Rather than join the weekly winter parade up I-80 from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, my girlfriend and I headed to Yosemite for a weekend to experience the joys of the park, sans summertime crowds. Fearful of even the barest hint of mass market tourism that popular parks like Yosemite can attract, and the subsequent feelings of a malaise you can’t quite put your finger on (likely brought about by the realization that your “unique” experience isn’t so unique after all), we chose to avoid the standard in-park accommodations and instead opted for the charming Bass Lake Lodge.
Only 13 miles from the southern entrance to the park near Oakhurst, the lodge is a welcome escape from just about anything. Owners Janet and Ed Hardy have appointed the lodge with every creature comfort, while incorporating their environmental ethic into its construction. With carpeting made from recycled materials and timber salvaged from white fir and sugar pine saved from beetle infestation, the Hardys have managed to achieve that unique balance that eludes so many high-end resorts: a beautiful, natural (yet luxurious) lodge in a beautiful, natural setting. Movie buffs may recognize Bass Lake from scenes from the John Candy classic, The Great Outdoors.
Well-rested from the first class accommodations (and, Sylvia and I agreed, the most comfortable bed we had ever slept in), we set off on the first day for a snowshoe hike to Dewey Point, overlooking Yosemite Valley directly across from El Capitan. The easy 7-mile roundtrip track began at Badger Pass ski area, wound up and down through scenic pine forests, and ended abruptly on a rocky precipice overlooking the valley. Despite the haziness, the view was majestic, and gave us a hint at the vastness of the park, with the high peaks to the east visible in the distance. As an added bonus, we saw fewer than ten other people the entire day once we left the groomed nordic ski track from Badger Pass to Glacier Point.
The next day brought less agreeable (though more typical) weather, so we elected to stay on the valley floor. We made the easy loop around Mirror Lake in the shadow of the Half Dome, with its sheer 4,000 foot granite face looming directly above. With the sun fighting to break through the mist and clouds, we were treated to tantalizing views of the namesake rock faces that make the park famous. The trail was a bit muddy, but very little snow remained on the valley floor following a few weeks of warm weather.
On our last day, we elected to attempt one of the signature hikes in the park: the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls. Due to the unseasonably warm weather (t-shirts in February!), we didn’t even need our snowshoes. The trail ascended steeply through picturesque forests of oak and then pine, and we paused often to take in the ever-improving views of the valley below. Just below, the hub of park civilization swarmed with weekend visitors (though quite empty compared to the summer), yet on the trail, we soon left the casual family day-trippers behind. After about 2 miles, we reached the base of the upper falls, falling over 1,000 feet from the rim. At the bottom, a huge snow cone of frozen spray had formed, lending a fascinating twist to the typical waterfall experience. From there, it was a steep 1.5 mile hike up countless switchbacks to the top, where snow lingered in relatively deep patches despite the unseasonably warm weather. Three thousand feet above the valley floor, we were treated to a spectacular view as the falls plunged over the precipice into thin air.
A few hours later, we returned to our car as the sun set and the moon rose over Half Dome. Of course the summer is the high season, but it’s the quieter times when the park really shines.