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Visiting Yosemite in Winter: Must-Read Tips & Things to Do

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Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States, but the vast majority of visitors visit only when the weather is warm. My family visits Yosemite National Park regularly from our home a few hours away in the San Francisco Bay Area, but until this year, we tended to visit in the summer and early fall. Like many visitors, we had actually never visited Yosemite during winter!

We started off 2024 right, however, remedying that gap in our Yosemite travel experiences. We just returned from a long weekend winter visit to Yosemite and found it delivered a totally different – and refreshingly wonderful – kind of vacation experience. Visiting Yosemite in winter, however, definitely requires a fair amount of additional planning and preparation due to the challenge of snow.

Related: Complete Guide to Yosemite with Kids

Yosemite Valley View in Winter

If you are thinking about visiting Yosemite in winter – particularly if you have kids in tow – here’s everything you need to know to get there safely and experience the best winter activities.

(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy linked in the menu at the bottom of this site.)

Driving to Yosemite in Winter

What’s Open and What’s Closed

Roads in Yosemite After Winter Snow Storm
What the roads looked like the morning after a winter storm – and this is after the snowplows came through!

Even if you’ve been to Yosemite many times like we have, it’s essential to understand that it’s a much different national park in winter. A lot of parts of the park are closed or at least inaccessible to most visitors. Many of the driving routes you might be used to are simply not available either.

Thanks to its location in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the higher elevation parts of Yosemite can get a serious amount of snow during winter months. Tioga Road is totally closed in winter months to all car traffic, leaving only the bravest of backcountry skiers and a few rangers in places like Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake.

Much of Glacier Point Road is also closed as well. Visitors can drive as far up as Badger Pass Ski Area (more on that later), but can’t get by car or shuttle all the way to Glacier Point for those breathtaking Half Dome and Valley views.

On the southern side of the park, the area is subject to some closures too. The Wawona Hotel usually closes for the month of January and February. And the shuttle from the parking area to the trailhead for the Mariposa Grove doesn’t run in winter months either.

That said, there are many parts of the park that are open in winter to explore. Almost all businesses and attractions in the Yosemite Valley area, including Yosemite Village, are open in winter months. Yosemite Valley sits at only at 4000 feet of elevation, so while it does get snow, it doesn’t get as much as what surrounds all of it.

What You Need to Drive Safely

Visiting high elevations in winter requires preparation and understanding of unique local conditions. I’ve written an extensive guide with tips for driving to Lake Tahoe in winter. Pretty similar rules apply for driving to Yosemite (which is located a bit farther south). Most basically, you need to be prepared for driving in harsh winter weather conditions as well as for the possibility of significant delays and road closures when storms roll in.

All vehicles coming into Yosemite National Park in winter months are required to carry tire chains. AWD or 4WD vehicles will be permitted to drive in mild and moderate winter weather as long as they have snow or all-season tires (when road conditions are at R2). All other vehicles will likely have to chain up much sooner. If the conditions are such that chains are required on AWD or 4WD vehicles (R3), I’d recommend staying off the roads unless you are an expert winter weather driver.

At the very least, you should pack a snow brush/ice scraper to clear your windshield and windows before driving. You may also want to carry a small shovel in case you have to dig your car out (we did!). Also, make sure your wiper fluid is filled up before any trip.

Watch the weather reports closely, especially for the days you plan to drive in and out of the park. We called the Yosemite weather hotline – (209) 372-0200 – a few times before and during our trip to get road-specific information. I highly recommend adding that number to your phone contacts and using it!

Best Driving Routes to Take in Winter

Winter in Yosemite Sign
Winter seasonal guides posted in the park are helpful to show what’s open.

There are multiple routes into the park, but not all of them are open – or the same level of winter driving difficulty – in winter months.

On the western side of the park, many visitors from the northern half of the state use Highway 120 through Big Oak Flat or Highway 140 (El Portal Road) at the Arch Rock Flat entrance. Visitors coming from farther south tend to prefer entering Wawona along Highway 41 just north of Oakhurst.

Generally speaking, the road that is safest to drive in winter weather is Highway 140. It traverses lower elevations and is the most-traveled. So if you are new to the area or not a regular winter weather driver, you may want to plan on that as your route in and out no matter what.

