I’ve always had an interest in extreme sports. I have followed the X-Games and spent watching countless hours watching videos on YouTube. Sometimes I feel like I have seen everything, but every now and then I see something that I find truly unimaginable and inspiring. The two moments that stick out to me the most are Travis Pastrana landing the first double backflip on a motorcycle in 2006, and watching Alex Honnold free solo the mountain face of Sentinel in Yosemite National Park.

This inspiring video put Alex and Yosemite on my radar. Ever since watching this 60 minutes piece I have wanted to visit Yosemite national park. Since first watching Alex many years ago I have watched countless more inspiring videos that took place in Yosemite. Some highlights include:

After watching these videos, I knew one day that I would make the pilgrimage to Yosemite. After doing some light research, it was decided that the winter of 2017 would be the time to go. Since Allie and I were both able to get time off, and because Yosemite gets extremely busy in the summer months we decided March 2017 would be the perfect time to go.

It turns out we were correct about the reduced crowds. What we did not expect was the cold weather. When we booked the trip in the heart of our Toronto winter my thought process was this.

California = warmth

Yosemite is in California.

Therefore, the weather will be great!

A few weeks before our departure date, a search for Yosemite on Instagram proved the hypothesis to be incorrect. Our intended camping location “Camp 4” was covered in snow, and people were building snowmen in Yosemite Valley. Looks like the trip was not going to be as warm as we had thought. Further research revealed that much of the park is actually closed during the winter, including the hike up Half Dome which I had been looking forward to. We decided that 10 days may be a little long to spend freezing in Yosemite, and searched for a backup plan. Luckily, California is never short on things to do. We decided after we were done braving the cold of Yosemite we would drive south to soak up the desert sun in Joshua Tree. With a plan in place, we were finally ready to go.

Packing for the Trip

I’ve been on several camping trips, but Yosemite posed a new challenge. We had to pack light enough for the two of us to travel on a plane with only four bags (two carry on and two under the plane). We ended up using a hockey bag to transport all of our camping gear, and large suitcase for all clothing. As well, we both brought a carry-on backpack. Our camping equipment included:

  • Two sleeping bags (both from MEC)
  • Coleman collapsible cooler
  • One tent from Coleman
  • Jetboil + french press add on
  • Basic camping stove + lighter
  • Several dried food meals from MEC (Harvest Originals & another brand I cannot remember)
  • One flashlight
  • One sleeping pad and a yoga mat to substitute as a sleeping pad
  • Hand and foot warmers
  • Camp suds

And here is the list of things we forgot to pack…

  • Headlamp
  • Sharp knife for cutting and preparing food
  • Cooking utensils (most importantly wooden stirring spoon)
  • Sponge for cleaning (would recommend packing SOS pads)

Besides the several items that we forgot, I was pretty happy with our packing job. We were able to keep the camping bag under 50 lbs in order to avoid any extra fees from the airline, and we had almost everything we needed. Transporting the hockey bag was a pain since it had no wheels. But it was light when empty and supplied just enough room to fit everything.

Day 0 & Day 1 – San Francisco to Yosemite

From Toronto, there are many imperfect options to travel to Yosemite. We ended up flying direct from Toronto to San Francisco. It is possible to fly to Las Vegas, Reno, Oakland, Sacramento and more. I spent several hours researching the best option and ended up deciding on San Francisco since it has plenty of direct flight options, was a similar price to other destinations, and allowed easy access to Yosemite in the winter. Our cheapest option would have probably been Vegas or Reno. The Nevada options result in the longest drives, though, and in the Winter are often not possible to drive due to highway closures are higher elevations.

We landed in SAF late on a Thursday night, where we caught a Lyft to stay in the Travelodge North San Francisco. The hotel was very close to the airport, but was not very nice and not worth the $120 CAD price tag. Still, on Toronto time, we woke up early the next morning and picked up our rental car from the Airport. At the Budget check in counter, I had a coupon for an upgrade. Not knowing what my options were, the Budget employee began to list several cars that were at my disposal. A few cars into his list he mentioned the Mustang, and in a moment of excitement I stopped him and said Mustang it is!

