Yosemite is magical any time of year but if you’re lucky enough to make a visit when winter hits the park, you’ll find that the magic rises to a whole other level. Of course, the stunning effects of winter bring a few new challenges to any visit, especially on the trails… and certainly those that climb out of the valley floor like 4-mile!
I’ve hiked 4-mile trail to Glacier Point a couple times and while it’s a solid climb in summer with over 3,200’ of elevation gain, the gentle switchbacks and well-maintained conditions have always made for a straight forward day. All that changes in winter however as snow and ice make the upper stretches of the trail into a treacherous place such that a gate has been installed by Union Point and closures are a seasonal occurrence.
What to expect for your hike
Arriving at the trailhead on a winter day, 4-mile trail can range from mild hiking to moderately mountaineering depending on the conditions in the park. If there have been recent snow storms (by recent I mean within a few weeks once the snow builds up) or if it’s particularly cold out (freezing = ice), you can expect things will get spicy above, it’s just a matter of how much so.
Dropping into the valley floor, it’s easy to get lured into thinking what you see is what you’ll get all day but of course, any decent trail is going to take you up and out of the warmer temps quickly. That’s the trick about winter in the park: so many of the great adventures are above you.
On my last hike (the one that that inspired this tale), I came in cautiously optimistic. Roads had been clear but with snow all around and while the valley was down to patches of snow at the trailhead, I figured that would change quickly. My hope was good views from a lightly snowy trail but just in case, I opted for my mountain boots, stashed winter gloves, microspikes, crampons, and an ice axe in my pack along with the regular essentials. Extra weight for sure but better to be ready for what’s above and while I never thought I’d say this on a valley hike, that ice axe got used.
Hiking 4-mile trail to / towards Union Point
When winter conditions are in effect, the park rangers are kind enough to flag the trail right from the start so there’s no illusion that you’re making Glacier Point this way (you can walk / ski the closed road if you want to get there in winter.) The gate by Union Point also gets closed down too but that’s a long way off to even worry about.
Still, it can seem a little silly at first as the trail begins low enough to melt off light snow and the ample tree cover blocks much of it anyways. Nice conditions can exist for the entire day for sure, I’ve hiked it in January on all dirt to Glacier Point, but we’re talking actual winter visits here.
On my most recent trip, things were too warm for any problem ice down low and the snow remained patchy for about the first 800’ of the trail making for a quick start. After that however, the day went got far more interesting as the snow started to build: 6 inches for a few hundred feet, close to a foot for several more and then several feet. By the time I was done, there was another hiker in snowshoes (rightfully too.)
While it may not seem like a major problem to have a couple feet of snow along a trail, we’re not talking about snow on a flat road here. The trail was built as switchbacks to solve for the steep hill you’re climb and the snow is not required to follow that path. This means crossing over built up piles of snow often with big drops just below. It means having to route find when switchbacks get buried in and contending with slick or soft spots to fall on. Then there’s the risk of snow build up on a slope which means slides and avalanches. It sounds like I’m being paranoid here I realize but as the hill rumbled just minutes after I crossed a sketchy snow slope on my descent, I promise, it’s no joke (I’m told one of the big reasons for the trail closure is avalanche risks near the top.)
If snow isn’t a concern, ice may be. Whether from snow melt on the peaks above or rain, the trail gets wet and then cold and that makes for ice (obviously.) Lots and lots of ice. Ice plus cliff sides is definitely no good – before the trail closed this year, I had a visit with just a few dozen feet of ice near the top and it was not fun to consider the consequences of a fall there (hint: microspikes, they’re worth it every time.)
That’s what a winter visit can mean. Snow, ice, cold, it’s the same trail made potentially into an entirely different landscape. Throw a few extra snowy days in and it would be foolish to start, swap those for a couple warm weeks and you’ll be on 3″ of switchback covered snow cruising on up while taking some extra pretty photos. It’s not the trail that changes from any other guide post you’ve read in winter, it’s whats on top.
The views, oh the views!
While Glacier Point may not be accessible and Union Point is no guarantee, winter on 4-mile trail still has plenty of views.
You only have to climb about 1,000’ to start to clear out of the valley floor and the trees. Every few switchbacks turns after that has another opening and a better vantage so while Half Dome is mostly blocked until just before Union Point, the perspective towards El Captain and the west side of the park, it’s worth prodding through the snow and then some. Just be sure to check out the conditions carefully, gear up for a longer day than you’d imagine (it’s not dirt walking) and please, have winter tools with you – it’s always easier to go up than down.
Quick facts about the trail
- Official Rating: Strenuous
- Start point: 4-Mile Trailhead
- Distance: ~5.8 miles round-trip
- Duration: 3+ hours (the + can be significant here)
- Climb: Approx 2,200′
- Crowds: Light
- Recommended time: Early morning for max light, better snow
- Facilities: None
- Water: None
- Parking: Side of the road
- Fees: NPS Pass to enter Yosemite
- Permits: None for day hikers