Travel Tips

Winter Fun In California: Yosemite Winter Activities Guide

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA

Cooks Meadow - photo by Kenny KarstLast August, I had the bright idea that my family should move to Yosemite National Park.

Most of my adult life I’ve lived along the palm-tree lined streets of Los Angeles.

When we settled here at the start of the school year, I felt like the luckiest person on earth.

Then the other day, we got a foot of snow.

So am I now longing for the sun and surf of Southern California? Not on your life. Having spent my childhood in the Midwest and my college years in New York, I’m not a fan of cold winters but I never experienced one in a national park before.

Imagine forests of snow-covered trees and the famous Yosemite spires and domes covered with their own delicious white frosting. If the views won’t do it, try this. Yosemite comes alive in winter. It may be its best season of all.

Learn what makes it special: Yosemite Rediscovered Through a Child’s Eyes.

For starters, the crowds are gone. It’s quiet and still and exquisite. And there is still a lot to do. If you are heading up Highway 41 from Southern California, think about making the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite (2 miles outside the park) one of your first destinations.

Family Ice SkatingTenaya Lodge has winter packages that make the hotel more affordable than in the warmer months, and their daily schedule is chock-a-block with wintery things to do. Expect to find all the usual: guided snowshoe trips, an ice rink, a spa and indoor pool (the coldest spa and indoor pool I’ve ever been in; tell them to turn up the room heat), cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals, a kids’ club that features everything from igloo-building to arts and crafts. Then there are the more unusual: For my money, the horse-drawn sleigh ride is a must-do treat—45 minutes through the forest with warm drinks and blankets to help keep hands and toes warm.

If you choose to stay in the park itself, remember that in winter, only Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and The Ahwahnee are open for guests.

Learn more with The “Grand Dame” Hotels Of Our National Parks.

The ever-popular Curry Village and Wawona Hotel are closed this time of year. However, guests can still stay in Wawona at one of the many cabin rentals. (Just visit or call Martin Property Management at 209-375-6554).

Half Dome at Sunset - photo by Kenny KarstIn winter Yosemite offers the same stunning scenery and hiking trails it does in every other season (paved hiking trails are even plowed). But now the outdoor skating rink at Curry Village opens (where else can you glide along staring at Half Dome) and festivities at The Ahwahnee center on special events like the Bracebridge Dinner and January’s Chefs’ Holidays workshops.

All that said, for both locals and visitors alike, most of the action in the winter months centers on “the mountain.” That mountain is where you’ll find Badger Pass Ski Area as well as more than 100 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails and snow play areas for sledding and inner tubing.

Check out Family-Friendly Travel Adventures in Yosemite National Park.

I’m not a downhill skier myself, but the Badger Pass Ski School has garnered an international reputation as one of the best places in North America for teaching children and wanna-be shooshing adults. With more than 90 percent of the mountain dedicated to beginner and intermediate runs you won’t have to roll and tuck as the snowboarders roar by. This is one mountain where families rule.

Badger Pass Ski Area - photo by Kenny KarstAs my daughter learns to ski and snowboard with the Badger Pass instructors, I’ll be indulging in my favorite winter activity: snowshoeing. If that’s your idea of fun or you’d like to try it just once, join a ranger from the park service on a free snowshoe hike during the day or at night on full moons. The snowshoes are included, although you’ll be asked to make a small donation toward their upkeep. Discover you love it and want to do more?

You can rent snowshoes and poles at the Nordic Center at Badger Pass and head out on your own.

Learn more our Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Yosemite National Park.

As for cross-country skiers, aficionados of the sport will tell you it is hard to beat the views on the way to Glacier Point or the miles and miles of perfectly groomed trails. Again, rentals are available at the Nordic Center where you can also sign up for lessons and guided trips including overnights.

Scenery. Snow. Skiing. Snowshoeing. Sledding. Skating. Yosemite has it all, plus this … winter wonderland memories that can’t be bought for any price.

Head down a trail with your kids and keep your eyes open for animal tracks. Build snowmen, women, children and dogs. Make snow angels. Make a few devils too. Put your tongue out and capture the flakes as they drift down from the trees. Come to Yosemite, be moved by its grandeur, have a great time and remember, many of winter’s best activities remain both free … and priceless.

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Caveats and information:

  • The roads can be icy. Chains—even for four-wheel-drive vehicles—are often required.
  • Drive about 25 miles an hour (if traffic and weather conditions permit) and try and keep from braking—that’s what makes you slide. Fill up the gas tank before you enter the park as there are no gas stations on the Valley floor.
  • Highway 140 into the park rarely sees snow. Highway 41 and 120 are for the more daring.

By Jamie Simons for This summer, Jamie and her family moved from sunny Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park. Stay tuned for more from inside the park, and check out her weekly blog for the Sierra Club here.

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