If you’re not accustomed to driving mountain roads and want to enjoy the scenery on the way to Yosemite National Park, leave the driving to the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS). Not only will you save money on gas and wear-and-tear on your car, you’ll be able to focus on the scenery instead of the road. And you’ll help reduce congestion in the park.
YARTS accesses the park year-round via Highway 140 out of Merced. In summer, buses also lead into the park from the north (service starts in Sonora) and from the east (servicing Mammoth Lakes). Each route has multiple stops, so you can get on or off at appealing gateway towns too. In Yosemite, ride the park’s free shuttles to reach all major destinations, including summer bus service to hiking in Tuolumne Meadows. For a fun car-free way to tour Yosemite Valley, rent bikes at various locations, then follow paved paths to Mirror Lake, Yosemite Falls, and other top spots.
Famous for its plunging waterfalls and massive granite faces, this unparalleled parkland, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, attracts 4 million visitors each year—with good reason. Nearly the size of Rhode Island and covering more than 1,100 square miles/284,899 hectares, it features unforgettable natural beauty, from the sheer walls of Yosemite Valley to the alpine beauty of Tuolumne Meadows.
With its iconic granite domes and spires etched in snow, and a hushed beauty that’s both intimate and wild, Yosemite National Park makes a magical—and surprisingly accessible—winter getaway. And with crowds a distant summer memory, you can relax and take time to enjoy the snowy finery.
“One of my favourite things about winter in the park is to walk around Yosemite Valley and see all of the families out building snowmen,” says Ashley Meyer, spokesperson for the park. “Some of these folks are experiencing snow for the first time—you can see the excitement in their eyes.”
But it’s by no means all DIY fun at Yosemite in winter. The park offers a full slate of seasonal activities: ranger-led snowshoe walks, special dinners, ice-skating at the valley’s Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village), winter photography workshops, and starry night sky events. Go sledding at play areas near the park’s main entrance, or take the family skiing at the park's low-key ski area, near the historic Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) at the park's south entrance.
“You can’t get much more wintry than Yosemite’s Ostrander Ski Hut, a 1941 two-story stone structure nestled in a remote glacial cirque at an elevation of 8,500 feet.”
While some high-country routes do close for the winter (usually November through June or even later in heavy snow years), you can still get to the park—especially Yosemite Valley—on well-maintained roads. If storms do blow in, you might need 4WD or tire chains, so be prepared (check current road conditions here). Another option: Ditch the winter driving entirely and catch the daily Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) bus from Merced. Once you get to the park, you can expect everything from sunny, 60° F days to blustery winter storms and plunging temperatures, so pack accordingly.
If it gets too chilly for you, head to the Valley’s interpretive center to learn about natural and human history in the region. A small theater regularly shows the short movie Spirit of Yosemite, and exhibits fill the Indian Cultural Museum. Also stop by the Ansel Adams Gallery to see works by one of California’s photographic legends.
Most lodgings in and around the park stay open year-round, with many offering special events and packages. Plan well ahead to join annual Bracebridge Dinners—holiday extravaganzas with music and feasting—at the park’s grand dame hotel, The Majestic Yosemite (formerly Ahwahnee). The Majestic Yosemite also hosts two multi-day events focusing on food and wine: Chefs Holidays and Vintners Holidays. Big Trees Lodge also stays open through winter, and it’s a great place to try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. (Snowshoe and ski rentals and lessons are available at Yosemite Cross-Country Ski School.) And you can’t get much more wintry than Yosemite’s Ostrander Ski Hut, a 1941 two-story stone structure nestled in a remote glacial cirque at elevation 8,500 feet. The hut has basic overnight accommodations and cooking facilities for up to 25 adventurers who don’t balk at the 10-mile cross-country ski or snowshoe tromp from the cross-country ski school to reach the hut. It’s so popular, in fact, that it requires a lottery system for reservations.
The commanding vista from Glacier Point, a 7,214-foot/2,199-meter granite precipice that dramatically reaches out over Yosemite Valley, takes in the park’s most famous landmarks—Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Liberty Cap, Vernal and Nevada Falls, and the surrounding High Sierra. For many park visitors, it’s the single most I-gotta-take-a-picture spot in Yosemite. Getting to Glacier Point takes about an hour by car or bus from Yosemite Valley, or you can earn the view by hiking the strenuous-but-scenic Four-Mile Trail.
Glacier Point has an outdoor amphitheater for evening ranger talks, an imposing log cabin housing a snack stand and gift shop, and a small stone building known as the Geology Hut that was built in 1924 as a trailside museum. Now it’s a near-requirement for photo opps. The hut’s framed view of Half Dome, North Dome, and the Merced River canyon is unforgettable. Come here for sunset, when Half Dome blushes pink.
