Warszawski: Cross-country ski trek in Yosemite never fails to inspire

The Fresno BeeMarch 12, 2014 

— From this lofty perch, even mighty El Capitan gets cut down to size.

It's all a matter of scale.

A trip to 7,385-foot-high Dewey Point above the south rim of Yosemite Valley forces the mind to reassess what's big.

So grand is the backdrop that the eyes get overwhelmed. Directly across the Valley sits El Capitan, the world-famous 7,573-foot  hunk of vertical granite. Upper Cathedral Spire pokes up in the foreground, and 10,856-foot Mount Hoffman looms in the background.

On this side of the expanse but farther east lie Taft Point, Half Dome and Clouds Rest. Thanks to recent snowfall, the most in months, the summits of 8,840-foot Half Dome and 9,930-foot Clouds Rest are sprinkled white.

The best part: Seeing this grand panorama doesn't require some grueling trek. It just takes 3.5 miles of mostly flat cross-country skiing or snowshoeing from a paved parking lot two hours' drive from Fresno.

And on a recent weekday morning, I had it all to myself.

Let's face it. This has been an awful winter for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The blanket of snow Mother Nature typically provides for such pursuits has been downright skimpy.

So for over a year my skis have sat in a dusty corner of the garage, lonely and forsaken.

Just when it looked like winter would come and go, storms came through in late February and early March that left about 1-1/2 feet of snow in Yosemite at 7,000 foot elevations. Which isn't a ton, but enough to scrape by.

Knowing this might be my only chance, I awoke earlier than normal and drove up Highway 41 to Badger Pass. California's original downhill ski resort also serves as a starting point for an extensive network of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails.

The choices include staying on Glacier Point Road and enjoying groomed tracks for 10-1/2 miles all the way to Glacier Point. Or venture off and follow several backcountry trails -- with the most popular being Dewey Point.

The best conditions for skiing are in the morning, before things get slushy. Snapping into my skis at the trailhead, I was surprised not only by the amount of snow but also its firmness.

The first mile on Glacier Point Road is like cruising on a wide boulevard. A snowcat creates a smooth middle lane for skate skiing ("freestyle" at the Winter Olympics) and two sets of parallel tracks on either side for striding.

Like running and cycling, cross-country skiing is an act of rhythm and momentum. Every kick and glide blends into the next. After a while, the brain doesn't even think about what the arms and legs are doing.

Glacier Point Road climbs gently before descending into Summit Meadow. From here, two trails lead to Dewey Point: the Ridge Trail, which leaves the road before the outhouse; and the Meadow Trail, which leaves after it.

Most people take the Meadow Trail (signed No. 18) because the Ridge Trail (No. 14) involves more hills and is a half-mile longer. The two trails join up about a mile before Dewey Point, so it's possible to make a loop.

Now off the groomed road, trails are marked with yellow triangles (many are faded) and directional tabs placed in trees. From each yellow marker, you can generally spot the next one.

The Meadow Trail heads north across open meadows before encountering "Carolyn's Hill," a great place to practice turns. Up to this point, the terrain is easy.

Things get trickier as the trail approaches Dewey Point. While it never climbs or descends more than a couple feet, metal-edged skis come in handy to carve turns or snowplow through narrow sections that can become icy or rutted. (Snowshoers don't have to worry.)

Until now, trees have blocked most of the views. That changes abruptly as the trail exits the forest and heads down an open slope. By the time it reaches Dewey Point, the senses get a full wallop.

It takes a while to soak it all in. Beyond the familiar Yosemite landmarks sits a line of distant peaks, some pointed like fangs and others rounded, that appear to be chiseled from the horizon.

Certainly, you can hike out to Dewey Point in August and not bother with skis or snowshoes. But the air won't be as clear and the sky won't be as blue. Which makes this a perfect outing for winter or early spring. If there isn't snow, traction devices for your hiking boots make slippery spots on the trail much safer.

During the return trip to Badger Pass, I encountered seven or eight people making their way out.

"How's the view?" a few asked.

Bigger than you can imagine.

IF YOU GO ... 

** Where: Dewey Point, Yosemite National Park

** Cost: $20 entry fee per vehicle, good for seven days.

** Maps: Map of Glacier Point Road Winter Trails can be downloaded at www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/badger-winter.pdf.

** Badger Pass: Nordic Center rents cross-country skis, snowshoes, offers lessons, guided trips to Glacier Point and gives snow conditions; www.yosemitepark.com and click "ski"; (209) 372-8444

** Road conditions: Caltrans, (800) 427-7623, www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi; always carry chains in winter.

Info: Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200, www.nps.gov/yose.a

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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