Winter in Yosemite: Why You Should Visit Off-Season

Offbeat, Yosemite — By petedevine on December 24, 2009 at 11:32 am

To most, Yosemite National Park is a summer destination…

Grassy meadows.
Feathery waterfalls.

And it’s really a pity, because there are so many reasons to visit Yosemite National Park in the winter. During the off-season in Yosemite, it’s not uncommon to have this beautiful park virtually to yourself, whether it’s in Yosemite Valley, one of the sequoia groves or out on the snowshoe trails near Badger Pass. Check the weather forecast, bring a good map, and enjoy a simple saunter or a challenging hike on quiet trails. Read on for seven more excellent reasons to take a wintry trip to Yosemite.

1. The bears are asleep so you won’t need to worry as much about them sniffing your car for food odors. The mosquitoes are likewise long-gone so your exposed skin is safe. In the snow zone, you don’t even need to worry about dirt – your boots will come home cleaner than when you left.

2. A fresh coat of snow on the granite makes you feel like you’re walking around inside an Ansel Adams photograph. Be sure to bring your own camera, and maybe go along on a free camera walk with the Ansel Adams Gallery.

3. Badger Pass is the West’s oldest ski area; it isn’t big but it’s a great place for families to learn to ski together. Badger has free cross-country ski trails that’ll get you way out in the forest, or to the astonishing rim of Yosemite Valley. Experienced rangers lead snowshoe walks every day to show you the winter season’s natural history.

4. The park’s three groves of giant sequoias are hushed cathedrals of tranquility on winter days. You can snowshoe (or if the snow has firmed up, just hike) into any of them for a solitary pilgrimage with their immense columns. Each grove is between 1-2 miles from the pavement.

5. The high country Tioga Road and Glacier Point Roads are still open – just not to cars. Experienced and well-equipped adventurers will venture on backcountry skis to the vast wilds of Yosemite to truly get away from civilization. Backcountry huts in Tuolumne Meadows, Glacier Point and at Ostrander Lake make such outings a little easier.

6. One of California’s only outdoor ice rinks is in Curry Village, where you can skate around beneath the tremendous view up to Half Dome and warm up next to an outdoor fire.

7. In late February, (that’s right, February) the wildflowers start to emerge in the lower canyon of the Merced River below the park on Highway 140. While Badger Pass may still have 6 feet of snow, you can hike the sunny and green Hite’s Cove Trail and take in the startling color of early fiddlenecks, crane’s bill, or waterfall buttercups.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have the same experience that John Muir had when he observed, “Most delightful it is to stand in the middle of Yosemite on still clear mornings after snow-storms…

[Photos: AlexPears, thomas pix and Dawn Endico]

Tags: ansel adams, cross country, National Park, Ski, snow, tioga road, winter, Yosemite


  • Loyd says:

    There are a couple of corrections. Bears in Yosemite Valley, the destination for 95% of the people entering the park, do not hibernate. Wild flowers do not start to emerge in Yosemite until May. Most February’s there is still snow on the ground. March-April are prime times for wild flowers at lower elevations like the Merced River canyon, outside Yosemite. There are many outdoor ice rinks in California including San Francisco at Embarcadero Plaza and Long Barn along Highway 108. Might want to do a little fact checking.

  • Pete Devine says:

    Excellent points, Loyd. You are correct that no Sierra bears exhibit true biological hibernation, but most of the bears that summer in Yosemite Valley do go dormant between December-March. Any winter action varies from year to year. Biologists are keeping tabs on a handful of Valley bears that are snoring away in their dens right now; there’s been no bear activity for over a month. Last winter in the Valley there was some bear activity right through the season, though one’s chances of encountering a bear in the Valley in the winter are a fraction of summertime likelihood.
    For a state with such a warm, sunny reputation, it surprises some people that there are any outdoor rinks like those in Minnesota, Quebec or Maine. Again, you’re right that there are maybe 15-20 ‘outdoor rinks’ in California; just a few are open to the sky in a natural setting.
    The late February wildflowers in the lower Merced Canyon are also a surprise and a delight to many people from out of state. The contrast of deep snow half an hour’s drive from colorful blooms is impressive. They do start in the winter but you’re right that spring has more abundant flowers.
    I have always enjoyed reading your blog and genuinely appreciate your points on these items – thank-you!

  • pam says:

    Reader corrections aside, I did several winter trips to Yosemite with pals when I was in college and we always had an AMAZING time. It’s so beautiful and quiet and the snowshoeing at Badger Pass is swell. What you said, pretty much. A great idea.


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