Yosemite – The Other Three Seasons

Photo by Adam Blauert

Photo by Adam Blauert

Yosemite National Park

The vast majority of Yosemite’s visitors arrive during the summer months.  With comfortable weather, stunning waterfalls, kids out of school, and snow gone from roads, campgrounds, and trails, it’s not hard to guess why. 

Summertime in Yosemite draws visitors from around the world – so many, in fact, that Yosemite Valley becomes one of the most international places in California.

Spring Yosemite Falls - Photo by Adam Blauert

Spring Yosemite Falls - Photo by Adam Blauert

It also becomes one of the most crowded.  Despite the overwhelming popularity of the summer months, each season has surprises to offer. 

Better yet, accommodations and parking are easier to obtain and the infamous traffic jams are virtually nonexistent during the fall, winter, and spring.

The park undergoes dramatic transitions between each season – fall leaves, winter snow, and the bright green of spring all offer beautiful surprises for visitors. 

If you choose to visit in one of the “off” seasons, here are some of the special activities and sights that await you:

Fall:  Autumn colors

Fall Oak Leaves on Snow
Fall Oak Leaves on Snow

Fall leaves:  Quaking aspen groves in Lee Vining Canyon, just outside the park’s Tioga Pass Entrance turn bright yellow, gold, and orange from the middle to end of October.  Oaks inYosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy turn yellow orange towards the end of October. 

Their leaves carpet the ground and often provide striking contrast to early snows.  Dogwoods inYosemite Valley and the sequoia groves turn brilliant shades ranging from yellow to red about the same time.

Fall Early Snow Wawona Hotel - Photo by Adam Blauert

Fall Early Snow Wawona Hotel - Photo by Adam Blauert

Trails and backpacking

Most trails remain open until the first major snowfall.  After that they may be accessed on snowshoes or cross-country skis. Tuolumne Meadows and Glacier Point:  No services are available in these areas, but the roads remain open until closed by snow. Backpacking is still an option if you are prepared with gear for cold weather.  The lower elevations of the park make some of the best destinations.  Overnight parking is prohibited on the Tioga Road after October 14th to lessen the danger of backpackers getting caught in early snows.

Golf in Wawona

The 9-hole course remains open until closed by winter weather.

For more information go to: http://www.yosemitepark.com/activities_golfing.aspx

Tire chains and emergency supplies

  Make sure you pack them for fall travel as weather can be unpredictable!


Snow recreation

Downhill skiing and snowboarding:  Badger Pass Ski Area has offered downhill skiing since the 1930’s. 

Today it is a family-friendly place with slopes ranging from easy to challenging, equipment rentals, and lessons for all ages and abilities.  http://www.yosemitepark.com/badgerpass.aspx

Winter Tunnel View - Photo by Adam Blauert

Winter Tunnel View - Photo by Adam Blauert

Ice skating

The Curry Village Ice Rink in Yosemite Valley has been a popular place to ice skate since 1928.

All ages enjoy the ice and skate rentals are available in all sizes.  Ice skating is surprisingly affordable and most people find it far less difficult that they might expect. 

For more information go to: http://www.yosemitepark.com/Activities_WinterActivities_IceSkatingRink.aspx

Snow play

Yosemite Valley and Crane Flat are great places for kids to play in the snow.  At an elevation of6,000 feet, Crane Flat has more consistent snowfall.

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing

Both of these forms of over-snow transportation provide fun recreation, exercise, and opportunities to get away from crowds.  Snowshoes can be rented at Badger Pass, the Crane Flat Store, and the Curry Village Ice Rink (Yosemite Valley).  Cross-country skis can be rented at Badger Pass. 

Lessons and overnight group trips are available at Badger Pass. 

For more information on snowshoeing go to: http://www.yosemitepark.com/BadgerPass_Snowshoeing.aspx

and for cross-country skiing go to: http://www.yosemitepark.com/BadgerPass_CrossCountrySkiing.aspx

The park maintains overnight accommodations at Glacier Point and Ostrander Lake for those ready to attempt a challenging trip.  Popular day trips include visiting the Mariposa, Tuolumne, and Merced giant sequoia groves. 

