Trans-Sierra ski trek: “The mountains let us through”

Four days, 45 miles and the 9,943-foot Tioga Pass combined for a worthy challenge

My brother Dan and I have enjoyed many outdoor adventures together, but neither of us had ever tried a ski trip this long in early winter, when days are short and storms are common. While more cautious (and maybe smarter) adventures will often wait until spring temperatures melt away snow, we decided to take our chances.

The mission: a four-day trans-Sierra trek from Lee Vining, Cali. to Yosemite Valley.

Day 1: Lee Vining to Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut

Lee Vining Canyon: Dan Johanson labors to climb up Lee Vining Canyon – image: Matt Johanson

Setting out under heavy packs, we knew the day ahead would test our strength and resolve. Sixteen miles separated us from our first stop: the ski hut in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. Starting at dawn, we hiked for an hour just to reach the snowline around 8,500 feet. From here, we expected difficult trail-breaking to last the rest of the day. But to our surprise, a pair of well-traveled ski tracks extended to the snowy horizon and beyond.

It’s amazing how much those parallel lines invigorated two cross-country skiers setting out on a long journey. Breaking trail through fresh powder up and over the 9,943-foot Tioga Pass could have broken us. Instead, the path other skiers left us sped our passage, enabling us to travel about a mile and a half per hour.

We passed Ellery Lake, Tioga Pass Resort and Tioga Lake. Mount Dana came into view and we officially entered Yosemite in mid-afternoon. Our legs were tired. We were sweating profusely in the brisk air.

“I’ll never think of this road the same way again even when I’m driving it,” panted Dan, as he looked down toward Highway 120 / Tioga Road.

Luckily, as dusk swept across the landscape, we found ourselves at Tuolumne Hut, and we were richly rewarded our ten hours of labor. A warm fire and new friends awaited us there. They turned out to be another pair of brothers, and Tim and Nick welcomed each of us with a beer. Guaranteed, no one in the lowlands enjoyed a brew and hot meal more than us that night. We slept soundly on bunk beds.

Day 2: Playtime in Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows: Winter visitors who climb above Tuolumne Meadows earn this grand view. . – image: Matt Johanson

A leisurely winter day in Tuolumne Meadows doesn’t come around very often – especially this time of year – and we fully enjoyed ours. Freed of heavy packs, we skied delightedly through the forest, beside Elizabeth Lake and eventually onto beautiful Unicorn Peak. There we feasted our eyes on a gorgeous winter landscape few will ever see. Snow-covered trees and peaks surrounded us in all directions. Mount Conness, Matthes Crest, and especially Cathedral Peak caught my gaze; I fondly remembered summer ascents on each of them.

Dan and Matt on Unicorn: Skiers celebrate their ascent of Unicorn Peak. – image Matt Johanson

As I brought my attention down to my skis on Unicorn Peak, I noticed tracks from previous adventurers, who had deftly descended from the summit, cutting sharp telemark turns. Now, it was our turn. Dan and I started skiing down, albeit with much less finesse and plenty of zigzags. We may not have had as clean of a descent as those other skiers, but I’ll bet we had just as much fun.

Unicorn Peak: Unicorn Peak attracted the brothers for a climb – image: Matt Johanson

“Best day trip in memory,” I later wrote in the logbook at the cabin. There a friendly ranger greeted us, pleased to have rare winter visitors passing through the park’s high country.

Day 3: Tuolumne Ski Hut to Snow Creek Cabin

Near Tenaya Lake: Granite domes and peaks stand above Tenaya Lake. – image: Matt Johanson

Our third day brought the greatest challenge: 15 miles separated us from Snow Creek Cabin. Bidding our hut mates farewell, we skied an hour west to Pothole Dome, where the tracks we’d been using for two days ended. We’d have to make our own from here on.

Fairview Dome, Mariuolumne Dome, and Tenaya Lake welcomed us like old friends as we passed them by, but plowing through a foot of powder slowed our progress to about a mile per hour. The distance, our pace, and our need to reach shelter tinged the day with anxiety, which increased when one of Dan’s ski bindings broke. Thinking quickly, he jerry-rigged a replacement using backpack straps. But as dusk approached, we contemplated a cold night outdoors in our sleeping bags and bivvy sacks.

Then to our astonishment, we came upon more tracks! Snowshoers had traveled our route, compacting the snow just enough to ease our progress again. Amazing, what a difference that made to our speed and our spirits. We revved back up to our top speed of a mile and a half an hour with visions of shelter and warmth pulling us toward Olmsted Point. What a sunset view of Half Dome we saw there.

Half Dome: Sunset bathes Half Dome in colorful light – image: Matt Johanson

A steep and icy drop forced us to take off our skis and post-hole our way downwards, descending several hundred feet. Darkness fell as we skied the final miles by headlamps. Locating Snow Creek Cabin in pitch blackness wasn’t easy. But find it we did, and once again enjoyed a comforting fire, a warm meal, and new companions. The hut-to-hut push had taken 11 strenuous hours. To thank the two snowshoers, we gave them our surplus food: pita bread, cheese, trail mix, and hot chocolate. They accepted ecstatically.

Day 4: Snow Creek Cabin to Curry Village

At Snow Creek Cabin: A long and hard day brought the skiers to Snow Creek Cabin for their final night – image: Matt Johanson

Our final day began with a descent of Snow Creek Trail, which includes dozens of switchbacks and 3,000 feet of elevation change. Only a hardy few climb up this murderous path, and even going down takes a heavy toll on the knees. But fantastic views of Half Dome inspire hikers much of the way.

After we reached the valley floor, we began to see day hikers at Mirror Lake. A few greeted us kindly but most just stared at our packs and skis in bewilderment. Having never contemplated a trans-Sierra ski crossing, they didn’t know what to make of us. We were undeterred, yet hungry from all our effort. We made one final trek to Curry Village, where we demolished a large pizza before catching our bus home.


You never know what you’re going to get on a winter expedition. Including our Unicorn Peak excursion, the journey totaled about 45 miles. I found it both exhilarating and surprisingly hard, much more so than my springtime crossing on the same route years earlier. Dan declared the outing both “awesome” and his “toughest trip ever.” His tight boots hurt his feet and toes throughout the trek and for about a week after it.  

But the adventure could have been much tougher. We enjoyed blue skies and perfect weather every day. Had a storm dropped much snow, our labor would have been longer and harder, bordering on impossible. I felt like we pushed our limits on this occasion and faced significant challenges, but the mountains let us through.

Snow fell as we rode home, filling the tracks we’d made and blanketing the landscape, as if to clean the slate for the next visitors seeking adventure. If that’s you, be sure to prepare for whatever could come your way. This isn’t a trip for the faint of heart.

Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.

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