Best Things to Do in Yosemite in Winter

winter view of yosemite valley with snow-covered forest and mountains

What is the best time to visit Yosemite National Park? In the spring? Summer? Fall? Or winter? Our answer is, “all of the above!” Yosemite is a gold mine for memory making during any season, and Yosemite in winter is no exception. In fact, some of the best things to do can only be done when visiting Yosemite in winter between December and March.

On their tours from San Francisco, Extranomical Tours company has been helping visitors enjoy Yosemite in winter for more than 20 years. In this post, we’ve asked our guides to help with trip planning and answer a few questions you may have, such as: 

Is Yosemite National Park Open in Winter?

Here’s the good news: Yosemite National Park is open to visitors 365 days a year! What you should expect, however, is that some parts of the gigantic 1,200-square-mile park are inaccessible in winter.

For example, Tioga Road to the East Gate of Yosemite is closed annually by late November, putting Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake off limits for vehicle traffic. Conveniently, all 4 of the western entrance gates remain open year round.  

If you want to catch the spectacular view from Glacier Point, you’ll have to do it on foot (or snowshoe!). Fortunately, the Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is plowed to the Badger Pass Ski Area, where both downhill and cross-country skiing are popular. The Mariposa Grove Road to the majestic giant sequoias is open only to visitors on foot or cross-country skis.  

Visitors should also expect that certain services like the Open Air Tram Tour and warm weather activities like golf and biking will not be available during the winter season. 

Top 12 Things to Do in Yosemite in Winter

yosemite valley covered in snow

Start at the Yosemite Valley Welcome Center

We recommend all visitors to Yosemite in winter begin at the Welcome Center. This is where you will find updated trail and road condition information in order to plan your visit. You can ask the rangers for recommendations on things to do too!

Hop over to the nearby Yosemite Exploration Center (previously the Valley Visitor Center) for loads of interpretive exhibits. Learn about the geology, plants and animals, history, and rock climbing of the park. Don’t miss the “Spirit of Yosemite” film!

Turn Back Time at the Ahwahnee Hotel

The Ahwahnee’s early 20th-century granite facade, elegant stained glass, massive log-beamed ceilings, stone fireplaces, and Native American artwork make it a deserving National Historic Landmark. Besides eye-popping design, this diamond in the wilderness offers a gift shop, decadent sweet shop, and comfortable bar.

In winter, the Ahwahnee is simply magical. Whether you choose to stay in one of their beautiful rooms, or just visit for a meal, enjoy the cozy yet grand architecture and picturesque setting of this landmark. Soak in the views of snowy cliffs and waterfalls while sipping a hot beverage.

Insider’s Tip: The Ahwahnee’s main Dining Room is currently closed for construction. They plan to open sometime during the 2023/2024 winter season. If it does open for your visit, definitely don’t miss the chance to dine in this gorgeous room! 

a couple standing at the tunnel view

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girl with her hands in the air looking at valley from Tunnel View overlook in Yosemite

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This Yosemite tour from San Francisco let’s you make your own overnight stay so you can slow the pace to experience Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and the Giant Sequoia redwoods.

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Have a Snowy Adventure at Badger Pass Ski Area

In Winter, you’ll find Yosemite offers groomed trails perfect for cross-country skiers, chair lifts for downhill skiers, a wicked terrain park for snowboarders, and a tubing area where the whole family can have fun together. 

Within the Badger Pass Ski Area, you’ll find 90 miles of marked trails and a well-maintained cross-country track from Badger Pass Ski Area to Glacier Point. A guided snowshoe walk exploring the winter forest is offered with advance registration.

The Badger Pass Ski Area is open from mid-December through early April, conditions permitting. Visit Badger Pass to check out snow conditions, rent equipment, find the shuttle schedule, buy season passes, and score discounted ski and lodging packages.

Get Inspired at the Ansel Adams Gallery

Ansel Adams is known throughout the world for spectacular black and white images of America’s natural grandeur. His photographs and outspoken views helped to shape global opinion about the need to protect our environment. 

The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley is open daily during the winter, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Enjoy works by the man himself, as well as other contemporary photographers. Special rotating exhibits are presented every 6 weeks. 

Advance registration is required for the gallery’s classes, which are offered daily through the winter. They include “Ansel Adams’ Legacy and Your Digital Camera,” “In the footsteps of Ansel Adams,” “In the Field: Creative Smartphone Photography,” and more. 

The gallery is located between the Visitor Center and Post Office, in the heart of Yosemite Valley. Even if photography isn’t your thing, the views from this area are worth a visit. 

Glide Across the Curry Village Ice during Yosemite in Winter

a woman in a blue coat skating beside a kid in scarlet red jacket

Curry Village, located just below Half Dome and Glacier Point, has been a family-friendly attraction since its establishment in 1899. In winter, its most popular attraction is the ice rink where you can skate until stars have filled the sky. 