We took our usual Highway 120 into the park because we drove up on a day when the skies and roads were totally clear. It snowed about 8-12 inches while we were in the park, so we planned to take Highway 140 home. Our plans were stymied however, when a major accident closed Highway 140 for several hours. As a result, we detoured to 120. We were definitely wary about taking 120 after a storm but found we were able to drive it safely by going slow in our AWD vehicle. We were especially relieved to find that the snow level was high enough that there was not any snow by the time we got down to New Priest Grade (the famous/infamous switchbacks).

Be aware that if you are coming from points farther east, there is really no direct winter route into Yosemite. California Highway 395 is open, but the route into Yosemite at Lee Vining (along Tioga Road/the other side of 120) is closed.

Winter Road Conditions

So, how are the road conditions in Yosemite when it snows? We found that roads aren’t cleared as fast or as extensively as the more traveled arteries in and around Tahoe. So take your time and wait for the crews to do their work. I highly recommend traveling only in daytime when there is snow on the ground, because the roads definitely ice when it gets dark, even with crews clearing them.

Additionally, be prepared for the challenge of fellow drivers on the road. We are used to witnessing some pretty reckless and inexperienced winter driving on our Tahoe travels, but we thought national parks visitors would be a little more winter weather savvy. Unfortunately, they weren’t from what we observed. In fact, there were far more 2WD vehicles in Yosemite than we are used to seeing in Tahoe. We witnessed several vehicles not chained up when they were required to be, slipping and sliding on the roads. So don’t be that person!

Trips With Tykes Tip: Not prepared to do the winter driving yourself? YARTS, the public transit system in the region, runs multiple buses daily along Highway 140 into the Valley and stops at or near quite a few hotels along this route. And once you are in the park, the free shuttle system runs regularly around the Valley loop and is easy to use.

Yosemite Valley Shuttle in Winter
Yosemite’s free shuttle services in winter.

Best Things to Do in Yosemite in Winter

Hopefully I haven’t scared you too much with all this practical talk about winter conditions, because the payoff of actually making the trip to Yosemite in winter is tremendous! Once you get to Yosemite, there is so much to do that is incredibly special and memorable in colder months.

Here are our recommended activities:

Easy Hikes

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail in Winter
Hiking Lower Yosemite Falls together

Because the Yosemite Valley (which is the main area of the park actually open in winter) is only at 4000 feet of elevation, it often isn’t completely blanketed in snow. And that means hiking on the valley floor is entirely possible between storms.

We enjoyed the short hikes to both Lower Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall as a family. The park service keeps those trails cleared in between winter storms.

The trail to Lower Yosemite Falls is short but offers a bit of exercise. There’s a paved and plowed path straight to the falls near the free shuttle stop, so it’s doable in most weather even with young kids or anyone mobility challenged. If there isn’t a lot of snow on the ground, I recommend making full 1 mile loop, part of which goes onto dirt trails (what we did).

Bridaveil Fall is an even shorter hike, as it’s just a 1/4 mile stroll from the parking lot to the waterfall viewing area. We did notice a bit of ice on some of the paths so it requires some attentiveness.

Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite in Winter
Family hike to Bridalveil Fall

Other easy and often passable hikes include the hike to or around Mirror Lake, the first part of the Mist Trail to the Vernal Falls footbridge, or part or all of the Yosemite Valley Loop (paralleling the roadway that circumnavigates the Valley’s highlights).

For a bit of a tougher challenge, my husband and daughter also enjoyed a hike up to Columbia Rock (the trailhead is near Yosemite Valley Lodge and the trail follows the first part of the Upper Yosemite Falls route). They ascended about 20 mins further up the Valley wall after making it to the rock, and said it’s worth the extra climb for the amazing views up there!

Vistas and Photo Opps

Yosemite Overlook on Highway 120 Entering the Valley
View before the winter storm near the Highway 120 entrance

Speaking of views, in winter you really want to make time for some car touring to the prettiest vista spots. Yosemite looks entirely different in winter, and the photo opportunities are breathtaking.

There are several vistas after the park entrance checkpoint at Big Oak Flat along Highway 120 before you make the full descent into the Valley. Look for those turnouts if your drive into the park is along that route.

