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If you are visiting for the first time, you are probably wondering what to do and where to stay in Yosemite National Park in Winter. Winter is definitely a different time in the park because a lot of things are closed, but I can tell you December, January, and February are actually a fantastic time to visit. There are loads of Yosemite winter activities and plenty of lodges and accommodation near Yosemite National Park that are open even in the winter months.
I went recently in late January, and it was actually so tranquil and quiet in the park – unlike in the crazy busy summer months. The view of snow glistening on the mountaintops was breathtaking, and being virtually alone driving the winding roads into the national park made it seem that we had it all to ourselves. It might be a bit colder, but a beautiful view knows no temperature, right?! It might not be one of the overlooked US National Parks but it’s definitely not as busy in winter.
I stayed in one of (ok, probably THE) best hotels near Yosemite, which was just a mile from the entrance of the park, and had such a lovely experience. As it was also my first time visiting Yosemite, the recreation desk concierge gave us all fantastic recommendations of what to do in Yosemite in winter. We mixed it in with our own little agenda to create the perfect mix of things to do in Yosemite for a first timer looking to get their first taste into the boundless magic that Yosemite can offer.
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Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park in Winter: Rush Creek Lodge, 100%.
Before I get to the best things to do in Yosemite in winter, I just have to tell you about the absolute dream of a lodge I stayed at, Rush Creek Lodge. I researched quite a few accommodation options in Yosemite before going, and this one really caught my interest. Rush Creek provides more of an experience than just a stay, and really provides all the different aspects you could possibly want in a winter stay in Yosemite. It’s far more affordable in the winter months, too.
Gathered around a central pool and spa area, Rush Creek’s spacious rooms and buildings all have the cozy feel of a remote log cabin high in the mountains, maybe with a fire going and a warm cup of tea. 😛 Really though, our room had a furnace that we burned each night to warm ourselves up after a long day of hiking! It was awesome for a crisp winter day in Yosemite.
The view from my balcony… ahhhhh yes.
Quick Bio of Rush Creek and its Do-Good Philosophies
This lodge is actually super new, and planning to celebrate its two year anniversary in June 2018. They are continuing to improve the site as well, and are currently working on new buildings. Rush Creek is actually the only new Yosemite accommodation in the last 25 years! It is owned by the same people who opened Evergreen lodge nearby in order to self-fund a Youth Program.
The property was used for lots of things in the past – a school house, a stopover, a gateway to Yosemite – but as the owners had lots of success with their other property, they wanted to expand. So, Rush Creek was born! Rush Creek now helps them in their philanthropic efforts and social missions, listed below:
Youth Programs – Rush Creek helps underserved local youth by offering programs, employment, and teaching life and work skills.
Apprenticeship Programs – Rush Creek offers young college students the opportunity to work and get a hospitality degree while doing so.
Green Program – Rush creek does a lot to minimize their environmental impact even in such a large property – think, solar power,
Apparently they are very modest about their programs, but I think they should be shouted from the rooftops! This place is doing so many great things and should be commended for that.
This is the fire where the free s’mores are.
What You Can Do at Rush Creek
Each night they have free s’mores available from one of the big circular campfires. Their bar area and restaurant have creatively concocted meals and cocktails (and are great to watch a game on the big screen TV). The pool and spa areas stay open until 10 even in the winter, and a warm dip in the spa was sooooo perfect after our long day in the park. (My favorite part was the fact that I was super warm in the jacuzzi, but it was cold enough outside that my drink not only stayed cold but got colder while I was sitting in the spa. #Winning!)
You can tell that all the staff are super passionate about Yosemite and love living out in the mountains and nature, and most of them go on hikes between work shifts as well. Any member of staff could give you spot-on recommendations for the park! Their general store is also completely stocked with everything from hot pockets to merchandise and high quality souvenirs.
If you don’t want to venture by yourself, you can sign up for Rush Creek’s guided tours of Yosemite in everything from snow-shoeing to naturalist hikes. There are also daily activities at the lodge, and you will get a weekly schedule when you check in. It felt like I was at summer camp! 🙂 They have kid-friendly crafts each day, all sorts of historical talks about the area, games, and even bingo!
If you come on a winemaker weekend, you can pair your stay with fantastic Californian wines from Napa. These weekends come with a whole inclusive deal with breakfast, dinners/meals, and wine pairings (Obvi bummed I missed out on one of these).
Last thing, I swear (I could go on about this place forever): but they have all sorts of wellness programs you can check out as well, and a ‘relaxation and renewal’ entire weekend getaway. They run assisted stretches, do reflexology, and have all sorts of different massages… five different kinds, to be exact. They even have yoga! Can you tell how much I loved this place yet?!
Rush Creek is fabulous year round, as I am sure you can tell from this write-up, but it’s actually much more affordable and quieter in Winter! They even have Winter getaway discounts until April, so what are you waiting for?
