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Itineraries A Guide To Hiking Yosemite National Park In The Winter

A Weekend Guide To Hiking Yosemite National Park In The Winter

Yosemite National Park is a snowy paradise that attracts visitors and locals from California and beyond. Imagine glistening snowy peaks, hidden ski slopes, the glorious lava-like phenomena — Firefall — and ice skating beneath the moon-lit Half Dome. This park transforms into an adventurous outdoor activities wonderland for winter sports and nature enthusiasts. If you’re planning to visit Yosemite during the winter, here’s what you need to know about planning a relaxing (yet adventurous) weekend in the park.

First off, the winter season in Yosemite begins in late November and ends in March, depending on the year. These wintery conditions create prime photo options, but often there’s more planning involved when it comes to designing your trip. It’s often frigid, cold, and snowy depending on the year, with the average low temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Since Yosemite is located in the sunshine state, it’s not rare to see snowy peaks paired with bright sunshine, and average temperatures around 49 degrees Fahrenheit. With this in mind, it’s important to pack sunscreen before heading up the mountainside to explore the park. 

Below you’ll find an itinerary to craft your own adventure in the park. Feel free to switch up the days according to your schedule. Add in extra hikes if you’re keen on hiking all day, or omit a day if you're short on time. If you only have one day to explore the park, here’s a 24-hr Yosemite itinerary. 

Tip: New to Firefall? Firefall is when Horsetail Fall located on the east side of the famed El Capitan looks like fire oozing 1,575 feet down the mountainside. Do not confuse the annual natural occurrence with its namesake "Firefall" which began in 1871 when embers were pushed over Glacier Point. The original unnatural practice ended in 1968. However, the natural optical magic has occurred for millennia. Witness it for yourself in mid-to-late February each year.

Horsetail Fall Event

Whether you’re planning to arrive late afternoon or evening, consider taking it easy on day one and grab dinner in Oakhurst. Located right outside the South Gate, Oakhurst is the last major town you’ll see before scaling the glorious woods by car. Similar to Yosemite, this town lies in the Sierra Nevada Forest and is home to just under 13,000 people. It sits at an elevation of 2,274 feet and offers charming views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

It’s about 14 miles away from Yosemite’s southern entrance and it’s the best place to stay to experience both the park and the charming town.

After checking into your hotel, grab some food from South Gate Brewing Co. It’s an American-style restaurant with a charming cabin feel inside. Enjoy some craft beers, yummy fried appetizers like sweet potato fries, monstrous burgers, vegan brats, and more. 

Once dinner is over, head over to Raley’s — the main grocery store — to grab some healthy travel snacks, lunch items, and other food staples for your day in the park. Raley’s has a sandwich shop inside that offers a great lunch combo (chips, sandwich, and drink) for those who want something quick to grab. If not, scour the aisles to grab fruits and nuts, hummus and vegetables, olives, crackers, etc. to make your own picnic. 

Tip: Don’t forget to pack water, utensils, plates, and anything else you may need. It’s important to note that whatever food you bring into the park or waste you have gets disposed of in the appropriate bins or packed with your belongings — aka “leave no trace”. This slogan “leave no trace” preserves the park's ecosystem by reminding guests to pack out trash and food.

Wake up early to grab breakfast at your hotel and head into the park. It’s generally not crowded in Yosemite during winter, but if you’re visiting during holidays or peak Firefall time — expect long entry lines. 

If you’re staying at the Holiday Inn Express, rest assured there’s a complimentary breakfast buffet available to all guests. Grab breakfast at the buffet with a wide selection, including cinnamon rolls, bagels, oatmeal, eggs, bacon, and fruit. Once breakfast is over, pack up your cooler with the food items bought yesterday, then head into the park.

Make sure you have snow chains available in your car as sudden winter storms can arise and cause a need for them. If a highway patrol officer or ranger pulls you over and you don’t have chains, you may be forced to turn around or denied entrance into the park. Also, you may occur a fine and no vehicle is exempt from this including a rental car. The best advice is to buy snow chains in Oakhurst or Fish Camp before trekking up the mountain. 

