Last month was my 30th birthday! I’ve always loved birthdays, and since this was a big one I wanted to do something special (more special than Dairy Queen ice cream cake). So, of course, Tara and I decided to go on a road trip adventure. And what’s a better adventure than visiting Yosemite in winter?
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Using her Groupon prowess, Tara found us an amazingly spacious loft in Yosemite. This fit in perfectly with our ongoing plans to explore California, though I must admit, I was a little worried about going to Yosemite in winter. I’ve heard plenty of stories about the snnowstorms that plague the Sierras, and it is an El Niño year.
It didn’t help that we were told to bring snow chains for our tires.
That said, Tara and I aren’t the sort to turn away from an adventure. We certainly aren’t going to let a little snow stop us. When the time came, we packed up our car (and shiny new snow chains) and road tripped the five hours from Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park.
Now, I’ve been to Yosemite once before, way back in 2005. That particular visit was a day trip with my family in the middle of June. I quickly discovered that the park is a different place in the wintertime. It was cold, of course, and the snow chains were definitely well-advised.
It was also breathtaking the raw sort of way only national parks can be. Like many (most?) of the National Parks in the U.S. there’s something to be said for visiting them at different times of year. Yosemite was no exception.
Yosemite in Winter: Advantages and Activities
Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when visiting Yosemite in the winter. Some of the roads are closed, and it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the weather. Chains are more of a requirement than a recommendation (though if you have a four-wheel drive car with snow tires you can get away chain-free).
Once you’re properly prepared, you can take advantage of the park’s wintertime benefits.
The crowds are thin
The park’s busy season is, predictably, the warmer summer months. Without the risk of blizzard, crowds flock to the park from all over the world.
While visiting Yosemite in winter does mean in increased risk in snow (we actually ended up hunkering down in the lodge for a night as a snowstorm blew through), you won’t be run over by tour buses as you explore.
There may still be the occasional crowd, and we did see a several groups of tourists out and about, but they won’t be nearly as overwhelming as during the summer months. This means that even the most frequented sights, like the Yosemite Valley Tunnel Overlook, Bridalveil Falls, and Yosemite Falls, are easy to access.
The park entrance was eerily quiet. No long line to enter here.
The hiking is cool (literally)
Even in California the summers can get a bit warm and, lately, there’s the drought to consider. The warmer, drier summer months mean an increased risk of fire. Yosemite hasn’t been spared from the wildfires that ravage the California wilderness.
By visiting in the winter you’re more likely to encounter cool, wet weather. This means you’ll break less of a sweat on your hike. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to the weather patterns. Sudden rain or snowstorms could hinder your trek, and some trails may be closed.
The trail to Inspiration Point was more of a river…
The slopes are powdered
Did you know that Yosemite is home to California’s oldest ski resort? Neither did I.
The Badger Pass Ski Area was first opened in 1935 and continues to operate high above the Yosemite Valley. The resort remains one of the biggest draws to Yosemite in winter.
When going up to Badger Pass, the altitude change is definitely noticeable. Down in the valley there was no snow, and the sun was shining. After crawling up the mountain a few thousand feet (snow chains definitely required) this was the scene:
The road up is windy, but relatively well-maintained given how frequently it is accessed in the winter. It’s worth the trek to the top, and not just for the views and the downhill skiing. In addition to the slopes, you can go cross-country skiing, snow tubing, and snowshoeing. The prices are reasonable, and the snow seems to be pretty consistent, regardless of what it looks like down in the valley.
While we didn’t have time to hit the slopes on this trip, we definitely plan on returning to tackle the winter-specific activities.
The scenes are breathtaking
You can’t visit Yosemite without being in complete and total awe of the scenery. Of course, there is nothing more breathtaking than the view of Yosemite Valley itself — and this is no exception during the winter months.
It’s easy to see why this place inspired John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless patrons over the years. There is something about this park that gives me chills. It is beauty in its most natural, unrefined form.
Since it is wintertime, and the mountains tend to be snowier, the effect is that the waterfalls are flowing in full force. The entire valley is full of the thunder of them, and everywhere you look you can see white water cascading down granite slopes.
I’m definitely glad we made the trip to Yosemite in winter. It was really special, seeing the park from a completely different point of view, and the perfect celebration of my 30th birthday.
And, as an added bonus, we can now totally rock snow chains.