Guide To Visiting Yosemite National Park In The Winter

Yosemite In Winter

Yosemite is one of the most stunning National Parks to visit, no matter what time of the year you choose to go. From skiing and snowshoeing to marveling at snow-covered landscapes and frozen waterfalls, some of the best things to do in Yosemite can be discovered in the winter months!

But traveling to the mountains in the winter presents its own set of challenges. The temperatures drop to freezing at night and snow often covers the roads requiring visitors to drive with caution, check for road closures, and bring chains for their tires.

Here is the complete guide to visiting Yosemite in winter covering things to do, what to bring, where to stay, and other tips to help you prepare and make the best of your time there!


Guide to visiting Yosemite National Park in the winter:


Winter is a wonderful time to explore snow covered trails in Yosemite

How To Get There

If you live in California, the chances are that you probably don’t drive in the snow very often. Here are a couple of tips on how to get to Yosemite National Park in winter safely.

  • Before heading out there be sure to check on road conditions and tire chain requirements as these can change daily. During our visit chains were not required upon entering but were enforced the next day.
  • The mountain roads heading into Yosemite are slick and winding. Even if chain requirements are not enforced, it’s a good idea to have a set in your car just in case.
  • Practice putting on and taking off the tire chains at home before your trip. Putting on chains for the first time can be tricky. Believe me, the last place you’ll want to learn how to do this is in the cold mountains while your hands are freezing!
Cable tire chains on Amazon

Check Out Cable Tire Chains On Amazon

Three main roads lead into Yosemite National Park:

  1. Highway 120 – this is the west entrance road that you’ll want to take coming from NorCal, Sacramento, San Francisco, or Stockton.
  2. Highway 140 – this is one of the two south entrance roads if you’re coming from SoCal cities, Fresno or Bakersfield.
  3. Highway 41 & Wawona Road – this is another option for those coming from SoCal. This is the road that we usually take coming from Ventura.

After heavy snowstorms, the roads going into the park can close due to dangerous conditions so make sure your planned route is open before you head out there.

If you’re unsure of current conditions, the CalTrans website has a really handy tool that allows you to enter the Highway number to check for current Highway conditions and road closures.


El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite in December
View of El Capitan from Cathedral Beach Picnic Area

Entrance Fees

The great part about visiting Yosemite National Park in the winter is that you don’t need entrance reservations. In the winter Yosemite gets a small portion of visitors compared to the busy summer months so the park lifts its entrance quota.

On the downside, many of the park attractions, trails, and facilities close in the winter so there are fewer food and lodging options. Despite the limited amenities and staff, the park entrance cost stays the same all year long.

Currently, the Yosemite National Park entrance fee is:

  • $35 per car
  • $30 per motorcycle
  • $20 for hikers, bikers, horses, or non-commercial buses or vans with more than 15 passenger seats

As an alternative, you can also purchase America The Beautiful Annual Pass for $80. This is the pass that I have and it grants you unlimited entry into any US National Park for a year. In the past year, I have been traveling to US National Parks quite a bit and this pass has paid itself off many times over!

America The Beautiful Pass At REI

America The Beautiful Annual Pass On REI


Things To Do In Yosemite In Winter

Yosemite is one of those parks that is wonderful to visit year-round. I’ve been to Yosemite National Park every season now but there is something magical about visiting Yosemite in the winter. The crowds start to thin out, the park starts to quiet down and you might find yourself hiking through winter landscapes with barely anyone else around.

While some of the higher elevation roads like Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road close for the winter, there is still plenty to see and do in Yosemite in December and January months.

Here are some of our favorite viewpoints, attractions, and hikes to experience in Yosemite in winter!

Snowshoe Mariposa Grove

Big Trees Loop at Mariposa Grove

Situated in the southern section of Yosemite National Park, Mariposa Grove offers some of the best wilderness trails that stay open for hiking and snowshoeing in the winter months. Visiting Mariposa Grove in winter can be an amazing experience where you can find yourself submerged in snow-covered nature amongst some of the biggest trees in the world.

Mariposa Grove offers several trails to choose from for visitors. In the winter with the colder weather, deeper snow, and shorter days, most people either hike the 0.3 miles long Big Trees Loop or the 2 miles long Grizzly Giant Loop Trail that passes some of the largest Sequoia trees in California.

