Yosemite in the Winter
Why you should consider traveling to Yosemite National Park in the wintertime to beat the crowds
A trip to Yosemite National Park is a must for anyone visiting California. Most people think visiting the park in the spring or summer is best because of its greenery, but with the green and the wildflowers brings swarms of people—literally, tour buses full of camera-toting tourists in such large droves that those picturesque shots you’ve got in your mind are bound to be interrupted by several dozen people at any given time.
Sure, it’s stunning in the high season. But don’t write off a trip to Yosemite in the winter just because it’s cold. The cold steers away a ton of people, which is one of the many reasons I say winter is the best time to travel.
We were in Yosemite earlier this week, and let me tell you: it was so beautiful. I've been to Yosemite several times (since I grew up just a couple hours away), but it's been a long time so I was excited to go back. One thing that always stuck out in my mind was how busy the park always was in the spring and especially the summer. It felt like Disneyland, with parking lots a mile long, tour buses full of tourists, and swarms of people waiting to get their coveted photos.
It never felt much like a national park to me with that many people in it. You could never really experience the nature, hear the birds chirping, or get lost in a secluded area (unless you hiked pretty far in). And this was all way before Instagram, so there are way more people now. The crowds were always a huge downside to me, so I thought it might be nice to see it in the winter, without all the people. It was amazing.
I don’t know the statistics, but judging from the parking lots, campsites and people on the trailheads, Yosemite had to have had only 10-20% of the amount of people it has in the summer when we were there. It was magical not having to fight the crowds to see sites like Lower Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome and El Capitan.
Yes, it was cold, but the morning cold coupled with the warmth of the valley floor created an eerie mist that was simply stunning and like nothing you could ever see in the summertime. We even got a dusting of snow, which only made the scenery more beautiful. So don’t write off traveling to Yosemite in the wintertime—you just might like it better.
Since none of them are all that close, you’ve got several options for airports to fly into if you’re flying into California to get to Yosemite. The closest international airport is actually the Fresno Yosemite Airport, though it’s likely that you won’t have a nonstop flight in. Just 122 miles from Yosemite, Fresno is technically your closest option. The next closest, Reno-Tahoe International Airport, is geographically pretty close, but not your best option in the wintertime due to snowy conditions likely affecting your ability to go over the mountain pass. Oakland and Sacramento airports are both about 180 miles, with San Jose just 10 miles further, at 190.
What you’ve likely gathered already is that there’s really no way around renting a car to get to Yosemite. Unless you’ve joined a tour group—which, as you know I’m going to say, is not what I’d recommend—your going to need your own set of wheels. Note that the kind of vehicle you rent is going to be important depending on where you’ve chosen to stay.
Where to Stay
You’ve essentially got five lodging options for sleeping in Yosemite: one very expensive hotel, a few mid-priced lodges, Curry Village tent cabins, RV camping or tent camping. Let’s start with the most expensive and go down the line to the cheapest:
Yosemite’s most boujie option is The Ahwahnee hotel, a stunning stone structure built in the 1920s that boasts service rivaling that of a Four Seasons or Rosewood property, with a price tag to match of course. Nights at the Ahwahnee range between about $400 (if you’re lucky) and upwards of $2,000 a night. When we checked for the week of Christmas (the low season, but higher in price because of the holiday), the rates were over $2,000 a night.
If the Ahwahnee is out of your budget, don't fret—there are plenty of more affordable options. Popular options are the Yosemite View Lodge, the Yosemite Valley Lodge, and the Tenaya Lodge & Cottages.
For a more “authentic” experience—their words, not mine—according to Yosemite’s website you can stay in a humble canvas tent cabin that allows you the opportunity to sleep in a tent without having to lug all your own gear in. This option is great for international travelers looking to have the camping experience without having to go out and buy or rent all your camping gear. Don’t get confused and think this is glamping though—these tents offer only the basics and have shared bathrooms, just like if you were pitching your own tent in a campsite. According to Yosemite’s website, if you’d like to reserve one of these, they suggest booking 10-12 months in advance since they apparently book up rather quickly.
This is the option we chose, and I’m very happy with it. Unless you own your own RV, this option could actually end up being one of the more expensive options, as RV rentals can range anywhere from $200 to $500 per night. For us this option made sense though, because we not only brought our dogs but wanted the freedom to stay in a variety of different places on a longer road trip.
We rented a 25’ Mercedes Coachmen through a company called RV Share. Think VRBO but for RVs instead of homes. RV Share allows people to rent privately owned RVs with a damage deposit, insurance and a nightly rental fee.
Though there aren’t any traditional RV parks inside Yosemite with full or even partial hookups, RV campers can reserve a spot at any of Yosemite’s campgrounds that have slabs (which is most of them. Yosemite has 10 campgrounds that can accommodate RVs and trailers of varying lengths, and the nightly rate is $26. See below for more information on campgrounds.
The cheapest option, of course, is tent camping. As long as you’ve already got camping gear, all this is going to cost you is just $26 a night for a camping space at one of Yosemite’s several campgrounds. The Upper Pines campground is always open in the winter, and depending on the season you’ll also get to choose between North Pines, Lower Pines, and Camp 4—all of which are inside the Yosemite Valley.
Other camping options are Wawona, Bridalveil Creek, Hodgdon Meadow, Crane Flat, Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, Porcupine Flat and Tuolumne Meadows, though most of these are typically closed in the winter. Not to worry though—very few people choose to camp in Yosemite in the winter, so you likely won’t be vying for coveted spots. Even during the busy week of Christmas, we didn’t have any trouble getting a reservation. Do reserve online just in case though—you can make your reservations online at nps.gov.
Another popular option in Yosemite of course is overnight backpacking. With nearly 95% of Yosemite designated as wilderness, hikers can backpack into the mountains and sleep at a location of your choosing. Note, however, that you’ll still require a wilderness permit.
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