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Yosemite in Winter
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The best things to do in Yosemite in winter

From skiing and snowboarding to playing in the snow with the little ones, there's plenty of fun things to do in Yosemite in the winter

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman

Winter in Yosemite may mean waterfalls are frozen and some hiking paths are impenetrable, but there’s also a more subtle magic to be found in the valley when the landscape is snow-covered and the majority of tourists have elected to stay at home. 

From skiing and snowboarding to playing in the snow with the little ones, there's plenty of fun things to do in Yosemite in the winter. And, believe us, the breathtaking beauty of Yosemite is still on full display (you might even catch an only-in-the-winter natural phenomenon). So while the roads may be a little more treacherous, there are plenty of reasons to seek out Yosemite in the winter. (It's not the top national park in the US for nothing.) 

Best things to do in Yosemite in winter

Go downhill skiing and snowboarding
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1. Go downhill skiing and snowboarding

People have been downhill skiing at Badger Pass Ski Area for nearly 100 years. In 1933, a quaint looking sled pulled by cables and called the 'Upski' constituted the first ski lift in the US. Today, five chair lifts bring riders to 10 different runs (35 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate and 15 percent advanced). Tubing takes place during two daily sessions of two hours each.

2. Try cross country skiing

There are many places in the park to ski, some with glorious groomed trails. If you go to Ostrander Lake or Glacier Point, you can stay in an overnight ski hut (wilderness permits and reservations must be booked in advance) to extend your mileage and see views of the park not found elsewhere. You can also ski at Crane Flat or in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Snowload makes skiing possible mid-December through mid-March most years; carry chains in your car in case chain control is issued.

Strap on your ice skates
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3. Strap on your ice skates

Yosemite vied to host the 1932 Olympics and the skating rink at Curry Village is testament to that unsuccessful Olympic bid. The original rink was 60,000 square feet and covered what is today’s parking lot. Although it’s smaller now, the rink is still situated in a breathtaking spot at the foot of Half Dome’s glacial face. Non-skaters can watch from the fire pit on the perimeter while prepping the hot cocoa.

4. Play in the snow

Besides the tubing hill at Badger Pass, there’s a snow play area at Crane Flat. This includes sledding hills, a wide open meadow for building snowpeople and tactical space from which to launch a serious snowball fight. This is a bring-your-own-equipment area; no sled rentals are available. Just outside the park gates is the Goat Meadow Snow Play Area, which is also an informal snow play area.

See the firefall
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5. See the firefall

If you can time your trip to the second week of February, there’s a natural phenomenon that occurs where the setting sun hits Horsetail Fall at just the right angle — like Indiana Jones in the Tanis map room — to illuminate the upper part of the waterfall for about 10 minutes. The effect is that the water looks aflame; it’s described as an almost supernatural experience. Hundreds attend, so plan in advance.

6. Hike with an expert ranger

The park rangers also lead year-round interpretive nature and history programs. And if you want to deepen the experience, the Yosemite Conservancy in association with the park offers the (expensive – but it all goes to a good cause) chance to have a personal guide customize your winter adventure. For instance, you can snowshoe or take a winter hike while exploring ecology and chatting with a knowledgeable guide. This could be especially useful for those visiting Yosemite solo. If you can’t leave home, you can do a live-streamed interactive tour.

Snap some photos
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7. Snap some photos

Famed photographer Ansel Adams considered Yosemite his muse. As a 14-year-old who saw Yosemite in a book, he convinced his parents to take him here; in later years, he was often the one who would fix the cables for Half Dome ascents. He and his wife later raised two children in the valley. Suffice to say, the park’s lighting, shadows and monumental rock faces make for incredible shots...even with cell phones. You can book photography lessons with the Ansel Adams Gallery, established by Ansel in 1902 and still in operation.

8. Take a seat on the bus tour

Yosemite offers guided bus tours year-round. In winter, the buses are (thankfully) heated and the panoramic windows let you see more than you can in your car. Park rangers narrate the two-hour tour of the Valley Floor. In summer, this same tour takes place in an open air tram. There are three other tours of varying lengths that are offered in warmer months.

Eat, drink and be merry
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9. Eat, drink and be merry

The Ahwahnee Hotel hosts three big winter events for wine and food lovers. The seven-course Bracebridge Dinner 'set' in 18th century England is a Christmas event, with four hours of music and food. It’s been held annually since 1927 and availability is limited, with less than a dozen such dinners held in December. The Vintners’ Holidays celebrates the fall wine harvest with two days of tastings, classes and a five course dinner, held in November and December. At the Chefs’ Holidays in January, California chefs give detailed demonstrations and prepare dinner. Occasionally, attendees are allowed a sneak peek into the Ahwahnee kitchens.


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