Being a Northern California local, Yosemite is only a 3-hour drive for me, and I am fortunate enough to visit this bucket list National Park anytime I want. It’s almost as if it is in my backyard!
Over the years, I have visited Yosemite in every possible season, and there are pros and cons of visiting during each season. I feel visiting Yosemite in Winter is a unique experience due to fewer crowds and the magical white snowy landscape.
I love visiting Yosemite during winter to experience the peace and tranquility of the Yosemite Valley. Winter transforms Yosemite National Park into a serene, snowy paradise, distinct from its summer vibrancy.
Of course, you need to plan your visit by taking into account the current weather and road conditions. Still, there are occasional storm-free days during winter when you can expect quieter trails, stunning snowy vistas of El Capitan and Half Dome, and a unique, peaceful experience with nature.
Let’s dive into the specifics of what you can expect and how to make the most of your winter trip to Yosemite National Park.
What’s Winter in Yosemite like?
I find Winter in Yosemite to be quiet, peaceful, and snowy. The famous sights like El Capitan and Half Dome are often blanketed in snow, creating a picturesque winter scene.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Yosemite in all seasons, but it is the quietest and least crowded in winter. If you like solitude while exploring nature, then you will love visiting Yosemite in the winter months.
This year, we visited Yosemite for our wedding anniversary in mid-December. Luckily, it was beautiful and sunny that weekend, but unfortunately there was no snow yet in the park. We were also able to find lodging in the park at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel!
Pros of visiting Yosemite in winter
Winter in Yosemite is all about enjoying the calm, snowy scenes and the stillness of nature. Some areas of the park are closed because of snow, but the Valley floor is usually always open.
Whether you’re into snow sports or photography or just seeking a tranquil escape, winter in Yosemite offers a special kind of magic.
Below are some of the pros of experiencing Yosemite in December, January, and February:
Fewer Crowds – During winter, the park is much less crowded than the peak summer months. I have heard from friends who had to wait for hours on a summer weekend to get inside the park. When we visited in mid-December, it was a much more serene and peaceful experience without the crowds.
No entry reservations needed – Yosemite keeps changing its entry reservation requirements every year, but reservations are almost always required for peak summer months. In the winter months, reservations are not required, and we can visit the park wherever we want. (Note: There are reservations required on select weekends in February for the Firefall event).
Easy to find parking – During winter months, you do not need to worry about being able to find parking at the attractions and trailheads during winter. We could easily find parking at all parking lots when we visited in December.
Accommodations available inside the park – Accommodations in the park are booked more than six months in advance during the summer months. However, I was able to find an availability at both the Yosemite Valley Lodge and The Ahwahnee just a few days before our trip in December.
Stunning Scenery: Witness Yosemite’s famous landmarks like El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Valley meadows blanketed in snow, offering a unique and breathtaking winter landscape.
Unique Photography – Yosemite during winter is a photographer’s delight with the snow-covered vistas and softer light.
Special Events – Have you ever seen an ice skating rink in a National Park? I have, and it was unbelievable! Every year, Curry Village in Yosemite has an ice rink for the holidays! There are also special ranger-led programs during the winter months.
Winter Activities: Engage in winter-specific activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or just playing in the snow! As we do not get snowfall in San Francisco in winter, we go crazy when we see snow and enjoy throwing snowballs at each other!
Cons of visiting Yosemite in Winter
Visiting Yosemite National Park in the winter months is not without some disadvantages, though, as there is limited accessibility and cold weather challenges.
Cold Weather: Temperatures can be quite low, often below freezing, requiring heavy winter clothing and gear. For a Californian like me, it is very cold as we are not used to freezing winters! Although it was totally okay in December when we visited, the daytime was quite pleasant. But January and February are quite cold.
Limited Accessibility: Some parts of the park, like higher elevation areas and certain roads, are closed due to snow and ice. The Tioga Pass Road and Glacier Point Road are almost always closed in winter. So you cannot access those areas of the park in winter.
