How to enjoy wintertime in Yosemite

I always feel lucky to spend a weekend in Yosemite, but certainly extra lucky to check out this beautiful place in the off season - winter! I did initially imagine a weekend filled with frolicking in the snow, cross country skiing, and cozying up by a fire. However, it has been a rather dry winter here in California and this was not to be my experience.

Fortunately, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Balmy weather in the winter means that trails are open but are quiet and free from the crowds that normally descend on the Valley in the summer.

Here are some tips and a brief itinerary on how to visit Yosemite this winter. Scroll to the end to get a handy map to take on your next adventure!

Getting there: You can drive, but we actually took Amtrak from the Bay Area. It turned out to be affordable and easy, and removed any potential hassle or hazards of driving in the winter or finding parking in the Valley. Trains depart from Emeryville station or the Richmond BART and transfer to a bus in Merced. Learn more on Amtrak’s website.

Early morning waiting for the train to Yosemite from Emeryville station.

Accommodations: We stayed at the Yosemite Valley Lodge, which felt quite luxurious compared to our usual camping setups. Especially in winter, it is nice to return to a heated room with hot showers after a long day! Plus, the people who work there are super friendly and helpful, doing things like accommodating early check in and baggage holding.

The following itinerary is for a long weekend but can be adjusted for a shorter visit:

Saturday

If you take the early train, you can be in the park before 2pm. With a few hours to go before sundown, take advantage of visiting the awe inspiring Yosemite Falls across the street from the Yosemite Valley Lodge. There is a short loop that takes you right up to where the water comes pounding down on the rocks below. For the brave, you can scramble up some of the boulders and feel the awakening cold mist on your face from the falls.

View of Yosemite Falls.

Next, hop on the Yosemite shuttle and head over to Mirror Lake. There is peacefully wooded two mile out and back paved trail to the lake. Catch the sunset behind the granite cliffs reflecting off of the crystal clear waters below. For even more zen, explore the unofficial cairn garden with a hundred or so rock formations. Grab some pebbles and add to the collection!

For dinner, bring your own from home (the Lodge has mini fridges in every room and a microwave in the gift shop) or visit the Valley Lodge’s two main dining options. The Yosemite Valley Food Court is quick and casual fare while the Mountain Room takes reservations and is more refined.

Sunday

Wake up early, drink some coffee while observing the morning mist in the valley meadow, then hit the trails! There are so many fantastic hikes you can try that start in the valley. The best part of visiting Yosemite in the winter is the trails are far less crowded. On the hike we did, we saw only a handful of hikers the entire time!

My favorite Valley hike: the 13.3 mile Panoramic Trail Loop. Start hiking up the Mist Trail past Vernal and Nevada Falls, then loop around the mountain taking in incredible views of the back of Half Dome as well as views of almost all of the waterfalls in the valley. Enjoy lunch by Illouette Falls before making the trek up to the top of Glacier Point, where exist the best views of Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and the Eastern Sierra mountain range. Finally, hike down the 4 mile trail (deceptively named) and take in views of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and the Merced River. Make sure to carry at least 3 liters of water and snacks for the journey. Hiking poles are recommended, and note that most bathrooms along the trail are closed for the winter season.

Alternate approaches: If Panoramic is more miles than you want to plan for, you can split it up and just do out and backs on the Mist Trail to see the waterfalls (approximately 5.4 miles) or the 4 mile trail (9.6 miles) to see the staggering vistas. In the summer, the shuttle up to Glacier Point runs which could save you 4.8 miles of hiking (in exchange for 50 miles of driving), but in the winter this isn’t an option. [Editor’s Note: the 4 mile trail is actually 4.8 miles each way].

Other great day hikes in the valley:

Yosemite Falls Trail: This is a 7.2 mile out and back hike with incredible views the whole way as well as up-close-and-personal experiences with Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.

Valley Floor Loop: This is a flat hike around the valley floor, allowing you access to views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, and the Merced River. If you do the entire loop it is 11.2 miles, or you can cut it in half to 7.2 miles.

Views along the Valley Floor Loop.

When you are tuckered out, take a hot shower and then grab a beer at the Mountain Room Lounge. They also have incredible German style pretzels with cheese dip and a big fire to sit by!

If you are still hungry, check out dinner at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (reservations required and dress code enforced). Eating there feels a bit like what I imagine dinner at Hogwarts is like. Towering windows, tall candles, a pianist and rustic chandeliers.

Dinner at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

Monday

If you want to maximize your day, you can take the late afternoon train back home, leaving the valley around 4pm. Some fun activities to enjoy during that time:

  1. Visit the Ansel Adams Photo Gallery and Gift Shop where you can enjoy framed photographic masterpieces that are yours for the purchasing (for a few thousands of dollars each!).

  2. Walk or meditate along the Merced River. Bring some binoculars to check out the nature or play eye-spy to see if there are any rock climbers ascending El Capitan!

  3. Rock climb (or observe) climbing in world famous Camp 4. Here, you’ll find brave souls bouldering in and around the campsite or you can read some of the plaques remembering the rich climbing history of the area.

  4. Cozy up by the fire in Degnan’s Kitchen where you can grab pizzas, soups, and sandwiches. There’s also free wifi!

It's hard to go wrong on a visit to Yosemite, as there is so much to see and all of it is beautiful. Even after many visits, it is one of my favorite places to explore. Happy adventuring!

 Enjoy the map below that illustrates the highlights mentioned in this post.