Yosemite, 2003

Yosemite is a magical place for many. The thing that draws me there is the absolute awe that comes from being surrounded by so many natural wonders. Of all the places I've camped and hiked, most memorable places have one or two amazing views or remarkable formations. What makes Yosemite special is that it's got at least a dozen amazing things to see in a very small area. No matter where you look, you're rewarded with an awesome view. Even after being surrounded with natural beauty for days, the sense of awe never wore off. Around every corner and with the changing light, one new perspective after another was offered.
The wintertime ghost town
The drawbacks to enjoying Yosemite (for me at least) is dealing with the crowds. I can recall one summer trip involving a crowded campsite where one set of campers kept everyone else up all night as they played radios loudly while we tried to get sleep so we could climb Half Dome the next morning. The great thing about heading to Yosemite in the dead of winter is that no one else is there. During our time there (a Monday through Friday stay), we never had a problem finding parking, never had to wait in a line, and rarely had to share a location with anyone. There was almost no one around which contributed greatly to the solitude and relaxing experience we had.
It's also dirt cheap. Due to it being the off-season, the winter offers only a few choices of places to stay and we picked the Yosemite Lodge. In the summer, rooms go for about $150 a night for a place with the decor and amenities of your average Motel 6. Our winter, midweek prices were only $79 a night, and they gave us a newly renovated room in a single floor building, which was also nice. The week's lodging ran about $350. The whole trip (including a couple $100 meals and a day skiing with lift passes and rentals) cost less than $1k.
Things to do, places to see
While most photos I've seen of Yosemite are taken in the summer with lush green meadows and raging waterfalls, winter in Yosemite looks amazing on film. A coat of white snow makes anything look nicer, and the addition to Yosemite's natural wonders is breathtaking.
I quickly learned about the importance of light in photography. I read up on photo sites before I left, and seeing the changing light first hand brought the points home. The light on the walls of the valley looks best in the hour or so after sunrise and the hour before sunset, when the light is colorful and low in the sky, casting interesting shadows. Everything shot between those two times has a flat grayish quality. Shooting before sunrise or after sunset produced very blue, drab photographs. The middle of our stay included a full moon, which was bright enough to walk around by at night (and produce shadows on the snow), but sadly beyond my camera's capabilities to photograph.
Winter also meant there were new things to do in Yosemite. We skated in the outdoor ice rink under a full moon. We skied up at Badger Pass (which was a great small, mellow mountain). We hiked in snow to see trees without anyone else around. While we could have snowshoed, the air was cold enough that the snow stayed firm and we simply walked on packed snow. Next time, we'll probably give cross-country skiing up to Glacier Point a try.
The catch?
The down sides were few and far between. It was cold, but given enough layers (all non-cotton — never wear cotton in the winter while exercising), we were perfectly fine stargazing outside at night or hiking in the middle of the day. We got used to the 30 degree (F) temps and the powerful heaters inside our hotel made for warm nights. While we shared the area with a small number of people, we noticed on the way out (the start of a holiday weekend), there were some crowds showing up. If you want to relax and have a quiet time to yourself, midweek during the off season is the best. Being the off-season did mean that a lot of things were closed like other hotels in the area and some of the eating establishments. For food we were limited to just 2-3 choices for each meal. While we had clear skies and perfect weather, it could have turned at any time and made for a miserable day or two.
Memories
Looking forward to this trip got me through the last few months of 2002 (hadn't had a real vacation since summer of 2001), and now that I'm back from it I can say I wasn't disappointed. It was closer to the bay area than I thought, the driving was easy (we also took advantage of the free shuttle buses in the valley instead of driving everywhere), the prices were cheap, and overall it was the first time I got to relax and forget about everything in a long time.
Here are a few photos from the week
Here's a 3 minute (7Mb, quicktime) movie of us goofing around (since hiking isn't the most exciting thing to film, I had to make due). The song (used without permission) is from Rilo Kiley's new album.