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Happy Isles and a Happy Dog in the Season of the Sticks

Yosemite National Park is an inspiring place no matter the season, but there is something magical about the park in winter, with its sparkling snow-covered meadows against a backdrop of grey monoliths and towering evergreens.

The girls and I had another opportunity to visit our perennial happy place with Owen this past weekend as we kicked off the Thanksgiving week. With a signed copy of folk artist Noah Kahan’s new release, “Stick Season,” playing in the minivan’s CD player, we made our way toward Yosemite Valley, entering the park through the south entrance. As it is the closest entrance for those traveling from Southern California and at a lower elevation than Big Oak or Tioga Pass, I was not too concerned about ice and snow on the road so early in the cold season. Transportation authorities are pretty good about keeping CA-41 clear, as is the National Parks Service. That said, there was snow even as we made the climb through the Sierra National Forest and to the park entrance kiosks.

After entering the park, we stopped at Wawona, captivated by the winter scene in the fields across the road from the hotel. The fresh snow glistened in the morning light, and by then, Owen was getting anxious for some playtime. The stop did not disappoint.

We had a great time traipsing through the snow. The snow was extra crunchy that morning, and it was the perfect texture for snowball fights, of which the girls were delighted participants. There was even a snowman sitting in the meadow, and Emily made some of her own contributions to the marginally anthropomorphic structure.

Building a snowman- sort of…

After exploring Wawona’s fields for a while, we loaded back up in the car and continued on toward Yosemite Valley, singing along to Noah Kahan’s heart-rending, honest lyrics. The folk-inspired tracks of “Stick Season” set the mood for our autumn drive through the national park. While we were not in New England, the changing colors of deciduous trees stood in contrast with the green of the pines and the scenic vistas, a reminder of how life has changed in the months between our spring visit and this one. Add to that the nostalgic, relatable themes throughout the album- of family dysfunctions, the ambivalent feelings of homesickness and being sick of home, rendered with a crescendo of pounding percussion and layered strings – and it was the perfect soundtrack for the drive into the ‘curve of the valley.’

While the park was not nearly as busy as it had been in the early spring, there were still many visitors with the day being so fine. That said, we were fortunate to easily find a parking spot in Yosemite Village, and as is our usual routine, we stopped at Degnan’s for lunch before heading over to the Mist Trail head. We would not be hiking the Mist Trail, as there was too much snow and ice, and I didn’t feel we would have been prepared for that. But the girls did want to check out Happy Isles, a set of two islands created by the flowing Merced River.

The view from the trailhead parking area

We hiked from the parking area near Upper Pines through the forest, following the footsteps left in the snow by other hikers. While the road would have been easier, the walk through the forest was prettier, and offered yet another opportunity for the girls to throw snowballs at each other and for Owen to lick more snow. There were not many people on this part of the valley, as it is furthest east from the Village, but there were enough to reassure Sami that it was safe to be on the trail and to give Owen pets and attention. He was a happy dog hiking to Happy Isles indeed.

Owen loved drinking the water in the marsh as we crossed over the boardwalk toward the Happy Isles Nature Center. We didn’t see much wildlife with the cold and the snow, however there were a few grey squirrels out and about. Owen didn’t have too much interest in them; he was too busy sniffing, exploring, and eating the snow.

The day went by rather quickly as we were having fun. Too soon it was time to head back and load up the car again to begin making our way out of the park. As we made the turns out of the valley in the quickly fading light, we saw families playing in the snow and trying to take photos with their pups, just as we had been not long before. It was, as always, tough to leave. It seems that there is a little piece of our souls that belong to Yosemite National Park, and I can’t wait to return to explore more and make more memories. After all, love is an adventure meant to be shared, and Yosemite is a magnificent place to do so.

Some things to consider:
As mentioned in my last post, winter weather brings an element of magic to outdoor adventures, but it also comes with some additional risks. We made sure to check both CalTrans and the National Park Service before heading out to make sure that we would not need tire chains or additional gear.

The visitor center was particularly useful in determining what hikes we were prepared for. There was a sandwich board outside the center that had the recommended footwear for the different hikes in the Valley. Hiking boots were adequate for the hike to lower falls, and were okay for the trek to Happy Isles. There were some parts where microspikes or traction systems would have been useful. For any hike with an incline, crampons are a must. When in doubt, double check with a ranger.

The weather can change quickly in the park. I recommend layers in case you get warm while adventuring, as well as a puffer or wool jacket to keep warm as the the temperatures drop.

Proper hydration is still very important even on a cooler day. There have been studies that show that dehydration can be a serious issue, since we tend not to feel thirst as quickly in cooler weather. Regardless of weather, it is important to bring more water than you think you’ll need and be sure to drink it. We did much better on this trip than the last winter hike.

Yosemite is amazingly breathtaking no matter what the season. With some preparation and attention to safety, it is just as fun in the winter season as it is in the summer. Just choose your adventure, pick a happy trail, and go.

Same view, different season

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