It didn’t hit me until I arrived back at our hotel that this was a camping trip, and a Mustang is not known to be a camping vehicle. We were just able to cram all of our gear into our two door speedster. The Mustang turned out to be very enjoyable for the many long hours of driving that we logged, but was not easy to live out of. It became quite annoying to constantly be moving passenger and driver’s seat up and down to access the back seat, and the trunk had just enough room for our cooler and suitcase.

With our Mustang packed, we were finally ready to begin our Yosemite adventure. Since it was still so early in the morning, we decided to do some sightseeing in San Francisco first. We drove to the Golden Gate bridge where we went for a walk and snapped a few pictures. Then headed to Fisherman’s Wharf where we grabbed breakfast at Darren’s Cafe and went for a stroll along the bay. By noon we had finished our morning tour and decided to turn our attention east towards the mountains and valleys of Yosemite.

Google maps told us the drive would be about four hours and thirty minutes. Google Maps was wrong… Not including stops, the drive was somewhere in the seven-hour range. The main highway was closed, and we ended up on winding narrow mountain roads. I was happy to have the Mustang for this portion of the drive. The first twenty or so minutes was enjoyable, but the narrow high elevation roads soon became very tiring to safely navigate.

We stopped along the way in Oakdale to get groceries. This turned out to be a great decision is it would be the last major grocery store we passed on the route. The town/city had a Save Mart which had everything and more that we needed food wise for our camping trip. We filled our cooler with bagged salads, veggies, salsa, beer, cider, and ice. The $250 CAD we spent at the grocery was basically enough to feed us for the whole trip. We also picked up paper plates and spoons. While the paper plates and spoons were convenient, if I were to go again I would bring a reusable plate and dishware as they create less waste and less overall things to carry.

We arrived near the gates of Yosemite as the sun was beginning to set, and the sky was filling with hints of light orange and pinks. The gatekeeper was one of the most cheerful employees I have ever seen and welcomed us to one of America’s greatest parks. As we entered the park the scenery immediately became more dramatic. Around every turn, there was something I wanted to capture a video or a picture of. Soon we saw parts of the valley that I began to recognize from YouTube. Just before Camp 4, we stopped in a clearing to take pictures of Yosemite Falls and the surrounding scenery.

As we pulled into the pothole-filled parking lot of Camp 4 the sun was on it’s last legs. I was worried that the campsite looked very busy, so we quickly exited the car grabbing only a few things and began searching for a spot. Reservations for campsites cannot be made in advance at Camp 4, they are on a first come first serve basis. Arriving late on Friday night we were able to get a spot, but we have read that in the summer it is very difficult to find a camping spot.

Walking around Camp 4 it was not clear what exactly was a campsite and what wasn’t. There were no clearly defined campsites like I have seen during most of my previous camping experiences. Eventually, we came to a spot that had an unused fire pit, picnic table, and dry ground. Due to the previous week’s blizzard, much of the campsite was still very wet and not possible to pitch a tent in.

Feeling lucky that we had found a decent spot Allie began pitching the tent and setting up while I shuttled a few loads from the car to campsite. Camp 4 is “walk-in” camping. Meaning you can’t actually drive your car right next to your campsite. From our tent to the car was approximately 100M. Fortunately, wheelbarrows are provided near the check-in the booth which makes the trip a little bit easier.

It was dark by the time we had finished setting up, and we were both exhausted. We decided not have a fire that night and ate a simple dinner of canned chili heated by the jet boil. After eating we realized we were still short on a few supplies so we hopped back in the car and drove to the Village Store to grab sponges, stirring spoons, headlamp, lantern, and batteries.

After arriving back at the campsite we packed up and began to settle in for our first night in Yosemite. Although having the car far away was an inconvenience, it was nice to be surrounded by only trees, tents, and the granite walls of Yosemite. No large trailers or motor homes there disrupt your enjoyment. The park also provides bear lockers for every site to store your food during the night and day.

The first night was colder than we had both expected. Despite my sleeping bag being rated for -12C and bringing a yoga mat to sleep on top of, I was soon very cold. Allie’s sleeping bag which had a lower (less warm) rating than mine was freezing cold despite wearing many layers. We shivered away through the first night getting very little sleep.

