Yosemite Camping


The text below is a dialogue to go along with the pictures, but is also meant to hopefully act as a guide to anyone planning a winter trip to Yosemite. Lucas & I found information on this topic to be scarce & people to be uninformed, and it was generally difficult to figure things out. So, hope this helps someone. If not, feel free to contact me with questions...

Yosemite Winter Camping & Backpacking

Lucas & I headed out to Yosemite Valley in early February, just a week or two after a legendary winter storm dumped tons of snow into the surrounding Sierras and into the valley. This was my first trip to Yosemite, as stories of the abundant bears and crowds had kept me away during summers past. We drove up early morning, catching an Ansel Adams-like Moonset and wispy fog fingers on the I-5 near the Grapevine.

After winding our way up though mountains on Highway 41, we descended through the tunnel and into the valley to an amazing view, with El Capitan to the left and Half Dome on the right. We continued down to the valley floor, and after many questions and not very many answers, we ended up car-camping at Camp 4, known well amongst rock climbers and is one of 2 sites open during the winter. It was first-come first-served, $10 per night, self-registration, had heated bathrooms with running water (no snow melting/boiling!), had bear boxes, had fire pits (fires allowed), and provided easy access to the rest of the park. Camp 4 wasn’t even thinking about being full, so space was not an issue. Bears were not an issue either, but mice were. One got into our box and ate our food. I chased it with a snow shovel - it escaped. We plugged the holes in the bottom of the bear box and our mice troubles were no more.

After a trip around the valley floor park (at about 4000 feet) to gather firewood, cookies, and warm beverages, we returned to camp and started eating, knowing we had a probably tough backpack/snowshoe trip into somewhere in a few days (we still hadn’t figured out exactly where we were going yet).

We spent the next day driving around the valley, taking little day hikes, snowshoeing, and doing tourist things. We saw Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, and took a short day hike to Mirror Lake. We came across one person, a ranger, that new things, and she suggested we backpack in to Ostrander Lake. Her decided wealth of knowledge gave us hope, and so we continued to ask her questions. We learned that one popular but strenuous backpacking trail (The Four Mile Trail) was closed:  icy = dangerous. The arguably more strenuous day hike up to Upper Yosemite falls (6-8 hour hike) was open. Confused, we decided to pursue neither, choosing instead to conserve our energy for Ostrander.

That night after the fire died down, we snowshoed out to a meadow, and caught the most incredible Moonrise ever - Lucas and I were awe struck. I had no tripod and so the image is saved only in my brain. You’ll just have to go see it yourself sometime - the Moon coming up behind Half Dome, the trees in front looking like smoke, El Capitan lit up as if it were morning, and the entire valley floor glowing yellow. We almost had to put our sunglasses on; we felt like John Muir.

The next morning (day 3 I guess) we awoke to what had been typical conditions - a few clouds, lows probably in the 20s (ºF), and not much wind. We packed up camp, messed around organizing our stuff (one spends far too long losing, finding, organizing, packing, and unpacking stuff when camping/backpacking), and hopped in the car to head up to Badger Pass, an area within Yosemite Park but about a 40 min drive out of the valley. We arrived there with the goal to hike down Glacier Point Road, which is closed during winter, but groomed for snowshoers and skiers (mostly for skiers). We wandered around for 30 mins trying to figure out how the hell to get a Wilderness Permit (which our previous knowledgeable ranger was pretty sure we needed) before we stumbled across the ranger station - an “A-frame” building a bit off the beaten path.

Enter the Badger Pass ranger station. “Hello. We’d like to snowshoe out and spend 2 nights at Ostrander Lake, we think.” “Sounds good,” the ranger said, “just fill out this form (wilderness permit, $0).” She asked about our equipment, wrote down that we were experienced winter campers (whoops), and said “You know there is a hut out there?” “A hut?,” we asked. “Can we stay there?” “Well,” the ranger said, “you need a reservation.” So we asked, “Can we get one?” To which the ranger replied, “Well, you need to book it in advance.” “We haven’t left yet,” we argued. This went on for a bit before we gave up. We figured once we got there we would just figure it out - a hut with a floor to sleep on would probably beat pitching a tent the first night.

Then she pulled out an object I had long sought after for the duration of this trip - a map! Cue Zelda music: doo, doo, doo...daa - you found the MAP (I had procured the compass in a previous castle). A proper topo map? No. But a useful topo map nonetheless, with trails and the Ostrander Lake & Hut marked. 11 AM sharp Lucas and I hit the trail (Glacier Point Road, ~6000 feet). Avoiding the cross country skier novices, we headed about 5 miles down the road. It turns out, all of the trails are well marked, signed, and broken/compacted. This made keeping a steady pace easy. We turned off onto the Bridalveil Creek trail (2nd to last trail turn-off on the map) to head towards Ostrander - we were told the alternate Horizon Ridge trail (last turn off on the map) was shorter but much tougher, which turned out to be true.

We continued hiking, and before we know it, the sun started sinking low in the sky. Then the trail went from manageable to steep as hell. We got tired very fast, and we kept climbing and climbing and climbing, never coming across the ski hut. Then, we realized that it would be possible to walk right by the lake and hut without knowing it (at least that’s what the map seemed to show). We started looking around for the hut, and just when the point came where we needed to get out headlamps, a bit of snow had started to fall, and I started scoping out any place at all that we could hastily set up camp, we came across the Ostrander Hut (~8500 feet) - thanks goodness the map was wrong.

This wasn’t just a hut with a floor. We walked in, and there was Howard Weamer inside - the hut’s caretaker for the winter season, as he had done so for 36 years! A fire was burning, people were inside reading, playing games, drinking wine, water was boiling on the propane stove, and warmth & dryness was everywhere. AND there were bunk beds upon which one could throw their sleeping bags and settle down. This place was a 5-star resort compared that what we were ready for - setting up camp in 5 feet of powder. Howard took us in, low on cash and without reservations. We rejoiced, ate, and promptly fell asleep. One of the other guests took the time to tuck Lucas & I in - strange and thoughtful.

The next day we took it easy - explored the hut, crossed the frozen lake and sledded down the slopes. Then we rested our tired feet in the sun - it was a beautiful, stress-free day. Howard continued to be the most gracious of hosts. He also informed us of a storm moving in the next afternoon. So, we readied our gear, and the next morning woke early and headed back out through the Horizon Ridge trail. We got a view of the backside of Half Dome, and then quickly met back up with Glacier Point Road. My feet almost immediately began to kill me, and did so the rest of the hike. We finally, after many excruciating steps, made it back to the car. Viewing of my feet yielded many a raw blister - ouch. We headed over to the locker room at the Badger Pass Ski Lodge, got into come clean clothes, and hit the road. On the way out, we stopped at Todd’s Cookhouse for some BBQ in Oakhurst just outside the park. Wow - this was some of the best BBQ I’d had in a long time, and the best sweet potato fries ever. You are a fool if you don’t stop there. We were fools for stopping only on the way out, and not also on the way in.

That was a solid finish to a great trip, and, sore and full, we got back onto the road to cruise home on everyone’s favorite freeways - the 99, the 5, and the 405. Awesome trip, to which I owe many thanks to Howard and the Ostrander Hut. I will be making a donation.