Visiting Yosemite in Winter

Half Dome stands covered in snow under a bright blue sky. Photographed by Chase Dekker.

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.