Along the road to Glacier Point are nearly a dozen trailheads for easy day-hikes. Families enjoy the easy Taft Point and Sentinel Dome trails, which begin at the same parking lot but head in opposite directions. Sentinel Dome, a granite dome at 8,122 feet/2,475 meters, offers a breathtaking perspective on Yosemite Falls as part of its 360-degree panorama. Taft Point’s view is completely different: a head-on look at El Capitan and a stomach-churning view of the Yosemite Valley floor, 3,500 feet/1,067 meters below. Hold on to the railing (and your kids!) while you peer over it.
Note that Glacier Point is closed by snow, typically November to early summer, but it’s a great route for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
Among Yosemite’s many bragging rights, its waterfalls rank high. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots for Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Yosemite Falls holds the undisputed title of the tallest waterfall in North America. It’s a challenging hike to the top of the 2,425-foot/729-meter falls, but fortunately it’s an impressive view from the base to—an easy and scenic 1-mile/1.6-km loop that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Speaking of buckets, bring your rain gear April-June when snowmelt makes the falls boom, and overspray soaks much of the viewing area.
As for Yosemite’s other falls, they all have their undeniable allure. An easy walk to 620-foot/189-meter Bridalveil Falls takes you to an overlook point below its billowing cascade. A more demanding hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls ascends granite steps to the brink of two massive drops, where you can watch the entire Merced River plunge over the rocky ledge. (Adhere to all safety signs and stay behind all ropes and signs.) On the park’s south side near Wawona, Chilnualna Falls tumbles over a series of granite ledges.
To see Yosemite at its watery best, time your trip for snowmelt—usually April to June. February, however, often offers a special treat: the Firefall, which looks like a stream of orange lava flowing down the side of El Capitan. It happens at Horsetail Fall, a waterfall east of Bridalveil and Ribbon falls, whose season typically lasts from winter through early spring.
The Firefall phenomenon, which tends to happen over the course of about three weeks, literally reflects the convergence of clear skies and the right amount of snowmelt. As sunset nears, the mist catches the sun rays and creates a fabulous optical illusion that lasts up to 10 minutes, making for some dazzling pictures. Get the best views from the El Capitan Picnic Area, less than two miles from Yosemite Valley Lodge (formerly the Yosemite Lodge). Celebrate afterward with a Firefall cocktail (hot chocolate with tequila, crème de cocoa, and pasilla chile) at the lounge in the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee).
This geologic marvel, a 4,000-foot/1,220-meter-deep trough lined by towering cliffs and glacially sculpted, polished rock, is the prized jewel of Yosemite National Park. Although glacially carved valleys with similar features exist elsewhere in the world, none can compete with what legendary naturalist John Muir called “Incomparable Valley.”
"Take a seat to watch the setting sun cast its rosy glow on world-famous Half Dome"
Besides it’s natural beauty, Yosemite Valley is home to black bears, mule deer, and chipmunks—along with several hundred year-round park employees and thousands of visitors throughout the year. Newcomers may be surprised to find Yosemite Valley has a dentist’s office, jail, courtroom, auto garage, and church, as well as the more expected mix of lodgings, campgrounds, restaurants, and other guest services. For visitors, there’s no shortage of things to do. Organized activities run the gamut from ranger-led nature walks to evening theater, from ice skating to photography seminars, from Indian basket making to rock climbing lessons and river rafting. To create your own adventure, set out on one of dozens of hiking trails, pedal paved bike paths to Mirror Lake and other sites, or just take a seat to watch the setting sun cast its rosy glow on world-famous Half Dome.
One of the most photographed regions of Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows is a wide, grassy expanse bounded by high granite domes and peaks. At elevation 8,600 feet/2,627meters, pristine meadow extends for more than two miles/3.2 km along the Tuolumne River, making it the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada. From its tranquil edges, hiking trails lead in all directions—to the alpine lakes set below the spires of Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks, to a series of roaring waterfalls on the Tuolumne River, and to the summits of lofty granite domes with commanding vistas of the high country.
While Tuolumne is the cornerstone of a vast playground for hikers and backpackers, it’s also a great spot for visitors who simply want to take in the scenery. The meadow’s small visitor center, housed in a historic cabin, features exhibits that focus on the area's geology, wildflowers, and wildlife. Want to picnic? In summer, visit the highest elevation convenience shop in the state: the remarkable Tuolumne Meadows Store, with groceries, bug repellent, clothing items, maps, and guidebooks housed in a seasonal canvas tent. Under the same tent is the Tuolumne Meadows Grill, serving hearty breakfasts and lunches, including unforgettable buckwheat pancakes. Ice cream cones are big sellers on warm afternoons. Nearby, the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge offers tent-style overnight accommodations and sit-down meals.