Here’s a quick guide on snow chain codes: 

R0 - There are no chains required 

R1 - Chains are required on vehicles, but pickups and cars with snow tires are okay without chains. 

R2 - Chains are required on vehicles, but cars with 4-wheel-drive and snow tires are okay without chains. 

R3 - All vehicles must have chains. 

Upon entering the park, make a stop at Tunnel View to admire the snow-covered valley and peaks. Snap a couple of pics, breathe in the brisk air, then make your way into the Valley Floor. Here you’ll find several hikes worth exploring during the winter and a map of the shuttle stops so you can leave your car parked in one spot. Parking is limited, so it may be hard to find a new spot if you move your car.

Yosemites Tunnel View in Winter

The three best winter hiking trails are as follows:

- Cook's Meadow Loop (1-mile loop, easy hiking difficulty) The best place to park is at shuttle stop 11 near Sentinel Bridge. You can also park at Yosemite Valley Village nearby, which also has restrooms and picnic tables. From here follow the signs to access the loop. Along the trail, you’ll find gorgeous views of the valley floor and a prime spot to see the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls flowing with water. Keep your eyes peeled for various signs along the trail sharing information about the park's history and biodiversity.

- Lower Yosemite Falls (1-mile loop, easy hiking difficulty). After exploring Cook’s Meadow Loop, Yosemite Falls (both Upper and Lower) are right around the corner. Witness the 320-foot tall waterfall cascading over the cliff from up close. From here you can explore the various walking trails around the grounds from a secret look-out point to see both falls. It’s a popular path, so make sure to leave your car parked near Sentinel Bridge. After viewing Lower Yosemite Falls, take the Mirror Lake Trail to head toward the gorgeous, although sometimes non-existent lake.

- Mirror Lake Trail (2.4 miles out and back, easy to intermediate hiking difficulty) To access this hike, park near Curry Village and walk from there to access the trailhead. Normally there is a shuttle that runs to Happy Isles, but depending on the season the shuttle may not be operating in this direction. In this case, you’ll have to hike to Happy Isles and then to the trailhead. Starting from the trailhead it’s 2.4 miles to the lake. Another option is to continue on from Lower Yosemite Falls which is about 3.2 miles to the trailhead. Take in the gorgeous views of the seasonal lake, or extend your hike an extra 5 miles to loop around the lake. Here you’ll find icy sections of the lakes, pristine views of Half Dome, and more trails such as the Valley Loop Trails which showcases the valley in its entirety. 

Sunset should be peaking in about now, and one of the best ways to end the night exploring Yosemite is ice skating at Curry Village — an outdoor ice rink that’s been operational since 1928. Admire the snowy trees and glance up at the starlit Half Dome as you glide around the beautiful rink. The rink times vary with additional times added on for weekends and holidays. Each session lasts for 2.5 hours and the exact times are found here.

After spending the day exploring the park, you’re bound to be hungry so grabbing dinner in the park is a must! The Yosemite Valley Lodge Mountain Room Lounge is the perfect spot to defrost after a snowy day outside, order a beer, warm up with hot tea and grab a hearty meal to eat (i.e. pizza, salads, vegan chili, etc.). Inside the lounge, you’ll find a mountainous ambiance equipped with a Swedish-style fireplace. Choose a prime spot to sit, as spots near the fireplace go fast. Make s’mores, or bring a game to relax in this cozy milieu. It’s open from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm daily. 

Tip: Grab a s’mores kit at the snack bar in the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Oakhurst or buy one in the park at the store right next to the lounge — Yosemite Valley Lodge Gift Shop.

