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Yosemite's Tunnel View in Winter
Traveling to Yosemite in Winter
Blog Traveling To Yosemite In The Winter
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Alex Silgalis | 01/28/2021 | Camping, Hiking, Nature, Photography, Seasons, Winter Fun |   

Snowflakes are beginning their annual dance from the skies above to restore Yosemite's waterfall sources of water. Animals have grown their thick furry coats. Crowds have reduced to a trickle. Summer might be a popular time to visit, but winter has its own natural events that are a must see. Here’s what to expect when traveling to Yosemite in the winter.

It’s All About Elevation

Yosemites El Capitan in Winter viewed from Tunnel ViewWithin the national park, the elevation varies from 2,000 feet all the way up to a soaring 13,000'. Yosemite does stay open all year-round, but you must be aware that certain roads close seasonally like Tioga Pass and Glacier Point Road.

Where Does It Snow

Nearly 70 percent of the precipitation happens from November through March and lot of this comes as snow in the higher elevations. On occasion, you may see snowfall down to elevations as low as 4,000’ such as Yosemite Valley, but typically it melts away in a few days. Most of the heavy snowfall occurs in the higher elevations of the park, generally above 6,000 feet.

Yosemite Conservancy Webcam atop Sentinel DomeYosemite Conservancy webcam atop Sentinel Dome.  It sits at approx. 8000 ft of elevation and looks eastward toward Half Dome and Yosemite's High Country. 

When Does Snow Fall?

Similar to a dimmer switch, the first storms are usually light and arrive in September or even October. Normally these come as snow in the higher elevations but melt away fairly quickly. As the days get shorter, the intensity of weather systems begins to pick up. Around November, the snows begin to accumulate above 6,000’. Just like the beginning of the snowy season in spring, the storms begin to slow down after March with a few possible in April and sometimes into May.

How Does The Snow Arrive

One of the more unique meteorological phenomena is HOW Yosemite receives its snow. Instead of days of continuous snowfall that slowly pile up, California snow comes in massive dumps as weather systems bring significant moisture into the region that has gathered up from Pacific Ocean. These stormy periods usually last for a few days up to a week. In between each of these events, you’ll find weeks or longer of tranquil sunny weather.

GOES Satellite Imagery of Winter Storm System on the West Coast/Courtesy NASA/NOAA

Be Prepared

Getting to Yosemite Valley in the winter is usually an easy endeavor, but with all alpine environments, weather can change quickly and can impact travel accordingly. So, it’s always a good idea to carry tire chains during late fall, winter, or early spring (in fact, it is a Federal requirement to carry chains in your vehicle whenever you enter a chain control area... even if your vehicle is equipped with four-wheel drive and/or snow tires). Click here for an in depth look at tire chains and the park's requirements.  Don’t own a pair? You can purchase them from many establishments in a gateway town like Oakhurst (if you are using a rental car to visit, make sure the check with your rental car agency about tire chain use on their vehicle). Last but not least, call the National Park Service Road conditions number to find out if there’s any travel conditions to consider: Yosemite National Park Service Road conditions: (209) 372-0200. Press 1 and 1 again.

Another option is to visit the Yosemite NPS website winter page for the alerts on road closures and what to expect (note - the most up-to-date information will be obtained by the phone number).

For the roads outside of Yosemite, Caltrans is your best resource and they have a handful of resources you can turn to:

Note - if using Quickmap, make sure to select the specific settings for the types of notifications you want to see under the Road Conditions menu. 

Caltrans Quickmap graphic


What To Wear

Tunnel View in WinterLayering is the key word in the chilly season. Pack a warm hat, gloves or mittens, and boots. It can be in the fifties or more in Yosemite Valley or twenty degrees and snowing on other days. Temperatures can vary quite a bit depending on elevation, time of day and sun exposure). At a minimum, have multiple options like a flannel or fleece, insulated coat, and thermal base layers. Even if it's warm during the day, you’ll appreciate those choices once the sun sets.

Let's also talk about traction. Snow and ice can persist in the shaded areas of many trails. We highly recommend carrying a pair of "chains for your feet" like 

For Snow Lovers

Photo by: Local Freshies

If you want to play in the white stuff or try a snow activity like cross country skiing or snowshoeing, you’ll want to head up to the higher elevations. Although most of the high roads aren’t plowed, the lower section of Glacier Point Road is up to the Badger Pass Ski Area. From here, you can throw on a pair of Nordic skis or snowshoes.

A Great Time To Visit The Lower Elevations

Hetch Hetchy in March - Photo by: Steve MontaltoWhat many don’t realize is the lower elevations such as Hetch Hetchy can sometimes be a bit uncomfortably warm during the summer months. Winter is the time to visit these gems. With the sun being at a lower angle in the sky and temps on the cool side, you can really savor these locations in their fullest splendor.

Now that you have a handle of what to expect when visiting Yosemite, you’re ready to start exploring. If you need a bigger nudge to visit Yosemite in the colder months, be sure to read our article: Three Reasons To Choose Winter In Yosemite And It’s Southern Gateway.

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Like what you see? Save any of these pins (or possibly all of them) to your travel planning board(s) to give you an easy way to find your way back here!  Also check out our other blog posts as well as itineraries for more ideas and pins!

Alex Silgalis

Alex founded localfreshies.com® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.

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