Yosemite NP – Winter (Snow) Visit Planning

What: In this blog I will cover my personal Insights and tips on how to visit Yosemite during the winter month when it snows.



I visited Yosemite many times during the winter month, and it was not snowing all the time but when it does snow and cover the valley amazing views transform into a fairy tale land.

 


Related Blog Posts:

 

 


Weather:

Check the weather day before your planned arrival time. The weather changes every day and even within one day you can have some part sunny and others with winter storm.

Even after a storm you can have beautiful and cloudless days, it may be freezing cold in the morning.

It not always snows, and you can also have rain… it is less fun to hike in the rain.

During the storm there is no visibility, and you can’t see the iconic landmarks

 

I do not recommend coming on the day of a serious winter snowstorm.

I understand that for those who book accommodation without a cancellation option this is a problem so try to book hotels with 1 day notice cancelation.

 

Yosemite's valley is not very high (4,000 ft), and if the following days after the snowstorm are sunny and warm the snow will melt after few days.

 

 

I have gathered here all the insights I have from the many visits to Yosemite in the winter, a bit long but I hope it will help plan the visit.

 

 

How to drive to the park:

Important note: According to the park website you must carry chains in your car, and you will be asked at the gate. This is also for 4x4 cars.


In practice, 4x4 vehicles do not need chains in the valley, there are no significant slopes, and it is relatively flat drive.

 


In winter, it is recommended to drive to the park entrance via Mariposa and El Portal on highway 140, this is my recommended way to drive to Yosemite.

Because of lower elevation usually there is no snow on this road, and you are not crossing any high mountain pass. Even if you need to use car chains, on this road this is only a short drive into the valley and without any steep uphill/downhill slopes.

 


If you are driving to the park using highway 120 through Groveland (a shorter route from San Francisco) then you need to cross a 6,000 ft pass on your way to the valley. From the park entrance you can drive with car chains on for long distances.

Even if you don’t need chains and you have a 4x4 car, other vehicles may need to use them and for most of the road into the park valley you can’t bypass them, and the drive will be very slow.


 

 



How much time to plan your visit:

In the winter, I recommend planning a one night and two-day visit.

 

You can also make it in one day without a night stay but depending on from where you are driving this can be a long day…

I did many times one day trips from the south bay area to Yosemite and back. I left at 4-5 am in the morning from my home, a 4 hours’ drive to the valley, long day visit until 4 in the afternoon, then driving back home for another 4 hours...

If the roads are covered with snow and ice all driving can be a lot slower so plan accordingly.

 


Don't think that because it is winter the park will be empty.

During weekends there are many other visitors. Try to enter the park early, there is a line of cars at the entrance gate, it is always recommended to come early.

From my experience, during weekends it starts to get a lot busier around noon time.

 

Regarding food and dining options in the park, you do not have large selection, there is a cafeteria near the visitor center, or the large general store.

I usually try to bring with me food for the day and in the evening, I eat at a restaurant near the hotel.

 



 

Clothing:

It can be very cold, and you need warm winter clothing.

Plan to have layers, because it may get warmer during the day or when you are hiking and you want to be able to take off the warm winter coat.

In my opinion, ski clothing is not mandatory, maybe only during the snow or when you have very low temperatures.


I usually hike with long thermal Gore-Tex underwear and regular pants, but I carry with me snow pants just in case ….

For upper body sections I wear short sleaves synthetic shirts, long sleeve shirt, good fleece jacket and if needed protecting heavy coat.

Good gloves and warm beanie hats are essential.

 


Special snowshoes are not required, most of the visitors can manage with regular shoes.

It's not mandatory, but I do recommend bringing with you 'shoe spikes'. You put them on your walking shoes, and they reduce the risk of slipping on the ice.

You do not need to buy the expensive metal one, there are simple rubber ones that are inexpensive and help when you are walking on ice (I saw that a rubber spike is around 20-30 dollars on Amazon, simple, but does the job).

You can also bring walking sticks; they may help you with stability on ice.

 



 

Lodging:

It is always better to sleep right in the valley so you can walk from the hotel, a second preferred option, especially in the winter, is in El Portal.

From my experience you will find basic level hotels here and there are only few options for dinner over here.

There are other options for accommodation in Mariposa on the 140 or on highway 120.

 

There is the option to sleep in Curry Village. This is a large, family-friendly tents with inside heating and public showers. I haven't been there so I can’t say a lot but it seems like a really good option.