The most famous viewpoint in Yosemite is Tunnel View. You’ll pass it on the route in along Highway 41, but you’ll have to backtrack a bit to reach it if you enter the park elsewhere.

Yosemite Tunnel View Overlook in Winter
Yosemite’s most famous vista at Tunnel View

Other spots we got some great photos:

Yosemite El Capitan with Snow on Ground
El Capitan before the winter storm
  • El Capitan Meadow: Pull over just past the Bridalveil Fall parking area in the meadow in front of El Capitan.
  • Swinging Bridge: Look for the parking area on the left of the road entering the park.
  • Valley View: After you’ve completed the loop of the valley and are heading towards the park exit, this stop on the banks of the Merced River offers such a peaceful last look at both El Capitan and Half Dome. Our family’s favorite place to stop every trip!

Ice Skating in Curry Village

Ice Skating in Yosemite Curry Village
Ice skating was a huge hit! Not shown – firepits nearby for warming up and well-deserved s’mores.

So many people – our family included – don’t know that Yosemite has an ice skating rink in the winter. It turned out to be my favorite thing we did the entire trip so I highly, highly recommend it! Every time you circle the rink, Half Dome comes into view.

Buy tickets in advance online or at the main desk in Curry Village a few hundred yards from the rink. Sessions are 2.5 hours long, so unless you are a hard core skater, you may not want to stay the entire time. We found that other guests cleared out considerably as the end of the session approached, so it is a wise strategy to start your skating a little later into the session and stay until the end.

Just be aware that the rink closes when any significant snow starts, so watch the weather to time your visit. We thankfully had made time to skate in what turned out to be the last session right before the big storm hit!

Skiing at Badger Pass

There are only three places in the United States where you can ski or snowboard inside the boundaries of a national park and Yosemite’s Badger Pass is one of them. When we booked our trip, we were really hoping to spend one day skiing there. Unfortunately, the snow gods did not cooperate.

Badger Pass relies entirely on natural snow, and that means that sometimes it has a very short season. We visited in early January and warmer than usual storms in December brought mostly rain so the slopes were still bare at that time.

The ski season at Badger Pass usually runs from mid-to-late December into March though. But if you hope to ski at Badger Pass, your best bet for cooperative conditions is going to be from late January through Presidents Week in February.

Badger Pass has other snow activities in addition to downhill skiing. There’s a snow tubing hill, cross-country ski trails, and snowshoe rentals. We found that it can be hard to get up-to-date information about current conditions at Badger Pass especially in the pre-season, so check the resort’s Facebook page or join this Badger Pass fan group on Facebook which is quite helpful for crowdsourced tips and reports. Once the resort officially opens for the season, the Badger Pass Snow Phone is reliable on a daily basis: 209-372-1000.

If you are staying in Yosemite Valley, note that there is a free shuttle that goes to Badger Pass so you don’t have to worry with driving or parking. And if you are entering Yosemite during a period that requires park reservations (weekends during the Firefall – more on that below), a confirmed lift ticket purchase at Badger Pass acts as your park reservation.

Snow Play

Kids Building Snowman in Yosemite
Impressive snowman effort for kids who are used to 60+ degree coastal living!

Even if the official places aren’t open for snow activities as they weren’t during our visit, you can and should DIY it! When it started storming in the middle of our weekend trip, we made spending time in the snow a major priority. We made a beeline back to our accommodations at Yosemite Valley Lodge and joined lots of other families who were building snowmen and starting snowball fights in the open spaces nearby.

The day after the storm, we also bought a $20 saucer at the shop in Yosemite Village, found a small hill nearby on the road to the Ahwahnee Hotel and tried our hand at sledding (with some hilarious results).

Snow Sledding in Yosemite
Action-packed saucer sledding efforts.

Indoor Activities in Yosemite Village

If you need a break from the cold, there are also quite a few indoor things to do in Yosemite in winter. Most of these are centered around the Yosemite Village area.

At the time of our visit, Yosemite had just opened a brand new Welcome Center right by the Village Store. We stopped in once our 4th grade son had completed his Junior Ranger booklet so he could be sworn in (see more tips for visiting national parks with 4th graders – including how they can get you in for FREE!). If you don’t know much about Yosemite, I highly recommend talking with a ranger and perusing all the educational information on display.

