Mountaineering is often and popularly known as “the freedom of the hills” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountaineering:_The_Freedom_of_the_Hills). I posit that if mountaineering is the freedom of the hills, cross country skiing is the freedom of the hills, valleys, meadows, ridges, and any other terrain that accumulates a sizeable amount of snow that you can ski upon. I know, not nearly as catchy. But forget being catchy: it is fun. If there’s enough snow, you can go just about anywhere on cross country skis. In Yosemite, the major cross country skiing areas are the Badger Pass/Glacier Point Road area, and the Crane Flat/Tioga Road area. (http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=134994http://www.yosemitepark.com/badgerpass.aspx, http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=134996)
While Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove areas are quite stunning, the truth of the matter is that these areas are at lower elevations and may not have enough snow to snowshoe or cross country ski, particularly in late winters and dry years, (So far, 2011 appears to be a very dry year compared to 2010), so you will likely be headed out to one of the above two areas should you wish to snowshoe or cross country ski.
Both areas are great spots to ski, either for single or multi-day trips into the backcountry. It’s hard for me to identify one of these areas as my favorite, because each has unique opportunities. For example, the Ostrander ski hut off of the Glacier Point road is one of the most stunning crystal blue lakes in the Sierra, and it’s next to a great ski hut. Then again, heading into the high country up the Tioga Road is not to be missed either. However, if you don’t have the time – or energy for a long ten mile or more ski, or multi-day trip, the Gin Flat Loop near Crane Flat is another great beginner run.
Directions: Coming from either the North or the South, take Highway 120 to Crane Flat. From there, head East on Highway 120/Tioga Road for approximately .5 miles (depending on conditions/your car’s ability to handle such conditions), at which point the road will be closed. There will be parking available well before that point, either at the Tuolomne Grove lot, or the winter parking lot for Highway 120. From where you park, the Gin Flat Loop starts almost immediately at the gate; or as this link says, .2 miles from the closed gate. (http://www.backcountryskitours.com/pages/tours_1300/1303_tour.htm).
From the gate, you should see the sign featured above, and the route is well marked from that point out. I definitely agree with NPS that the best way to do this loop is to head up via the trail, and ski back down the Tioga Road. While this trail doesn’t have too many expansive vistas, it is a great beginner loop, and a great place to get out and enjoy some high country backcountry skiing. There’s great scenery on the trail – after all, you are skiing in Yosemite – and you probably won’t see too many people as you are up in the high country. Personally, I like to cut off Tioga Road in a few places on the way back down to the trailhead to get in some longer runs, but those detours do lead to a lot of extra uphill traversing, which can tire you out if you don’t have skins. If, for some reason, you don’t take any detours, this run will run you 6.25 miles in roundtrip distance.
Tips: As with any cross country or downhill run, this route is the best right after a storm has rolled through the area. On days like that, you’ll have ample opportunities to lay down fresh tracks in many areas. Also, while this area is not the most remote due to its proximity to Crane Flat, do take the proper precautions for winter travel in terms of being properly equipped, as you could be in for a long cold night should disaster strike leaving you out on the trail alone.
See you in the powder!