And visiting Yosemite in the winter is a must do – and it just happens to be chock full of fun winter activities! Yosemite is awe inspiring, and so so so beautiful. I loved driving around and looking at the cliffs covered in snow and fog.
Make sure you check the weather first, because snow storms are a thing. And you want to go when it’s pretty and perfect and not when a scary storm is raging.
I love Yosemite in the summer – well, any season, really – but there’s just something so majestic about the towering cliffs layered with a dusting (or heaping pile) of snow. And it’s usually MUCH less crowded than in summer.
I’d say that spending 2-3 days and 3-4 nights in Yosemite National Park in the winter is perfect!
IS IT SAFE TO VISIT YOSEMITE IN THE WINTER?Yes, it is 100% safe to visit Yosemite in the winter. Just keep an eye on the weather, bring chains, and you’ll be golden. You can always call the park number, (209) 372-0200, and ask a ranger about the conditions. They’re open 9-5 PST and closed for lunch.
Yes, there are large animals in Yosemite, like bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, but they don’t bother people much. I’ve been to Yosemite countless times and have never seen a bear or a mountain lion. Yosemite also only has black bears, NOT grizzlies. Black bears are not known to attack humans, so there’s no need for bear spray (in fact, it’s prohibited in the park!).
I have seen coyotes, which is always exciting (see photo) but I’ve rarely ever heard of a coyote attacking someone, so you’re good! I doubt a bobcat would ever attack a human. There are no wolves in Yosemite.
WEATHER IN YOSEMITE IN WINTERDefinitely check the weather before you go because, yes, it DOES snow in Yosemite! And it can snow A LOT. We had to postpone our trip for a couple weekends due to snow storms. So, be prepared to change your plans last minute if needed.
Be sure to look up the weather in Yosemite Valley specifically, not just Yosemite in general! The Valley is where you’ll most likely be doing most of your winter activities, and is where the camping areas and hotels are located. It’s at a lower elevation so is often warmer than up in the mountains. If you just look up “Yosemite National Park” you get the average of the weather in the whole park, and they take into account the temperatures in the valley AND in the mountains. So, if you just look up Yosemite in general it will seem colder than it actually is.If it’s not snowing, there’s a good chance it’s raining.
It was pretty much raining in the Valley during our entire trip. Granted, that winter happened to have a LOT of rain for California, but it’s still a good idea to be prepared.
The temperatures in winter in Yosemite Valley are not too bad. In December and January, they usually hover between 50 F (10 C) and 30 F (-1 C) during the day, and go down into the 20’s (-6 to -2 C) at night. In February, it warms up a little but not too much. Of course, this is a generalization and there’s always a chance there will be unseasonably cold or warm weather. And the higher you go into the mountains, the colder it gets.
DRIVING IN YOSEMITE IN WINTERTypically, Highway 120 is closed for winter and you take Highway 140. I honestly prefer this because, although 140 can take a little longer, it’s much less twisty and turny than 120 is. Tioga Road (the continuation of Highway 120 through the park) is also probably closed. Highway closures usually happen sometime in November.
Highway 41 may still be open, and you can take that into the park as well. It’s also a little more twisty than 140, so if you’ll have a passenger that gets carsick easily, definitely take 140!
You might also need chains which is scary because I’m a wimpy Californian but luckily we didn’t have to use them. HA. Take that, winter! Highway 140 is the LEAST likely to have snow, so if you want to avoid chains at all costs, take that one. You will, however, most likely at least have to bring chains with you, even if you don’t need to use them.Check for winter road closures and chain status here. You can either call the number listed, or you can click on the highway name to get updates from the Caltrans website.
My car was NOT a 4×4, although it was a Honda CR-V and had high clearance. I think a 4×4 is definitely helpful to have, but again – the roads were clear when we were there so it didn’t matter. I think if you drive in through 140 you’ll be fine, but on 120 or 41 the elevation can change quickly so I’d be nervous to drive on either of those roads without a 4×4 in winter if they’re not closed.
WINTER CAMPING IN YOSEMITEWe camped at Camp 4 (only $6/night whooo) which was cool but also not because it was really rainy.
Camp 4 is a walk up campground, meaning it’s first come/first serve, and on that winter weekend there weren’t too many people camping and plenty of spots open.
You can also camp in Upper Pines, which is $26 per night.
