Yosemite in Winter — Travel California Series

Yosemite in winter is something that everyone has to experience at least once. Simply to see if it’s something for you. The snow and the rain can be trying. Oh yes, it can be.

A sight to behold

But the view of Yosemite Valley on a clear day after a storm can move you to tears. It’s majestic. It’s beautiful. It’s by-gosh so-heartbreakingly-beautiful.

Yosemite in winter
Yosemite in winter

And not to mention the crowd. Or lack of it.

Yosemite in the winter is a different beast altogether. The weather changes every day and one day you can be greeted with a view of cliff tops visible above a soupy mix of fog and mist. And the next day you could end up with blue sky, crisp air, and a clear Half Dome and El Capitan dusted with a hint of yesterday’s snow.

But you’ll notice right away the unusual quiet that settles above the valley at night in the campground. As opposed to shrieking children and loud stereo you can hear the crackles of ice breaking on Yosemite Falls. You can hear the pitter patter of squirrels and birds on the ground, busy as ever regardless of the season.

If you ever decide to make a trip to Yosemite in the winter, here are some tips to prepare you ahead of times.

1. Bring snow chains
If you come from the Bay Area, taking 140 along the Merced river means lower elevation. Often times snow chain is not required except during severe winter weather. But bring it anyway.

2. Be prepared for any kind of weather
Bring weatherproof and warm clothing. If you’re camping, a 4 season tent is not necessary, but be prepared for snow on the ground. Waterproof boots, pants, and gloves are highly recommended.

Yosemite in winter
Drying our gear on a particularly wet winter day

3. No need to reserve camping grounds.
And if the weather turns out to be less-than-ideal, there’s Curry Village with heated tent cabins. Curry Village itself will be open, and yes, that includes the pizza parlor and the market. Of course, if you’re feeling super fancy, there’s always the historic Ahwanee (I heard they serve great cocktails at the bar).

4. Take a deep breath, you’re in a different place now
The pace is slower in Yosemite in the winter. Since Tuolumne Meadows (and Tioga Road) along with many hiking trails are closed there’s less traffic and less activities to do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, it means there’s more time for exploration. And Yosemite being what it is, every corner and side trail will inevitably lead to a scenery worthy of your time. So, go ahead and explore wherever your feet lead you to.

Winter Activities in Yosemite

1. Ice skating in Curry Village
Once rated as one of Top Ten Ice Skating rings in the country, the backdrop of the ring on a clear day is hard to compare.

2. Downhill skiing in Badger Pass Ski Area
With only 10 runs, Badger Pass Ski Area is in a word… cute. But what it lacks in the number of runs and lifts it makes up in unbeatable location.

3. Snowshoeing and cross country skiing
A snowshoe trip to Dewey Point is appropriate for beginner and intermediate skiers. Glacier Point is also do-able but it’s longer and a tad more challenging. For more advanced skiers, a trip to Ostrander Hut (reservation way in advance is required) and beyond is something that comes highly recommended.

Cross country ski and snowshoes are available for rent from Badger Pass Ski Area but it’s a lot cheaper to rent them in the Bay Area if that’s where you’re coming from.

View from Dewey Point
View from Dewey Point

4. Climbing (both ice and rock)
During the drier winter months, especially in February and March, rock climbing in the valley means no lines or waiting at the most popular routes, less congestion in Camp 4, and all around a more fun social atmosphere. Always check the condition because storms can come in real quick even on the sunniest morning.

5. Explore the Ansel Adams Gallery and Yosemite Museum

Yosemite winter
NOT Ansel Adams

Yosemite Musem has a small but interesting outdoor exhibition on the life of the Native Americans who used to live there. It’s worth visiting. There’s free heated shuttle buses that go around the valley and really, there’s little reason to drive your own car once you get there. The visitor center runs a 2 hour guided tour and is highly recommended for first time visitors to get an overview of all the landmarks in the Valley.

So come prepared, and enjoy winter in Yosemite

But check the weather forecast beforehand, you don’t want to get caught during a storm. But even if you did, it might be a good enough excuse to splurge on the Ahwanee (that’s our plan anyway :)).

