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A dusting of snow on the rounded edge of Half Dome, ice skating in Curry Village, and uncrowded trails as far as the eye can see…what’s not to love about Yosemite in the winter?
As with most national parks, visitors to this treasured landscape during the slower, chillier season will have to take a few more precautions than in the summertime, but we feel it’s worth it to experience the majesty of Yosemite’s waterfalls, lakes, and rock formations in an uncrowded atmosphere.
Just be sure to check road conditions and tire chain requirements before heading into the park, as cell service is scarce once you get into the mountains. Also, plan ahead and pack the right gear if you want to tackle longer trails (which may be icy), hit the skating rink, or embark on a downhill ski day at Badger Pass.
No matter what your preference is, there’s a winter wonderland awaiting the intrepid at Yosemite National Park.
Things to Consider for a Winter Yosemite Trip
- Tioga Road is typically closed from mid-November through late May, which means that most winter adventures in Yosemite will have to be kept to lower elevations like Hetchy Hetchy and Yosemite Valley.
- Additionally, Glacier Point Road generally closes from early December through early May, and the road to visit the famed Mariposa Grove often closes at the height of winter months.
- Most Yosemite-area campgrounds close during the winter season, though the park does continue to operate Camp 4, Upper Pines, Wawona, and Hodgdon Meadow year-round.
- Tire chains may be required in all areas of the park and surrounding rural landscape.
- In the famed Yosemite Valley, nighttime temperatures tend to dip below freezing, even when there’s not a lingering snowstorm hanging around. Call the visitor center and check conditions before heading out on any winter trip in the area.
Related read: The Most Scenic Los Angeles to Yosemite Road Trip Itinerary
Of course, with the absence of crowds and a light dusting of snow, winter can be a particularly magical time to visit Yosemite National Park. There are even a slew of activities you won’t find any other time of year–perfect for bragging rights among your park-loving friends.
Related read: 9 Super Scenic Hikes in Yosemite National Park, California
While most trails in Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy tend to be snow-free in the winter, the park cautions visitors that ice may still linger, particularly in the shade. This means it’s important to carry some traction gear like Yaktrax or microspikes to prevent from slipping and sliding. Planning to head up to Glacier Point on the Four Mile or Pohono Trail? Bring a pair of snowshoes and make sure you know how to use ‘em.
Easy winter hikes include the two-mile jaunt out to Mirror Lake, which is particularly convenient if you’re staying at the Upper Pines Campground, as the trailhead is walking distance from camp. Alternatively, the accessible one-mile trail to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls is a spectacular winter walk for any waterfall lover.
For more serious winter hikers, the view-filled trek up to Vernal and Nevada Falls is spectacular, and in winter, you’re likely to have it all to yourself. The 6.5-mile Yosemite Valley Loop Trail offers breathtaking views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Or, you can go against the grain and head out for a 5-mile hike to Wapama Falls in Hetch Hetchy.
Related read: 10 Killer Backpacking Trails in Yosemite National Park
Curry Village Ice Rink
Every year since 1928, Curry Village hosts a family-friendly ice skating rink, complete with striking views of Half Dome. The rink is typically open to the public from mid-December through the end of February, and with a two-hour pass costing just $14 (skate rentals are an additional $4.75), there’s no reason the whole crew won’t want to join in.
Skiing and Snowshoeing
The Badger Pass Ski Area, near the turnoff for Glacier Point Road, is the oldest downhill ski area in all of California. Conditions permitting, the area is open from mid-December through March, and it offers the rare opportunity to get in a bit of downhill skiing within a national park’s borders.
Featuring five chairlifts and ten ski runs (focused primarily on beginner and intermediate terrain), you can get your winter “whooo” in. The park also offers rentals in case you forget your skis and boots at home.
For cross-country fanatics, there are a bevy of marked winter trails for skiers and snowshoers alike, mainly centered around Glacier Point Road, Crane Flat, and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
Some are groomed, and some are merely marked to prevent travelers from getting lost in the snow, but a solitude-filled winter journey out to scenic Dewey Point or around towering giant sequoia trees is not to be missed.
Related read: 11 Epic Winter Camping Spots in California
The Bracebridge Dinner
For the last 95 years, the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley gets done up in the style of eighteenth-century England and hosts a fabulous, eight-course dinner show known as the Bracebridge Dinner.
