Visiting Yosemite in the Winter

Last week when I wrote about the natural “firefall” that occurs each February in Yosemite National Park, I promised to tell you a little more about what it’s like to run around in the park in the middle of the winter. Well, here it is!

Yosemite National Park is open year round, and while over 4 million visitors enter the park each year, only 3% of them visit during each of the winter months of December, January, and February. This compares with 16% and 17% respectively during July and August, the busiest months. While not everyone has the luxury to visit any time of the year, due to children’s summer vacation schedules and other constraints, those who do have the flexibility should consider a trip during less congested months. Shoulder seasons can be quite pleasant, and some are of the opinion that May is the best month for a Yosemite visit. I’ve been there in May and I highly recommend this as a great time to visit Yosemite Valley, which gets cold in the winter and oppressively hot in the summer. May is also a great time to see a “moonbow”, which I described in an earlier post.

But suppose you want to see Yosemite as a winter wonderland? How accessible is the park, and what do I need to know?

I’ve been to Yosemite twice in the middle of winter, once in January and once in February. What’s most important to note is what’s open and what’s not, particularly the roads. Most commonly closed in Yosemite in the winter are Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road. The Tioga Road closing is more significant, as it seals off access to the park from the east. Both closures mean that the higher elevations in the park cannot be reached by automobile. But if you arrive from the west, all of Yosemite Valley is accessible, as well as the lower elevation roads and the Badger Pass ski area. But be sure to carry tire chains in your car, even with four-wheel or all-wheel drive. The park rangers will check!

A practical question I had on my first trip was, what to do about chains for a rental car? Rental car companies near the Bay Area, where you are most likely to rent your vehicle, are no help. But the problem is easy to solve. NAPA Auto Parts in Mariposa, CA, will sell you tire chains, then buy them back on your way out, minus a rental fee. Problem solved! I think they’ll buy them even if you have to use them, but I’ve never had them out of the box.

So what about lodging or camping? That’s not a problem, either. Most lodging is open in the winter, and the rates are good. I’ve stayed in both a traditional cabin and a canvas tent cabin at Curry Village. Last year I brought my own tent and camped on the snow in Camp 4, a year-round, first-come, first-served campground popular with climbers. At only $5 a night and virtually empty in the winter, Camp 4 is quite the bargain! It’s also right next to the Yosemite Lodge, which means it’s close to the food court, restaurant, and lounge that are part of the property. Housekeeping Camp is closed in the winter, but their Laundromat is available year round. Add shower facilities at Curry Village and you have everything you need to “rough it” in Yosemite in the winter!

Fog on Snowfield, Yosemite National Park, California

Early morning fog drifts across a meadow, in Yosemite National Park, California.

Your experience will vary greatly depending on the weather. My first winter trip to Yosemite, timed to coincide with the natural “firefall” mentioned earlier, involved plunge-stepping through knee deep snow to get to the suggested location to photograph the “firefall”. My second winter trip in January of 2013 was completely different. While I did have to camp on hard-packed snow, it did not snow at all during my visit. In fact, it rained quite a bit, which meant that typical winter wonderland photography was out of the question. However, the light was amazing, and I was able to get one of my favorite Yosemite images on this trip.

Because the low light coming through the smog of the San Joaquin Valley in winter at sunset is so incredibly orange in color, it baths El Capitan and other granite faces in the most amazing light. Add to that the fact that the deciduous California black oak trees have no leaves in the winter, and this type of image is possible. It doesn’t look like a familiar winter scene, but it would not be possible at other times of the year.

Winter Light on El Cap, Yosemite National Park, California

Late afternoon light paints the huge wall of El Capitan, as viewed through the bare branches of a black oak tree, in Yosemite National Park, California.

Another thing you can only see in the winter is a crow playing in the snow. This guy and his friend were playing keep-away with this stick, running, jumping, and even rolling down a hill like a couple of kids!

Crow with Icy Stick, Yosemite National Park, California

A crow plays with a stick in the snow, in Yosemite National Park, California.

While I was waiting for the right light to hit El Cap and was watching and photographing the crows at play, I had the pleasure of chatting with the wife of the Yosemite chaplain. She is also an avid photographer, and was standing on the edge of the Merced river with the rest of us photographers, watching the light change. I told her one of my goals was to photograph the Yosemite chapel after a heavy snow, while it was still decorated for Christmas. She told me I’d better get there before New Years Day, because that’s when the decorations come down.

I mentioned all of this to a Yosemite local the next day, and he filled me in on a little local folklore. You see, it seems that the chaplain was believed to be the inspiration for Ned Flanders of The Simpsons. I suspect he’s just a nice guy with the right glasses, because I can’t find any sources to corroborate this. On the other hand, rumor has it that his cousin was a writer for the show. Hmm….

Yosemite Falls Winter Reflection, Yosemite National Park, California

A somewhat frozen Yosemite Falls is reflected in the Merced River on this sunny winter morning, in Yosemite National Park, California.

Well, that’s enough false rumors for one week. I hope both of my readers have a wonderful holiday season, and for the most part stay out of jail.

Merry Christmas!

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2 Responses to “Visiting Yosemite in the Winter”

  1. Lorraine says:

    Beautiful winter! Merry Christmas, Ed!!

  2. myra says:

    Hi Ed
    I am mesmerized by the pictures, especially the one of the crow.
    They are masters of using tools to forge for food.

    Merry Christmas to you.