Magical winter backpacking in Mariposa Grove

Camping among Yosemite’s famous giants reveals countless wonders

During every backpacking trip, I question my sanity. This is typical during miles 5 through 7 or on any uphill section. However, on my recent trip to Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park, this questioning came a mere mile into the trek.

Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t due to poor weather or an unpleasant environment. It had snowed 6-9 inches the night before, the sky was a brilliant blue, the air was still, and the pristine, white snow fell like diamonds through the trees. I wasn’t officially in the grove yet, just along the 2-mile approach, and the anticipation of seeing the giants covered in snow was elating.

The questioning wasn’t even due to the searing pain in my right hip flexor under the weight of my 60-pound pack. Instead, it stemmed from the groups of day hikers that sped past. Why sleep out here, risking frostbite, lugging all this stuff around, when I could have strolled in and out of the park as they did?

I took in the beauty of the sequoias once I reached the grove, as the day hikers around me. The trees’ red bark stands in  stunning contrast to the white snow, appearing so soft, almost begging to be touched. The giants’ height reaches far beyond neighboring conifers, their wide, arrow-like foliage dancing off unruly limbs. It was a sight of common joy, but, unlike the day hikers, I was on a mission to hike to camp before sunset.

A view looking up at a snowy giant sequoia under a blue sky
A giant sequoia stands tall in Mariposa Grove. Photo by Helena Guglielmino

Gobsmacked

As I continued through the grove to my campsite, the concentrations of sequoias lessened. Only here or there was a giant, surrounded by smaller conifers. When I made it to the designated camping area, I wasn’t surrounded by giants. I had a good view of a few, including the Clothespin Tree, but it wasn’t like stepping into the cluster of sequoias closer to the entrance of the grove. Again, I wondered—why camp? Why not just hike out?

And then, while trying to tamp down this thought, a bobcat hopped into the Clothespin’s fenced enclosure, about 60 feet away from where I stood. It perched on the fence to stare at me. Likely, this cat wasn’t expecting to see me here. I was the only person camping in the grove. After a beat, it jumped down to the base of the notable sequoia and slid between the trees, up the snowy bank.

I felt two things at the bobcat’s appearance: gobsmacked at what I just witnessed (my first wild cat!) and humbled. No one who day-hiked saw this ephemeral magic.

As the sun set behind two kissing giants, I contemplated this more. The opportunity to camp in the grove reminds me of author Edward Abbey’s fierce stance that “a man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”

What a person can feel and experience in one mile increases a hundredfold by sleeping in the very nature they sought to see. Camping in Mariposa Grove turned a tourist attraction into a resonance with these giants and a glimpse into their lives. “They have left me alone here in the wilderness,” Abbey said, “where all that is most significant takes place.”

As the morning light reached my nest, I felt a calm hopefulness. The rising sun illuminated smaller sequoias in the mixed-conifer forest, a new perspective compared to last afternoon’s falling light.

I packed up my camp, lingering to watch the light change on the Clothespin Tree. Down the trail, I appreciated the stillness and quiet of early morning that seemed to grow the sequoias taller, more powerful, more gentle.

As I hiked out of the grove, I smiled at passing day hikers. “You have no idea the magic that lives here,” I kept thinking, feeling lucky about my first experience camping among the giants.

A backpacking tent stands in a snowy clearing in a mixed-conifer forest
Helena Guglielmino camped near the Clothespin Tree in Mariposa Grove, 1.7 miles from the grove entrance. Photo by Helena Guglielmino

Know before you go

Backpacking: Camping in Mariposa Grove is allowed from Dec. 1 through April 15, but only if Mariposa Grove Road is closed and if there is enough snow for cross-country skiing. Camping in the grove is allowed above the Clothespin Tree (1.7 miles from grove entrance).

Best sights: Whether backpacking or day-hiking, be sure to see the famous giant sequoias called the Fallen Monarch, Bachelor and the Three Graces, Grizzly Giant, and California Tunnel Tree, all of which are along the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail. This is a 2-mile loop from the grove’s entrance with an elevation gain of 300 feet.

Preparation: Be prepared with layers and extra food and water. Weather and snow levels might not require the use of a traction device for your boots (spikes or snowshoes) or waterproof clothing, but is always a good idea to have these handy. Winter backpacking requires campers to bring proper equipment such as a sleeping pad with a minimum R-value of 4, a sleeping bag rated for winter temperatures, extra clothing, and snowshoes or skis.

Permits: Winter camping requires a wilderness permit, which is free and available at the permit station outside at the Wawona Visitor’s Center. Reservations aren’t required. Entrance to the park is $35 per vehicle.

Learn more about planning your visit.

 

About the author

Helena Guglielmino is a Reno-based writer and backpacker. Her stories on environment, adventure, and culture have been published by Roadtrippers, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Reno News & Review, Outdoors Unlimited, and more.

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