Fallen Monarch Sequoia tree

Mariposa Grove is the largest Sequoia grove in Yosemite with over 500 protected Sequoia trees. In the winter you can easily reach many of these giant Sequoias including the Fallen Monarch, Bachelor & Three Graces, Grizzly Giant, and California Tunnel Tree.

Keep in mind that in the winter the park closes the 2 miles long Mariposa Grove Road that leads from the Welcome Plaza to the trailhead. When planning your trip be sure to account for the extra 4-mile round trip hike that you will need to do just to get to and from the starting point.

Mariposa Grove Road in winter

Mariposa Grove is also one of the first places to visit within Yosemite National Park and is located right by the south entrance gate so many people stop here for sledding and some snow play. It’s less crowded and easier to access in the winter than other parts of Yosemite National Park. 

Read more: How To Visit Mariposa Grove In Winter


Tunnel View

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Tunnel View is one of the first overlooks that you’ll see as you drive into Yosemite National Park. This iconic viewpoint overlooks some of Yosemite’s most recognizable landmarks including El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Falls that will simply leave you in awe!

Tunnel View has a large designated area where you can pull over to enjoy those stunner views. This viewpoint is located to the left just past the Wawona Tunnel that it’s named after.


Yosemite Falls

Lower Yosemite Falls in winter

Visiting Yosemite Falls is by far one of the most popular and memorable attractions to see at Yosemite National Park. Sitting at 2425 feet in height, Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the United States AND the world!

To get up close to Lower Yosemite Falls you can follow a flat and paved 1-mile-long trail that leads to the waterfall base where you can marvel up close at this soaring beauty.

Yosemite Falls is fed by melting snow so typically the waterfall volume is the highest in spring and slowly diminishes towards the winter months. But don’t be discouraged – the waterfall often picks up its volume after a recent rainfall so it’s possible to see it flowing full of water year-round!


Half Dome

View of Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge

Half Dome is Yosemite’s most recognizable granite formation that is located on the eastern side of Yosemite Valley. There are many great places to enjoy the views of Half Dome throughout the park.

For picture-perfect views head over to the Sentinel Bridge that has a clear vantage point of Half Dome reflected in the Merced River. This is an especially popular spot for photography at sunrise and sunset.

Photography tip: Bring a travel tripod to stabilize your camera, eliminate blur and optimize the camera settings.


El Capitan

El Capitan is a massive rock formation that stands tall above the tree line. This unique granite monolith is popular for rock climbing in the summer and photography year-round.

Cathedral Beach Picnic Area offers incredible views of El Capitan from its shores. To get there you can park along Southside Drive and walk 5-10 minutes until you reach the river. I recommend using microspikes on this walk in winter to prevent you from slipping on icy snow.


Valley Loop Trail

View of Yosemite Falls from the valley

The Yosemite Valley Loop Trail explores some of the best parts of Yosemite National Park and offers up-close views of Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Sentinel Rocks, and many other highlights.

The Yosemite Valley Loop Trail is located in lower elevation so this hike is accessible all year round, including December and January. This makes it a great trail option during the winter months when many other hikes in Yosemite are closed for the season.

The Valley Loop Trail travels through the entire Yosemite Valley so you can start it from many different places. We followed a map from AllTrails that started the trek at Camp 4. If there is no parking there, you can also park and begin the trail by Lower Yosemite Falls.

Read More: Hiking Yosemite Valley Loop Trail


Cook’s Meadow

Yosemite Valley Chapel

Cook’s Meadow Loop is a 2-mile-long family-friendly trail that also travels through the Yosemite Valley. From this trail, you can enjoy impressive views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, towering granite peaks, and often spot wildlife roaming through the meadows.

Some noteworthy attractions of Cook’s Meadow Loop include Yosemite Valley Chapel, Sentinel Bridge, and scenic wooden boardwalks overlooking Yosemite Falls.


Swinging Bridge

Views of Yosemite Falls from Swinging Bridge

Swinging Bridge Picnic Area is one of my favorite places in Yosemite where you can roam around Merced River, go on serene trails, and walk across the Swinging Bridge.

This bridge doesn’t itself swing but it does connect both sides of the Yosemite Valley for a safe crossing of the Merced River. As you walk across the bridge you will be greeted with picture-perfect views of Yosemite Falls from afar.


Badger Pass Ski Area

Badger Pass is a small ski area within Yosemite National Park that operates in the winter month. This ski area is situated along Glacier Point Road and can be accessed through one of the park’s free shuttles.

