Winter in Yosemite: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View - Winter
Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View - Winter.

Betsy Malloy Photography

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. Cold, damp conditions can also create beautiful fog conditions in Yosemite Valley.

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.

  • Average High Temperature: 48 to 50 F
  • Average Low Temperature: 27 to 30 F
  • Rain: 6 inches per month
  • Rainfall: 7 days per month
  • Snowfall: 12 to 14 inches (mostly at upper elevations)
  • Daylight: 9 to 10 hours
  • UV Index: 2 to 4

You can compare those conditions to what you can expect year-round in the guide to Yosemite weather and climate. To decide what time of year is best for you, use the weather information together with the pros and cons in the guide to the best time to visit Yosemite National Park.

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 a lot.

Winter air is especially dry, so you'll want to pack a few precautionary items to ward off the effects of the dryness.

If you plan to have dinner in the Ahwahnee dining room in any season, pack clothing that meets their dress code. For men, that's long pants and a buttoned, collared shirt. Women are asked to wear a dress or a nice blouse with a skirt or pants.

Winter Closures

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 closure also prevents access to Tuolumne Meadows.

The road between the ski area and Glacier Point also closes after the winter's first snow. The road to Mariposa Grove will also be closed to automobiles.

On days when the Bracebridge DInners take place, the Ahwahnee dining room will be closed for dinner and afternoon tea is not served.

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 take 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. Some hiking trails may be open. Check with park rangers at the visitor center for current conditions.

Winter is a good time to visit Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is at a lower elevation and less likely to be snowbound.

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, the lottery reservation system ended several years ago.
  • Yosemite Chefs' Holidays take place at the Ahwahnee Hotel in January, featuring wine tastings and special food pairings.

Winter Firefall at Yosemite

Years ago, the Yosemite Firefall was an artificial event. A roaring bonfire was pushed over the edge of Glacier Point, making a glowing waterfall-like appearance as it tumbled down the granite cliff.

Today, there's still a phenomenon called a firefall, but this one is entirely natural. It happens at Horsetail Falls in February when the sun is at the right angle, skies are very clear, and there is enough water flowing. When all those are right, the waterfall glows like it's on fire, backlit by the setting sun. 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. Traffic jams have forced the park service to implement one-way traffic patterns and even require 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. When checking the roads for snow, it's no time to be using apps and websites which may not be up to date. Instead, pick up the phone and call 800-427-7623 (for conditions outside the park) or 209-372-0200 for park road status.

For other times of year, you can check highway conditions outside the park at the Caltrans website or check current conditions inside Yosemite online.

If you don't have snow chains, you need to know the rules about them. They're all in the California snow chain guide. It includes all the Yosemite regulations.

Runoff from melting snow during the day can turn into slippery ice when the sun goes down. Beware driving after dark when night temperatures drop below freezing.

Heavy winter rains increase the risk of rock and mudslides on Highways 140 and 41.

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.