The best time to visit Yosemite Valley is the winter. Sure, the valley is spectacular in the summer, and there is never a bad time to visit Yosemite, but if you want to avoid the crowds, the best time is the winter. In the winter, the snow falls on the granite monoliths surrounding the valley before trickling down to blanket the trees and floor in white silence. In the winter, everything moves at a slow and tranquil rate – including the Merced River. The coating of ice and cold silences summer’s lingering noise and lets Yosemite Valley recapture its wild glory.
The best way to see this primal beauty? On foot, of course. You can walk part – or all of the Valley Floor loop (http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/valleyhikes.htm), or if you’re extraordinarily lucky as I was last year in 2010, you can cross country ski around the valley. (http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wintersports.htm) Now, as the NPS link states, there is rarely enough accumulation in the valley proper to do this, but sometimes, the internet doesn’t know everything. 2010 was a banner year for snow in the Sierras, and when I arrived in Yosemite for my yearly fall visit last November, I found myself arriving a day after several feet of fresh powder had been deposited over the entirety of the park.
Obviously, I was lucky – my timing was impeccable. These conditions existed on a Wednesday, and the storm had just passed the day before on a Tuesday, leaving perfect cold bluebird conditions at all elevations. There were few people in the park; and fewer still in the valley, where I parked my car alongside the road before strapping on my skis. To be honest, I felt a little guilty cutting fresh tracks across pristine, empty meadows under the mountains watchful eyes; and I was upbraided at one point by a raven for being too noisy as I passed alongside the burbling Merced; but in the end, it was an amazing experience. The valley was deathly silent from El Capitan meadow to points East and West, and I was able to again appreciate the timeless stillness of Yosemite Valley that has captivated people for centuries. And, if the photos don’t give you an idea of what the valley looks like when its deathly silent, this video will: http://youtu.be/PbV0gFTjcR0
My Tip: If you are arriving in Yosemite after a recent snowfall, take a moment to see what the conditions are in the valley. It’s a great spot for beginners to learn as it is flat; and it’s a great spot to cross country ski regardless because of the natural features. Obviously, as Yosemite Valley only has an elevation of 4,000 feet, there will be a limited amount of opportunities to ski the valley, but if you’re lucky enough, I’d definitely recommend it for a good morning warm-up before heading on to more difficult terrain at Badger Pass or Crane Flat. The most open expanses are down by El Capitan meadow; but should there be enough snow, you should be able to tour most of the valley as I did.
See you in the powder!