Driving Conditions: Yosemite Valley sits at around 4000 feet elevation and is always open during winter. However, snowy and icy conditions can make driving hazardous, often necessitating tire chains or four-wheel drive. Always check the weather forecast before your journey. Ideally, you should never drive to Yosemite if there is a storm warning. Going after the storm has passed will be safer, and the roads and visibility will be clearer.
Outdoor Activity Restrictions: Popular activities like hiking in certain areas, like the epic Half Dome hike and Vernal Falls hike, might not be possible due to snowy terrain. Also, waterfalls might be frozen over or have limited flow during winter months. The Yosemite Falls hardly had any water in December. When we visited in May, it was overflowing!
Is it worth going to Yosemite in Winter?
I feel it is worth going to Yosemite in the winter to experience the park with fewer crowds and to see the granite cliffs under a magical snowy landscape.
Although you will mostly be limited to Yosemite Valley in winter, the granite cliffs, meadows, waterfalls, and sights like Tunnel View, El Capitan, and Half Dome views are all accessible in Yosemite Valley and make the winter trip worth it.
You can also do several hikes on the Valley Floor, like the Lower Yosemite Falls hike, Mirror Lake Loop, Bridalviel Falls, Vernal Falls, etc.
Staying at the Ahwahnee in the winter is a magical experience with all the holiday cheer and the huge fireplaces to keep you warm!
But you should also plan to visit Yosemite in other seasons to take advantage of its unique features during those seasons.
During Spring, Yosemite is all about the roaring waterfalls. Summer is about camping and exploring the various trails. During fall, you can explore more hiking and enjoy the fall colors in Eastern Yosemite before Tioga Pass Road closes for winter.
Yosemite Weather in Winter
In winter, Yosemite National Park experiences cold and often snowy weather.
As per the National Park Service, the average temperatures typically range from lows around 28 to 30°F (-2 to 1°C) at night to highs of 46 to 51°F (8 to 11°C) during the day, especially in the Yosemite Valley.
Snow is common, particularly from December through March, transforming the park into a picturesque winter landscape.
The amount of snowfall varies greatly, with the Valley receiving lighter snow compared to the heavier accumulations at higher elevations like Tuolumne Meadows and Glacier Point.
Higher elevations see more extreme conditions, with more snowfall and lower temperatures.
The weather can change rapidly, and winter storms can bring significant snowfall, leading to road closures and travel advisories. You should be prepared for varying conditions, including icy paths and snow-covered trails.
Does it snow in Yosemite?
Yes, it does snow in Yosemite, especially during the winter months from December through March. The snowfall is more significant in the higher elevations of the park, while the Yosemite Valley receives a moderate amount.
This snow transforms the park into a picturesque winter landscape, offering unique scenery and winter activities.
Luckily, when we visited in mid-December for our anniversary getaway, there was no snow at all in Yosemite. It made it easier to explore some hikes, but we missed out on seeing the snow-covered landscape on that trip.
Driving in Yosemite during Winter
Driving in Yosemite during winter requires extra caution due to snowy and icy conditions.
Some roads, like Tioga Pass and Glacier Point Road, are closed, and carrying tire chains is often mandatory. Make sure to check the official National Park website for road closures and park alerts.
Road conditions can change quickly, so it’s important to drive slowly, maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, and be prepared for limited visibility.
Services like gas stations may be less available, so it is better to plan ahead. Always check the latest road conditions and weather forecasts before starting to ensure a safe journey.
I would advise not to drive to Yosemite if there is a storm warning. Wait out the storm and go after that when the roads to Yosemite Valley are open.
We usually take the Big Oak Flat Road / Highway 120 when driving to Yosemite from the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a beautiful scenic drive on mountain roads.
Top 10 Things to Do in Yosemite in Winter
There are a variety of activities in Yosemite to enjoy during the winter months! We are able to easily spend a weekend in Yosemite and have plenty of things to do in winter.
1. Explore Yosemite Valley
I find Yosemite Valley to be quiet and meditative in winter. If there is snow on the Valley floor or on the granite mountain peaks, it’s even more beautiful.
You can tour the valley in your car and explore the various stops or take the park’s Green Shuttle (yes, it runs in the winter!).
