laps. There was even a climbing wall silhouetted against the splendid crests and peaks, but I didn’t feel like soloing in my tele boots.

The next day I set off up the snow-covered Tioga Rd. The long drive back to the coast beckoned so I only had time to ski about three miles up the road to Gin Flat Meadow and Tamarack campground. The return trip involved some climbing and a screaming descent back to my car. I vowed to come back and ski the 40 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. I was still grinning when I got back to the coast six hours later, already plotting my return to Crane Flat.

The author with a big grin from a morning jaunt on skis while soaking in the sights and sounds of a cold Sierra morning.