Day 2 – Hiking Vernal Falls

After shivering our way through the first night we were joyous as the sun started to rise and heat up the valley floor. We quickly fired up the Jetboil to brew coffee to warm our cold bodies. Camp 4 slowly started to come to life as other campers crawled out their tents and began to line up for their morning bathroom trip. By the time the sun peaked over the granite walls it was already much warmer, and we began to look forward to the day ahead of us.

We had no specific plans for our first full day in Yosemite, so we decided to head into Yosemite Village to learn about what was open in the winter, and see if we could get any recommendations. Yosemite village is a small area of the valley that includes a post office, the village store (which has many supplies and groceries), an information center, and a few other buildings. Inside the information center, we talked to a ranger who gave us the lowdown on what to do in Yosemite in the winter. Unfortunately, much of the park is closed, including the Half Dome hike and Glacier Point Road hike which was both on the top of our lists. The ranger recommended that we check out Vernal Falls and Yosemite Falls. He warned us that it may be difficult to complete these hikes due to all the snow and ice we would encounter at higher elevations.

We decided our hike for the day would be Vernal Falls. We drove to the nearest parking lot and then began walking down the road to the base of the trail. It felt nice to be out the car and finally enjoying the outdoors.

The trail starts on a well maintained and paved pathway that snakes it’s way up alongside the mountain, quickly gaining elevation. Around each corner, there was a photo-worthy view of the valley floor and steep rock faces. Eventually, we arrived at a large bridge that provides a beautiful view and a place to rest.

After the bridge, the terrain begins to become more rugged. Due to the winter conditions, you are forced to detour from the normal route to avoid falling ice. The ranger warned us we would have to detour, but we were still very surprised to see an actual security guard at the fork enforcing this rule.

Following the detour, we quickly gained elevation hiking back and forth up the many switchbacks. Eventually, the trail comes to a natural transition where many hikers stop and rest. This is also where the real snow begins. Those with crampons or transaction devices started to put on their devices here, while those without talked amongst themselves debating whether they should continue.

Deciding it couldn’t be too bad, we forged on. The trail continued alternating between snow, ice, dirt, and rock. We had to traverse across several steep ledges covered in ice. A slip on these edges wouldn’t lead to falling off a cliff, but they could lead to a nasty tumble. After several of these traverses, we eventually came across one that looked too dangerous to cross safely without traction devices and decided to turn around.

On the way back we heard several loud bangs, that were moments later followed by falling ice and snow from the cliffs above. This was supposed to be the safe part of the trail! Relieved we finally made it back to the natural transition point as more snow and ice continued to fall from above.

An hour or so later we were back at the base of the trail again. While walking back to our car we stopped to watch a herd of deer snack and take sips from the river. Several of the braver deer came onto the road to inspect all the human visitors staring at them.

Back at camp, we began to prepare a fire and our food for the night. We had a group of loud neighbors beside us who brought an abundance of food and alcohol and seemed intent on playing loud music late into the night. They, however, won me over by offering us pork chops and potatoes after we got back from our hike.

Right beside our tent, a new group of campers had also arrived overnight. I was surprised to see a tent there in the morning since I did not remember setting up beside any tents the previous night. We started chatting and learned that they had arrived in the middle of the night and set up camp while we were sleeping.

We grilled some sausages over the fire (all of the campsites included fire pits with a built in the grill) and talked to our new neighbors who were from San Bernardino. The group of four was composed of a family of three and the daughters long time boyfriend. We chatted over beer and food, but the conversation slowly shifted to everyone listening to the dad of the group as he slowly became drunk. I enjoyed listening, but eventually, it began hard to even get two words. The drunk dad had a lot to say. Eventually, his wife called him into their tent, and I enjoyed a more relaxed conversation over the fire with the boyfriend and girlfriend.

Our second night in Yosemite we went to sleep more prepared. Allie wore 3 pairs of pants, several shirts, sweater, and full winter jacket. I went to sleep wearing much more clothing as well. The night was cold, but we fared better than our first night, each getting at least some sleep.

Day 3 – Hiking Yosemite Falls

We awoke early the next morning to find our San Bernardino neighbors already packed up and gone. Before doing anything we quickly turned on the Jetboil to warm our bodies with coffee. Today we decided we would commit to our most ambitious hike of the trip, Yosemite Falls. The round trip mileage was 11.6KM with over 823M of elevation gain. We packed snacks and lots of water in preparation for our big hike.

