Off The Beaten Trail in California – Snow Camping in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park - Long Term Travel
The Sun Rises Over a Frozen Yosemite

Ever been inside sitting with your feet up by a raging fire and looked out at the freezing snow, frigid wind and biting cold and wished that instead of being cosy and warm sitting in your armchair, you were outside heroically braving the bitter elements? Do you ever envision yourself sitting astride a mighty warhorse, facing the teeth of winter, preferably wrapped in furs and holding a blazing torch aloft, shaking your sword at the elements, daring to challenge their power and coming out victorious.. like the real man you are?

I probably play too much Skyrim, but even if I didn’t, I could still totally relate to the above because I’m a man… meaning that I’m basically just an ego wrapped in skin and thus, like all men, consistently overestimate my physical ability.

So when the idea of going snow camping for a few days in Yosemite National Park was floated I was bang-on up for it from the start. The plan was to spend a few days snowshoeing, hiking and generally doing fitness based outdoorsy stuff in the park, avoiding bears and falling off mountains where possible, while facing down the worst winter could throw at us and coming out on top.

Yosemite National Park - Long Term Travel
California gets cold.. really cold actually.

As it happened, the camping part of the experience turned out to be a rather unpleasant ‘adventure’, yet it was also one of my more fantastic and memorable experiences in the US.

The Yosemite National Park attracts an absurd number of tourists, campers and vacationers, 3 seasons of the year; and virtually no one in winter; which is (obviously) the best time to go if you want the whole place to yourself. The long nights of hypothermia and the inevitable dreams of Turkish baths, beach-sand and anything else that’s warm are simply an added bonus..

The park boasts a ridiculous number of viable outdoorsy activities including hiking in the stunning Sierra Nevada’s, exploring the groves of giant redwoods, boating, water sports, horse riding and some of the best rock-climbing in the world. All the while showcasing more spectacular views than a Miss Universe contest!

After 6 hours of driving, passing through ‘The Armpit of California’ (Fresno), we finally arrive. Night has well and truly fallen and the knuckle whitening, butt-hole puckering descent into the valley on the heavily iced roads has us thoroughly relieved to be at the bottom. The evening starts in earnest with us brave souls, trudging our gear to the (completely deserted) campsite which is now under about half a foot of snow and ice.

Well this is what we signed up for so let the snow camping begin!

After finding a relatively unfrozen flat(ish) spot we make camp, punching frozen tent pegs through the frozen ground with frozen rocks clutched in frozen fingers.

It was starting to get a little more than chilly now and we started a fire hoping to warm ourselves a little before bed with the goal of getting some sleep before a big day of snowshoeing in the surrounding peaks.

After checking the weather report at the local ranger station near the camp site, the expected low  for the night was a chilly, -8 Degrees. We resigned ourselves to a long night on the cold ground, dreaming of Irish stew, beach volleyball and sunglasses.

The key to camping in the snow is preparation and of course, having the right gear. Our local ‘expert’ (a good friend) with a  particularly woeful record of family camp outings (he once had to eat his fishing bait for dinner because he forgot to bring any food) assured us that our gear would be ‘sufficient’ for the conditions…

As it turns out there’s a pretty sizable gap between ‘sufficient’ and comfortable.

I retired to my tomb, I mean tent.. to face the bitter chill of the dark. That night, wrapped in my pitiful sleeping bag I experienced levels of iciness comparable to making a bomb joke while going through airport security..

Yosemite National Park - Long Term Travel
Yosemite, Frozen and Beautiful

The reward for our misery and the long hours of rubbing warmth into numb muscles was getting up before sunrise (notice I said nothing of ‘waking’ up) to emerge into a world impossibly still, crisp, silent and beautiful.

The world had been dusted with snow and it glistened in the morning sun making it seem like we were standing a foot deep in icy, shining diamonds. Watching the sun rising over the frozen Yosemite Valley was one of the most utterly beautiful, peaceful and magnificent things I have ever seen.

What followed were several days of exploring the valley, hiking and snowshoeing, an endeavor as amazing as it was tiring, and in reflection I guess we did conquer winter for a time, sadly there were no furs, warhorses, flaming torches, or swords, but rather happy memories of frozen limbs, frosted trees and mountains built of glowing, shining diamonds.

Yosemite National Park - Long Term Travel
Victorious!
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5 Comment

  1. Chris says: Reply

    I can’t imagine your images truly do this experience justice, but having seen similar before, I’ve harboured dreams of doing something similar.

    Looks amazing, can’t wait to hopefully one day do the same, perhaps slightly better prepared if possible!

    1. Pete says: Reply

      haha yeh can’t stress enough how good gear is important! Go for it mate, you won’t regret it.

  2. Chris h says: Reply

    Which campground did you guys set up shop? I’m heading there with some buddies in late march. Trying to figure out which campground is the best in the winter.

    1. Pete says: Reply

      Hey Chris, I think we stayed at camp 4, it was pretty good, central and with easy access to the boot of your car should you decide to sleep there cause it’s warmer 🙂

  3. Tyler says: Reply

    Anyone know where is a good place to go camping around the end of december?
    its not snowing right now at camp 4 or upper pines and im trying find a nice snowy place for some camping

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