I woke up early Sunday and started driving about 7 a.m. to Yosemite National Park, where a partial federal government shutdown was underway. My goal was to check out Four Mile Trail, which park staff said was closed for winter below Union Point.
Before 8 a.m. at the Big Oak Flat entrance on Highway 120, kiosks where rangers normally collect visitor fees were unstaffed and one of the lanes was open, allowing people to drive into the park without paying.
I parked at the trailhead east of Sentinel Creek and started walking about 8:30 a.m. It looked like a gray day with highs in the 40s, maybe 50s if the sun came out.
Four Mile Trail is actually 4.6 to 4.8 miles one-way from the floor of Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point with 3,200 feet elevation gain. It’s a steep grind with phenomenal views. With Glacier Point Road closed for winter, the only people who would be up there Sunday would be those who took a chance on the government shutdown, and in addition, decided to walk or ski up there.
Back in January 2016, some friends and I had snowshoed up to the first gate. I was sure there was snow and ice on the trail this time, too, but I wasn’t sure how much. I decided to go without snowshoes this time and took trekking poles to keep my balance when necessary.
It was pretty straightforward. I walked slow and steady and I went around the closed gate below Union Point. There was a lot more snow and some ice higher up. With or without poles, the worst snow and ice patches were in spots where it was safe to walk.
I walked four straight hours, stopping for photos on occasion, and topped out at Glacier Point at 12:30 p.m. The only people I saw on the way up were two Australians who passed me early on, and a group from the Netherlands who passed me just above the closed gate. I saw the Australians coming down as I neared Glacier Point, and I saw the Dutch from a distance up top and waved as they departed.
Up at Glacier Point, there was a man taking photos with a tripod just below the stone hut with the geology exhibit. The primary vista at Glacier Point was deserted. I was hungry the whole way walking up but now I was here I had little appetite. Altitude always kills my hunger. I cut up some dried salami and broke off some stale cheese and bread left over from a recent Christmas party.
Unlike other times I’d been up at Glacier Point, no squirrels or chipmunks or ravens came to beg for food. It was colder up here this time, with snow on the ground in places, facing east toward Tenaya Canyon, snow-coated Clouds Rest, and Half Dome, and Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall on the Merced River.
I ate a few bites of the meat, cheese and bread and it tasted great. Guzzling water to wash it down made me gag. I put the rest of the food away, pulled on my packs and started down. It was about 1:30 p.m.
Descending is where the poles came in handy. Snow was melted to slush in places and more slippery. Sections of Four Mile Trail are so steep, taking poles for the walk down is a decent idea in any conditions, wet or dry.
The sun came out briefly a few times, amping up the colors around me. Most of the Four Mile Trail remained in shade though, so it wasn’t significantly warmer. I finally came across a raven around 3:30 p.m. as I went around the closed gate on my way down. Forty minutes later I came across a quiet group of mountain quail, the kind with head plumes or topknots.
The long march down continued and I stopped a few times to rest my knees. I saw more people from India and Holland, and some Americans, all walking up as the daylight faded. When people asked me about distance and daylight, I asked if they had flashlights or phones charged enough to power the light.
I made it back to the car in darkness, about 5:30 p.m. In spite of the shutdown there were plenty of motorists in the park and it took a while to get back to the Big Oak Flat exit, as it usually does. I made it back to Sonora by 7:30 p.m.
All in all, it was a superb day, dawn-to-dusk. But I have to say I do not recommend Four Mile Trail all the way to Glacier Point right now unless you’re accustomed to snow travel on steep ground and you’re willing to turn around when it gets sketchy.
Several people have died over the years at Glacier Point and trying to come down Four Mile Trail. That storm on Christmas Eve and early Christmas Day has changed the conditions described here. Try the lower, dry sections. Avoid the snow higher up.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.