By: Travis Mewhirter
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – We stole fire.Well, we didn’t steal it, steal it. Didn’t pick it up and move it, though we did put some brief thought into doing just that. My wife and I simply borrowed it for a few minutes.Our neighbors in Yosemite’s Upper Pines campground had retreated to their plush RV, leaving their fire – warm, so warm, with roasting coals and a gentle flame – unattended. Poor planning on our part left us with damp wood that refused to be lit, which had us eating salmon and mac and cheese at our table, chilled to our cores by the 14-degree night.So we simply borrowed our neighbors’ fire, toasting a little before piling into our tent with one long sleeve, one short sleeve, one sweatshirt, one winter jacket, one beanie, one pair of gloves, leggings, two pairs of socks, and sweatpants each.Winter backpacking was officially upon us.Here are my top five hikes in the winter months.
1. Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Falls isn’t just my favorite hike during the winter – it’s my No. 1 all-time. The first time I hiked Yosemite Falls was in December of 2018. A late start meant we’d be hiking down the trail in the pitch black, only it wasn’t pitch black. There was a full moon above us, which turned Yosemite Falls into a brilliant, breathtaking icy-white light for us. It was stunning. Every switchback – and there are many – we were treated to Yosemite Falls reflecting the moon, lighting our path enough to see without our flashlights. You do not have to hike this trail at night, of course, nor would I necessarily recommend it. Any time of day will do. Every hour of the day is the best hour to sit back and view the dizzying height from the top of the falls, which overlooks the impossibly vast valley below.
2. Yosemite Point, Yosemite National Park
You’ve already hiked the four uphill miles to get to Yosemite Falls, so you may as well put in the extra 20 minutes to make it to Yosemite Point. Yosemite Point offers what is, in my mind, the best view of the park, outside of Tunnel View, which requires no work to get to -- you literally drive right through it. Yosemite Point is where I proposed to my then-girlfriend, and is now an annual stop for us. You can overlook Yosemite Falls cascading below, as well as get a glimpse of Half Dome, which is one of the most iconic sites in the park.
3. Deep Creek Hot Springs, Apple Valley, Ca.
The first winter backpacking trip I ever took was to Deep Creek Hot Springs in Apple Valley. There are a few different ways to get there, though my favorite is dropping off the Pacific Crest Trail, which takes you through the springs as it navigates the northern Mojave Desert section of the San Bernardino National Forest. Hot springs are, in my mind, one of the coolest elements of nature – a natural hot tub! There are few better ways to finish, begin, or split a hike in the winter than by soaking in a hot spring for a while, allowing the body to warm up and relax before moving on. Deep Creek, too, has a diverse selection of pools, eight in total, varying in temperature and size.
4. Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park
I’d highly recommend to visit Zion in the fall and winter over the summer – Yosemite is a year-round recommend – because Zion gets oppressively hot in the summer. Hot enough that you could go through 50 ounces of water in the two-plus miles it takes to get to Angel’s Landing and still be parched. It’s more than worth it, even in the summer, but especially in the winter, even if there are some icy patches here and there. The view is stunning, overlooking a canyon of red rock, a river flowing through the park, and lush, green trees. It almost looks fake, to tell you the truth. But it isn’t – just one of those too-good-to-be-true views that only nature can provide.
5. Watchtower Trail, Sequoia National Park
It was eerie, hiking in Sequoia this fall. Smoke from a confluence of fires in Southern California turned the sky a strange blood orange. Even still, the Watchtower Trail was a blast, replete with crisp mountain air, trees that are cartoonishly huge, and views into the valley that rival Yosemite’s. A few winter storms, however, have eradicated the smoked, restoring Sequoia to its full beauty once more. It’s a difficult hike, strenuous but not crushing, just enough of a workout to get the endorphins flowing, a difficulty that makes you appreciate just how wondrous your view of the world is in that moment, overlooking Sequoia from the Watchtower Trail.
About the Author:
Travis Mewhirter is an award-winning journalist, author of four books, podcast host, and professional beach volleyball player. Raised in Hampstead, Maryland, he moved to California when he was 25, and has since made a career of being outside — either on the beach or in the mountains, writing wherever he goes. When he’s not playing beach volleyball, you can find him in the mountains, camping with his wife, Delaney.