Saturday, February 6, 2016

Wearing White: the Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls in Winter

Date: January 10, 2016
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Coordinates: Bridalveil Fall: 37.716700, -119.650960, Lower Yosemite Falls Trail: 37.746135, -119.592792
Length: Bridalveil Fall: 0.5 mile in and out, Lower Yosemite Fall Loop: 1 mile
Level: easy (wear chain crampons when icy)

Yosemite is high on the 'must see' list of California visitors and winter is no hindrance. Usually. Rock slides that block access to El Portal entrance to Yosemite Valley are not all too uncommon, and such a slide happened at the time we had planned to go there. We arrived at Mariposa after an afternoon birding hike at the San Joaquin NWR and we were very happy to find out that the rock slide has been cleared, thanks to the round the clock effort of the CalTrans road crew.

The Valley is the only accessible part of Yosemite NP that is open throughout the year. While it can be accessed also via Groveland on the north and Oakhurst on the south (chains required), all other parts of the park are effectively closed from the first major snowfall until late spring snowmelt.

We didn't plan any major hikes in the Valley, just a round of sight seeing. Normally I wouldn't have posted such a trip here, but Yosemite in the snow has a special appeal and, under snow even the shortest trails can be hikes :-)

Whenever we bring first timers to Yosemite, our first stop is the Tunnel Viewpoint. From that spot the entire Valley spreads before the eye. That breathtaking view that awed every generation of humans to have seen it, from the native Miwok to the first western settlers until today's visitors, amny of which travel thousands of miles around the globe to admire the place.
And it is breathtaking each and every time I go there. Any time of day, any day of the year. 
Yosemite Valley, view from the Tunnel Viewpoint
Curved by ice-age glaciers, Yosemite Valley lies 3000 feet below the surrounding granite walls. All the water coming down its watershed collects into the Merced River. The tree cover of the Valley floor effectively hides the numerous man-made structures. The river would normally be invisible too under the tree cover, but on a cold winter morning an aura of white fog gives away its curves.
Fog over Merced River
After the first stop of viewing the Valley from the Tunnel Viewpoint, the next natural stop is the Bridalveil Falls.
As expected at any time of year in Yosemite, we were hardly alone. But it wasn't as crowded as in other times of year. There is a short, 1/4 trail from the parking lot to the waterfall and it was entirely covered with snow.
The trail to Bridalveil Falls
The chikas wanted to build a snow man. I told them they'll get some time for that later and we continued on to the falls.
We walked slowly but steadily, until the trail started sloping up. Now, it's not much of a slope, that trail. But at that point the trampled snow had also turned icy and our pace slowed considerably.
Snowed Bridalveil Creek
Just before the waterfall, the last 4-5 yards before the overlook the slope steepens. Thankfully there are rails to hang on to, but even so we (and everyone else there) were skidding down with every careful step.
I brought up the rear. After watching everyone struggle up the icy trail I jumped the rail and stepped on the snowy rocks on the side. Not necessarily a recommended maneuver but favorable under the circumstances.
The view of the falls, of course is spectacular.
The Bridalveil Falls run year-round, the flow intensity changes with the seasons. It drops down a height of 188 meters and diffuses into mist at the bottom, hence the name bridal veil.
On sunny afternoons the sun is just at the right angle and the mist displays a solid, gorgeous rainbow that looks almost tangible.
Bridaveil Falls
The sun was getting higher and the day grew brighter. A jet passed above our heads, accentuating the sky's blue clarity.
Blue Sky
We spent a good amount of time watching the waterfall and putting off the inevitable: having to come down the short distance of an icy slope.
The chikas saved the day when they figured that sliding down on their bottom was the best and most fun way to go about it. So Papa Quail, our friend and myself quickly shed off the years and went down on our behinds. We even stayed until the elder chika scampered back up the trail to slide down one more time. By then, however, more and more people were attempting to go up to the viewpoint so we cleared the trail for them and continued on.
A little before the parking lot the chikas stopped to build a little snowman and suddenly Papa Quail turns to me and asked, "Didn't we pack the crampons?"
My answer was a face palm.