Camp 4 and Upper Pines are both located in Yosemite Valley. If you don’t mind camping outside of the Valley, you can go to Wawona Campground or Hogdon Campground. Both are about 45 minutes away, but in different directions.
If you want to read more about our experience winter camping in Yosemite, you can read more here.
WHAT TO WEAR & PACK FOR YOSEMITE IN WINTEROf course, pack warm clothes, and LAYERS. Here’s what I wore:
- Thermal Base Layer Top
- Pants – NOT jeans! You either want to wear waterproof pants, or fleece pants with a thin pair of rain pants on the top. You may be able to get away without the rain pants if it’s not raining, though, but you should bring them just in case.
- Winter Coat – I love this one because it’s stylish, I can wear it to snowboard and with everyday clothes, it has a detachable hood and fake fur piece, and the pockets have fleece inside! WIN. I do admit that sometimes the detachable hood is annoying (it unsnaps at times) but overall I like that I can remove it when I don’t think I’ll need it.
- Scarf/Turtle Fur
- Waterproof Gloves
- Wool Socks
- Hiking Boots/Waterproof Boots
- Gaiters – Not super necessary, but I liked having them when I went snowshoeing! It kept the snow from getting in my socks.
Of course, once you get moving you may need to remove some things, which is why layers are key! I ended up getting pretty warm when we were snowshoeing and had to put a couple things in my daypack.Other helpful items to pack:
- Headlamp – Necessary for seeing anything in the dark, especially since it gets dark super early.
- Extra Batteries & Portable Charger – Electronics die MUCH faster in the cold!
- Trash Bag – It’s always good to have an extra trash bag around, especially if you may end up with wet clothes.
- Car Chains – You should probably bring these even if they’re not needed when you enter the park. The weather can change fast and it’s better to be prepared!
- Hand Sanitizer & Toilet Paper – There are bathrooms in Yosemite, usually at trailheads, but sometimes they ran out of soap and toilet paper. Better to be prepared!
- Sunglasses & Sunscreen – If it happens to be sunny, you’ll definitely want sunglasses and sunscreen! When the sun reflects off of the snow it’s not fun for your eyes.
- Water Bottle – You may want to bring a reusable water bottle instead of a reservoir, since the water in the reservoir’s straw can freeze.
- Day Pack
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN YOSEMITE IN WINTER
TUNNEL VIEW HAS A BEAUTIFUL VIEWA classic. You come across Tunnel View right when you’re driving into the park, and hence it’s one of the easiest winter activities to check off your list. Except when we went it was cloudy the whole time, but I’ve been in the summer when it’s absolutely beautiful! And loaded with tourists…(like I said, avoid the summer at all costs!)
Hopefully, you get lucky with a clear view! Then you’ll be able to see El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and Yosemite Valley.
MUSEUMS ALL DAY BABY
I LOVE VISITOR CENTERS. Especially national park ones – they are all sooooo good!! And you learn so much about the history of the park. Yosemite has an awesome visitor center (the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center), and we also went to the Ansel Adams Gallery which was awesome.
SNOW SPORTS AT BADGER PASS SKI AREAYou can take a FREE shuttle to Badger Pass, or you can drive (but like aforementioned, we are pathetic Californians so we took the shuttle).
The bus takes about 45 minutes and goes up a few times in the morning and back in the afternoon. We missed the early bus (oops) so we were only up there for a few hours, but it was so worth it! Especially since it wasn’t snowy in Yosemite Valley – it was fun to go somewhere that felt like an absolute winter wonderland.
Once there, you can take part in a plethora of winter activities!We ended up renting snowshoes from the Nordic Center. It was my first time snowshoeing and really cool! I’d love to go all the way to Dewey Point or Glacier Point next time, or go snowboarding. You also can go skiing, tubing, or cross country skiing. Of course they offer rental gear at Badger Pass, so no need to bring your own.
THE AHWAHNEE HOTEL LOOKS BEAUTIFUL
I haven’t gone to the Ahwahnee Hotel yet, but I’ve heard that visiting and dining there is quite the experience. Unfortunately it’s a little on the expensive side (but that’s to be expected…) but I’d still like to!
Be aware that you need to dress nice for dinner, but not for breakfast or lunch.
ICE RINKS ARE COOL (GET IT?!)
I have yet to go ice skating in Yosemite (it was closed for renovation when we were there last year), but how much cooler can it be to ice skate under Half Dome???