While this ski area is small compared to other California winter resorts like Big Bear or Mammoth, it is one of the oldest ski resorts in California AND it’s located within a National Park – not something you get to experience every day!

Spending the day at Badger Pass Ski Area is a fun activity for the entire family, or beginner skiers & snowboarders. You can either purchase a day pass for $62, a half-day pass for $54, or pay $5.50 per run. The Badger Pass Ski Area offers 5 chairlifts and a couple of green runs, intermediate runs, and even a few black diamonds.  

Along with skiing and snowboarding, you can also enjoy snow tubing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and guided tours – so there is something to do for everyone!


Valley View

Valley View in Yosemite in winter

Valley View is one of my personal favorite viewpoints in Yosemite National Park that you can see on your way out. This viewpoint is framed by the valley floor and Merced River which is scattered full of giant glacier-shaped boulders and rocks.

Be sure to keep an eye out for Yosemite Valley View as you exit Yosemite National Park because it’s located near the exit and it’s easy to miss it!


Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake is another excellent (and short) day hike in Yosemite that stays accessible all year long. This hike leads to a deep river bed that looks like a lake when it’s filled with water.

Winter is a great time to visit Mirror Lake compared to summer or fall as it tends to dry up during the warmer seasons. Ideally, you want to visit Mirror Lake when it has collected a decent amount of water such as winter or spring to see the mirror-like reflections that it’s famous for.

The trail to Mirror Lake is only 2 miles long and travels on a wide, paved road. With a slight elevation gain of just 100 feet, this is a great winter trek for families with kids.


Drive Through Yosemite Valley

Photo by Kevin Chen

If the weather is not playing nice (or you’re just not up for hiking), you can still enjoy the scenery from the comfort of your car. Yosemite’s Southside and Northside Drive follow the entire valley in a loop passing some of the best highlights of the park.

This is a mostly one-way road so if you pass an attraction that you want to see, you’ll have to circle the entire loop again which takes about 30 minutes. I typically mark everything that I want to see on Google Maps and then I download the area map so I can easily see what attractions are coming up as I’m traveling the route in areas with limited reception.


What To Pack

Heading out on winter adventures can feel intimidating if you’re not sure what to bring for snow activities. After years of testing out different winter gear, here are some of our favorite items that we recommend to pack for your visit to Yosemite in winter!

Waterproof Hiking Boots

Having waterproof hiking boots is one of the essential items to have for winter activities. Waterproof boots will keep your feet dry and warm which is so important when trekking across snow, mud, and ice. I always bring two pairs of boots over a multi-day trip in case they do get wet.

Insulated Winter Hiking Boots REI

Insulated waterproof boots on REI


Microspikes

Having a set of microspikes to put on our hiking boots has been a game-changer for winter adventures. Microspikes have metal spikes underneath that will grip onto snow and ice preventing you from slipping and falling.

You can find a set of microspikes for as low as $15 on Amazon. Microspikes are somewhat small and lightweight so they’re easy to carry with you in a day pack for hiking or just walking around Yosemite Valley.

Microspikes on Amazon

Hiking microspikes on Amazon


Snowshoes

For longer day hikes in Mariposa Grove or Badger Pass, you will need a set of snowshoes to manage trekking through soft snow. We brought our snowshoes to Yosemite and used them when the snow got too deep and we started sinking in.


Snowshoe Poles

Along with snowshoes you’ll want to get a pair of backcountry poles that will help you with stability and prevent you from falling.

MSR Backcountry poles on REI

MSR backcountry poles on REI


Winter Jacket

Having a good outer layer will keep you warm in chilly mountain temperatures. I have an alpine jacket by Mountain Hardwear that is lightweight and easy to move in when hiking, yet protects me from cold and wind.

For cooler days and evenings, I use my insulated Columbia winter jacket to keep me warm as the temperatures start dropping.


Thermal Leggings

While it’s common to layer up with warm tops in the winter, don’t forget about the bottoms too! On winter trips, I usually wear thermal leggings or waterproof hiking pants that will keep me comfy.

Thermal Leggings on REI

Thermal tights on REI


Socks

Having a good pair of wool socks can make or break your winter hiking experience. My favorite socks are by Darn Tough that wick away moisture to regulate temperature while providing comfort and cushion on longer day hikes.

