With nearly 4 million people visiting the majestic Yosemite National Park each year, it is hard to avoid the crowds. People from around the world flock here to see the soaring granite cliffs, peaceful grassy meadows, raging waterfalls and au inspiring vistas. Let’s face it, Yosemite’s unforgettable splendor is one of the reasons California is so great.
But you don’t want to wait with a heard of people, jockey to get a photo of the upper and lower Yosemite falls, or be jammed into shuttle buses like sardines in a can? Then embrace off-season travel. By making the trip during the winter months you can avoid the crowds from peak season and enjoy the untouched beauty of the park in relative solitude — as long as you pack your long underwear.
Typically blanketed by snow in February, our visit was unseasonable warm. The days started out in the cold, in low 20s but ended in the upper 50s. Most of the winter the only part of Yosemite that is open to the public is the valley floor, with the hills entombed with snow from October to May. Even in the snow, the park is easy to navigate with maintained roads and a free shuttle bus system that has multiple stops around the valley floor.
Walk to Bridalveil Falls
We started or trip on the trail to Bridalveil Falls. Sheltered from the warm sun till later in the day, the ground was frozen and almost as icy as the air. The trail was well marked, but steep given the high altitude and icy ground. Once you reach the end you gaze up to a majestic waterfall hundreds of feet tall cascading down the sheer granite face — a perfect backdrop for a family photo.
After a short drive we came to Swinging bridge which offered exceptional views of calm mirror like Merced River giving way to the raging Yosemite Falls as a back drop above.
As a side note, not everyone comes ready for the winter weather. Do yourself a favor, be prepared, layer clothing is a must, a good windproof jacket, water proof hiking type boots and something to cover your head will go a long way to make your day more enjoyable.
Let the Kids Explore the Visitor Center
If you get a little chilled, stop in at the Visitor Center. Our kids loved the interactive displays and warm air it had to offer before setting off on a long hike.
The parking lot for the visitor center is a centralized location in the valley floor for all-day parking. Do yourself a favor, find a spot and load up. With the free shuttle buses, don’t waste your time moving your car from one spot to another. Park, walk and if need be, ride the bus… you will not regret it.
Visit Lower Yosemite Falls
About ¾ of mile from the visitor center, this double waterfall is breathtaking. The power of the water, surrounded by calm nature is amazing. The trail to the falls offers great walk along the river and is easy for the little ones to handle.
Picnic Lunch at the Village
Traveling with picky eaters, we often pack the kiddos lunch. This way we avoid the missed lunch meltdowns and the trip is much more enjoyable. But for mom and dad, Degnan’s Deli at Yosemite village is open year round and offers surprisingly good sandwiches along with some of our favorite beers!
Hike to Mirror Lake
At 3.5 miles from the village, this hike is a little steep in parts and can be a slightly daunting for kids. Luckily you can ride the shuttle to the bottom of the hill and save yourself three miles of walking. Either way, your labor will be greatly rewarded. This was our favorite spot in the park. A seasonal lake, fed by snowmelt, can disappear in the summer. It’s still waters play reflecting pool to the towering granite mountains and monolithic trees in the backdrop.
Warm up at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
After a day of trekking around the park we stopped in at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel). While you can book a stay in one of it’s stately rooms, even if your not a guest you can still wander it’s ground or warm up in front of one of it’s massive fireplaces.
Find a Spot to Enjoy the Sunset
Around the second week of February (we were visiting the third week of course), the setting sun dances off the Horsetail Fall at just the right angle to illuminate the water in the color of spilling fire, glowing an orangish red at sunset.
Things to keep in mind if you’re planning a winter visit to Yosemite:
Road closures/chains – Most of the road into the park are closed and not cleared in the winter. Only Route 140 offers access year round. Also the National Park Service is serious about the chain requirements. Even if you have a Subaru, like us, or 4×4…you must carry chains if they are required. So come prepared.
Strollers – While most of the hikes open in the winter are on paved paths. But this is the wilderness. Your run of the mill stroller is probably going to make it, but it wont be pretty in some spots. Our BOB stroller rolled through it all like a champ and both kids rode when their little legs got tired.
Clothing – Keep in mind, Yosemite is a valley with steep cliffs and tall trees. As such, areas receive vastly different amounts of sunlight. Like we said before come prepared, layer up and your will have a much better time.
Phone – Cell coverage is spotty and nonexistent in some areas, so don’t rely on your phone for a map. While this may not seen like a big deal to most, we did pass some people who either haven’t used a paper map before or forgotten how it works. Needless to say many arguments we passed could have been avoided if they had either preloaded the Yosemite Valley map into the their phones, via Google maps for example or freshened up on their orienteering skills prior to coming.
Where to Stay
If you’re planning to stay overnight in the park, be prepared that you will need to make reservations months and months in advance. Unfortunately we booked too late, but we did stay in the historic gold rush town of Mariposa. Located about one hour outside the park, the town offered many restaurants and a couple of hotel options.
Consider an off-season visit to Yosemite in the winter. It offers a unique and serene experience that not many people get a chance to see or experience, and of course, we wholeheartedly recommend it!
Have you visited Yosemite in the winter? We love to connect with others, so feel free to leave us a comment and share your experiences!
(Disclosure: Burbs2Abroad traveled to the above location as guests and was not compensated for this review. As always, our opinions are our own.)