Yosemite National Park is one of our favorite places in California to visit in spring and summer. However, visiting Yosemite in winter is even more magical if you are up for the adventure. After tons of visits to Yosemite throughout the year, we finally made the trek there during winter and share everything you need to know to visit yourself.
Can you even imagine? Yosemite’s most iconic sites covered in snow, glistening with a natural sparkle. It really is spellbinding and worth the effort to get there.
You might be surprised to see the amount of things to do in Yosemite in the winter months, from ice skating to snowshoeing to cross country skiing to winter hikes. And let us not forget the magical firefall event that occurs every February. While there are great things to do in Yosemite in winter, nothing quite beats just watching the snow fall all around you.
History of Yosemite
Yosemite National Park was established on October 1, 1890 as America’s 3rd national park. However, long before that, this land was home to the Ahwahneechee tribe who were thought to have lived in this area for over 7,000 years. The Ahwahneechee were forced off the land in 1890 when it became a national park. As always when visiting places such as Yosemite, please respect the land that has been stripped away from its native people. Honor the people who once lived in this land by cherishing it and taking great care to protect it.
Today more than 5 million people visit Yosemite National Park annually. In recent years, the park has become so crowded that reservation systems have been put in place for certain times of year. For winter 2023, the only permits required are for 3 weekends in February for firefall.
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Getting to Yosemite National Park in Winter
There are several entrances to Yosemite National Park, however not all of these are open during the Yosemite winter season. Tioga Road, which allows access to the park from the east along Hwy 395 is closed in the winter months. When this road closes, it is not possible to drive to Tuolumne Meadows or enter Yosemite National Park from the east. All other entrances from the west, including Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120), El Portal Road (Highway 140) and Wawona Road (Highway 41) remain open all year. Hetch Hetchy Road is also open between 8 am and 5 pm.
Note that from November to March, tire chain requirements are in effect. Even if you only plan to visit Yosemite Valley or use the shuttle services, you must have chains in your possession regardless of your type of vehicle.
Visiting Yosemite in Winter
I know what you are thinking… but I can’t drive in the snow! This is honestly one of the biggest things that held us back from visiting Yosemite in winter all these years.
You are luck however as my fears helped seek out alternative routes that can help you too.
For visitors entering from the South, consider entering or exiting the park via El Portal Road (Hwy 140) rather than Hwy 40 via Wawona, especially if there are winter storms. The lower elevation road experiences less ice and snow than Wawona making for an easier transition from the southland to the snowy mountains. During our visit, because of icy road conditions in Wawona, it didn’t add any extra time to our drive as both routes meet up in the Oakhurst area.
Regardless of where you enter the park, make sure to stop at one of the visitor centers to get a park map, updates on current road closures and park conditions. Utilize the park rangers who have a wealth of information on the best places to visit, off the beaten path spots to check out and more. The Valley Visitor Center located in Yosemite Valley is open year round. Tuolumne Meadows, Big Oak Flat and Wawona are open seasonally, so be sure to check operating hours in advance.
The vast majority of winter visitors stay in the Valley, though it’s possible to access the Hetch Hetchy, Wawona, and Crane Flat areas of the park, too.
Yosemite Winter Weather
If you are planning a visit to Yosemite in winter, be prepared to experience winter storms, snowfall and temperatures well below freezing. During our visit in February, we experienced all of the above, including beautiful sunny days too. In general however, plan for cold and snowy conditions. The park covers over 1,200 square miles of varying elevations, so conditions can be drastically different throughout the park.
Yosemite Valley sits at around 4,000 feet above sea level, so it is not as high as the Eastern Sierras on the other side of the mountains, however it continues to get its share of winter weather. Expect much more snow accumulation near the Curry Village area.
Make sure to pack waterproof outer layers, such as a ski jacket, wear wool socks and multiple layers including good boots, gloves and hats. Always keep supplies in your car as well in case you find yourself stuck.
If you plan on participating in any Yosemite winter sports, consider bringing snowshoes, skis or snowboards. Rentals are available, but if you have your own, bring it!
Best Time to Visit Yosemite in Winter
Deciding when to visit Yosemite in winter is up to you and your comfort level with the cold and snow. Many people choose to visit in December for the holidays which is magical. The hotels and lodges are decorated for the holiday season, the weather is crisp and there can already be snow on the ground.
If you visit during January, you can expect lower prices, less crowded and a winter scene.
Others plan their trips in February around firefall, when Horsetail Fall lights up with the setting sun to look like a lava flow down the mountain. During this time expect higher crowds, less accommodation options and a busier atmosphere. In 2023, permits are required to visit the park on select weekends in February to keep crowds down.