Yosemite Junior Ranger in Village Welcome Center
Swearing in as a Junior Ranger in the new Yosemite Village Welcome Center.

Also in the Village is the Ansel Adams Gallery – a whole store and gallery devoted to Yosemite’s most famous photographer. This isn’t a great stop for younger kids, but older teens and adults can likely appreciate it.

You can also pay a short visit to the free Yosemite Museum a few buildings away. The museum displays Native American artifacts. Behind the museum is a reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee, located on the original site of the largest native village in Yosemite Valley.

Museum in Yosemite Village
Yosemite Museum’s entrance.

Yosemite Firefall

Last but certainly not least, no guide to Yosemite in winter is complete without discussing the Firefall. For a week or two around mid-February, Horsetail Fall on El Capitan’s eastern edge glows orange when the sunset is just right. Seeing this natural phenomenon in person is a bucket list experience for many national parks travelers.

Because of the extreme demand to view and photograph this phenomenon, the National Park Service requires reservations on weekends in February to manage the crowds. This year, the reservation requirement is in effect for visitors arriving February 10–11, February 17–19, and February 24–25, 2024. Yosemite doesn’t require reservations in winter on any other dates (although it does now require them in much of spring, summer, and fall).

We obviously didn’t visit during a time in winter when the Firefall was a possibility and experienced much lower crowds as a result. If you make the Firefall a priority, be aware that it’s extraordinarily fickle and that you will have a crowded park to contend with.

Dining in Yosemite in Winter

Yosemite has some very unique dining experiences, but we often find they are either too crowded or we are just too short on time during the busy summer season to experience them. Winter – when everything slows down – can be a great opportunity to make time for a nicer meal. Just be aware that not all of the restaurants are open during the winter season, although many more were available than we expected.

Restaurants highlights in winter include:

Ahwahnee Dining Room

Sunday Brunch in Yosemite Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room
Family Sunday brunch in the Ahwahnee Dining Room

The most sought after dining opportunity in Yosemite National Park is in the Ahwahnee Hotel’s majestic dining room. The restaurant is best-known for its decadent Sunday brunch and is open to all – not just hotel guests. We were able to make last minute reservations for Sunday brunch on Open Table (a total impossibility during the peak summer season, for what it’s worth!).

After a delicious breakfast with warm and impeccable service, we walked around the hotel and even took a stroll in the snow around the grounds.

Mountain Room Lounge

Mountain Room Lodge Dinner at Yosemite Valley Lodge
Casual fireside dining at Mountain Room Lounge.

Located in the Yosemite Valley Lodge, this causal fireside restaurant has pub food, moderate prices, and lots of great people watching. We dined here on the first night of our trip and found it ideal for families who wanted a nicer meal that was not too over the top. If you are on a couples or adults-only trip, you may want to dine in the higher-end Mountain Room Restaurant right next door.

Base Camp Eatery

Base Camp Eatery in Yosemite Valley Lodge
Base Camp Eatery in Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Also located in the Yosemite Valley Lodge, this quick service food court is reasonably priced, offering a wide variety of foods for adults and picky kids alike. It was completely renovated a few years ago and still looks really bright and new. We ate two meals in Base Camp and were very impressed by the value it offered. Plus it’s open for three meals a day in winter. There’s even a Starbucks for those who need their caffeine fix before a morning hike.

Degnan’s Kitchen

Degnan Kitchen in Yosemite Village
Downstairs at Degnan’s is open for three meals a day in winter.

This deli in the heart of Yosemite Village has been around forever, and is a must-visit for our family nearly every trip. We often grab sandwiches here in the morning to take out on longer hikes. We grabbed a quick lunch of soup and chili here right as it started snowing in the middle of our trip – highly satisfying!

Seven Tents Pavilion

Over in Curry Village, this quick service restaurant is similar to Base Camp Eatery – recently renovated and serves up a lot of variety at affordable prices. In winter, it’s open for breakfast and dinner only.

What to Pack & Wear to Yosemite in Winter

Family in Winter in Front of Yosemite Half Dome

What you need to pack depends quite a bit on what you plan to do in the park during your visit. If you are planning to do something epic like backcountry skiing you obviously need technical gear. If you are a more casual visitor who will spend time outside doing the more common activities, I’d recommend packing similarly to how you would pack for a ski trip.