 

There are few campsites that are open during winter.

Camping in winter when it is snowing with low temperatures is only for those who know what they are doing and come prepared with proper sleeping arrangements.

 

 

 

What to do during your Winter visit:

During the winter month you will mainly visit Yosemite Valley, you can always visit Mariposa Sequoia trees or Hetch Hetchy sections.

In this blog I will cover only the valley visit and you can read about Mariposa Sequoia Grove or Hetch Hetchy in their dedicated blogs.

 

For a lot more information about the Yosemite Valley attractions and must see locations see my main Yosemite blog.

 


At winter, the roads that lead to the higher places are closed to vehicles during winter months, so it is impossible to drive to Glacier Point, as well as Tioga Pass Road, both are closed during all winter months.

 

The free bus shuttles in the valley run as usual, check for exact route and schedule at the park website.

If you do not want to drive, you can park your car and use the shuttle.

 

 

Attraction Points:

The below attraction points are listed according to the valley one-way road driving direction

(* Mark a highly recommended to visit location).

For a lot more information on each location read my main Yosemite blog.

 


Tunnel view*:

This is probably the most iconic viewpoint in the park, you must visit here !

I suggest starting here early in the morning when it easier to find parking spot, or you can also visit here on your way out at the afternoon before sunset.

No matter how many times I've been here it's always amazing again.



 

Bridalveil Falls:

A short Hike to the base of the fall (this site was close during my Nov 2022 visit).

 


El Capitan roadside viewpoint*:

Stop on the roadside and view the mighty El Capitan cliff above you.


 




Cathedral Beach Picnic Area:

The road leading to this location is close but if you want, park your car on a roadside parking place and hike in the snow to the Merced River.

 


Swinging Bridge Picnic Area*:

One of the most iconic views of the valley, Yosemite Falls and the Merced River reflection.

 


Yosemite Valley Chapel:

This is not a must visit location, you can have a short stop and take a photo.

 



Sentinel Bridge*:

On your way to Yosemite visitor center you can stop at the parking lot near the bridge and walk to the bridge and take the iconic Half Dome reflection picture.

 



Visitor Parking and Yosemite Valley Visitor Center:

This is the largest parking lot in the park if you are planning to use the shuttle or visit the visitor center.

 


Hike Lower Yosemite Falls* and Vista Point*:

Simple and easy hike to the base of the Yosemite falls.

You can walk from the visitor center or park your car at the nearby parking lot.

 



Hiking near the Merced River*:

There are many trails’ options to hike here, open meadows and views of the Yosemite Falls and the Merced River.

There are many easy routes in the valley itself that are also suitable for children, just walk in the valley along the river from the various parking points.

 


On your way out of the valley stop at El Capitan Meadow:

See El Capitan cliff towering 3,000 ft above you

 


Yosemite Valley View*:

This is one of the most popular valleys viewing points. Very small parking lot on the side of the road.

 

 

Longer hiking options:

If you have time you can choose to do one longer hike from the below options:

 


1. Mist Trail to Vernal Falls Bridge or up the winter route:

The trail to the beautiful falls is uphill and can be very snowy or icy in the morning. If it is covered with ice, I do recommend wearing spikes on your shoes.

It is impossible to reach the mist falls themselves because the path is closed in winter due to ice. You can walk to the large bridge and from there you can keep hiking up in the winter route to the lookout point that is located 2.3 miles from your starting point.


The trail leading to the lookout point can be covered with deep snow, but other people already walked on the trail, so the snow is packed tight, and you don't need snow sandals.

This hike is a relatively challenging one but can be done and it is less suitable for small children.





 



2. Nature Center at Happy Isles:

Easy flat hike that can be connected to Mirror Lake hike.

 



3. Mirror Lake:

This is a very popular winter hike when the lake is full of water, and you can have nice reflections and see Half Dome above you. It is mainly flat and not difficult to hike even when the trail is covered with snow.

 


4. Only the first mile up of the 4-Miles hike:

This up climb hike but you need to do only the first one mile to enjoy the valley view from above. 



5. Mariposa Grove:

Mariposa Sequoia Grove is open year-round but check on the website for bus service.

Visit here only if you have time on your way out of the south entrance.

 




Summery:

As you can see from the above list you can easily fill 2 full days with a lot of winter activities, hiking, visiting many viewpoints and enjoying the Yosemite snowy winter wonderland.

 


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