Photo by Chris Falkenstein
Courtesy of Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau
Snow intensifies the silence in Yosemite.
With snow blanketing the valley and tour buses a distant memory, winter brings a special calm to California’s famous national park.
Yosemite National Park is many things to many people across the seasons. In spring, families hike among the wildflowers and waterfalls reach their gushiest potential. Summer brings campers, day trippers, and climbers. In fall, leaf-peepers witness the black oaks, bigleaf maple, and dogwoods turn various shades of yellow. Winter sees snow enthusiasts dust off the skis and snowshoes.
But high days and holidays bring humanity—in abundance. Lodgings book up, the few roads fill with cars, and you end up seeing more tail lights than stars. Hell is other people in front of you at the entrance gates.
When I visited in early May a few years before the pandemic, I stayed at one of the few hotels in the valley and spent 30 minutes looking for a parking spot. I can’t think of another time I couldn’t park outside my own hotel.
Yosemite is worth visiting in the winter for many reasons—430,038 of them, in fact. That was the visitor count for August 2021, compared to 67,284 recreational visits in January 2021, according to the National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics report.
As John Muir wrote, 130-odd years ago: "Only by going along in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness." I just got back from a long weekend in the park over MLK weekend in January 2022 and discovered many ways to enjoy the park without the crowds.
First up, enjoy the drive. Take your time. Travel slowly—you won’t get nearly as many tailgaters. Stop at empty view points. Enjoy the crisp air; the only wisps of smoke we saw in the area were from prescribed backyard burns on private land outside the park.
Head out onto some empty trails. You can absolutely hike in Yosemite in the winter. The valley’s altitude is less than 4,000 feet and easy walks include the 7.2- (or 11.5-mile) Yosemite Valley Loop Trail, the easy 2-mile Mirror Lake Trail, and the Wapama Falls Trail, which follows along the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. I tackled a portion of the Chilnaulna Falls Trail on my own near dusk—only to find a sign warning against exactly that due to a recent sighting of a mountain lion. The feeling of isolation was palpable.
Another Yosemite classic we had completely to ourselves on the final morning in January: the park’s largest meadow, Wawona Meadow. Seeing such a vast expanse of snow totally bereft of people was unforgettable.
If you like downhill or cross-country skiing, snowboarding, or tubing, head to Badger Pass Ski Area, where the ski school has been running since 1928. This season it opened in late December and is expected to close in early April. Lessons are first come, first served, so get there 60-90 minutes before it opens. On our trip, we arrived at 8 a.m. and got the last two spots in the ski school for a morning of skiing before burgers at the slopeside cafe.
Just outside the park is Goat Meadow Snow Play Area, a top spot for sledding and snowman building among the pines. There are no facilities aside from portable toilets and a ranger facilitating access at the gate. We went twice. On the weekend it was one-in-one-out and a five-minute wait to get it; on the weekday there were just four other cars.
A trip to the nearby town of Mariposa, which was first settled in 1849, is worth the 42-mile drive from Yosemite’s south entrance at any time of the year. Here you’ll find the oldest continually operating courthouse this side of the Mississippi (stick that in your Jeopardy! brain bank) as well as the Mariposa Museum and History Center. We had the place entirely to ourselves, affording our kids the chance to explore exhibits on Native American history and the Gold Rush and fill out their investigation booklet in peace. Some things like the blacksmithing demonstration weren’t happening, but we got a private peek into the vault full of local historic records with the curators.
Up the hill, the brand new Yosemite Climbing Museum is full of photos of the brave pioneers who have spent their lives scaling the valley’s rocks. The inaugural exhibition looks at climbing through the ages, from the 1930s to the 1970s, with vertigo-inducing photographs and some stunning landscape shots, examples of climbing gear, and a look at female climbers in the region.
December to February are the coldest months, with temperatures generally ranging from around 28 to 50 Fahrenheit.
There’s a small element of risk in planning a trip at this time of the year. Roads may be closed, parking lots might be too snowy or icy (two rangers had to push my car out of its spot). Or, as in our case in December 2021, a winter storm might knock the power out, forcing the cancellation of our three-night reservation—just as we were packing our snow chains in the trunk.
Flexibility is key, and admittedly that’s easier for in-state road trippers and those without kids, work, or other commitments. But travel plans can be disrupted at other times of the year too, mostly of late with wildfires forcing partial closures.
It’s also worth noting that even in the winter, national holidays bring crowds. At Badger Pass Ski Area we met a couple who live in nearby Fish Camp outside the park. They tried to visit on New Year’s Day but eventually turned around from the line at the entrance gate. In February, it also attracts photographers aiming for that perfect shot of Horsetail Fall’s “firefall” phenomenon when light strikes the waterfall, making it look like hot lava.
Your best bet is probably a rental home. We stayed in a recently renovated three-bedroom house at The Redwoods at Yosemite in Wawona inside the park, one of 125 lodgings spread across several streets in the area. Surrounded by oak and cedar trees and with lots of decks for getting snow gear off, it was a comfortable and cozy spot.
Book now: The Redwoods in Yosemite
If you’re looking for a hotel, try Tenaya Lodge near the south entrance. Here, two-bedroom Explorer Cabins offer 560-square-foot lodgings. Due to “unplanned staffing challenges” some of the dining and spa options were limited at time of writing.
Book now: Tenaya Lodge
In Yosemite Valley itself, the Ahwahnee is the finest hotel in the park, a National Historic Landmark offering all the history, architecture, and amenities you’d expect from a luxury national park hotel. (NB: It’s closed for renovations between January and March 2023). Yosemite Valley Lodge nearby is more affordable and features several dining options and an easy hike to Yosemite Falls—the tallest waterfall in the U.S.
Book now: The Ahwahnee
Book now: Yosemite Valley Lodge
>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to Yosemite
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