In addition to ice skating, you can enjoy spectacular views of Half Dome, an entertainment amphitheater, ranger programs, a cozy fire pit, a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a bar. 

Skating tickets are available for purchase online or at the Curry Village Tour & Activity Desk. Each ticket is valid for up to 2 hours of ice time.

Visit the Yosemite Valley Chapel During the Winter

This often overlooked landmark looks absolutely idyllic in the snow. Take a leisurely wander around the historic building. Make sure not to miss the view from the side of both the chapel and Yosemite Falls.

If you would like to join them for worship, they conduct services every Sunday at 9:15am. They also have a special holiday service on Christmas Eve from 4-5pm. 

Insider’s Tip: Yosemite Valley Chapel is available to book for weddings and vow renewals. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful location for your special day. 

Learn Something New at a Free Park Program

We have mentioned the classes offered by the Ansel Adams Gallery, but Yosemite has a calendar full of fabulous programs year round. Your brochure given to you upon entry will give you the details for the day, but look for family ranger talks and evening programs on rotating topics, and guided nature walks. Many of these programs are free and drop-in only.

Photograph El Capitan and Half Dome

You absolutely cannot visit Yosemite in winter without getting a great photo of El Capitan and Half Dome. This iconic granite duo is famous across the world for good reason — they are simply breathtaking. And we think they are often even more beautiful in the wintertime. 

Both El Cap and Half Dome are visible from multiple places in Yosemite Valley. You can admire El Capitan from directly below in El Cap Meadow. Or capture it in a photo along with the icy Merced River at Valley View. Wander the boardwalks in Cook’s Meadow for fabulous views of Half Dome. 

A great winter vantage point for both El Cap and Half Dome is Tunnel View. From this famous perch overlooking Yosemite Valley, El Capitan commands attention, Bridalveil Fall plunges off its granite precipice, and Half Dome stands proud in between. Look for the Tunnel View parking lot just outside the eastern side of the Wawona Tunnel on State Highway 41.

Soak up the Stars of the Milky Way on Your Yosemite Winter Tour

Yosemite National Park is one of the last great spaces without significant light pollution in California, offering wonderous nighttime skies full of stars at any time of year. Find an unobstructed view of the sky and enjoy. Just remember to plan your stargazing on nights when the moon is new, or at least not full, for the brightest stars. 

Yosemite Hospitality offers a “Yosemite After Dark” guided walking tour that we recommend. Experience the wonders of the park after dark with an experienced naturalist. Just make sure to dress properly for the cold! 

Take a scenic Drive through Hetch Hetchy

The quieter Northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park is a hidden gem. It sits at a lower elevation than the rest of the park, so the road and trails are often clear of snow in winter. 

If you have a personal vehicle, drive the 16 miles along Evergreen Road (from near the Oak Flat Entrance) and Hetch Hetchy Road to the reservoir. Admire the surprisingly different scenery here by stopping along the way to stretch your legs and explore the waterfalls, canyons, and lakes. 

Witness “FireFall”

a photo of yosemite firefall cascading down

Have you ever seen a waterfall of fire? Thankfully we aren’t talking about literal fire, just the famous Yosemite “firefall,” a natural phenomenon that only occurs in Yosemite in winter. 

This beautiful sight occurs when light from the late-February setting sun reflects off the mist created by Horsetail Fall. The effect is an extraordinary reddish glow that looks like the waterfall is on fire! 

Insider’s Tip: In recent years, due to the incredible popularity of “firefall,” Yosemite has limited the number of visitors per day. For February 2024, reservations will be required for entrance on the weekends of Feb 10-11, 17-19, and 24-25

On December 1st, 50% of the day-use reservations became available. The other 50% will become available 2 days prior to the reservation date, at 8 am PT. The other way to gain entrance to the park on those weekends is to have a lodging or transportation reservation. Keep in mind those will be snapped up quickly as well, sometimes up to 5 months in advance.

Long story short, if you want to see Yosemite’s “firefall,” plan ahead! Check out this National Park page for all the details. 

Go on a Winter Wonderland Hike or Snowshoe

Yosemite is a hiker’s paradise, and that isn’t any less true when it comes to Yosemite in winter. One just needs to be prepared with the proper gear and take safety seriously. If you do, you will be treated to miles and miles of winter wonderland, blissfully free of crowds.

Keep it short with simple jaunts in the valley, make the snowy trek up the road from Badger Pass to Glacier Point, or admire the giants of Mariposa Grove. Keep reading for our favorite Yosemite winter hikes. 

Best Hikes For Yosemite in Winter

group go people with backpacks hiking during winter

While Yosemite National Park can get heavy snowfall during winter storms, the Valley is generally very navigable for hikers who are prepared. This means bringing warm hiking boots, insulating, waterproof layers, trekking poles, and your sense of adventure. 

