In winter, the 10.5-mile road from Badger Pass to Glacier Point is closed to traffic and becomes a ski trail. Perhaps a thousand skiers make the trip in the course of a season to see the sights and stay overnight at a ski hut operated by the Yosemite Mountaineering School.
For most cross-country skiers, the trail takes about five hours each way with a lunch break, although the Sierra's changeable weather and snow conditions can complicate the adventure.
We're skiing with small backpacks, carrying extra layers of clothing, water and snacks. At the halfway point, we stop for lunch and admire the view of the Clark Range.
The trail climbs and descends through the woods. The snow consistency varies some spots are a bit icy. Even beginning cross- country skiers soon learn to anticipate the snow's condition based on its color and amount of shade.
The trail is groomed regularly, making for easier skiing. And for those wanting to explore the backcountry, a number of ungroomed trails branch off the Glacier Point trail.
This trip has rewards beyond any minor discomfort: the silence of the snow, streams flowing over icy rocks, magical cloud formations, the sounds of the falls roaring in the distance, an occasional animal track and the exhilaration of sliding downhill on skinny skis. And there are no lines of RVs and cars choking the road with fumes.
When we reach Washburn Point, the whole of Yosemite Valley lies at our feet.
Cameras come out and photographers try to capture the sweep of familiar Yosemite sights seen from another vantage. We take a break sitting on a stone wall watching the light playing on Yosemite Valley.
At about nine miles, we start a winding descent to Glacier Point. We're wondering what the hut will offer.
It turns out this $2.7 million structure, a 3,200-square-foot stone-and-timber gift and snack shop in the summer, has been transformed into a warm and comfortable place to sip hot chocolate and admire Half Dome. Nestled in the trees a short walk from Glacier Point, the hut has 20 bunk-style beds with sleeping bags. Our guides from Yosemite Mountaineering School prepare tasty, hot and filling dinners as we lounge by a blazing wood stove.
If this is a hut, then the Taj Mahal is an igloo.
At 7,214 feet, Glacier Point hangs 3,200 feet above the Yosemite Valley. If you have good eyes, you might make out the tiny ice skaters on the outdoor rink in Curry Villa. To the north, Yosemite Falls tumbles 2,425 feet. And there's El Capitan.
Dave Bengston, one of our two guides, is the director of the mountaineering school. He has climbed El Cap 48 times.
You can see he's a nerveless big-wall climber; Bengston is laid back to the point of sleepiness. But he's enthusiastic about being on any kind of outdoor adventure that takes him away from paperwork, even with a mixed bag of cross-country skiers. Bengston said several times, "It's great just to be out here."
Bengston said the school tries to screen those who go on this trip to make sure they are up to it.
"We have some with only one cross-country ski lesson and they do just fine," he said.
A reasonable amount of fitness and some basic skiing proficiency is all that's needed. Two of our group are in their 60s.
Grace Lichtenstein, 62, divides her time between New York and New Mexico. She said she's a Rocky Mountain mama, but Yosemite's scenery is incomparable. "Worth the shlep," she said.
The second day we set out on skis or just boots (the snow is hard enough to walk on) for Sentinel Dome, about two miles, where windswept snowfields are pierced with tree skeletons. The dome offers a 360-degree view of Yosemite Valley and the Sierras. There's even a moon over Half Dome, though not quite like the famous Ansel Adams photograph.
Seabury Blair, an outdoor writer from Washington, skis down from Sentinel Dome, making graceful bent-knee telemark turns. He's careful to stay to the south; a hundred yards to the north and he'd end up flying over a cliff into the valley.
That evening, Half Dome and the Clark Range are lit by an alpen glow light show. The last rays of the sun paint the mountains subtle shades of violet, red and gold before the stars come out.
In the morning, we set out for our return to Badger Pass. Once the climb out of Glacier Point is over, there's a lot of downhill. We meet another group on their way to the multimillion-dollar hut and priceless views.
Climbing the last hill and sliding down to the Badger Pass ski area, we're tired but happy, having seen sights reserved for those willing to make the effort.
IF YOU GO
For 24-hour ski conditions, call (209) 372-1000; for road and weather information, call (209) 372-0200.
There are 25 miles of machine-groomed cross-country ski tracks and 90 miles of marked trails beginning at Badger Pass, and no trail fees. Cross-country track and skating lanes are groomed on the Glacier Point Road from Badger Pass to Glacier Point, and a 3 kilometer track is set to the scenic Old Badger Summit. Lessons and rentals are available.
The Glacier Point Overnight Ski Trip (five-person minimum) is led by an experienced guide. Dormitory-style overnight accommodations are provided in the Glacier Point Ski Hut. Lunch and dinner on the first day and breakfast and lunch the next day are provided.
Cross-country ski experience and ski equipment (available for rental) is required. Skiers provide personal gear and trail beverages. Children must be 14 or older and must be accompanied by an adult.