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A December Rarity: Driving The Tioga Road Through Yosemite National Park


The high country of Yosemite National Park is frozen, but not deep in snow, a rarity for this time of year. Photos of Tenaya Lake, stump mired in ice, and Tuolumne Meadows by Beth Pratt.

Editor's note: Usually late December finds the high country of Yosemite National Park under a heavy blanket of snow. But not this year. While it's been cold enough to freeze-over Tenaya Lake, there's been precious little snow, as Beth Pratt discovered during a visit last weekend.

In a typical December, Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park sleeps under a blanket of snow, and the only people celebrating Christmas in Yosemite’s high country are usually the two winter rangers and a few intrepid skiers, accompanied by assorted creatures such as pine martens, coyotes, and the Clark’s nutcracker.

This year, however, Santa might have to make a few extra trips to Yosemite’s high country as one of the driest Decembers on record has allowed the National Park Service to reopen Tioga Pass—and the forecast remains sunshine and blue skies through the holiday.

When the Park Service announced the pass was reopening last weekend, I dashed up to my favorite place on earth, Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding high country. Although I have extensively explored the area, being only a fair backcountry skier I have not yet enjoyed seeing its winter moods. I was not going to miss this rare opportunity!

Driving over Tioga Pass in December is a rare—and memorable— experience. According to data back to 1933, which shows the road opened 6 times in December, with the record being January 1.

But the statistics don’t capture the specialness of witnessing winter in Yosemite’s Tioga Country, truly a sublime season. As the late naturalist Carl Sharsmith once urged Yosemite’s winter visitors in A Winter Day in Yosemite, “Look around you. You’re seeing a majesty and beauty that is not here in other seasons. Snow does things to a landscape.”

Although snow isn’t in abundance, a thin layer still covers some of the landscape, although it’s largely absent from the dominant granite peaks like Mt Conness, Mt. Dana, or Mt. Gibbs. Tuolumne Meadows and Dana Meadows are both snow covered, but it’s a pretty half-hearted attempt by Mother Nature, as if she’s putting in the minimum effort to keep up appearances. After driving over the pass, I parked at the start of Saddlebag Lake Road and hiked up the almost snow-free road for some stunning views of Mt. Conness.

Perhaps the most delightful experience of my winter trek came at Tenaya Lake. When I first arrived in the morning, I stood alone at the west shore and listened to the creaking of the ice on the lake (it sounded like whale song). You can hear it at the beginning of the video with this article.

At the more solidly frozen eastern shore, I slid across the lake in my sneakers, accompanied by Paul, a resident of Crowley Lake, as he skated and wielded his hockey stick. We both agreed on the sheer awesomeness of being out here so late in the year. I walked across the lake, and marveled over being able to touch one of the “ghost trees” peeking out of the ice. It definitely ranked as one of the coolest nature moments of the year for me.

So if the road remains open for Christmas Day—and at this point it looks promising—I’ll be dashing back up to my favorite place on earth for one of the best presents I can think of receiving—a walk in Tuolumne Meadows in the winter.

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Wow.  Thanks for that great piece of deeply felt sharing.  It brought back great memories of free-solo climbing (bouldering almost) with my son two summers ago the dome behind the lake in the first picture and at the beginning of the video.  I'd love to go there in the winter like you did.  We were fortunate on the day we went up that we had the place to ourselves.  I agree, it has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

With Tioga Road open several other people jumped on the opportunity to go ice skating on Tenaya Lake.

This one has someone skating in the frozen creek first:

This one is more recent:

Lucky you . . .I have seen the snow and the frozen lake but never in December and it is  beautiful and I envy you the trip.   Dawn

Great article and beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing.

I was up at Tahoe last weekend and saw that 120 was open—I thought, no way! Decided to take the long way home. I didn't arrive in TM until sunset, but it was beautiful all the same, especially seeing twilight over the frozen Tenaya lake.
Here's a photo of the scene:
Thanks for the excellent post and description! You're absolutely right, it's an incredibly special opportunity!

We went up yesterday after reading this post.  Amazing.  Well worth the six-hour round-trip.  Here are a couple pix from the trip.

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