For maps and route information

See the website : http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wintersports.htm

Holiday events

The annual spectacle of the Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel recreates a joyous 17th century English Christmas. 

Tickets must be applied for well in advance.



They become available from the park concessionaire one year and one day in advance beginning at 7AM:  http://www.yosemitepark.com/SpecialEventsPackages_SpecialEvents_BracebridgeDinners.aspx

 The Bracebridge Dinner is a lively pageant of song and entertainment in the Ahwahnee’s dining room accompanied by a delicious 7-course meal. 

Winter Ahwahnee Hotel - Photo by Adam Blauert

Winter Ahwahnee Hotel - Photo by Adam Blauert

The Ahwahnee and Wawona Hotels are both decked out Christmas every year.

Quiet time

  Winter is a great time to stay in the park and enjoy solitude, snow, and crisp, starry nights.

Lodging and camping

Lodging and camping is available throughout the winter inYosemite Valley, and the Wawona Hotel is open through much of the winter. 

Cabin rentals are available at Wawona, Foresta, and Yosemite West.  Indoor lodging is preferable unless you have a lot of cold weather gear or an RV!

Hetch Hetchy

Open during daylight hours and is especially spectacular right after a snowstorm.  Before making the trip, check with the park to make sure the road has been opened: (209) 372-0200.

Tire chains and emergency supplies

Tire chains are required in the park during the winter months and it is always a good idea to carry emergency survival supplies to cope with worst-case scenarios.


Green meadows, wildflowers in the lower elevations, and waterfalls as the weather warms, the snow melts and the waterfalls begin to become truly spectacular.


The snowmelt also begins to reopen trails to regular foot traffic and roads to car traffic. Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy, and Wawona melt off first.  The road to the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees often opens in late March or early April. 

If it isn’t open, you can walk the two miles that remain closed.  Waterproof boots or snowshoes may be appropriate, depending how much snow is on the ground.  The Glacier Point road often opens in May. 

Check with the park to determine which roads and trails are open:  (209) 372-0200.


 As trails reopen, backpacking trips become possible in the lower elevations.


 The wildflower show starts at the lowest elevations, especially along theMerced RiverCanyon in the El Portal area. 

Spring El Portal Wildflowers - Photo by Adam Blauert

Spring El Portal Wildflowers - Photo by Adam Blauert

This area is often good in April.  Through late April and early MayYosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy start to green up.  The wildflower show continues throughout the summer in the highest elevations.

The Wawona Golf Course

The golf course reopens after snow has left the meadow. 

For more information go to: http://www.yosemitepark.com/activities_golfing.aspxTire chains and emergency supplies:Keep carrying them into the spring.  Late snowstorms are always possible!

Spring Late Snowmelt Hetch Hetchy Trail - Photo by Adam Blauert

Spring Late Snowmelt Hetch Hetchy Trail - Photo by Adam Blauert

Every season and activity involves different kinds of risks.  Before trying anything new, make sure you are aware of potential dangers and are prepared with the necessary skills and knowledge to avoid them.

Tips that will help you avoid crowds and related problems

  • Avoid holiday weekends.
  • Arrive early, find parking, and then use the free shuttle to get around the park.
  • Try visiting less crowded (but not less spectacular) areas of the park that outside of Yosemite Valley.
  • Wawona, Tuolumne Meadows, the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, and Hetch Hetchy can all be excellent choices.
  • Try to visit midweek during the summer.
  • Get out and hike!  Pick less popular trails.  MirrorLake, the Mist Trail, LowerYosemiteFalls, and the trails on the floor of Yosemite Valley tend to be the most crowded.

A guidebook can help you find some of the ones that see fewer visitors. 

My favorite is Jeffrey P. Schaffer’s Top Trails: Yosemite: Must-Do Hikes for Everyone  this is because it covers just about every mile of trail in the park, but because it also points out a lot of alternatives including unofficial cross-country and “use” routes to infrequently visited spots.

Yosemite National Park  Daily Traffic Forecast : http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/traffic.htm