We encourage you to be cautious during Yosemite winter hikes when falling water, snow and ice can make surfaces slippery. Winter trails are marked with a blaze. Always keep at least one marker or reference point in sight. Carry a good map or GPS device, and never leave the safety of the trail.

Be sure to check with the rangers at the Yosemite Valley Welcome Center for current trail conditions before starting out. They can advise on which areas of the park are good for hiking vs skiing or snowshoeing, depending on what gear you brought with you. With that, here are our favorite hikes for Yosemite in winter.

Bridalveil Fall – 0.5 mile – Easy

While a lot of Yosemite’s waterfalls tend to be dry during the winter, there are a couple that reliably flow year round, including Bridalveil Fall. 

This gorgeous fall can be seen from Tunnel View, Valley View, and other viewpoints in the valley. But for those that want an up close and personal type of view of the fall, there is a short and flat, year-round trail right to the base.

They have been rehabbing this area, so parts of the trail and/or parking area may be closed during your visit. For easiest access, take the valley shuttle to stop 16. 

Lower Yosemite Fall – 1 mile – Easy

While not one of the falls that runs year round, we didn’t want to leave out the lovely little hike to Lower Yosemite Fall. Even when the falls are mostly dry, the woods here are beautiful and worth the quick jaunt. 

But you may get lucky! If you visit after sufficient snowfall, typically later in winter, the falls may be running after all. If so, this is a must-do hike in Yosemite. It is a mostly flat, paved loop trail that can be taken in either direction for different perspectives of the three tiers of Yosemite Falls. 

Look for the start of the loop trail to Lower Yosemite Fall at shuttle stop 6. 

Cook’s Meadow – 1 mile – Easy

Get spectacular views of valley highlights like Half Dome and Yosemite Falls on this flat and easy valley hike. Part boardwalk and part pavement, this is one of our favorite accessible Yosemite in winter hikes. Listen for birds and other wildlife here in the early morning and evenings. 

Mirror Lake – 2 miles – Easy

This pool of calm Tenaya Creek water forms an idyllic setting for artists and naturalists. On calm days, the aptly-named Mirror Lake offers a wonderful reflection of Half Dome’s face. Winter adds a frosty frame to one of the most beautiful scenes in all of Yosemite National Park. 

Look for exhibits along this paved trail that detail the story of the area’s lake-to-meadow succession and its cultural history. Turn around at the lake for a 2-mile round trip, or continue on part or all of the loop around. Though flat, it’s safest to follow the out & back trail on the north side since ice and snow often cover the loop route to the south.

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias – 4+ miles – Moderate

The Mariposa Grove of Giant Redwoods is home to over 500 mature giant sequoias. Among the most popular trees here is the Fallen Monarch, made famous in an 1899 photograph with U.S. Cavalry officers. Other must-visit trees are the Bachelor, Three Graces and the 2,700-year-old Grizzly Giant.

But don’t let that deter you! This area is simply stunning in the snow, and the hike to get there just makes your time with the trees that much more special. Mariposa Grove has a network of several miles of trails, so you can make this hike anywhere from 4 miles, to an 11-mile all-day adventure. 

Top of Vernal Fall – 5.5 miles – Moderate

This awesome hike has fabulous views of Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the back of Half Dome. In winter, Vernal Fall takes on a whole new vibe because its sheer rock ledge is hemmed in by towering pines and covered in a blanket of snow. Water cascades year round, plummeting 317 feet down to an outcropping of granite boulders. 

Access to Vernal Fall via the Mist Trail’s steep granite stairway is closed in winter, but you can reach Vernal Fall by following the longer (and snowier) John Muir Trail. Be extra careful and check on conditions before setting out as snowfall can accumulate from the Footbridge to the top of Nevada Fall. You will find the John Muir Trail Trailhead at the Happy Isles Bridge, follow it to the Vernal Fall footbridge, then on to the top.

Insider’s Tip: You can cut this hike short and stop at the Vernal Fall Footbridge for a 1.6-mile roundtrip with a stunning view of the fall. 

Yosemite Valley Loop Trail – up to 11.5 miles – Moderate

The meandering Valley Loop Trail offers stunning views of the park’s iconic landmarks. The mostly flat trail follows many of Yosemite’s original east-west wagon roads. 

There are many well marked Valley Loop trailheads with access and vehicle parking, so you can follow the path for a 10-minute stroll or the whole 11.5-mile circuit to many of Yosemite’s top attractions. This trail is truly the choose your own adventure trail. 

Yosemite in Winter Food Options

group of people toasting their mugs

Since the chilly weather in Yosemite in winter does not lend itself well to comfortable outdoor dining, you will find some of the valley’s restaurants closed during this season. Thankfully, there are several fabulous indoor dining options that are open year round. 

