Unquestionably, my favorite time of the year to visit Yosemite is in the winter, especially after a recent dusting of snow. There is just something magical about the way light glistens off the granite walls dressed in snow. All I can remember about my first trip is just how beautiful everything looked and being mesmerized of how much the valley transforms in winter. Although visiting in winter does present its challenges, those who brave the cold and sometimes harsh weather conditions are rewarded with significantly less crowds and a chance to see what few do.
Looking up at Stanford, Dewey and Crocker Points covered in a light dusting after an early November snowstorm
Last light on Yosemite Falls as a light mist lingers
By late November, many of the park roads are closed for the season. Both Tioga Pass (Route 120) and Glacier Point Road are normally closed, eliminating the ability for car access to some of Yosemite’s more famous vistas.
The only options to drive into Yosemite during winter include Big Oak Flat Road (120) from the north, El Portal (140) from the west, and the 41 through Fish Camp from the south, all of which lead you into Yosemite Valley.
Always be sure to check the driving conditions before heading out. Chains can become mandatory at any time, even if you are driving a 4WD vehicle. Conditions can be found at https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/conditions.htm.
As far as lodging is concerned, the only front country campgrounds that are open include Camp 4 and Upper Pines. Outside of camping, your other lodging options include the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel), Yosemite Lodge & Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village).
For more information on lodging options, visit https://www.travelyosemite.com/.
Photography Around the Valley
Shooting in the valley during winter is much like any other trip to Yosemite. While your favorite spots will still be there, winter presents a different set of challenges with icy roadways and snow covered hiking trails. Here are some tips to help you navigate Yosemite in winter:
- Remember, the days are shorter so try and make the most of them.
- Search for unique foregrounds and compositions in the winter. You can find ice formations in parking lots, downed trees covered in snow and cool frost patterns along the Merced River.
- The further back into the Valley you go, the colder it becomes. The back portion of the Valley also sees less sunlight, particularly near Mirror Lake, which is not much of a lake during the winter. Because of this, there is also more snow and icy towards the back of the Valley.
- If you are planning on hiking around, it’s a good idea to have a set of micro spikes and waterproof shoes. If you attempt to go on the Mist Trail, it will be extremely icy and the micro spikes are definitely helpful! Other trails such as the 4 Mile Trail and Upper Yosemite Falls trail may be either icy or snow covered, where snowshoes may be necessary. Usually, the 4 Mile Trail closes in January roughly 3 miles up right before you reach Union Point.
- In early winter mornings, you can see and hear the ice cracking around Yosemite Falls.
- The best part of winter for many is the fog and mist that lingers throughout the valley. Sometimes it’s good to start your day off at Tunnel View and check out how the fog is lingering, then make your way to the areas it is at.
Late winter storms over the valley
Calm mornings and the Three Brothers
Yosemite Falls shrouded in a winter coat
Sunrise at Valley View
Season water fall, seen from Tunnel View
Vernal Falls in winter
Half Dome reflections in the Merced River
Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge
Photography in the Backcountry
In my opinion, the real winter magic in Yosemite happens in the backcountry. If you’re willing to don skis and/or snow shoes, you can explore areas in a completely different perspective that few very rarely experience. Here are a few tips for exploring Yosemite’s winter backcountry:
- With very few exceptions, any summer trail can also be backpacked in the winter so long as you have the proper equipment and skills.
- Upper Yosemite Falls and Snow Creek Trail are usually open and can be taken to leave the valley – sometimes you will have to don snow shoes and/or micro spikes, but they’ll be passable nonetheless. Trails along the south rim are more questionable as that side receives less light and therefore the snow and ice accumulates – most notably, the 4 Mile Trail closes in January about 3 miles up right before Union Point. You are advised to not continue on, unless you have actual climbing experience as part of the trail passes an avalanche chute that may require crampons and an ice axe to cross safely.
- If you’re a skier, or even if you’re not, there are cross-country ski trails on Glacier Point Road. You can rent equipment at Badger Pass located along the Glacier Point Road. From here, there are many different trails you can take. Picture wise, these will likely all be day time images (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). For the willing, toss in a night out to truly have a one-of-a-kind photography experience. I’ve included some options below, but remember, this is winter so unlike summertime where there are established trails over years of usage, trail has to be broken in the winter and even if someone has gone before you, new snow may fill them in.
Sunrise over Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls from Taft Point in winter
Winter at Taft Point
Clark Range bathed in alpen glow
Winter pano from Glacier Point
|Destination||Mileage (one-way from Badger Pass)||Mileage (round trip)|