Based on Washington Irving’s story “Squire Bracebridge,” the theatrical performance overflows with singing, dancing, and general merriment, and set in the grand cathedral of Yosemite, it’s a truly spellbinding spectacle.
Many winter visitors plan their trips around this time-honored tradition, so buy tickets early if you plan to attend. Missed the lottery? The Ahwahnee Hotel’s Great Lounge also holds free pop-up Christmas music concerts, peppered in throughout the performance schedule.
Related Read: Yellowstone National Park in Winter: Things to Do & Where to Stay
Weather and Road Closures
Given the remote, mountainous nature of Yosemite National Park, it’s imperative that winter visitors do a bit of extra research on chain restrictions, road conditions, and park closures and ensure that they have a plan B in mind, should an errant storm derail your vacation plans. Call your hotel, a park ranger station, or the Valley Visitor Center for the most up-to-date information.
Guests road tripping in from the east will need to allow for extra drive time, as Tioga Pass is not open during the winter, meaning a lengthy detour around the southern Sierra Nevada is in store. Highway 41 (Wawona Road), Highway 140 (El Portal Road), and Big Oak Flat Road (from the west) are all plowed, but tire chains may be required from late fall through early spring.
Typical winter temperatures in Yosemite Valley during the winter months are chilly during the day and downright frigid at night. December (28 to 46 degrees), January (29 to 48 degrees), and February (30 to 51 degrees) have the coldest average temperatures, with January seeing the most precipitation, at seven inches.
Given the chilly nighttime temps listed above, most winter tourists in Yosemite will not be up for snowy, sub-freezing camping and will likely want to post-up inside a cozy hotel instead. Luckily, there’s a treasure trove of epic hotel and vacation rental options, no matter your budget.
Rush Creek Lodge
This gorgeous property sits just five minutes outside of Yosemite’s western entrance and is a family-friendly haven for travelers at any time of year.
With two hot tubs for stargazing, a heated saltwater pool, a chic nature-centric spa, a fab restaurant with excellent craft cocktails, and complimentary s’mores around the fire each night, there’s a little something for everyone at Rush Creek.
Yosemite Hilltop Cabins
Situated a mere 15 minutes from the valley floor, these adorable one-bedroom wood cabins sleep up to four and are perfect for winter wanderers who’d prefer to not spend too much time on the icy roads when heading to and from the park.
Each one is well appointed, with a quaint wood-burning stove, a comfy living room area (with fold-out sofa), a full kitchen, and a plush king-size bed for post-hike snoozing. Outside, guests will find a shaded seating area and a grill for post-hike feasts.
Having recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, there’s no better time to visit the historic Evergreen Lodge than now. Located a stone’s throw away from Hetch Hetchy in a forest of towering pines, the property is comprised of 88 cabins, ranging from budget-friendly vintage stunners with woodsy porches to spacious, two-bedroom family casitas.
The heart and soul of the property is its Main Lodge dining area, though, serving up hearty breakfasts, lunches, and dinners every day.
If you know you’re going to spend a lot of time in Yosemite Valley during the winter, then why not splurge and stay on the valley floor in a comfy room at The Ahwahnee?
Built in 1927, this incredible facility is often hailed as the “crown jewel” of national park lodges, with elegant rooms, afternoon tea, and jaw-dropping views of the surrounding natural landscape. Plus, if you’re planning to attend a Bracebridge Dinner, you can’t get any closer.
Blackberry Inn Yosemite
Set on 36 forested acres, Blackberry Inn offers an unparalleled bed and breakfast experience, located just 20 minutes from the park’s Big Oak Flat entrance.
In winter, the adorable canary yellow Victorian-style house looks particularly idyllic, too. The spacious rooms have an abundance of amenities, like spacious bathtubs, electric fireplaces, and 600+ thread count sheets, to ensure that guests get a perfect night’s sleep when their day of adventuring in Yosemite is done.
Breakfast is somehow even more delectable than the rooms themselves, with entrees like goat cheese frittatas, baked apple French toast, and mushroom zucchini quiche gracing the menu.
Related read: 11 Stunning Glamping Spots Near Yosemite National Park, California
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Seen in: California, National Parks, Winter