Most park visitors arrive between May and September, making winter a special time to visit Yosemite. With fewer crowds, you can better enjoy the solitude of the valley when it’s covered in a blanket of snow, with icy waterfalls and craggy Sierra Nevada peaks rising all around. Although the park’s roads over Tioga Pass, to Glacier Point and into Mariposa Grove are all closed from late fall through early spring (opening dates vary by location and year), you can still visit the Yosemite Valley, Badger Pass, and Wawona year-round.
The valley is a buzzing hive of activity, even during the coldest winter months. The Ahwahnee grand hotel hosts some grand holiday celebrations, including the Renaissance-style Bracebridge Dinners in mid-December and the 1920s art-deco Heritage Holidays in early March.
Over at Curry Village, an ice-skating rink opens for families within view of Half Dome. Some of the valley’s waterfalls flow year-round, too, including Yosemite Falls, North America’s highest waterfall. In winter, an ice cone forms at the base of the famous falls.
Other delicate waterfalls can only be glimpsed during winter, for example Horsetail Fall, which often reflects a sunset glow in late February, making it look as if the falls are on fire. Strap on a pair of snowshoes and you can go exploring almost anywhere on the valley floor during winter, including out to frozen Mirror Lake, a two-mile round trip. Ranger-guided activities also happen during winter, including nature walks and evening interpretive programs at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.
Badger Pass is the park’s main hub for snow sports. It’s reached via a winding six-mile drive up Glacier Point Road from the Chinquapin intersection, south of the valley. If you’re driving yourself, bring snow tires and chains, or instead take the free twice-daily shuttle bus up from the valley. Winter storms may also close Badger Pass to vehicles; call (209) 372-0200 to check road conditions and (209) 372-1000 for an updated snow report before setting out.
Generations of families have learned to ski at Badger Pass, where chair lifts rise over a small downhill skiing area. Lessons for skiers of all skill levels are available, as are rental equipment, lockers, restrooms, and a small snack bar inside the warming hut.
A nearby cross-country ski center keeps busy by renting skiing and inner-tubing equipment, giving ski lessons, and guiding backcountry trips for cross-country skiers of all ages. Radiating out from Badger Pass, cross-country ski trails lead to mountain summits and granite domes, across snowy meadows, and to scenic lookouts over the Yosemite Valley.
The most popular cross-country ski trek is the 21-mile round trip out to Glacier Point, where rustic overnight dormitory-style accommodations and meals are available by advance reservation. For expert backcountry skiers only, Ostrander Lake ski hut is an exciting, but much more challenging cross-country ski trip.