Sunrise?! NOPE! We were there for the super moon and this photo was taken AT NIGHT over Yosemite Valley in winter. Cool, huh?
What to Do in Yosemite National Park in Winter: Yosemite Valley
The things to do in Yosemite in winter are definitely different than in summer. As it is a high elevation mountain park, the roads may get very icy and even close in the winter months. The National Park is known to get quite a few snow flurries in winter, and temperatures can drop substantially. Because of this, many of the more highly elevated roads, hikes, and viewpoints close up for the winter for safety reasons.
This may be a bit of a bummer for some, but trust that you can take this opportunity to more fully explore the staple postcard area of Yosemite: Yosemite Valley. There is much more to Yosemite than simply the valley, but again for your first time this is going to be the area that you will want to explore the most. It is also the most accessible part of the park in winter at a lower elevation… sometimes the only accessible part!
The points of interest I am about to mention could be done in one day, or three or four, and as part of my whole California Road Trip itinerary as well. It all depends on the pace you would like to go, and how intense you want your hikes to be! We spent two days in the Valley and quite some time relaxing at Rush Creek as well. If you want do do longer hikes, you might need more time, or narrow your plans down to one big adventure a day.
Why not Combine your Yosemite Trip with a California Coast Road Trip, too?! Read More: 75 Highway 1 PCH Road Trip Stops for the Off-the-Beaten-Path Adventurer
Yosemite Valley in Winter
Yosemite Valley stretches between some of the most famous and opulent granite mountains in the world, and is home to many picturesque waterfalls. Driving in Yosemite Valley is a 7 mile one-way loop that takes you past lots of viewpoints, waterfalls, and tiny villages and camping areas.
If you are entering Yosemite Valley from the north (which you will be if you are staying at Rush Creek!) you will drive about 30-45 minutes from the entrance to get to Yosemite Valley. Once you enter the one-way loop, you will first want to make a right turn and drive up the hill to take in the most famous and easily acessible view of the Valley: Tunnel View.
These Yosemite winter points of interest are listed in order around the one-way loop circuit. You can always split them up or do them a bit differently!
Tunnel View Viewpoint
This view will be the first of many times your breath is swept away! If it’s your first trip to Yosemite as it was mine, and if you have been dreaming of visiting for quite some time, this view might make you feel some type of way (to say the least :P).
Tunnel View is the classic Yosemite viewpoint and will visually set out for you the drive you are about to take. You can see all the way down the valley, from El Capitan and Bridalveil waterfall all the way back to Half Dome. This is the classic photo spot as well, but if you are visiting Yosemite National Park in winter you might be spared of the millions of tour busses crowding the area! We even had it all to ourselves a few times.
Bridalveil Falls Viewing Point
Next you are going to want to get up close to the falls you just saw from afar. Bridalveil Falls are very easily accessible from the road, and you can walk a path right up close to get some great shots and even be sprayed by the waterfall mist!
This could just be a small stopover of a few minutes, or a great picnic spot. This little area near the river gives you great reflected views of El Capitan and the whole Valley, and is very calm and serene. You can also walk along the river in either direction for more possible viewage!
Yosemite Valley Chapel
This adorable little pointed chapel is a perfect photo op, and also a great place to park while you check out Yosemite Falls.
Crossing the field towards Yosemite Falls
Up Close to Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls Trail
Yosemite Falls is technically on the other side of the one way loop road, but there is a little bit of strategy involved if you don’t want to have to loop all the way back around to see things! It’s nice to end your loop near the visitor’s center, which is why I suggest seeing the Falls while you are on the other side of the loop.
This way, you can park near the Chapel and cross a lovely little bridge (Swinging Bridge) and photogenic field on your way to the Yosemite Falls trailheads. These trails are extremely easy and mostly flat. You can’t get too close to the falls but there a few great vista points for photos and opportunities to have some adventurous rock scrambles to get even closer! You won’t need much more than an hour or two to walk this and get back to your car.
Half Dome Village
Now this is really more like a small shanty town of tents and a few buildings. To be honest, we didn’t venture all the way in to check it out. But there are a few places you can get food (pizza and burgers) and a bar.
Walking up to Vernal Falls
Vernal from the top
Hiking – Vernal Falls / Nevada Falls / In Extreme Cases – Half Dome!
After Half Dome Village you will get to the end of the loop road where it will turn back around and go the other way. There are a lot of campgrounds in this area, and this is also where a lot of the best trailheads begin! There are a few parking areas to access different trails. These are your first opportunity to do a pretty substantial yet manageable hike in Yosemite National Park in winter, and you have a few options!