It costs a bundle to spend the night, but there’s no charge for wandering inside, taking in the splendour of this 1920s-era hotel. This National Historic Landmark in Yosemite Valley has several “public rooms” where visitors can soak up its 1927 architecture, designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood. Everything in the Majestic Yosemit (formerly Ahwahnee) is built on a grand scale, from the massive hand-stenciled timber beams to sandstone fireplaces so large you could hold a tea party inside. Adorning this hefty structure are colourful stained-glass windows, Native American tapestries and baskets, Turkish kilim rugs, and Yosemite-inspired 19th-century paintings depicting the park’s waterfalls and giant sequoia trees.
Many famous people have slept in the Majestic Yosemite, including John F. Kennedy, Greta Garbo, Queen Elizabeth II, and Winston Churchill. It’s a worthy splurge to stay in one of its 123 rooms, suites, or cottages, but even if you don’t, you can still book a table for the sumptuous Sunday brunch at the Majestic Yosemite Dining Room, or simply sit by the fireplace in the Great Lounge, look up at the wrought-iron chandeliers dropping from the dining room’s 34-foot, richly painted ceilings, or enjoy a cocktail at the bar. Free one-hour guided tours of the Majestic Yosemite are offered throughout the year; check with the hotel's concierge desk for a current schedule.
When the Native Americans traveled between the foothills and Yosemite Valley, Wawona was the halfway point on their journey. They called it Pallachun, meaning “a good place to stay.” This Indian encampment is now the small community of Wawona, home to the historic Big Trees Lodge (formerly known as the Wawona Hotel) and a private community of mountain cabins, many available to rent. Stay overnight (to relax on the wide veranda on one of the hotel’s Adirondack chairs is a Sierra right of passage), or just spend a day in the area.
The hotel reflects its 19th century roots with lights and other details that echo the elegance of the era.
In summer, take a dip in nearby swimming holes, follow the switchbacked hiking trail to Chilnualna Falls (best in spring), get a history lesson at Pioneer Yosemite History Center (and take a horse-drawn carriage ride), and visit the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, protecting more than 500 of these spectacular (and spectacularly huge) tree. The hotel itself has a small visitor center with information on more area activities. In the evening, pianist and singer Tom Bopp performs vintage songs—from cowboy tunes to sentimental love songs—that span Yosemite's history.
Wawona is also adjacent to Yosemite National Park’s south entrance, which normally provides access to the magnificent Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. However, the grove is currently undergoing a major restoration, and no vehicle or shuttle access is allowed until the project is completed (estimated finish is fall 2017). Foot and horse traffic is allowed, but only on the grove’s Outer Loop Trail, from which a limited number of sequoias can be seen. Also, you have to hike from Big Trees Lodge to the trailhead—a strenuous all-day loop. (Ask for details at the hotel visitor center.) Fortunately, there are other giant sequoias in the park accessed via other routes: visit Tuolumne Grove, on the Tioga Road just east of Crane Flat, and Merced Grove, located on the Big Oak Flat Road east of Big Oak Flat Entrance.
Yosemite is well known as a mecca for rock climbers, but even experienced climbers can be daunted by their first glimpse at Yosemite Valley's massive vertical walls. For hands-on instruction, sign up with Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service, which conducts seminars and classes for beginning, intermediate, and advanced climbers from mid-April to October each year. Classes meet daily in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows; equipment rentals are available.
"Scan the face of massive El Capitan ('The Captain' in Spanish) to see impossibly tiny climbers ascending the almost sheer face."
If you'd rather watch rock climbers than do it yourself, head to El Capitan Meadow. Set up a camp chair and scan the face of massive El Capitan (“The Captain” in Spanish) to see impossibly tiny climbers ascending the almost sheer face. Ever since this 3,593-foot/1,095-meter rock face was first climbed successfully in the 1950s, a succession of bold adventurers have inched their way to the top. Most do it in three to five days; their nights are spent sleeping on ledges or tethered into hammocks (watch for the glimmer of their headlamps as they get ready to tuck in for the night). However, a brazen new breed of speed climbers has completed the ascent of “The Nose,” one of El Cap’s best-known climbing routes, in just a few hours. But fast isn't always the way to go. Rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made history in January 2015 when they became the first to free-climb El Cap's Dawn Wall, long considered the most difficult rock climb in the world. The remarkable feat, in which climbers only use ropes and harnesses for safety and depend solely on their strength and talent to ascend, took 19 grueling days.
