YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. Snow brings stillness to the Yosemite backcountry.
It's a solitude not easily found during the high-season summer when some 600,000 visitors a month descend on Yosemite's 1,200 square miles of protected wilderness in the central Sierra Nevada.
Winter attracts just a fraction of those tourists, about 100,000 a month, mostly to Yosemite Valley for views of waterfalls, El Capitan, one of the world's largest granite monoliths, and the towering Half Dome.
Many hikers hang up their gear come the first snow, when Yosemite National Park's backcountry gets socked in by up to 8 feet of the white stuff. Park roads close intermittently and most marked summer trails disappear beneath drifts taller than a man.
But it's also a time when the park is quieter, more serene, even surreal, especially at night, when a bright moon ignites the snowy landscape with a white glow.
For the most part, backcountry access above 5,000 feet is limited to cross-country skiers and snowshoers. In many places, a hiker wearing just boots would sink into the snow up to the knees, making even a simple half-mile walk in the woods nearly impossible.
We strapped on our snowshoes at Crane Flat, where the plowing of Tioga Road ends. The road provides vehicle access across the park's high-country in summer, but typically closes to auto traffic because of avalanche danger from mid-November to mid-May.
A 3.5 mile snowshoe trek up Tioga Road atop several feet of snow through forests of red fir, lodgepole pines, and the occasional Jeffrey pine with its sweet-scented bark, brought us to Gin Flat, a sub-alpine meadow at about 7,000 feet.
We covered about 1,000 feet of elevation gain during the hike below a snowy ridge through a thick forest until reaching the flat, giving way to a view of snow-tipped Mount Clark, some 20 miles to the southeast, rising 11,522 feet into the sky.
Legend has it, Gin Flat got its name after a barrel of gin rolled off a horse-drawn wagon. A group of shepherds later found it and spent an evening unexpectedly imbibing the sweet, clear liquor.
We pitched camp at about 4 p.m. after three hours of trudging through snow that seemed to swallow our snowshoes at times in about a foot of powder.
The trail is considered a difficult route, but our party two men and two women ages 26 to 45, ranging from novices to experienced hikers, tackled it with just a little sweat.
At camp, sunset lit up the eastern sky with a pinkish hue cast against the dark mountains in the distance. Night fell with the rise of Venus in the western sky, a giant glowing ball dominating the darkness, followed by the tiny red speck of Mars up above.
By 8 p.m., our camp became a planetarium, the sky illuminated with millions of tiny stars bunched together in constellations, only a few of which we could name.
Snow camping beckons a different breed of outdoor enthusiast. Temperatures dropped into the low 20s and a brisk wind howled through the tree tops on this mild winter night. But the sky seems clearer in winter, the air crisper and seemingly easier to breathe than in the hot summer months.
Snow camping is not as challenging as it sounds a simple plastic tarp laid between the tent and snowy ground keeps things dry.
By 11 p.m., the starry skyscape gave way to the rising moon, bright enough to read by, and setting aglow the white wilderness.
A few more days in the mountains would have been ideal but this was a quick two-day trip. Our 3-mile hike back down to the trail head was much less strenuous, tackled in about two hours.
On our way down, hawks circled in the sky. Their prey can be sparse this time of year, but Park Ranger Deb Schweizer explained that another world of life exists in what's called the subnivean space, which forms between the ground and the underside of the snowpack. That's where gophers and moles eke out a subsistence on plant roots and seeds.
''It's brilliant from a survival standpoint because you have the snow as a level of protection from predators,'' Schweizer said. ''But predators have also evolved to take advantage of the situation.''
Birds of prey including the great gray owl, which can be as tall as 3 feet, can dive down through thick snowpack to snag their prey. So can coyotes, Schweizer said.
''Lots of people talk about it being winter and it being dead, but there's a lot that lives out there this time of year,'' Schweizer said.
Some of the park's estimated 350 to 500 black bears could be seen this time of year tramping through the snow and mountain lions, too though, for better or worse, we saw neither.
If You Go ...
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK: The park is open year-round but some trails do close during winter. Tioga Road across the park's vehicle-accessible high-country closes with the first snow storm and opens when avalanche danger no longer exists. For driving directions, daily weather, tours, shuttle bus access information, where to stay and other planning advice, visit www.nps.gov/yose or call (209) 372-0200. The Yosemite Association (www.yosemite.org or 209-379-2646) in the park border town of El Portal offers tours and can also provide advice for the planning a trip.
GETTING THERE: For driving directions through an Internet mapping service, use the park's zip code, 95389. Nearest airports include Fresno, Reno, San Francisco and Sacramento.
GENERAL INFORMATION: Visitors driving into the park during winter may be required to carry chains in case road conditions become icy. It is advised to check with the park in advance. Pets are allowed in the park but must be leashed and are not permitted on unpaved trails.
WINTER ACTIVITIES: Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice skating and wildlife viewing. Badger Pass Ski Area is also located in the park for downhill skiing, snowboarding and snow-tubing. Cross-country skis and snowshoes can be rented on site. For more information on Badger Pass, visit their web site at www.yosemiterentals.com/badger.htm or call (209) 372-8430. An ice skating rink is located at Curry Village in the valley.
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