Winter is the least busy and possibly most beautiful season in Yosemite. The crowds go home, the wildlife comes out, and hotel rates go down. Frost coats the trees in the morning, and snowstorms can blanket the valley in white.
If you get up early, you might see Yosemite Falls frozen solid and hear the loud crack of ice breaking loose and plummeting to the ground. Near the falls, you might see an even rarer phenomenon called frazil ice. It's a slushy, icy, watery mixture that sometimes overflows the creek bed.
Yosemite Weather in the Winter
Yosemite's winter weather can be cold, especially at the higher elevations. The Yosemite Valley is at 4,000 feet elevation, and even if it snows, it seldom stays very long. You can check snow reports, river water levels, road conditions and more at the National Park Service website.
More snow accumulates at higher elevations than in the valley. Tioga Pass closes when it can't be cleared, usually around mid-November, and it stays closed until spring. The road between the ski area and Glacier Point also closes after the winter's first snow.
If you are wondering when the best time to visit Yosemite is, get more information here.
What to Pack
Of course, you'll pack warm clothing when you go to the mountains in the winter. If snow is predicted, it will quickly turn to slippery ice in the valley, making shoes with good traction a must. Layer up if you plan to be in and out and lot.
Winter air is especially dry, so you'll want to pack a few precautionary items to ward off the effects of the dryness, such as eye drops, moisturizers, a refillable water bottle, and more.
Things to Do in the Winter
The Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area is at Badger Pass. It includes a terrain park along with beginner and intermediate slopes, making it a good place for kids and others just learning to ski. You can also go snowshoeing or snow tubing.
Strong cross-country skiers can do a one-day or overnight ski trip from the end of the cleared road to Glacier Point, which is a 10.5-mile trip each way.
You can also book a Valley Floor tour. In the winter, these operate with a warm bus replacing the open-air trams.
Also in the Yosemite Valley, Upper Pines and Camp 4 campgrounds are open all year. So is the Wawona Campground and Hodgdon Meadow on Big Oak Flat Road. Get more information in the Yosemite campground guide.
An ice skating rink operates at Half Dome Village from mid-November through March, weather permitting.
Winter Events at Yosemite
- Yosemite Conservancy offers some fun winter programs that may include a full moon snowshoe hike or winter photography.
- Bracebridge Dinners: A Yosemite winter tradition since 1926, the Bracebridge is the ultimate Christmas feast. The four-hour pageant features entertainment from more than 100 cast members coupled with a seven-course meal to create an unforgettable experience. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, enough performances are held to accommodate almost anyone who wants to go; the lottery reservation system was suspended several years ago.
Winter Firefall at Yosemite
The rare phenomenon that some people call Firefall doesn't happen every year, but when it does, it's a sight to see when Horsetail Falls waterfall glows like it's on fire, backlit by the setting sun. It only happens in February when the sun is at the right angle, skies are very clear, and there is enough water flowing. The best place to see it is between Yosemite Valley Lodge and the El Capitan Crossover.
It's one of those things that has become too popular, and the traffic jams have forced the park service to implement one-way traffic patterns and even issuing parking reservations.
If you don't mind walking more than a mile to see it, you can take the free park shuttle and get off at stop #7, or park your vehicle in the Yosemite Falls Day Parking Area or at El Capitan Meadow. You can get more information on the Yosemite website.
Winter Travel Tips for Yosemite
If you plan to drive to Yosemite in winter, take CA Highway 140 through Mariposa. It's the lowest-elevation route, least likely to be affected by snow and ice. Check highway conditions outside the park at the Caltrans website or call 800-427-7623. Check current conditions inside Yosemite online or call 209-372-0200.
If you don't have snow chains, you need to know the rules about them. They're all in the California snow chain guide.
Photographing Yosemite in Winter
If you want to see snow in the Yosemite Valley, it takes timing. The snow can melt within a day or less after it falls. If you wait until a storm ends, the snow might melt before you arrive.
For your best chance to see it, watch the weather forecast, and leave for Yosemite before the storm starts. Try to get a last minute room in a Yosemite Valley hotel or one nearby. Take your snow boots and cold weather gear, and you'll be ready to see Yosemite's winter wonderland as soon as the last flakes stop falling.