Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Yosemite by the Seasons

Upon entering Yosemite National Park for the first time, I strongly suggest that you make certain someone else is behind the wheel of the car. Otherwise, when you are staring out the window in slack-jawed wonderment at the surrounding grandeur, you will become a serious hazard of the road. Yes, it really is that awesome.

It's hard to say exactly when my love affair with this park began. Perhaps it was in college, during a winter-time visit. Perhaps it was when I walked through the high country on the PCT. I think, truly, it wasn't until making the Sierra Nevada my home and bringing my husband to Yosemite for the first time, that I began to make pilgrimages in earnest. You can bet, when I brought him there, that I made certain he wasn't behind the wheel of the car.

This place has become many things to me. A place for family and friends, for pushing limits, for reflection, for relaxation, excitement, exploration and learning. It's a place where I can be myself, know exactly who I am, and yet still question and explore that knowledge. There, I have existed at times in fear, and at times with overwhelming confidence. I have been both leader and follower. And, I have found myself physically shaken, so overcome by the surrounding beauty that I am afflicted simultaneously with both laughter and tears.

It occurred to me recently that I've visited Yosemite during every season, and that each one has something unique to offer. Believe it or not, Yosemite is not all about summer. So I offer you here an exploration, mostly in photos since my words can do little justice to this kind of beauty, of the park in each of the four seasons. My own Yosemite.


Defined by the roaring waterfalls, and the ephemerals that visit these months, spring in Yosemite can be summarized as glorious. Snowmelt swells the river, and flowers coat the valley floor, finding homes in every tiny crack of granite on the cliff face. Life springs up everywhere.

The less pleasant aspects of this can include swarms of mosquitoes. But the high country snow provides a magnificent backdrop for emerging trails in the valley and higher up on the rim.

Backpacking on the rim, May 2004

Roaring Upper Yosemite Falls, June 2007


Like most other visitors, summer marks the majority of my time spent in the Valley. Every year in June, my family gathers here for a week of frivolity. And I mean family with a capital "F." We have husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, and any friends deemed cool enough to appreciate the adventure (and tolerant enough to put up with us).

Andrew and I generally drive in through the eastside, camp near Mono Lake, then drive in over Tioga and through Tuolumne Meadows. It provides a spectacular start to the week.

Sky over Mono Lake, June 2009

The centerpiece to our family week is the nightly picnic, where twenty to thirty of us gather each evening. Betsy is the queen of the picnics, and she organizes everything months in advance. We all know what we're supposed to bring, and the nightly potluck is a feast to behold.

This is family time - a chance to socialize with people we don't see nearly enough. This is relaxation time - eating in the shade, sipping wine, after a long day in the sun. We share our day's adventures and plan tomorrow's. The brilliance of the picnics is that we get to see everyone in the evenings, while doing our own thing in smaller groups during the day.

Sister, Mom and me at the picnic grounds, June 2009

Introductions, and giving thanks before the meal, June 2009

Let the feasting begin! June, 2009

Of course, one of the most popular activities for everyone is hiking, but Andrew and I have a few traditional favorites that we seem to stick to as well.

For instance, if you happen to be a trail runner, Yosemite is a Cheesecake-Factory-sized slice of heaven.

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, June 2008

You can run up to the top of Yosemite Falls and back before anyone else has even finished their morning coffee. What is a strenuous, all-day hike for many, is to the trail runner merely a beautiful way to start the day.

Upper Yosemite Falls, June 2008

If, however, you also happen to be an ultra-runner, the trails take on an entirely new meaning. You can cover in one day, a route that many would consider to be a multi-day backpacking trip. One of the most incredible runs I've ever experienced was done in 2008, during one of these family trips. From Yosemite lodge, I ran up the mist trail, past the turn-off to Half Dome, over Cloud's Rest, and to Tenaya Lake. If I've ever talked to you about Yosemite, I definitely told you about this run.

Yosemite Valley from the top of Cloud's Rest, June 2008

With an early start, the trails were nearly empty, and I ran through 27 miles of jaw-dropping grandeur alone. Alone and in love with the landscape around me.

