Gifted with climbable granite peaks, magnificent waterfalls, and stands of towering sequoias, it's no wonder that Yosemite attracts hordes of annual visitors. However, nearly 75% visit from May to October, meaning that the winter off-season is much less crowded. Still, its natural landscape remains just as spectacular. Slushy-like frazil ice often floats along Yosemite’s creeks, while a fresh snowfall can transform its open meadows into a magical white wonderland.
A winter visit can mean a chance to explore the park’s indoor spaces unencumbered, and there are also plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, including skiing, snowshoeing, and even hiking.
Here’s everything you need to know to take full advantage of Yosemite in the winter.
Yosemite is 1,187 square miles, about the size of Rhode Island, but it is divided into a series of manageable regions.
While Yosemite Valley is just a small slice of the park, it’s home to some of Yosemite’s most iconic features. These include the sheer granite face of Half Dome, the rising vertical monolith known as El Capitan, and the 2,425 foot high Yosemite Falls, the park’s tallest waterfall. This glacial valley of dramatic cliffs and open meadows is also where you’ll find Curry Village, the park’s largest lodging area, and the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. It’s accessible via car year-round.
Located in the park’s northwest corner, the quieter Hetch Hetchy is another stunning display of granite cliffs and remarkable falls. The valley walls rise up from the waters of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Since it sits a few hundred feet lower in elevation than Yosemite Valley (Hetch Hetchy is at 3,660 feet above sea level, while Yosemite is 3,960 feet), it also has a slightly longer hiking season. This part of the park is open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., November through March.
A vibrant community of year-round residents located four-miles inside the park from Yosemite’s south entrance, Wawona is a gateway to Mariposa Grove, home to about 500 towering sequoia trees, which are some of the largest living organisms on earth. While Mariposa Grove Road is typically closed to cars December through mid-April, the grove remains accessible via cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Wawona stays open to vehicle-traffic throughout the year.
At 8,600 feet, the sprawling subalpine Tuolumne Meadows sits among granite domes and verdant evergreen trees. Because it is only accessible in winter via cross-country skiing, it is also one of the park’s quieter places.