It’s your final day in the park, so you’ll want to head out early again to make the most of your time in Yosemite. Grab breakfast from the buffet, or stop by Glow Café for a nutritious recovery smoothie. Open from 9:00 am - 5:00 pm Monday to Saturday, this juicery offers an abundance of healthy smoothies, juices, smoothie bowls, and baked goodies. It’s not open Sundays, so if day 3 is a Sunday, consider adding this to Saturday’s breakfast plan or opt for going on Monday. 

While day 2 was spent exploring the Valley Floor, day 3 is all about wandering the Badger Pass Ski Area. It’s open during the winter season beginning mid-December till about mid-March. This ski area is extremely unique as its one of three ski services that have permission to operate within the U.S. National Parks System. Here you’ll find 5 lifts, ski rentals, snowboard rentals, tubing, snowshoeing, and more. 

If it’s your first time visiting during winter, consider booking a guided snowshoe hike. I highly recommend it as it’s guided so you’ll learn more about the magic of Yosemite directly from a park expert. It’s also inexpensive, easy to learn and you are able to go at your own pace. Whether you’re on a guided tour or a self-guided tour, the best places to snowshoe hike in Yosemite National Park are as follows: 

- Glacier Point. This is one of the most popular snowshoe hiking trails, and it’s where the discovery snowshoe hike treks along. Hop on the discovery tour or DIY your own snowshoe hike by hiking along Old Glacier Point Road, or wind through the trees for a more intense hike. 

- Yosemite Valley’s South Rim. This is a great option for those looking for more self-led snowshoe hikes. Start along Old Glacier Point Road and venture off to various trails such as Inspiration Point or Dewey Point for insane views. For Dewey Point, there is also a 6-hour led guided tour that leaves from the Badger Pass Ski Area's Nordic Center. 

- Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. During winter Mariposa isn’t accessible to cars, but it's accessible via foot traffic. One of the best ways to experience these ginormous sequoias is to snowshoe hike in, showcasing unparalleled views of the winter scenery. 

- Tenaya Lodge. Here you’ll find two options for snowshoe hiking. Purchase guided hikes with an expert for a 1.5 mile out and back (easy difficulty rating) around the Tenaya Lodge Nature Trail. For those more adventurous, grab some rentals to explore the area on your own. 

After spending the day snowshoeing, grab a hot beverage at the Badger Pass Ski Area. Head to the second story to get a beautiful view of the slopes and for a more intimate experience. Once you’re warm and rested, exit the park to grab dinner at one of the many restaurants in Oakhurst or the surrounding communities.

Decide if you want to drive home after dinner, or stay an extra night to leave first thing in the morning. 

Tip: Planning on snowshoe hiking? Pack a lunch for the day in your daypack, along with snacks, water, sunscreen, and sunglasses.

One of the best places to stay outside the park is Holiday Inn Express & Suites Oakhurst. It’s a brand new hotel with innovative, colorful, and artsy designs. For instance, the interior of the rooms is decorated with bright furniture, and vivid walls and each room is equipped with an interactive tv display asking about your experience in the hotel. It’s a personal touch that goes far. 

Trip Advisor rates this hotel 4.5 stars. Amenities include a complimentary breakfast buffet, an outdoor pool, fitness room, complimentary wifi, and a snack bar.

Ciara is a travel writer, health & wellness writer, certified wellness & transformative travel coach, and a world traveler who’s visited over 30 countries. Her work has been seen in USA Today, Essence, Travel Noire, and many other publications. When she’s not writing for publications or coaching, Ciara is traveling the world with her amazing husband, eating chocolate chip cookies, and writing for a wellness travel blog she founded, Wellness Travel Diaries. On her blog, you’ll find adrenaline-seeking inspiration, outdoorsy adventures, drool-worthy allergy-friendly eats, and tried and true wellness hacks.

Our annual Visit Yosemite | Madera County Visitors Guide can answer all your questions about visiting California's Gateway to Yosemite. From the park itself to the museums, wineries, art galleries and more throughout Madera County, our guide can help you plan the perfect vacation. Please note that we mail to the USA only, but anyone can download the guide.
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