We mostly packed our ski jackets and water resistant ski pants/bibs, along with warm base layers (these thinly fleece-lined long underwear are my son’s favorites and my daughter and I have this brand). We also had warm hats and ski gloves. If your kids plan to play in the snow at all, you’ll definitely need gloves with waterproofing instead of regular gloves.

When we were hiking in areas that didn’t have much snow, we wore hiking boots or Merrell hiking shoes (these are the ones my daughter and I both have and these are my son’s), but we switched to Sorel snow boots once Mother Nature dropped nearly a foot of snow on us. Waterproof hiking or even ski socks aren’t a bad idea either.

In between storms and cold fronts, it often isn’t frigid in Yosemite Valley in winter. Expect that you may be able to dress even a little lighter if the forecast calls for slightly warmer temperatures. I found, for example, I was able to get by wearing the same water resistant pants I wore to hike in Alaska this summer (with a base layer underneath) rather than bulkier ski pants most of the time.

Yosemite Lodging: Best Places to Stay in Winter

During winter months when snow complicates travel, it’s all the more important to find a convenient place to stay. There are very few accommodations within the park, so book early to get your desired lodging, especially if you plan to travel on a winter weekend. That said, last minute availability happens much more often in winter than they do the rest of the year, so don’t be afraid to plan a trip on a whim!

Here are the best lodging options for winter visits to Yosemite:

Ahwahnee Hotel

Ahwahnee Hotel in Winter Snow
Stay at the Ahwahnee for a splurge in winter

The park’s iconic national park lodge, the Ahwahnee Hotel, is ideally located in the heart of Yosemite Valley. It’s about a 15 minute stroll to Yosemite Village and is also located along the free shuttle route. The hotel is breathtakingly beautiful – in an old world rustic sort of way – but it’s unfortunately priced accordingly. Save it for special occasions or if you really need accessibility in winter, such as if you are traveling with babies and toddlers or older grandparents. We’ve stayed there once another time of year and adored it, but can’t afford it on a regular basis!

Yosemite Valley Lodge

Yosemite Valley Lodge Family Bunk Room

On our recent winter trip, we stayed at the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Considered the park’s moderate hotel accommodation, it’s often about half the price of the Ahwahnee but still is far from cheap. We paid about $330 plus tax per night on a winter weekend. We really liked the amenities of the hotel, including the family bunk room that sleeps 5.

The downside to the Yosemite Valley Lodge is its somewhat odd location. Reaching many other Valley attractions requires looping around a few extra miles on the one-way road system in the Valley. This isn’t a big deal when the roads are clear, but when there is snow on the ground, it can be slow going.

Curry Village

Curry Village has the park’s more budget accommodations with communal bathhouses but an ideal location. It’s best known for its tent cabins, but those are really roughing it in colder months (my family and I stayed in one in late September last year and it was already quite chilly then!). At the very least, opt for one of the heated ones. Better yet – grab one of the slightly more expensive real cabins if you can.

Tenaya at Yosemite

Located just outside of the park gates along Highway 41, Tenaya at Yosemite is a bit of a drive into the Valley. But it is decently situated for visitors who want to spend at least some of their time at Badger Pass. Tenaya offers pretty luxurious accommodations in its lodge as well as in cabins and cottages. There are winter activities on site as well such as ice skating and sledding.

Rush Creek Lodge

Another family-friendly luxury accommodation is Rush Creek Lodge, located just before the Highway 120 entrance to the park on the northwest side. Rush Creek Lodge is the closest accommodation to the Valley on Highway 120. It is very well located if you plan to explore Hetch Hetchy during a visit as well. The property has lots of kid-friendly activities year round.

Final Thoughts

Our family’s winter visit to Yosemite was truly magical and memorable. It’s a time of year we will now plan to return often! The lower crowds and the slower pace make it feel like a totally different kind of vacation where we were able to connect as a family and with what we love about national parks.

More Yosemite & National Parks Reading

Visiting Yosemite National Park in winter? Tips and tricks for the best things to do and where to stay and dine, including a complete guide to what's open and closed in Yosemite in winter months. Plus, get on-the-ground experience with winter driving and road conditions.

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