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22 Replies to “Yosemite in Winter — Travel California Series”

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  2. Stunning pictures! I would have never thought about going in the winter. After the snow we got in Dallas, I think I'm snowed out for now. Spring sounds lovely though. 🙂

  3. I Love Yosemite in the winter time. It's so underrated and so many people are afraid to trek up there during the winter months. Tho I have been refused at the gate before because of an avalanche warning, it was 100% my fault for not checking the park site before I left. There's great information about road closures and park openings on their site and if you call the park hotline. The scenery is absolutely worth it!

    1. We've had bad winter days in Yosemite (where it would rain the whole time were there) and we've had absolutely gorgeous winter days as well. We live 4 hours away so we're spoiled in that if the weather turns out to be shitty we could come back the next weekend. I wouldn't recommend it to out of states visitors unless they're going to stay much longer than a weekend 🙂 But you're right that when the weather cooperates, the scenery is absolutely worth it.

  4. Great post. We absolutely love Yosemite in the winter for all the reasons you say. One August weekend we spent 4 HOURS!!! sitting in a traffic jam.

    We did find the Ahwanee can book up even in the winter though. We decided to splurge once for our anniversary in February and couldn't get in. But there are nice hotels that aren't nearly as expensive right outside the park in El Portal on the 140 (which is typically a better winter road than the 120) and in Oakhurst south of the park. Note that they do close down Wawona and you can't get to the giant redwoods if there is snow so the trip south doesn't have as much to see in the winter as the summer. But there are many options if the weather turns that are more affordable.

    1. The valley can be horrible in the summer. We stick to other parts of the Sierras in the summer and only go to the Valley if we really, really have to ( such as having visiting friends and families). Getting there super early in the day helps in avoiding the traffic.

  5. I love Yosemite and heading up there in the early spring when there is still snow on the ground and no crowds, just a little cold.

    Looks like you guys had a great time!

  6. Wow, great pictures! I am hoping to get out to California this year – and Yosemite (or perhaps Yellowstone) are top of my list of places that I would like to go. Tell me please,is it really that crowded in summer?

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for coming by. Yes, Yosemite Valley is very crowded in the summer. But it's still worth a visit. The further you go out on the trails, the less people you'll see (as is usually the case anywhere). Tuolumne Meadows (about 1.5 hr from the Valley) is our hang out place in the summer when the Valley's crowd is getting too much. It has a more laid back kind of vibe and high alpine terrain. I think if it's your first time there, you'll enjoy Yosemite Valley even with the crowd. It's such an inspiring place.

  7. Hello,

    Wooooooooow, the environment is FANTASTIC! I cannot stop drooling, Yosemite in the Winter is one of the most beautiful things I ever seen in my whole life, I'm talking seriously! Those mountains full of snow look just… fantastic. I'm speechless, I'm no doubt looking forward to visiting Yosemite, it may be risky to come to Yosemite at winter but I really got to see that piece of Heaven with my own eyes! Thank you very much for sharing a piece of Heaven with us!

    Best regards,


  8. Gorgeous! My family used to go backpacking in the Yosemite wilderness, but I've only ever been in the summer. It had never even really occurred to me to go in the winter, to be honest.

    And I had to laugh at your mention of the Ahwanee. The only time I've been was for a celebratory lunch after our return to civiliztion – still unshowered and in our clothes from a week in the backcountry, with the llamas left tied up outside (yes, my uncle has llamas). I think we probably provided entertainment for the rest of the patrons, not to mention the staff.

    1. Yo Valley is spectacular regardless of season. Summer is definitely the most popular… but the crowd can be overwhelming. Spring is probably the best time — the waterfalls are gushing and there's less crowd. But winter in the Valley has its own version of beauty. Worth checking out 🙂

  9. I once tried to go hiking in Yosemite. I mean hard core hiking. We packed our tents, food, cooking utensils, I mean everything. The weather didn't cooperate with us though. The first night it rained heavily and I discovered that there was a leak in my tent. To make matters worse, I had pitched my tent on a slight incline so with the rain, I was slowly sliding down all night. Wet. It was absolute misery. Needless to say, the hike had to be cut short because of my ill-suited equipment. Good thing too because it started snowing that same day!

    In any case, Yosemite is one of my favorite places in California. I've had lots of good childhood memories there.

    1. Wow, you went backpacking Yosemite in winter? That's pretty hard core 🙂 Leaking tent would do it for us as well. The cold and the wet — just bad combo. I'm glad you cut the hike short, it would've been a much more miserable experience otherwise.

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