With a recent snowstorm draping fresh powder over the valley, and more on the forecast, Connor and I loaded three origami kayaks into the truck, headed North towards Yosemite Valley. A crispy morning during the break in the weather prompted a quick trip to my favorite national park, only a couple hours north of home.
January and February are my favorite months to visit this western Sierra national park - the car count is low, campsite availability is better, and with fewer people in the park it feels like the mountain haven you imagined it to feel to the indigenous people years ago. It's definitely a different experience than the summer months, when you have to fight for parking, and the trails are clogged with selfie stick hoarding hikers.
Sometimes a winter Yosemite mission includes snowshoeing, cross country skiing, throwing snowballs, or ice skating - but this time around we wanted to do something that most people don't consider a winter sport - paddling the Merced river.
I've boated this spot many times before on hot, lazy, summer days, but this was my first winter descent. Armed with puffy coats, thermoses, and insulated boots - we met up with my buddy Andrew at Half Dome Village (formerly Curry village) to build our boats. Twenty minutes later we were closing the tailgate and heading across the road, to our favorite put in at the Stoneman Bridge.
Here's a little insight into the journey - if you choose to tackle this must-do Yosemite adventure!
Kayaking these waters may be the most scenic way to enjoy the variety of beauty in Yosemite Valley - and to escape the crowds no matter what time of year. The Merced River twists and winds around the valley floor, treating you to views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and many other iconic peaks and sights.
This section of river is really considered more of a 'float', and because of the surrounding beauty and steady current - there isn't really a need to paddle at all, except to occasionally escape a strong eddy or to avoid the bridge pilings. At a class one rating, it isn't a thrill ride - but it's certainly a river that even the most accomplished kayaker could never forget. It's around three miles total, so this means either a quick one hour hustle downstream, or a half day adventure with stops for picnics, beer, hammock naps, and jumping into swimming holes.
Your best option for put in is at Stoneman Bridge, just a quick walk from the parking lot at the ice rink at Half Dome Village. There's a nice eddy to sit in while you prepare to set out, and if you choose - you can even start by heading upriver to extend your trip, giving you some more paddle time. Remember that this is a through-trip, so you'll want to leave a vehicle at the bottom - unless you'd fancy the long walk back to your car.
The best parking for takeout is at Sentinel beach, or parallel parking just up the road from the pullout. I like to park as close to the river as possible to avoid having to carry a wet boat and heavy camera gear for longer than necessary. You can also take advantage of the shuttle during certain times of year - for only $5 you can take the bus back to Half Dome Village instead of leaving a vehicle downstream. Verify the details as they're seasonally dependent, but usually the shuttle runs from 10am-6pm in June & July.
*Tip* Before your departure - visit the takeout spot, and take note of river landmarks so you'll be able to identify where you need to exit upon your return. During summer months this is a popular swimming spot, and you'll recognize it by a large flat sandy beach, with a trail leading away from the river into the trees.
As you wind around the park, there are many opportunities to stop and stretch your legs along a sandy section of beach. The water levels may influence your experience - and at lower flow you might be prepared to hop out occasionally to pull your boat over shallow sections of rock. It's all part of the fun, but prepared to get a little wet no matter what time of year.
Keep an eye out and you'll notice many schools of trout in the cold, clear, water. Alongside the river bank you may even spot deer sipping from the streams, bears nibbling at grubs and berries, and if you're really lucky you may view a curious bald eagle soaring over the valley.
When you take out at Sentinel, be prepared to carry your kayak a short ways to the parking lot, where you'll find pit toilets and picnic tables. This is also where you'll take the shuttle if you choose that method of return, however you'll want to verify if they'll accept watercraft on the shuttle other than rentals they've provided.
Stay tuned for Yosemite pt.II, high altitude paddling at Tenaya Lake.