The Yosemite high country from the top of Cloud's Rest. You can see my destination in the distance, Tenaya Lake.

Of course, completing a one-way epic like this also requires that you have an awesome spouse willing to take a few hours out of his Yosemite vacation to come pick you up and take you for burgers and milk shakes at the Tuolumne Meadows Store. (I just so happen to have one of those!)

Tenaya Lake

And how could two people who met as climbing guides possibly go to Yosemite Valley without rock climbing. Even on years when we're not climbing hard (most years, lately, for me), the trip has to include some rock climbing. We're mostly into the medium to long, mellow routes. The climbing is golden no matter what your level. There's a reason this place is the Mecca for climbers the world over.

Andrew insisted that his first time to the summit of Half Dome would not be via the cables. Of course it wouldn't be! We rose at 3:30 am that year to be the first ones on Snake Dike (8 pitches, 5.7R). It's still my best day ever on Half Dome.

Descent from "Royal Arches" (16 pitches, 5.7 A0), June 2007

Rapping off Cathedral Peak (5 pitches, 5.6), July 2001

Belaying on "After Six" (6 pitches, 5.7), June 2009

One activity we usually do as a whole group is the float down the Merced River. Sun-bathing was never so good.

And what is Andrew looking at so intently through this telescope?

Climbers on El Cap, of course! Being total geeks, we like to check out who's on what route. You can always spot a few "rock stars," like Dean Potter and Beth Rodden, in the Valley.

Another important aspect to a successful summer trip in the Valley is transportation. Bikes are the only way to get around the Valley this time of the year! Forget the valley shuttle. Ride your bike!

Riding back to the lodge from the picnic, across the meadow in the evening light, is another of those quintessential Yosemite experiences. Last year, I made it my goal to learn to ride my bike with no hands. Andrew, blessed with much more talent in the balance and coordination arena, thought this was pretty amusing. Nonetheless, he guided me on my quest, and each evening we practiced rolling down the bike path, sitting up, and throwing our arms wide, triumphant. There's no place better to explore small, childhood dreams than at dusk, with your husband, in Yosemite Valley.

And in that same vein of exploration, I have another tradition for these June excursions. I always take one of the free art classes offered at the Art Activity Center. They have amazing guest artists teaching these classes, and most of them are water colors - the only medium in which I've ever dabbled. I'm no artist. But the thing is, I don't pretend to be. And that's the beauty of it for me. This is generally the only time of year that I try my hand with a paint brush, and I have no expectations for myself whatsoever. I am merely a child at play. Dauntless.

Every year I tell myself that I am going to choose a new subject to paint, but every year the same one finds its way on to my paper. I can't escape the draw of Yosemite Falls.


Autumn in the Valley is a new world to the visitor used to the crowds of summer. The waterfalls are quieter. The trails are quieter. Even the guests themselves seem a bit more subdued, their voices quelled by the soft beauty of Autumn.

This past November, I had the joy of escorting my 5th and 6th grade students on a field trip with the Yosemite Institute. Introducing my students to the park was the highlight of my school year so far.

Having lunch with my own class in a setting like this gave way to questions such as, "Am I really getting paid to do this?" and, "Aren't we part of the coolest school ever?" Somehow, though, it doesn't surprise me that I would wind up at a school that already had this field trip planned before I'd even been hired.

The weather changes quickly in the fall. Storms roll in, wrapping the mountains in a wraith-like shroud, giving the feeling that the change in seasons has already occurred.

And although the waterfalls may be diminished, the still waters of the Merced can give us two of them at once.


Winter in Yosemite is like a whisper. A sheath of snow hushes the landscape, and most places are completely absent of people. This is when the magic of the park can overwhelm you.

When there's enough snow, skiing across the Valley floor is not to be missed. With roads left unplowed, the everpresent summer traffic is vanished. You may wonder where Yosemite Falls went, but you won't really care.

Andrew points out Yosemite Falls, in case you missed it. January, 2008

Music is another love that seems to find me in Yosemite, or perhaps I just seem to find that everywhere. I've seen some of my favorite musicians in and around the Valley, and an impromptu sing-along is never a bad thing in my world.

