Winter is the least busy and possibly most beautiful season in Yosemite. The crowds go home, frost coats the trees in the morning, fog freezes, waterfalls start flowing only to freeze at night and snowstorms coat the park in a white blanket. The wildlife comes out and hotel rates go down.
If you get up early on a cold morning, you may see Yosemite Falls frozen solid and hear the loud, cracking sounds the ice makes as it breaks loose and plummets to the ground. Near the Falls, you might even see an even rarer phenomenon: frazil ice, a spongy mass of ice crystals that flows like water and sometimes overflows the creek bed.
Yosemite weather can be cold, especially at the higher elevations, and winter is California's rainy season, which means snow in the mountains. Find the average weather in Yosemite and check snow reports, river water levels, road conditions and more at the National Park Service website. The Yosemite Valley is at 4,000 feet elevation and even if it snows, it seldom stays very long. At higher elevations, more snow accumulates and it can stay all winter long.
Scenes from Yosemite in Winter
Enjoy some of our best shots in this Yosemite Winter Photo Tour
Yosemite in Winter: Snow
The Badger Pass ski area opens as soon as enough snow accumulates. It includes a terrain park and lots of beginner and intermediate slopes, making it a good place for kids and others just learning to ski. A free shuttle goes there from the Valley.
If you're a strong cross-country skier, you can take an overnight, guided cross-country ski trip to Glacier Point. You can also go snow tubing or take a guided snowshoe hike. Yosemite Conservancy offers some fun winter programs that may include a full moon snowshoe hike or winter photography.
If you plan to drive to Yosemite in winter, take CA Hwy 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. For current conditions inside Yosemite, check 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.
Yosemite in Winter: Special Events
Three of Yosemite's most popular events occur in winter:
- 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, and the lottery reservation system was suspended several year ago.
- Chef's Holidays: Held in January and February, these events features cooking demonstrations and a dinner prepared by some of the country's most prominent chefs. Go for it all, or just enjoy the gala dinners served on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
- Vintner's Holidays: Held in late October and November, this event features wines and winemakers, wine-tasting seminars and a gourmet dinner prepared especially to complement featured vintners' wines.
Yosemite in Winter: What's Open
The closing date for Tioga Pass depends on the weather, but is usually around mid-November. It will stay closed until spring, when the road can be cleared. The road to Glacier Point also closes in winter, after the first snow.
Valley Floor tours operate in winter, with a warm bus replacing the open-air trams.
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 Curry Village from mid-November through March, weather permitting.
Photographing Yosemite in Winter
If you want to get photographs of snow in the Yosemite Valley, it's often gone within a day or less after it falls, making it harder to get there in time to get your photographs if you start after the storm is over. A better strategy may be to get yourself into a Yosemite Valley hotel before the storm starts and then go out for photography after it ends.
During the last two weeks of February when there's enough water, Horsetail Falls takes on a golden glow as it's backlit by the setting sun. The rare phenomenon doesn't happen every year, but when it does, the best place to photograph it is from a small meadow between Yosemite Lodge and El Capitan. It's easy to find; just look for a lot of cars parked along the road.