Our next destination was Yosemite Falls. We stopped briefly on the road to get a view of the falls from the south side of the Valley.
Yosemite Falls, view from the Valley's south side
Before going to the falls we stopped for lunch. An important message that is displayed everywhere in the Valley and emphasized to the umph degree at the eating places is to not feed wild animals. It's bad for them to get hooked on human food and it's bad for humans when wild animals actively seek human food. The local birds, however, can't read. If judging by their behavior, too many park visitors can't read either.
Brewer's Blackbird, male
By the time we finished lunch the sun disappeared behind clouds and immediately it felt colder.  The temperature, in fact, was higher and the snow has melted from most of the trail.  Whatever snow cover was left was being scrubbed off by small plows that were piling it on the side.
Still, there were plenty of ice cover on the trail and this time we were wearing our crampons. Not the big, spiky ones, but the flat chains ones.
Yosemite Creek
We walked the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail loop that forms a U shape between two intersections with the main Valley road. While seeing the falls is the main objective of this walk, the woods and the creek add the perfect set for lovely hike.

And while even in winder one is never alone in Yosemite, it wasn't overcrowded and I didn't feel overwhelmed by the noise and the pushing. We walked slowly, taking the time to enjoy the snowy forest and the relative stillness to the fullest.

The arms of the U go on both sides of Yosemite Creek and tat the curve there is a bridge across the creek with an observation deck and a spectacular view of the lower falls.

My first visit to Yosemite was in the months of August, 15 years ago. The shortest trail arm was crammed with people going in and out, just to see the falls. When we got there we saw a tourist sitting with the back to the falls and complaining loudly about all these waterfalls the tour guide was dragging them to, and here's just another such waterfall ...

Yosemite falls total height (upper and lower combined ) is about 740 meters, making this waterfall the highest in Yosemite NP and one of the highest in the world. It is a seasonal waterfall and will run dry by the end of summer. The best time to see it is late spring, at the height of the snowmelt. It is pretty impressive even in winter and a nit to be missed sight to see. It's definitely not just 'yet another waterfall'.

The upper fall isn't visible from the bridge but it can be seen from other points of the trail. It's hard to tell from that distance and angle that the upper fall is twice as high as the lower. There is a trail ascending all the way to theta of the upper fall. I hiked that trail once, 13 years ago. It is a worthy hike and definitely one to do again, hopefully in the near future (after the snow melts).

Near the main trailhead there is a view of the entire Yosemite Falls, upper and lower. Magnificent and impressive. A certain must see.
Yosemite Falls
Winter days are short. Painfully so when there's so much to see and the morrow is already planned at a different place. And then there are promises to keep too, so after completing the Lower Yosemite Falls loop we crossed the road into the meadow and the chikas started to build their snowman with much enthusiastic assistance from the grown-ups.
The meadow was already littered with many such snow figures. It seems that every artist had tried to make a unique monument. My chikas were no different. They made a snowman with a statement.
(Later when we drove past the place it was toppled down. I believe someone had kicked it.)
Dress me up! I'm Freezing! 
Our last stop was at Curry Village. From there we thought to walk to Mirror Lake. The chikas were very tired and upset by then. We managed to get to Tenaya Creek where I sent Papa Quail with our friend to a brisk walk to Mirror Lake while I sat with the chikas to wait for the shuttle back to Curry Village.
Tanya Creek
The iconic rock seen up close from Mirror Lake is Half Dome. I've been there many times before so I wasn't sour about staying behind. Anyway, the view of Half Dome form the bridge across Tenaya Creek was very beautiful. The rays of the setting sun lighting up just the dome itself through a light veil of cloud.
Granite mystique
After we were reunited back at the car there was barely any daylight left and no point of hanging any longer in the Valley. We drove slowly out, saying goodbye to the magnificent rocks, stopping just to photograph this handsome fellow that meandered near the road.
A buck
One last look and we were on our way to Mariposa. There we had dinner and split: Papa Quail took the chikas in on car and drove back home to a week of routine: school, work and pet care. My friend and I took the other car, which was loaded with camping gear and provisions for a week long trip and took off south to Fresno. On the morrow, while the chikas were in school, my friend and I would visit the winter wonderland of Sequoia National Park.


  1. This park is beautiful and your pictures clearly portrey its beauty.

    When we first visited Yosemete it was April (1998) - there was no snow in the valley but the rest of the park was closed and we took about the same route you descrbied

    1. I am glad you got to see this world's wonder!