Here I am on stage at the Evergreen Lodge with a few like-minded friends, backed up by our boys from Hot Buttered Rum. Yes, that's me with a mic in my hand, and no, I can't sing at all. (But I would never let that stop me from having a good time!)

And this was the scene just last week at the Ostrander Hut. Here's a potential description of a perfect day for me: Run all afternoon with good friends across the Yosemite snow, surrounded by breathtaking scenery, ears filled only with the sound of your own pounding heart, to arrive at your home for the night - a small, historical hut in the back country - and find a warm fire, bread in the oven and a bevy of skiers with guitar, banjo, and fiddle in hand. The only thing making it better was the extra guitar sitting there, finding its way into my hands. Did I mention that I love a sing-along?

Life doesn't get much better. Overhanging rock, Glacier Point. February, 2010.

I met up with Meghan and Bryon for three blissful days of running/snowshoeing/fastpacking (whatever you want to call it) hut-to-hut through the wilds of Yosemite. Saturday, we found ourselves enshrouded in the end of a winter storm at Glacier Point. At a curve in the trail we paused, and, like a premonition, we all sensed the lifting of the clouds before it actually happened.

A gift of Yosemite, we stood there for at least 45 minutes watching the show. The clouds danced around us, teasing with glimpses of blue sky, a shoulder of a cliff. The sounds of Vernal and Nevada Falls murmured up through the mist, unseen.

Our patience was rewarded, as it somehow always is in Yosemite. It just seems to be a place where all the best things come together.


  1. What a lovely post!

    Yosemite is a special place for me, too, as we used to take a lot of family trips there.

    I've only ever been in summer, though, and would really like to go back and experience another season :)

  2. Wow. I would love to get to Half Dome sometime, but after this post, anywhere in Yosemite would probably do just fine!

  3. You've outdone yourself with this post! More beautiful and inspiring than most $50 coffee table books.

    Here's cheers to YOSEMITE!

  5. Addy - Thanks. Yeah, it's definitely worth checking out at other times of the year.

    Dude - Yes, it will! Hope you make it out to the park.

    Stac - Aww, thanks. :)

    Leslie - Totally!

  6. Gretchen - This is beautiful - it's like a love letter to teh park. I marked it to come back after seeing the length, then had to read through it twice to fully appreciate everything you've included here. I also have it bookmarked to return to before my future Yosemite visits. Thanks for all the time and thought that must have gone into this post.

  7. Thanks, Donald. It's funny you say that about the bookmark. At one point I had considered presenting this as sort of a 'visitor's guide,' but didn't really think that would work out as well. Glad it could still somewhat of a resource though!

  8. Great post. The pictures are amazingly beautiful! You capture the place well. I miss's been over 20 years. yikes! : )

  9. Wow, gorgeous post!

    Yosemite is a place for a love affair with nature, one that can last a lifetime for sure. Thank you for reminding me of this gift out my "backdoor."

    What a wonderful weekend, last weekend. I am SO GLAD that we were able to spend some time playing together out there!

  10. Sarah - Thanks. I think it is one of those places that warrants a return trip at least once a decade. Get on it! ;)

    Meghan - Yeah, I was pretty stoked about our little excursion. Thanks so much for planning all the details. It was nothing short of incredible!

  11. This post was so good I had to savor it over several sittings. I've never visited Yosemite in any season other than summer, when, yeah, bikes are the best way to get around the valley and Yosemite Falls is but a trickle. Your photos and family gatherings made me realize I need to get back there, sooner rather than later.

  12. What an awesome and extensive tribute post! Now I'm trying figure out if and when we can fit a trip this year. By the way, on your all-day run, what did you do for water? Filter?

  13. Sarah Malloy4/11/2010 8:21 PM

    Hey Gretchen,

    Didn't know you had a blog, but I'm glad I found it! What an awesome post and set of photos:) Believe it or not, I found this by googling "tuolumne domes in vibram five fingers"...just trying to find out if anyone liked them for the descent. Darren and I would love to see you in bishop anytime...Bishop High Sierra perhaps? I may try to run the 20 miler! Hi to Andrew, Gus, and Cap:)