Things to Know When Visiting Yosemite in Winter
- Tire chains are required to be carried at all times between November and March. Always check in advance for road conditions and road closures and make sure you know how to use your chains. All wheel drive vehicles, those with snow tires or 4×4 still require snow chains, but may not always need to use them.
- Tioga Pass (Tioga Road) is closed in the winter so you will not have access to the park from Hwy 395.
- Glacier Point Road also closes at some point in November from the Badger Pass Ski Area.
- Mariposa Grove Road leading to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, is closed to all but those with disability placards. This is a year-round closure, not a winter-related closure.
What to Pack for Yosemite Winter Conditions
As I mentioned above, you will need to plan for cold, snowy conditions and should pack accordingly. We never go anywhere in winter without a thick parka type jacket. I particularly love this one for myself.
For kids, plan to pack waterproof ski jackets if you have them. This will ensure they are warm, dry and can roll around in the snow to their delight. In that same realm, consider bringing snow pants for the kiddos as well. We love these pants that can be converted from a snow bib to pants in a flash. (Use my discount code NOBACKHOME25 for 25% off and NOBACKHOME35 for 35% off when you spend $400 or more).
Under all of your waterproof outerwear, we highly recommend you bundle up in wool base layers to keep you warm for Yosemite winter. Our favorite brands for thermals are Nui Organics and Iksplor for kids.
Don’t forget hats, gloves, scarves and other winter accessories to keep you warm. If you plan to visit for firefall, know that you will be sitting outside for a long time, so layer up!
For your car, don’t forget to bring snow chains, a blanket in case you get stuck in your car during a storm and plenty of snacks and water.
Note: Bears are still active in the winter, so you will need to prepare your vehicle as you would for a summer visit by taking out all items with a scent including sunscreen, chapstick, etc.
The Best Things to Do in Yosemite: Winter Edition
There are so many amazing things to do in Yosemite throughout the year, with many still available during the winter season. While not all of summer activities in Yosemite are available in the winter, there are still plenty of reasons to visit. While some winter activities in Yosemite are dependent on the weather or month, we share it all below.
Ice Skating in Curry Village
Did you know that you can ice skate in Yosemite Valley? This is one of the most unique things to do in Yosemite in winter. As this is not available throughout the rest of the year, we highly recommend making time for a skate around! During our visit, the ice skating rink was open limited hours during the week. In general, the rink is open from noon to 9:30 p.m. with a few breaks during the day. On weekends, the rink is open from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 pm with several one hour closures during the day. Adults are $16 per session, children 12 and under are $15 with skate rentals an additional $5.25 per person.
See the Firefall Phenomenon
One of the most magical events that occur every year in Yosemite in February is what is called firefall. Essentially what happens is that the setting sun hits Horsetail Fall in just the right way that it looks like lava is flowing down the mountain instead of water. You never quite know if it will be sunny enough to view or if there will be enough water trickling down the mountain to provide the full effect, but this phenomenon brings visitors far and wide every year for the few weeks in February when the light is just right. For the 2023 season, permits are required to enter the park on the specific weekends in Feb to reduce crowd sizes.
Visit Badger Pass Ski Area
Another fun thing to do in Yosemite in winter is a visit to Badger Pass Ski Area to ski and snowboard. This small snow park offers beginner slopes which are accessed via a chairlift. Badger Pass Ski Area has it all, including renting equipment and lessons. There is also snow tubing and snowshoeing available here. If you are interested in skiing or participating in snow sports, call ahead so check on the snow conditions.
RELATED POST: Read about our favorite Kids Ski Gear that is perfect for all types of snow play.
Hike in Yosemite
Even during winter, there are a lot of great places to hike in Yosemite in winter. Some hikes are fine regardless of the weather, but for some you should talk to the rangers to find out the current conditions as there are some trails that would require more specialized equipment for safety. Below are our top picks for the winter that are typically open and safe for even beginners.
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
Even if you have visited Yosemite outside of winter, it’s well worth stopping off at Lower yosemite Falls Trail. it is easily accessible since it is paved and often plowed, You never know what the water levels will be like, but you can check it out in advance on the National Park Service Webcam. While you are here at this trail, keep an eye out for a winter phenomenon called frazil ice. We learned about this during our visit, but could’t find any because it wasn’t quite cold enough.