Want someone else to drive you around Yosemite? Smart idea. The park offers a wide range of public transportation, from free shuttle buses to fee-based tours. Free shuttles run throughout Yosemite Valley daily (until 10 p.m. in summer), shorter hours in winter. Simply hop on the shuttles at any one of 19 stops; buses run about every 10 to 20 minutes. Free shuttle buses also access Highway 120, the Tioga Pass Road, in summer.
The park’s most popular fee-based tour is the year-round Valley Floor Tour, a two-hour, 26-mile trip through Yosemite Valley, offering easy viewing of famous sights like Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls. A guide narrates the tour while you sit in an open-air tram and enjoy unobstructed views. (In winter, the tour takes place in an enclosed bus.) Other routes access Glacier Point, Wawona, Mariposa Grove, and Tuolumne Meadows. Great tip for hikers: take the bus to Glacier Point or Tuolumne Meadows, then hike back to the valley.
To really leave the driving to someone else, consider getting to the park via public transit. The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) operates year-round on Highway 140 out of Merced, with summer service from the north in Sonora and from the east in Mammoth Lakes. Each route has multiple stops, including in gateway towns. Once you arrive at Yosemite, you can use the park’s shuttle system.
Getting to Yosemite can add a lot to your trip—if you take time to explore the historic towns on your way to the park. Many of these Gold Rush–era communities have experienced a jolt of new energy, thanks in part to the booming wine country, a new focus on farm-to-table dining and food products, and a growing interest in leaving big cities to create new lives in smaller, rural communities with strong bonds and wide-open spaces and opportunities. Here are a few worthwhile stops on the major routes into the park:
Highways 49 and 120: Visit Sonora and nearby Columbia State Historic Park, with its outstanding re-creations of Gold Rush-era life and a chance to try your hand at gold-panning. Continue south to Jamestown to board an antique steam locomotive for a ride around Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. At Highway 120, climb to the alpine town of Groveland and the Iron Door Saloon, a former post office building that has welcomed folks on their way to and from Yosemite since 1896.
Highway 120 (Tioga Pass): This spectacular drive over the Eastern Sierra and the 9,945-foot Tioga Pass leads to the trails, granite domes and wildflowers of Tuolumne Meadows. Before you start the climb east from Lee Vining, or if you are heading to the park from Mammoth Lakes (about 25 miles south on US 395), visit Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve and its otherworldly limestone formations, then tuck into a meal at one-of-a-kind Whoa Nellie Deli. Note: Highway 120 (and the deli) close for the winter, typically November to May).
Highway 41: Climb from Fresno and into rolling foothills and the Madera Wine Trail, with more than a dozen vineyards and friendly tasting rooms. Next up is Oakhurst and the remarkable Château du Sureau luxury accommodation and companion restaurant, Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant. Nearby, the justly popular Bass Lake feels a bit like a mini Lake Tahoe, with boating, fishing, and lakeside accommodation and camping. Beyond Oakhurst, Highway 41 winds and climbs 3,000 feet to tiny Fish Camp (population 59), where you can take a journey on the scenic Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Less than a mile away, at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, take in a 'cabineering' experience at one of their 50 well-appointed, two-bedroom Explorer Cabins. From Wawona, eight miles further along Highway 41, continue to El Portal and the legendary Tunnel View, a panoramic vista of Yosemite Valley that takes away the breath of even the most seasoned Sierra traveller.
Highway 140: From Merced, Highway 140 leads to the wineries of the Sierra Foothill appellation, known for its rich, chocolate-y Zinfandels. In the town of Mariposa, see a nearly 14-pound crystalline gold nugget at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. The route then follows the wild and scenic Merced River before reaching El Portal on the national park boundary.
Heading the bill each winter at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee) is the annual Bracebridge Dinners, a lavish 18th-century English Christmas celebration featuring more than 100 performers and a seven-course feast. The December show, a loose adaptation of an episode from Washington Irving's Sketch Book, has been held every year at the Majestic Yosemite since 1927. The four-hour program features music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance rituals, traditional yuletide decorations, and plentiful food, song, and mirth. The event is held for less than a dozen nights in mid- to late December, so tickets tend to sell out fast.
Other popular winter events at the Majestic Yosemite include the Grand Grape Celebration and Taste of Yosemite; for both events, the hotel’s Great Lounge is transformed into a culinary classroom. The Grand Grape Celebration—a toast to winemakers’ fall harvests with two-day sessions of wine tastings, seminars, and a gala five-course dinner—is held in November and December. At Taste of Yosemite in January and February, California's finest chefs strut their stuff during an hour-long skills demonstration; the master chefs then prepare a gala dinner for all. One of the perks for attendees is insider access to the Majestic Yosemite's kitchen. Beneath its 35-foot ceilings are culinary antiques like the original 1927 walk-in refrigerators, which were kept cool with 500-pound blocks of ice from nearby Mirror Lake.