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Seasons of Magic

Every year, visitors and friends ask the same question: When is the best time to visit Yosemite? For me, thatís easy ówinter or spring. Just when the crowds of summer and fall become a memory, just when the Merced River slows to a crawl, just when I think Iíve forgotten what rain sounds like, winter happens. Then spring. And if you are fortunate enough to visit Yosemite during these times of the year, itís when magic happens as well!

If I were to narrow it down even further, I would have to say that some of my favorite seasons occur on the cusp óas fall fades to winter or winter explodes into spring. These cusp seasons are where things can change literally overnight. On a November afternoon,you might see a pencil of water trickle down the face of Yosemite Falls, then wake the next morning after a rain to see it gushing! Picture yourself at that same spot in March: You might wake in the morning to see Upper Yosemite Fall frosted over in walls of ice that come crashing down as the day warms up. Here are some of my favorite outdoor things to do and see during what I laughingly refer to as the ďoff season.Ē

Winter: Wildlife Watching
You may think that all of Yosemiteís creatures are safely tucked awayin hibernation during the winter. On the contrary,this is a great time to find a quiet place to stop and observe wildlife. Early mornings and evenings provide the best viewing. Coyotes can often be seen trotting through white meadows, sometimes stopping to pounce on prey still active under the blankets of snow. Deer sometimes browse in the snow looking for leftover shoots or acorns.

Mirror Lake & Hot Chocolate
Take a shuttle bus to The Ahwahnee and hike or ski out along the paved trails just behind the hotel. (If it ís snowy, try not to walk in ski trails.) This pleasant path will take you over a historic bridge or two crossing Tenaya Creek, then head up to Mirror Lake. Itís a pleasant 3-4 mile round trip thatís great on a clear day. Mirror Lake is perhaps one of the quietest corners of the Valley during this time of year. Enjoy an in-your-face view of Half Dome from this spot, as well! Donít forget to stop in at The Ahwahnee before or after your journey for some hot chocolate.

Thunder & Snow Cone
Have you noticed a snow cone at the base of Upper Yosemite Fall this winter? This distinctive feature forms from the frozen spray as it blows down the waterfall. The pile also rises higher as frozen spray accumulates into ice sheets on the walls of the adjacent cliffs. When the ice sheets shed, they pile up at the top of the snow cone. This mound of ice and snow can sometimes reach heights of about 300 feet, about as tall as a 25-story building!

Frazil Ice & Streams of Slush
Waterfalls in the park occasionally produce a late winter and early spring phenomenon called frazil ice at the base of the fall. Small ice crystals develop in turbulent super-cooled stream water when the air temperature suddenly drops below freezing. These ice crystals become pressed together as more crystals form, transforming creeks into streams of slush. Frazil ice sometimes reaches a depth of more that 20 feet along Yosemite Creek at the Lower Yosemite Fall. In 1997, it was above the railings of the Lower Yosemite Fall Bridge, almost completely burying it.

Spring: Lunar Rainbow
Can you really see a rainbow at night? During the spring on clear nights of a full moon, stop by the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall and take in a lunar rainbow!

Waterfall Watching
Yosemite is world-famous for its spectacular waterfalls óYosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Vernal and Nevada Falls. But a visit to Yosemite in spring isnít complete without taking in the other great Valley falls. Have you seen Horsetail Fall (an ephemeral, spring fall along the east buttress of El Capitan)? Royal Arches Cascades (directly behind The Ahwahnee)? The Giant Staircase cascades down Glacier Point just above Curry Village. Sentinel Fall (the world ís tenth largest waterfall) careens down Valley walls just to the west of Sentinel Rock and can be seen easily from Leidig Meadow, west of Yosemite Lodge.

Giant Sequoia Groves
Spring is a great time to take in the big trees.There may still be some snow on the ground as late as April, but with some sturdy hiking shoes, you can head off into some of the quietest places on earth.

Kristina Rylands contributed to this article. She serves as editor-in-chief for Yosemite National Park and has lived in the area for 9 years.

This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2002 edition of the Yosemite Guide (vol. XXX1, no. 1).

Information provided by:
National Park Service