Thinking of visiting Yosemite National Park during the winter? Down below you will find some important tips and thoughts for your visit to one of the world’s greatest national parks!
Receiving around 5 million visitors a year, it can feel hard to be at one with nature in Yosemite National Park. During the peak months spread across spring, summer, and fall, tourists flock to the glacially carved marvel that is Yosemite Valley for a glimpse at the awesome display of granite cliffs and cascading waterfalls. Campgrounds fill up well in advance and lodging can be expensive, but the views are unmatched, as long as there is not a horde of folks in the way looking at the same thing. That’s where winter steps in. The winter season, which runs from mid-November through mid March could also be renamed “Yosemite’s Secret Season”. While the majority of visitors will come when the days are long and temperatures are warm, those who visit during winter are rewarded with quiet places and the possibility of snow.
Yosemite National Park is a fairly large space, checking in around 760,000 acres. However, the overwhelming majority of visitors will only spend time in Yosemite Valley, which accounts for less than 10% of the park. If visiting in winter, you will most likely be spending time in the valley as most of the roads including Tioga Pass and Glacier Point Road close for the season following the first snowfall. While you are limited to Yosemite Valley, it is hard to complain as you have the crowning jewel of the Sierra Nevadas all to yourself.
To get into Yosemite Valley this time of year, you have three options. For bay area residents, Highway 120 is the quickest route into the park, while central coast residents can travel via Highway 140. From the south, the best route is Highway 41. However, both Highway 120 and 41 are susceptible to closing (currently shut down at the time of this writing), so you will most likely be heading down Highway 140 into the park. It is a very easy drive as there is no snow on the road 99% of the time. On this route, the closest town to the park entrance is El Portal, which is one of the preferred locations when staying near Yosemite Valley year round. El Portal offers a few lodging options that won’t break the bank, but will not create any thrills either. Since the lodging in Yosemite Valley is expensive year round (The Majestic Yosemite runs around $400/night while Yosemite Valley Lodge is about $200/night), staying in El Portal might be a good alternative for those looking to save a little extra. The best lodging here is Yosemite View Lodge, which has a rate of around $115/night throughout the winter season. This hotel is less than a two minute drive from the park entrance and a 15 minute drive from the valley.
Many folks (including myself years ago) assume that all of Yosemite National Park is caked in snow all winter long. Well, that is not exactly the case. The valley floor sits a little above 4,200 feet in elevation, which in most places would have snow, but this is California. Yosemite Valley does receive snow, but it comes sparingly and in small quantities. If you type in the weather for Yosemite on any app or website, you will think it is snowing quite a bit, however the forecast comes from around 5,500-6,000 feet up, where it does snow much more frequently. You are much more likely to receive rain in the valley floor during these winter months. If you are looking for a winter wonderland in Yosemite Valley, check on the National Weather Service’s website and make sure you click an area in the valley to get an accurate weather forecast. Yosemite Valley hovers around 30-40 degrees throughout the winter while the mountains above are generally 20-30 degrees. A cold front can pass through anytime, leaving the valley in the single digits, so make sure you bring some thick winter clothing!
Even without the snow, Yosemite Valley is still stunning during the winter months. The tops of all the mountains and cliffs including Half Dome and El Capitan are layered in fresh snow during this time, which is something you rarely get to see outside winter. The views from Tunnel View and Cook’s Meadow are especially pretty and not nearly as crowded as in the summer months. If you are really craving a snow-filled adventure, you can head up to Badger Pass Ski Area where you can downhill ski, cross-country ski, snowshoe, or just frolic around in the fresh white powder! Badger Pass Ski Area is located only a few miles above the valley off of Highway 41, but the road becomes considerably more icy as you climb up in elevation.
One of Yosemite’s biggest winter highlights is the natural phenomenon known as Firefall. For a short two weeks between mid-late February, Horsetail Fails undergoes a sort of transformation. Nothing really happens to it, but as the sun nears the horizon at the end of the day, it perfectly lights up the small waterfall and creates an amazing display of color and light. However, for this event to happen, there must be the proper conditions. During the recent California drought, the phenomenon barely showed itself as there was little to no water falling over the side of El Capitan. It was not until last year (2016) that there was enough water for the waterfall to actually be flowing. If the stars align, this is a spectacular sight that should not be missed if visiting in the latter half of February. One of the best spots to witness the Yosemite Firefall is on the south side of the Merced River, just about a mile to the east from Cathedral Beach. Usually the rangers have roped off an area for the crowds to be able to watch the waterfall, so it’s pretty easy to find, but get there early enough as parking can get busy!
If you head to the park outside the two weeks Firefall is happening, there is still plenty to do between hiking, snowshoeing, and just relaxing. One of the more popular winter hikes is to Mirror Lake at the far east end of the valley. There is a minimal amount of elevation gain and it is a quick out-and-back. You can actually hike most of the summer trails, but the trails are more likely to be icy and muddy, so tread carefully if looking to hike upwards where the temperatures drop and snow becomes more prevalent.
Services inside the park are about the same as they are in summer. You will find a grocery store in the village, along with some stores and the Visitor Center are open every day. There are not that many choices if you are looking to find some food. The Yosemite Valley Lodge has a cafeteria, a nicer restaurant, and a lounge that is open in the afternoons and evenings. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel has a large restaurant and is the valley’s best option for breakfast as they have a large buffet and a nice menu.
So if you are looking for a winter getaway in one of the world’s most remarkable places, look no further than Yosemite National Park. Whether you are looking to photograph the jagged landscape or just hike along the valley floor, a winter visit to Yosemite will not disappoint.
Highlights from this article:
Watch a sunset from Tunnel View
Look for Firefall at sunset between mid-late February
Hike to Mirror Lake
Ski around Badger Pass
Wander around Cook’s Meadow
Take a short hike to the bottom of Yosemite Falls
Stroll along the Merced River at either Cathedral or Sentinel Beach
Catch a sunrise at Valley View (especially after a fresh snowfall!)
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Check out my Witness Yosemite's Firefall
Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
I hope to give you valuable insight on everything from travel, to animals, to photography tips and more!