Darn Tough socks on REI

Darn Tough socks on REI


Gloves

One of the worst parts about winter hikes is taking off your gloves every time you want to take a video or photo (and there will be plenty of photo opportunities in Yosemite!). For that reason, I recommend getting gloves with touch screen compatibility.

I have a pair and they work great! I don’t have to take them off when taking photos which helps keep my hands warm even on the coldest days.


Beanie

For winter hikes having a beanie is essential to keep your ears and head covered to maintain blood flow. Plus they look great in photos, especially if you didn’t get the chance to do your hair that day.

winter-beanie

Winter Beanie


Where To Stay

While some of Yosemite’s accommodations close in the winter months, there are still plenty of places to stay around Yosemite National Park that include campsites, cabins, vacation rentals, and hotels.

Camping

Camping at Upper Pines Campground in winter

I was surprised to find out how many people camp in Yosemite in the colder winter months, especially in campervans and pop-up tents!

Winter is one of the rare times when you may actually have a chance to reserve a campsite in Yosemite which is nearly impossible during the busy summer months. This is also a great option for budget travelers as campsites cost only $36/night.

On our latest Yosemite winter trip, we stayed at a campsite in the Upper Pines Campground. While the temperatures dropped below freezing at night, with an RV air heater and plenty of blankets, we were able to stay comfortable through the night.


Hotels

While some Yosemite hotels and lodging options close during the winter months, several hotels stay open all year long.

  • Yosemite Valley Lodge – this lodge is centrally located inside Yosemite near Lower Yosemite Falls and offers 245 comfortable rooms along with a restaurant and a bar.
  • Tenaya Lodge – located just 2 miles from Yosemite National Park, the Tenaya Lodge is surrounded by rustic nature yet features modern amenities such as a spa and gourmet on-site restaurant. This hotel is also pet-friendly!
  • Yosemite View Lodge – situated 8 miles to the west of Yosemite, the Yosemite View Lodge is a riverfront hotel with 4 pools and a hot tub. Furry friends are also welcome.

Cabins & Rentals

Vrbo Yosemite
Yosemite Peregrine Lodge vacation rental

Opting to stay in a cabin rental near Yosemite National Park is one of the best and most convenient ways to experience this stunning park in the winter.

Here are some of our favorite vacation rentals near Yosemite National Park:

  • Yosemite Hilltop Cabin. This is a one-bedroom rental tucked away in the small town of Foresta within the National Park boundaries. Yosemite Valley is about a 15-minute drive away and there are excellent hiking trails nearby.
  • Mountain Lodge. This beautiful mountain lodge just outside of Yosemite gladly welcomes pets, and has everything you need for a good time. The property comprises five acres perfect for furry friends to roam and play and is also close to a friendly pet boarding for those who wish to explore the park more extensively.
  • The Peregrine Lodge. This grand three-bedroom cabin is conveniently situated inside the National Park gates, allowing guests to skip the long lines and enjoy more time for relaxation.

Read More: 10 Best VRBO Rentals Near Yosemite National Park


Other Visitor Tips

Here are a few other important things to keep in mind about traveling to Yosemite National Park in the winter:

  • Mountain weather can be unpredictable (and often dangerous) so when traveling to Yosemite in winter, be prepared for anything. Proper clothing and winter gear are a must to keep you warm and cozy.
  • Evening temperatures get extremely cold as soon as the sun goes down so try not to stay out on trails past sunset.
  • Yosemite has very little to no reception. Be sure to download offline Google maps of the area and a hiking app like Maps.Me ahead of time.
  • Many people bring their dogs to Yosemite in winter so their furry friends can also enjoy a bit of snow play and fresh air. Keep in mind that dogs are only allowed on paved roads and sidewalks and not on any dirt trails. A few dog-friendly hikes include Lower Yosemite Falls, Cook’s Meadow, and the paved portion to Mirror Lake. We recommend getting dog booties to protect their paws from snow and ice and an dog jacket to keep them warm.

Visiting Yosemite National Park in December and January is an incredible time to enjoy winter wonderland scenery and some snow play. Empty trails, peaceful bliss, fresh air, and picture-perfect scenery at Yosemite National Park will refresh your soul during the colder winter months!

Looking for more Yosemite inspiration? Be sure to check out these popular Yosemite posts next:


Some of the links used in this blog may be affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, I earn a small commission when you book through these links for which I am very thankful!


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