The first of these trails begins at Happy Isles, and you can begin your ascent through the canyon at Happy Isles Bridge. The trail then turns into the John Muir Vernal Falls Trailhead (it will be easier to follow me if you are looking at Google Maps 😛 ). This trail winds up through a back canyon, making it feel like you have actually left Yosemite Valley and blazed a new trail into a different part of the park.
Once you arrive at another bridge over the water, you have reached the Mist Trail Trailhead. I recommend you at least take this trail to Vernal Falls, if not Nevada Falls, if not Half Dome itself (if you have enough time to get that far! 😛 )
It’s a challenging yet exciting hike to climb up to the beautiful Vernal Falls, even in winter! You will need at least an hour or so to climb up to the top of Vernal Falls, and from there you can see Nevada Falls and make the decision for yourself if you would like to keep going.
Again, this is actually the trail that goes up Half Dome! You unfortunately cannot hike all the way up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park in winter. This is because the cables you must use to pull yourself up its final sheer rock face are only up from the Spring when the snow melts (slipping on snow at the top of Half Dome? No thank you.) But adventurous hikers can take the trail as far as it can safely go.
Mirror Lake in all of its reflective glory
Mirror Lake Trail
This trail actually starts if you go the opposite way from Happy Isles as you would to walk the Vernal Falls Trail. It is however more easily accessible from a parking lot near the North Pines Campground. Either way, it’s just ’round the corner from the hike above! I would, however, recommend doing this hike a different day because, like the Mist trail, it is worth spending some good time exploring.
The Mirror Lake Trail is a lot flatter and and more gentle. After just over a kilometer you will reach the rightfully popular and appropriately named ‘Mirror Lake,’ where you can see a perfect reflection of the mountains above, in the water. If you’re in Yosemite National Park in winter you might even be able to see some thin ice layers at certain parts of the lake.
Mirror Lake is far from the end of this trail, though. If you like (as we did) you can keep walking along the river a few kilometers to Snow Creek, where the trail crosses the river and returns to Mirror Lake on the other side of the River. It’s a stunning loop with views of Half Dome right above you, beautiful river views, and the shade of a forest.
This trail can also be taken tons of other ways, and the more extreme hiker can take a turn all the way up to Indian Rock and North Dome. As far as I know, these trails are mostly still open during the Yosemite winter.
The Mirror Lake hike can be done quickly or as slow as you like! Either way, it’s a safe, gentle, and beautiful place to go hiking in Yosemite National Park in Winter.
The Majestic/Ahwahnee Hotel
One of the only accommodation options within Yosemite National Park, the Majestic Hotel on Ahwahnee Drive is a nice place to stop and enjoy the view after a long day. There is a restaurant and a bar inside, and depending on your budget it might be a nice place to grab a bite and a glass of wine. If not, there is a grocery store down the road, and also a small restaurant called Degnan’s Kitchen.
One of my favorite more abstract photos from my trip. Why not check out my photography website to see more?
Yosemite Village – Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, Museum, and Ansel Adams Gallery
It’s also great to end the day by winding down and exploring the cozy little features of Yosemite Village. There’s a museum detailing the area’s Native American History, with all sorts of artifacts, carvings, settings, and even a replica of a small village. As a photographer I also really enjoyed visiting the Ansel Adams photography gallery next door. He was a famous photographer known for his work in Yosemite, and in the gallery you can find many prints, some antique and old, and lots of books and trinkets as well.
El Capitan Meadow
On your way out on one of your days, you might as well relish in the beauty of Yosemite Valley one last time and pull off at El Capitan Meadow. It will be barren on a crisp day in Yosemite National Park in Winter, but what better place for a snack than right under El Capitan itself?!
How else can you tour Yosemite National Park in Winter?
Not everyone can spend a lot of time in the park. I get that. Some people only have time for a day trip, some might not have their own car and would prefer a tour, some want the convenience of a combo trip, and some would actually rather rough it. No matter what way you want to do Yosemite National Park in winter, you can! And here are a few Yosemite tours I can suggest as alternate options:
- One Day Yosemite Tour from San Francisco
- Yosemite Day Tour from Lake Tahoe
- 3 Day Yosemite/PCH Tour from LA
- Yosemite 3 Day Camping Adventure
- 6 Day Southwestern USA National Parks tour from SF
Well there you have it: my best recommendations for what to do and where to stay in Yosemite National Park in winter! These things to do should be perfect for anyone’s first time to Yosemite, and even better for the wintertime. I can’t wait to go back and check out the park in summer and do some more intense and long hikes (lookin’ at you, Half Dome!). But for now I couldn’t be more stoked on my first trip to Yosemite and my stay at Rush Creek, and I am sure that the same will go for you!
Must-Have’s for Yosemite National Park in Winter
Thanks to Rush Creek Lodge for hosting me. Of course, all words are absolutely and completely my own! I can’t wait to come back.