Graph from Yosemite NPS Website

The base of the trail begins at Camp 4. It was nice to be able to wake up and begin our trail without any driving or trips to the car. After a hearty breakfast, we walked the short distance from our tent to the trail head. The trail begins with a series of switchbacks allowing you to quickly gain elevation. After the initial steep climb, the trail flattens out and offers some beautiful views of Half Dome, Sentinel, and Yosemite Valley.

Soon after we found ourself at the base of the falls. According to the Yosemite website, it is ~ 1.6KM to the base. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and then continued onward and upward.

The next portion of the hike was much more challenging. Soon we found ourselves in snow, that while not as steep and dangerous as the previous day at Vernal Falls, still presented a hazard. We continued pulling ourselves up the mountain as the snow became deeper and deeper. The trail was slippery, making the hike very challenging. We were rewarded with many stunning views, but we were also beginning to get very tired. I kept thinking we were near the top, but the switchbacks never seemed to end.

Finally, it became clear that we were very close to the summit. There were no more switchbacks, and we were soon scrambling over snowbanks and jumping across a tiny stream. From on top of the mountain, it felt like we were in a different world. It looked more like Banff than Yosemite to me. There was deep snow everywhere, enough for some good skiing. Minutes after crossing the creek we finally made it end of the trail. We looked 1000’s of feet below onto the valley floor that hours ago we had stood on. We stopped to eat our snacks on a dry rock and take in the view with the other weary hikers who had made it this far. From the summit, we actually could not see the waterfall that was below us, but the view of the valley was, and the snowy landscape made the trek very rewarding.

The way back down ended up being much faster and easier for me. We were able to almost slide down portions of the trail while we whizzed past the tired looking hikers still working their way to the summit. Many people stopped us and desperately asked how close they were to the summit, mentally calculating if it was worth continuing.

For Allie, the hike back down was not as fun. She developed painful blisters that made every step agonizing. When we finally made it back to the base of the waterfall, she decided to take her shoes off and completed the last mile in socks. With her shoes off, the rest of the hike was more enjoyable and soon we were back home at Camp 4.

Yosemite Falls was a very challenging, and very beautiful hike. It would be strenuous under any conditions, but the snowy winter slopes added an additional level of difficulty. By the time we got back to our tent we were both exhausted. After taking some time to relax we treated ourselves to a much-needed shower at half dome village, and also drove to check out the view from Tunnel View.

Back at camp, we enjoyed tacos and salad, while we got to meet our new camping neighbor for the night. Camping beside us was an older man who lived in the area and works as a preacher. He had come to Yosemite for the day to do some climbing and decided to stay the night at Camp 4 instead of driving back home late at night. We enjoyed a conversation over the campfire swapping stories of the outdoors.

Before going to sleep, we again loaded up on several layers of clothing. It was freezing cold, but we both fared better than the first night with all of our extra layers.

Day 4 – Tunnel View Sunrise and Drive to Joshua Tree

The alarm went off very early after our third night of camping in Yosemite. It was still dark outside as we gathered our supplies and headed to the car to try and catch the sunrise from Tunnel View. We pulled into the Tunnel View parking along with a few other early morning photographers hoping to catch the morning sunrise over the valley.

It was cold, but we had come prepared. We heated up our Jetboil and began to brew coffee while we waited. Slowly the valley began to get brighter, but there was never the dramatic sunrise that I had hoped we might see. The view was still beautiful, though, especially as the first rays of sun began to shine on the Nose of El Capitan.

Once we were confident the most dramatic moments of the sunrise had passed, we packed our gear and drove back to Camp 4. We made breakfast and then began to pack up the campsite.

Initially, I had thought we would spend much more than 3 nights in Yosemite. Due to the cold and many closures though we decided we would pack our bags and begin the second leg of our journey a few days early.

I spent my final 30 minutes in Yosemite exploring the grounds of Camp 4 and climbed a few boulders while imagining what it must have been like many years earlier in the hay days of Yosemite climbing.

With our bags packed and ready to go we bid farewell to one of the most naturally beautiful places I have ever visited. Yosemite challenged us mentally with the cold, and physically with our trek up Yosemite Falls, but was well worth the time, money and effort spent to get here.

As we climbed into the Mustang, we set our views south and began driving towards the warmth of Joshua Tree.