In my opinion Mount Watkins has one of the best views in the Yosemite Valley region. Unlike some of the more famous vistas which have a road or a designated trail leading to them (and associated crowds), Mount Watkins has neither and this largely explains its relative obscurity both in summer and especially in winter. I won’t deny, the solitude one can experience from this majestic perch is part of the allure for me. What’s certain is from the end of the Watkins Ridge one receives the best view of the massive granite apron that constitutes the northwest face of Clouds Rest. The vista also includes an excellent vantage of Half Dome as it towers above Yosemite Valley. The stunning panorama encompasses a good chunk of the National Park including Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and Glacier Point. In the summer it’s merely a 4 mile jaunt down from the Tioga Pass Highway to the edge of Watkins Ridge (where the best views are located) but in the winter it’s a more arduous trek up from Yosemite Valley via the switchbacks of the Snow Creek Trail and then off-trail from the vicinity of the Snow Creek Cabin up to the Watkins summit and down the ridge. However, the extra effort to reach Mount Watkins in the winter is richly rewarded with an experience is enhanced by snowy winter conditions.
The Snow Creek Trail is south facing and the lower part typically melts out a few days after snowfall (at least to the point snowshoes are not required; though some snow and ice may remain). After a fairly level trek to Mirror Lake and about a mile beyond, the trail gets to business with a long series of rocky switchbacks. Fortunately, views open up pretty quick and they only improve as one ascends. The most spectacular feature during this ascent is Half Dome, directly across the canyon, but in my opinion, the view across Tenaya Canyon to the Quarter Domes is equally impressive. Unless a heavy low elevation snowfall just occurred, snowshoes are typically only required near the top of the Snow Creek climb at ~6,500 ft where the gradient begins to flatten. The trail follows close to picturesque Snow Creek for a short distance before crossing the creek using a bridge. After the crossing the trail resumes a gradual climb through the forest up to a meadow area. Trees are marked with blazes to guide the direction if you happen to be breaking trail. The stretch from the Snow Creek crossing to the cabin passes through a forest that turns into a winter wonderland with an excellent mixture of large and small trees along with a diverse variety of pines and firs. The Snow Creek Cabin is just off the trail on the opposite side of a meadow. Topo maps have the cabin marked relatively close to its actual location and there are plenty of posts on the internet providing GPX tracks and specific directions. The cabin used to be somewhat of a secret as it’s open to the public for overnight stays during the winter, but word has gotten out and the internet is not helping. Staying at the cabin in the winter used to be unrestricted but unfortunately, too much demand has caused the park service to get out their free-flowing ream of red tape to implement yet another quota. Now one must either pick up a permit the afternoon before the trip (and arrange for accommodation or camping int he Valley) or the morning of the trip when the visitor center opens with no guarantees any spots are remaining. Neither option is convenient and makes heading up there for a day trip much more appealing. It turns out climbing up the steep Snow Creek trail to the Snow Creek Cabin and beyond to Mount Watkins is much more pleasant without overnight gear anyway. Perhaps if one wanted to continue beyond for a winter ascent of Mount Hoffman or Tuolumne Meadows I would consider a night at the cabin.
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Although off trail, reaching Mount Watkins is fairly straightforward from the cabin. From the Snow Creek Cabin head southeast through open forest and then make a short but steep climb directly to the high point of Mount Watkins at 8,500 ft. The summit area is quite broad and therefore the high point does not have the best view. Instead, I highly recommend continuing down southwest from the summit around a half mile along the gently-sloping granite ridge studded with occasional pines. Eventually at around 8,200 ft the ridge becomes narrower and steeper and at this point the superior views are realized as one can gaze down into the depths of Tenaya Canyon all the way up the granite face to the summit of Clouds Rest. The sweeping panorama takes in everything from Mount Conness to the Yosemite Valley floor. The ridge is quite exposed to the elements and the stunted pines and junipers growing here are particularly picturesque making for some great photography subjects to pair with the magnificent view.