Each year, 4-5 million people visit Yosemite National Park, the majority of them in the summer. Sometimes it seems they’re all there at once. In the winter, the park is downright serene by comparison; it’s a time when you can actually hear a symphony of the sounds of nature and the wisp of a cold wind, as it was when the Native Americans roamed the land. It’s as private as the park gets and the perfect time for a luxury experience.
Winter is a bold and rewarding time to visit, especially if you’d like to take advantage of unique photography opportunities. And the best way to see stunning vistas in winter is to hike the trails. But many of them are closed in the winter. Which trails are still open and safe in winter? Read on.
Lower Falls Trail
The most popular of all trails in the park, both in winter and summer and easily accessible, Lower Falls is in the middle of the valley and close to parking. It’s also near the tour-bus loading and unloading site, which in the summer teems with crowds.
In the winter, the trail is sometimes covered in snow, but you can still hike it, as it is mostly flat. In addition, the trail is close to shelter, where you can warm up, enjoy a toasty cup of hot chocolate and purchase memorabilia.
Lower Falls is also the easiest trail, the one almost always recommended by rangers. You can be at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall in minutes. The private luxury winter experience loses something in the summer, when the crowds remove any chance of privacy. In the winter, the trail is virtually empty once the day-trippers go home (usually around 4 p.m.).
Valley Loop Trail
The Valley Loop Trail, which circles the entire hotdog-shaped valley, is the most underappreciated and underused trail in the valley. Even in the summer, hikers use it to escape the crowds for a more private experience, but in the winter it’s positively exquisite, offering unmatched views of cliffs covered in snow and famous landmarks such as Half Dome reflected in the Merced River.
The trail connects, with miles of flat walking, to all the major landmarks, including Half Dome, El Capitan, Majestic Yosemite Hotel and Yosemite Chapel. You cannot walk the entire trail in one day, especially not in winter—it’s too long.
Mirror Lake Trail
This picturesque-sounding trail is open in winter, but be warned: The pretty name sounds better than reality. For many months of the year, there is no mirror and no lake. Mirror Lake appears as winter ends. Before that, you’ll see sand dunes.
The trail, mostly flat, borders the sand dunes but does go under Half Dome, which offers spectacular views in the winter. Another advantage of Mirror Lake Trail is that the trailhead is close to warm lodging, including the luxury Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
El Capitan Trail
The El Capitan Trail is actually a small section of Yosemite where rock climbers go before they ascend the magnificent El Capitan, one of the most impressive climbing walls on earth. The trail is accessible from the lodges by walking a couple of miles on the Valley Loop Trail.
In the winter, a better option is to drive and park next to El Capitan Meadow, a vast open space in the middle of the valley. To reach the base of the monster wall called El Capitan, all you need to do is follow the trails from the meadow toward it. The views from the base are not as intimidating as you might imagine.
Bridalveil Fall is the first waterfall you will see as you enter Yosemite Valley. Why not walk to it? You can park in the main parking lot or on Bridalveil Straight, on the side of Southside Drive. It’s an easy trek in winter, an opportunity to see another of the awe-inspiring waterfalls in Yosemite. Beware of the slight incline, which could be hazardous in snowy or icy conditions. Restrooms are available, but be sure to bring your own hand sanitizer.
Seriously, do you want to fight the bustling crowds in Yosemite in the summer, or enjoy the luxury and privacy and peace of a winter visit? The choice is yours.