You can get your Michelle Kwan on at the Curry Village Ice Skating Rink. You can literally see Half Dome from the rink! There’s also one in Tenaya Lodge that’s supposed to be pretty.
I’m bummed because this would have been my absolute favorite winter activities. Definitely add it to your itinerary if it’s open!
THE MIST TRAIL IS A CLASSIC (VERNAL & NEVADA FALLS)In the spring/summer, Vernal Fall often has a pretty rainbow at the end of it. We didn’t go very far, because it was SUPER snowy when we were there, and apparently if you wanted to go all the way up to Nevada Fall you had to snowshoe.
We saw a few brave souls who went all the way up to Nevada Fall, and they looked like popsicles. Usually, you can at least make it to Vernal without needing snowshoes, but again, this was an unusual year.
To Vernal Fall it’s 3 miles round trip; to Nevada Fall (you pass Vernal to get to Nevada) it’s 7 miles round trip. You should be able to ride a free shuttle bus to the trailhead from your accommodation. If you do get all the way to Vernal Fall, be prepared that it can get very wet (and thus, slippery) since you’re basically right at the waterfall.
This is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes (and for good reason! It’s gorgeous), and when Vernal Fall is more accessible, certainly one of the best winter hikes in Yosemite, too! It may be a little more crowded because of its popularity.
UPPER & LOWER YOSEMITE FALLSWe walked to Lower Yosemite Falls (super easy 1 mile round trip), but you can also try and hike to Upper Yosemite Falls, which is a 7.2 mile roundtrip hike.
BRIDALVEIL FALL IS BEAUTIFULBridalveil Fall was not flowing THAT much when I was there (if you want insanely epic waterfalls, go in the spring when all the snow is melting) but were still so pretty! My photo doesn’t do it justice.
It was also very entertaining as the pathway right before the falls had iced over (yes, dangerous, but luckily there were enough people in front of us crawling along the path to make it obvious there was ice) so everyone was having fun sliding down it! I did not because I am a wimp, but I watched some of my friends and random passerby and it was very very amusing.
The trail is super easy, too – only 0.5 miles round trip. So you pretty much park, get out, walk a few minutes, and voilà – a beautiful, wet (yes, you may get a little wet from the spray), waterfall!
SNOWSHOEING TO MARIPOSA GROVE (GIANT SEQUOIAS!)Ok, so you can’t drive into the Mariposa Grove parking lot in the winter, but you CAN park at the Yosemite entrance and hike the 1.9 Washburn Trail, then snowshoe among the Giant Sequoias!
And how cool is that??? Snow shoeing among giant ass old trees?
Pretty darn cool, I’d say.So I haven’t actually been in winter – only in spring – but I’d love to go in winter, especially since it’s less popular and you’ll most likely have these majestic conifers all to yourself.
BONUS: SEE THE FIREFALL!The firefall is a phenomenon happens for about 2 weeks every year in February, usually between Feb 14-28. The sun hits Horsetail Fall as it’s setting and makes it look as though it’s on fire. Horsetail Fall is located on the eastern side of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.
The firefall USED to be an event where park staff would dump flaming embers down Glacier Point in the summer. That stopped, for pretty obvious reasons (you know, it’s kind of a good idea to try and protect the environment…).
It gets crowded though, as the firefall is a very popular sight to see and many people have made the trip to Yosemite JUST to see it! So, you probably want to set up about an hour or two before sunset in order to get an optimal viewing location. We just put in “Horsetail Fall” into our GPS and found the crowd of photographers; but optimal viewing spots are El Capitan Picnic Area (there’s no parking along the road, though, so you’ll need to park at Camp 4 then walk 1.5 miles) or Southside Drive (I believe this is where we were, and it was pretty crowded).
We tried to see the firefall on our trip, but it didn’t happen because it was cloudy every night. We were super bummed that we didn’t see it, especially because the night before we arrived the firefall had apparently been amazing…(brb crying). We wanted to go back the next year, but there wasn’t enough water.I absolutely love visiting places in the winter. This is potentially because I grew up without snow days. I think I’m still subconsciously pissed about it, and the lack of seasons is one of the reasons I left the Bay Area!
I just think winter is so much more magical (at times – other times, ok most of the time, I’m crying about the cold). In fact, I love winter travel so much that I went to Stockholm, Abisko, and Copenhagen in January!
Did I die? Obviously not, because I’m here writing this post, but they were all pretty damn cold. But also really really worth it and I’m totally obsessed with winter travel.
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