Columbia Rock and Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
Another trail we love in the summer, but is also accessible in the winter is Columbia Rock. The 1 mile up to Columbia Rock offers excellent views. For those who are very well versed in winter hiking conditions, you can continue on the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls. The bottom of the trail gets sunlight during the day so it is often free of snow and ice, however as you climb higher this is not usually the case. Consider bringing crampons or microspikes at the least for this trail.
Valley Loop Trail
The Valley Loop trail can be accessed from Camp 4 (where Columbia Rock also begins). This 11.5 mile round trip hike can be snowy and icy. Bring snowshoes and crampons for this trek. Also note that finding your route in the snow can be difficult at times with trail signs and trails covered in snow. I always track my hikes with Strava or AllTrails so that I can retrace my route back if I need to. Also, be prepared with backup battery packs as batteries deplete faster in cold weather. In general however, this trail never takes you too off the beaten path, so you can access the road if needed.
Cooks Meadow Trail
The Cooks Meadow Trail is an easy 1-mile loop takes hikers through the meadow where there are stunning views of the valley, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. During the winter, this trail can be completely covered in snow, even on the boardwalks. It isn’t always easy to walk the entire path during the winter, so you may have to improvise by driving to different areas to finish the trail.
Vernal Falls & Nevada Falls
As very popular summer trail is Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. These both can be accessed in the winter, however, instead of going up the stairs on the Mist Trail, you will be rerouted up the John Muir Trail. This makes the trail longer, but less treacherous. We would highly recommend having microspikes while visiting any of these trails in Yosemite as the shaded areas are often still covered in snow or get icy when it is warm in the day and cold at night.
Stop at Tunnel View
If you are entered the park from the South, you will have to make a stop at Tunnel View for a family photo. This is one of our favorite traditions, no matter how many times we have visited the park, we always stop. Seeing Half Dome and the Valley below covered in a dusting of snow is magical. A true winter wonderland not to be missed.
Explore Mirror Lake in Winter
Another great hike to check out in Yosemite in winter is to Mirror Lake. If you brought a bike you can ride to the trailhead and then walk the 1 mile trail to the typically frozen over lake for a beautiful winter wonderland. If you don’t have a bike or want to walk on the roadway to the trailhead, the shuttle can drop you off at the trailhead. Check shuttle times in advance to plan your return accordingly.
Other Things to Do: Museums, Chapels & More
If the weather is cold, windy or too much for you, there are plenty of things you can do indoors while visiting Yosemite in winter. We always love going to the visitor center to chat with the rangers, check out the displays and find out all the park happenings. Additionally, you can check out the Ansel Adams Gallery as well as learn about their daily photo walks.
Finally, don’t miss a stop at the beautiful Yosemite Chapel in winter. It is such a lovely sight to see covered in snow.
While at the visitor center you can also check out the self guided Ahwahnee replica Village that is on the backside of the center. Even though it is outside, it is accessible even in winter.
Where to Eat in Yosemite in Winter
Truth be told, eating in Yosemite is never my favorite thing as the options are quite limited for how busy the park can get. In winter, the options feel even more limiting. As long as you know this in advance, plan accordingly and bring plenty of snacks, you will be fine.
Depending on where you are staying, you may have to drive or take the shuttle to get to a breakfast eatery. On weekdays, the breakfast at Curry Village is not available, meaning that the only option here is Pete’s Coffee which does have pastries and a few pre-made breakfast sandwiches. On the weekends, the Curry Village Dining area is open for cafeteria style food, but not during the week.
For those who are willing to drive, Degnans has pastries as well as hot cooked cafeteria breakfast available. For those near Yosemite Valley Lodge, the Base Camp Eatery is also open for cafeteria style breakfast. If you are staying at the Ahwahnee, they will offer breakfast in addition to lunch and dinner.
Mid Day Meals
The best place to eat lunch in Yosemite is at Degnan’s which offers soups and sandwiches. You can also go down the path a bit to the Yosemite Village Store for grocery items. Base Camp at Yosemite Valley Lodge is also open for lunch, again serving cafeteria style food.
If you are staying in Yosemite for more than a few days I would highly recommend mixing things up a bit with your dinner options. Base Camp offers dinner until 8:00 p.m. and Curry Village Pizza is open until 8:30 p.m. As these are your main options for dinner, you could consider going outside of the park to one of the hotels mentioned below if you need a change of pace!
Where to Stay in Yosemite in Winter
If you are like me, the biggest issue in planning a trip is figuring out where to stay! Luckily there is no shortage of accomodation options in Yosemite in winter. These options range from camping inside the park, heated canvas tents, as well as luxury lodges both inside and outside the park. And for the budget conscious or last minute travelers, you can also always find accomodation outside of the park in Oakhurst to the south or Mariposa to the west. This map below shows a ton of accomodation options outside of the park including VRBO, hotels and more.
