Are you visiting San Francisco this December and want to see the real Northern California, whether you are looking for a Napa wine tour, private San Francisco tour or a unique Yosemite experience?
The first two are easy and the weather is usually calm and pleasant (save for some rain), but in Yosemite, especially in the winter months, you might see snow, ice and more weather surprises. A few safety precautions should be considered before venturing into the Sierra Nevada, especially in winter.
Fortunately, we are blessed to enjoy many different landscapes in California, from the inviting beaches of the coast to the awe-inspiring redwood forests to the majestic granite peaks of the Sierras. Topographically, it’s a dream come true, though not without its challenges. Many who travel to California, however, do not grasp this on their first visit. Unfortunately, their lack of planning or understanding may negatively affect their trip. To counteract this, we recommend you investigate weather conditions and other factors and plan accordingly.
Driving Requirements in Yosemite in Winter
If you plan driving to visit Yosemite National Park from San Francisco in winter, chain control will be required for your vehicle. The rule of thumb is that in winter if it’s raining in San Francisco, it’s snowing in Yosemite. And to drive safely in that snow, you either need a four-wheel drive vehicle, chains or cables attached to your tires for traction, or both. Even if snow is not in the forecast, bringing the right equipment, such as chains, is smart; it’s even considered negligent if you omit them. Safety is of paramount importance in the mountains, including Yosemite.
What happens if you don’t carry chains with you when you visit the iconic park? Well, if it is snowing hard and you are caught driving without them (you’ll see signs to warn of approaching road conditions), you’ll be stopped or turned around at the mountain pass, maybe even issued a traffic ticket if you ignore the safety warnings. And even if you aren’t turned around, you will not have access to Yosemite until the storm passes and the roads are cleared and safe again.
The famed national park even closes roads altogether at times. Why risk visitors driving on unsafe, snowy, winding roads when it’s easier to restrict road access for those visitors (most of whom are uncomfortable driving in snow)? The National Park Service understands this and will act accordingly if the situation calls for it. This not only holds true for snow, but for rock falls, fires and other natural disasters.
One option to bypass snow is to change your route from San Francisco to Yosemite to include a less snowy access road, which is Highway 140. But even then, please note, if a big storm comes through, you are still at the mercy of the weather. Are you prepared to handle it?
Your other choice? Reserve your stay for more days. When you have more time to see Yosemite properly, it is less of a problem when things go wrong.
For instance, do you need to stay at a small mountain motel on your way to Yosemite because the roads became too dangerous to drive? Or spend an hour or two inside a small-town diner sipping coffee, in anticipation of a storm blowing over? It’s the things that go wrong, sometimes, that make travel so enriching. Just remember, the more time you spend in Yosemite, the more activities you can participate in.
What Are the Best Hikes in Yosemite in Winter?
Many times when you Google things to do in Yosemite, you’ll find a list of available experiences, such as hiking Lembert Dome, strolling Tuolumne Meadows or exploring the Mist Trail, with random internet-goers penning convincing online reviews about how amazing each place is. We don’t like these lists/reviews because they set up the reader, or future Yosemite visitor, for disappointment.
Why? Because if you focus your efforts on one thing to see in Yosemite (with elevated expectations), such as the Mist Trail, you’ll be disappointed to know the trail is closed in winter due to treacherous conditions. Spending your time hiking to the trailhead in the cold, only to find out it’s closed, can mean you lose valuable time you could have spent elsewhere. You cannot read between the lines if you’ve never been to Yosemite, which is why going with an expert, private tour guide is so advantageous.
And what about the best accommodations for Yosemite winter hikes? Most visitors stay in the Valley at the luxury Ahwahnee Hotel. if you’re hardcore you can camp, but we don’t recommend it because of the bitter-cold weather in winter. From your warm hotel, you can instead hike and explore to the comfort level you desire. Many of the trails at the higher elevations may be covered in snow, though the trails in the Valley near your hotel can be snowless most of the winter.
Can I Ski in Yosemite?
Yes, you can, and most people don’t realize that Badger Pass, the ski resort in Yosemite, is the oldest in California and one of the only ski resorts located inside an American national park. It’s not the largest ski resort in California, especially compared to its neighboring mountain resorts of Mammoth and Lake Tahoe, but what’s not to love about a fun family day in Yosemite with some small slopes and ski runs.
Where Yosemite really gets interesting in winter is when you venture into the wilderness on cross-country skis. This experience is geared toward the more adventurous and is truly world-class. Have you ever stayed in a mountain cabin in the middle of Yosemite in winter? Have you ever seen the milky way on a cold, brisk winter night with a cup of hot chocolate to warm your hands? You can do this and more in Yosemite, with private guides available to assist.
Other activities such as tubing or ice skating are available in Yosemite in winter, more than only Tunnel View and what you see on a Yosemite one-day tour.
Does It Snow A Lot?
Just like in many countries around the world, in Yosemite, the amount of snow you see in winter depends on many factors. First is the elevation where you stay. Yosemite ranges from 2,500 to 14,000 ft. (750 to 4,000 meters). This is amazing beginning in spring, when you can follow the wildflowers blooming all the way up to the mountain peaks through the summer months. In winter, however, with those same mountains buried in snow, your exploration options are limited. Ask yourself, at what elevation is your accommodation located?
Another x-factor for snow is precipitation. You may have overheard the news about the California droughts. Each year may be different, but if we are in one of those snowless years, you will, on the positive side, have more hiking opportunities (and may even luck into one of those perfect weather-hiking days that show up in winter occasionally). On the downside, you will not see the typical Yosemite winter, with gorgeous snow-covered landscapes. Both situations carry their advantages.
Many times, the best part about being in Yosemite in winter is being away from the crowds, where you can explore peacefully and relax fully in nature. You can do this whether snow is on the ground or not.
Other Activities in Yosemite in Winter?
You are only limited by your imagination when it comes to visiting Yosemite National Park in winter. You can snowshoe, cross-country ski, explore the main sights such as Yosemite Falls or El Capitan, or lounge by the fireplace in the luxury Ahwahnee Hotel.
You can even attend a special event, such as the Bracebridge Dinner, a 7-course luxury meal and theatrical show held every holiday season, or Vintner’s Holidays, a wine- tasting festival held each December. Or bring your camera to photograph the famous Horsetail Falls, known to many as the firefall, where a Yosemite waterfall glows bright orange like lava in mid-February if the setting sun shines on the misty water just right.
That is why we offer our private Yosemite tours in winter — because to us there is much more to the fabulous park than the basics. We understand many like to handle their own research, road maps and more, and we encourage that if it fulfills you to plan your travel that way. We know the other side, too, with time constraining your desires, and misinformation and closures negatively affecting your travel. Not going with an expert can be a disadvantage.
Any time of year is a good time to visit Yosemite. You only need to know what to expect and prepare accordingly. If you prefer our private tour guides to handle your jigsaw puzzle beginning in San Francisco, we can be your teammates for you to see Yosemite the right way. Do not miss the best sights in Yosemite this winter.
*Are you beginning your tour in San Francisco? Please contact White Wolf to handle your private San Francisco tour needs before Yosemite, including Alcatraz, Chinatown, Lombard Street and more.