The Ahwahnee Dining Room

Dining at The Ahwahnee, with its stained-glass windows, immense natural-stone fireplaces, and Native American artifacts is absolutely magical.  If you can’t snag a reservation for its popular dinners, the hotel restaurant offers delicious breakfast options such as eggs benedict and three-egg omelets.

Insider’s Tip: The Dining Room at the Ahwahnee does have a dress code for dinner. View it here so you are prepared.  

Mountain Room Lounge and Restaurant

At Yosemite Valley Lodge, enjoy striking views of Yosemite Falls in the winter from the comfy Alpine-inspired interior or the outdoor patio. The menu offers sizzling steaks, fresh seafood, and tasty pastas, along with lighter fare like sandwiches, salads and nachos.

Valley Lodge Base Camp Eatery

This casual restaurant, which includes a Starbucks coffee bar, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The space has been recently remodeled and honors the history of rock climbing in Yosemite. The menu features local, seasonal ingredients, front-of-house cooking, and popular grab-and-go selections.

Degnan’s Kitchen

Located in Yosemite Village, Degnan’s Bakery offers light, a la carte breakfast and lunch options. The Loft upstairs from the Degnan’s Kitchen offers authentic deli sandwiches, signature salads, artisan pizzas, and a wide selection of beverages. 

Seven Tents Pavilion

This restaurant in Curry Village is perfect for fast and casual dining before, during, or after a day of adventure. Enjoy their famous pizza and other hearty meals. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  

There are also small grocery stores in Curry Village, Yosemite Village and at the Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Getting To and Around Yosemite in Winter

A view of the snow-covered mountains and trees in Yosemite Valley.

If you are considering driving to Yosemite National Park from San Francisco or other points in Northern California, pay attention to the current weather forecast and do a last-minute check of road conditions within Yosemite National Park before your trip.

Road conditions to and within Yosemite in winter can vary widely and may require tire chains. Chain requirements are strictly enforced, so be prepared with chains and know how to install them. Signs will indicate when chains are required.

The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) operates a winter season service that connects Yosemite Valley to the gateway community of Merced along Highway 140. A great perk of this service is your entrance fee to the park is included.

The free Yosemite Valley Shuttle now operates year round! While you may run into some stop closures as they maintain the route in the slow season, this is still a great way to get from place to place in the valley. Leave your car in one of the big lots and leave your winter driving/full parking lot worries behind you. 

A free shuttle service to and from the Badger Pass Ski Area operates during Yosemite in winter between December and April. Badger Pass shuttle arrival and departure times are subject to change, but typically run twice to Badger Pass in the morning, and twice back to the Valley in the afternoon. Arrive early, as the shuttles do fill up.

Insider’s Tip: Never count on ride-share apps like Uber or Lift in Yosemite! The cell signal in Yosemite is weak to non-existent and you will get stranded. 

Check out our article on how to get to Yosemite from San Francisco for more travel wisdom.

Yosemite in Winter: Know Before You Go

a couple with white beanies skating hand in hand
  • Pack your patience: Winter weather in Yosemite can bring unexpected delays. Relax and take the safest way to your destination. 
  • Plan ahead: Winter visitors avoid summer crowds, but some services and facilities do not operate. Check availability and make reservations in advance. 
  • Keep wildlife wild: All park wildlife can be dangerous and unpredictable. Respect wildlife from a distance, never feed or approach them.
  • Drive responsibly: Observe posted speed limits, watch for wildlife, and use pullouts to take pictures. You will need snow chains to drive in Yosemite in the winter. 
  • Leave no trace: Keep Yosemite beautiful by staying on trails, placing trash in receptacles, and leaving only footprints. 
  • Be careful near water: Stay back from swiftly flowing water. A slip on wet or icy rock is all it takes to get swept away.
  • Have a buddy: Hiking alone is generally not a good idea, so take a friend. Be sure someone knows where you’re going and when you plan to return. 
  • Make your reservation: Yosemite sometimes requires a reservation for personal vehicles entering the park. Find out if they are needed for your visit in advance. 
  • Entrance fee: Yosemite park costs $35 per personal vehicle. Each pass is valid for 7 days after purchase. Credit/Debit cards only. Note: The Tioga Pass Entrance is closed from November to April.

Enjoy Your Yosemite Winter Holiday!

There are many wonderful things to do at Yosemite National Park in the winter. Whether it is your first or tenth visit, we are excited for you, and we hope this post has been useful to your planning. If you want to experience Yosemite in winter without the hassle, check out our popular Yosemite winter one day tour from San Francisco. With 5 hours of time in the park, this tour shows you the best of Yosemite and allows you to do a lot of the activities in this article in your free time. We would love to show you the magic of Yosemite!

Published on: December 15th 2023
yosemite valley view during sunny day

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