Crown Jewels In Winter

Brief Respites of Backcountry Solitude

Imagine yourself surrounded by the granite domes of Yosemite Valley. The sky is deep blue above El Capitan. Bridalveil Falls is arching a plume of water off the south rim. The world is quiet as the sun peeks over Glacier Point, bathing a white world in an orange glow. And you feel like you're ALONE!

Picture Old Faithful spewing steam like clockwork. Buffalo are crowding the area and elk are pawing the ground for grassy morsels. On a walk around the geyser basin, the streams are running free. Trumpeter swans sailing their waters appear almost like icebergs broken from the white banks. Life is abundant, except for MAN!

Sound like a dream to anyone who's been stuck in Yellowstone traffic or turned away from Yosemite Valley? It's not. The crown jewels of America's National Parks attract hordes in summer. But the few who brave winter snow drifts and frigid air are amply rewarded with wilderness solitude not too many strides out the front door.

The wealth of cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, photography, and sightseeing opportunities that these winter wonderlands offer bring visitors. But here are a few special places where you can find yourself alone—at least for hours. Bundle up and GO!

Gin Flats - Yosemite
Many years ago, an old stage rolled through this pleasant meadow. The driver was headed downhill and he let the horses pick up a head of steam. Before he knew it, the coach bounced over a couple of deep ruts. One of the ladies in back let out a high squeal, drowning the loud thunk as part of the load dropped off the rear and rolled up against a tree.

A few days later, a group of thirsty sheepherders moseyed by. One of their members had a divining rod for a tongue. As he passed by, he got this tingle in his mouth, and looking around, he spied a barrel half buried in some brush. Low and behold, he cracked it open and was delighted to see a clear liquid come pouring out, unmistakably not water. The sheepherders wasted no time with amenities like cups. They took a few slugs straight from the cask and began a grand old party. When the evening reached its most uproarious, they christened the place of this lucky find Gin Flat, after the libations they had so enjoyed.

On a midwinter ski with a foot of snow falling the night before, you'll work up a good sweat following those sheepherders' tracks. First climb several feet up a snowbank where the plowing ends at Crane Flat, strap on your skis, then break through untrammeled snow for 3 miles. The reward is a beautiful open meadow rippling in the soft light of midafternoon, a glorious day of winter solitude n'er crossing another tread.

Mariposa Grove - Yosemite
You are never really alone in Mariposa Grove. A giant is always lurking nearby, his massive arms waving high overhead, occasionally tired muscles giving out and dropping a clenched fist with a thud against the frozen ground.

On a cold winter day, these superhuman Sequoias are the only welcoming arms. This forest is a bit more well traveled than Gin Flats. Even with a few inches of fresh powder, rounded tracks attest to prior visitors. But if you ski several miles out to Wawona Point, you will drink in the beauty of a winter scene thinking you could be the only person in this icy universe.

Fairy Falls - Yellowstone
You are passing through suspended animation. White softness surrounds you, muffling the slightest sound. Slender black sentries stand aside to let you glide through, testament to the fiery holocaust that once passed through before the frigid silence enveloped this world.

At day's end, even the fundamental elements hang motionless. Fairy Falls is a wall of ice, its rippled surface tricking the eyes with reflected light. The cascades look as though they continue to pour over the wall above. An elk struggling in a deep drift breaks the moment. A raven caws in mockery. Life resumes its forward drift.

You glide back to the geysers around Old Faithful, grateful for the moment when time stopped.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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