Yosemite Valley Lodge
The Yosemite Valley Lodge is a wonderful choice for where to stay on a Yosemite winter trip if you have the budget and can book a room before they sell out! All of the rooms on the property have beautiful Yosemite views. The lodge is conveniently located within walking distance to Lower Yosemite Falls, Camp 4 trailheads and the shuttle. This spot is especially convenient if you are visiting for firefall.
The Ahwahnee (closed until Mar 2, 2023)
The Ahwahnee is a great luxury option within the park. This 4 star hotel sells out quickly, so advance bookings are required. There is a beautiful view of Half Dome, trail to Mirror Lake from the hotel itself and a lovely fireplace in the lounge to warm up when the temperatures drop in Yosemite!
Curry Village Canvas Tent Cabins
The Curry Village canvas tent cabins are a great choice for those who want to be in the center of the action without having to actually camp! Here, your choices are cabins and canvas-wall tents. The canvas tents are well heated and provide a good base to explore the park in winter. During our visit, our tent was toasty warm even when the temperatures dipped down into the teens outside. Located in the valley floor area, you can park your car and not move it again until you leave if you wish. The shuttle stops right outside of Curry Village and there are numerous bike paths all around the area.
Camping in Yosemite in the Winter
Winter camping is an option in Yosemite in winter as there are two campgrounds open during the season. While it is cold and the ground can be quite snowy, it can also be magical!
This campground is open year round and is typically first come first serve in winter. However for the month of February the campground has moved to a reservation system due to the Firefall event. From May to October, the campground is reserved through a lottery system. This campground has 25 sites, all of which are walk-in, meaning you will not be right next to your vehicle. This is a popular campground as it is located across from Yosemite Lodge, near to the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail and is convenient for those visiting Yosemite for Firefall.
Upper Pines is typically open year-round and is on a reservation basis. During winter it is first come first serve, except during the month of February when a reservation must be made. This campground has a total of 235 sites including 32 RV sites. Each campsite has a fire ring and picnic table. There is potable drinking water, flush toilets, and a dump station. All sites are close to Curry Village and Yosemite Village where guests can stock up on camping supplies.
Wawona is also open during winter. While it is located outside of the valley floor area, it is a decent option if you don’t have the money for one of the various hotels. Note that the road leading up into the valley can often be snowy and icy, so it is highly recommended that you have AWD and carry chains at all times.
Other Winter Camping Options
For those looking for a true winter adventure in Yosemite, consider staying at the Glacier Point Ski Hut. Open only from December to March, this hike in, or cross country ski, hut offers breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevadas. The hut is located 10.5 miles in and must be booked in advance. You can also consider hiring a guide to take you out on this adventure if you are new to cross country skiing and backcountry camping.
Where to Stay Outside of Yosemite in Winter
If you don’t want to drive a ton, I highly recommend trying to stay inside the park during winter, however there are some really great options outside of the park that are worth exploring as well.
Rush Creek Lodge
Rush Creek Lodge is a family favorite that is located less than 5 minutes outside of the park. The lodge offers a mix of lodge rooms, suites and hillside villas. The heated pool is a great place to unwind at the end of a day exploring inside the park. There are also activities on site including crafts, wilderness talks, gear rentals and more. This is the ideal place to stay if you want a little resort feel along with a Yosemite visit.
Yosemite View Lodge
Yosemite View Lodge is located right outside Yosemite National Park in El Portal and is only about 10 minutes from Yosemite Valley. For those who want to stay outside of the park, but not drive a ton, this is your best option. Yosemite View Lodge has several restaurants and a large general store, which are about all that exist in the area. This is not a fancy place, but offers convenience to the park at a decent price and has everything you need for both winter in Yosemite and all other seasons.
Tenaya Lodge has long been on our wishlist for a winter Yosemite visit. This luxury lodge is just a few minutes outside of Yosemite National Park’s south entrance. Even though it is quite a distance from the Valley Floor area, Tenaya Lodge is a great option for those looking for a little pampering. Their spa, indoor ice rink and sledding makes for an adventurous family holiday without even leaving the grounds.
There are many other places to consider while visiting Yosemite in winter, but this provides the top favorites both inside and outside of the park. Check out the map above for more options and to see who currently has availability for your dates.
Have you visited Yosemite National Park in winter? What were your favorite things to do?
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