I recommend visiting Tunnel View, Bridalveil Fall, Lower Yosemite Falls, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite Valley Lodge, Curry Village, and Mirror Lake.
2. Biking on the Valley Floor
You can bring your own bikes or rent bikes at the Yosemite Valley Lodge and ride around the Valley. We love doing this with the kids. You can explore all the stops and make awesome memories.
While most of the hikes that are on elevation are snow-covered, there are some easy hikes in the Yosemite Valley that can still be explored in winter.
Our favorites are the Lower Yosemite Falls Loop Trail, Bridalveil Fall Trail, and Mirror Lake Loop Trail. Plus, my kids love scrambling on the rocks, as the water level is super low on the trails during winter.
4. Ice Skating
Curry Village in Yosemite has an ice skating rink in December for the holidays, and it’s a fun activity with stunning views of Half Dome.
We did not try it ourselves as they were still setting it up in mid-December, but I am sure when operational, it will be super festive!
5. Badger Pass Ski Area
Yosemite National Park has a ski area where you can enjoy downhill skiing, snowboarding, and tubing. There is a shuttle that runs from Yosemite Valley and takes you to the ski area and back. You can check the shuttle schedule here.
6. Playing in the Snow
When the Yosemite Valley is covered in snow, it is fun to build a snowman, have a snowball fight, or just frolic in the winter wonderland with family and friends.
7. Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing
Traverse snow-covered trails for a scenic and active way to see the park. The Mariposa Grove near the southern park entrance is a popular area for snowshoeing.
Note that during winter, access to Mariposa Grove by road is closed, and it can only be accessed via a 2-mile hike each way.
8. Fine Dining at Ahwahnee
Savor a luxurious meal at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, known for its cozy ambiance and gourmet cuisine.
We had dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary at the Ahwahnee. The grand dining room with the chandeliers, stone walls, and wooden beams across the ceilings is truly impressive!
9. Firefall in February
Witness the natural Firefall phenomenon on Horsetail Fall, a unique event where the waterfall glows orange at sunset.
This only happens in February, and reservations are required to visit Yosemite during weekends in February to manage crowds. I have yet to see the Firefall, and it is on my bucket list!
The winter landscape of Yosemite is a haven for photographers wanting to capture the granite cliffs against the snowy landscape. But I personally feel no camera can capture the beauty of Yosemite. You have to be there and soak it all in!
Where to stay in Yosemite during Winter
The best part of visiting Yosemite in the winter is that it is so easy to find accommodations inside the park.
I would recommend staying inside the National Park if you are able to get reservations. It just puts you closer to all the attractions.
The Ahwahnee (luxury) – A historic hotel with all the luxury amenities in the middle of the park. We splurged to stay here for a night, and we could see Half Dome from our room window! The lobby with the grand fireplace and the dining room is very spectacular.
Yosemite Valley Lodge (mid-range) – Stay here for closer access to park trails like Lower Yosemite Falls and bike trails. We have stayed here several times when visiting with family and friends. The Lodge has basic comfortable rooms with heating. There is a food court and a Starbucks here!
Curry Village (budget) – Known for its rustic charm, Curry Village provides cabin and tent accommodations, even in winter, for a more immersive park experience.
Rush Creek Lodge (Outside the park) – Right outside the park’s west entrance, this family-friendly resort is worth mentioning for all its amenities, like a wellness spa, pool, onsite restaurant, and amazing games and activities for families. It does take around 40 minutes to reach the Yosemite Valley from here.
Final Takeaways: Winter in Yosemite
Hopefully, I have convinced you enough that visiting Yosemite in the winter months of December, January, and February offers a unique and memorable experience.
The park’s transformation into a serene, snowy wonderland creates a peaceful atmosphere, quite different from the busy summer months.
So, pack your warmest clothes, prepare for snowy adventures, and get ready to discover a quieter side of Yosemite.
But make sure to check the weather forecast and road conditions first to make it safe and enjoyable!
Up next, check out my Yosemite itinerary for a weekend getaway or as part of a longer Northern California road trip!
More about Yosemite National Park
Check out my other Yosemite experiences below!