The Quiet Side of Yosemite

Winter is the Season of Solitude at Yosemite, as Crowds Clear and the Park Reawakens.

Yosemite National Park is famous for its summer face. Here, rock climbers scale some of the world’s tallest granite chunks. Hikers explore sun-warmed alpine meadows. Waterfalls tumble the span of a 62-story building, roaring with late spring run-off.

But winter offers a different face, a slower pace. Crowds thin dramatically, trails open wide. Wildlife emerges. One day, the valley basks in mild weather. The next, snow frosts famous rock formations and creates a dazzling playground for winter sport. In fact, to experience the silent grandeur of Yosemite in the winter is to visit a side of the park you never knew.

Yosemite National Park is known for its breathtaking vistas, powerful waterfalls, magnificent granite rock formations – and suffocating crowds.

One of America’s most popular national parks, the high Sierra Nevada destination attracts upward of 3.4 million visitors annually.

Yosemite waterfallYet, a vast majority of those people — over 80 percent — show up between April and September. And if you’ve ever been among those crowds, you know the frustrations — no parking, clogged traffic through Yosemite Valley, and elbow to-elbow congestion at the park’s most popular sites.

By contrast, a trip to Yosemite in the winter months is almost shocking. Summer’s crowds fall away to almost nothing. No parking headaches. No waiting for anything. It’s almost as if you have the park to yourself.

For RVers, a trip to Yosemite is a treat year-round. But a winter visit definitely has its merits. Securing reservations is much easier — most campgrounds are virtually empty. Temperatures on the valley floor warm nicely through the day. And recreational opportunities open up in fun, new directions.

Sure, you can still hike to see favorite attractions. But what about snowshoeing to bask in the glory of ancient Sequoias? Care for a little outdoor ice skating? And low-angle winter light can create some splendid moments for photographers.

Winter is when you can really see the wildlife. On our visit, mule deer roamed everywhere, boldly curling up to rest right beside hiking trails. With leaves off the trees, it’s easier to spot coyotes, raccoon and even an occasional bear, plus an abundant array of bird life.

Although weather can vary wildly, the park receives most of its heaviest moisture January through March, leaving beloved rock formations dazzling with a fresh, crystalline coating. Then again, you can always get lucky. Sometimes the forecast for the first week of January can call for highs in the 50s and lows in the upper 30s and 40s.

In early December, we caught up with Dan and Tomi Mason of California, enjoying an easy hike to Lower Yosemite falls in their shirtsleeves and relishing the sunny 65-degree day — even though a warm, dry fall had reduced many of the park’s normally raging waterfalls to distant trickles.

This is the third year the Masons have visited Yosemite in the winter, a season that has proved to be a pleasant surprise.

“We come here in the winter because we just love the atmosphere,” Tomi said. “You’re not crowded, and it’s not packed, which makes it so much more enjoyable. You greet people on the trails and they seem happy to see you.”

Yosemite National Park has much to offer, but as one of America’s oldest national parks it is known for its spectacular waterfalls. So if viewing or photographing those falls at peak flow is a major goal, winter may not be for you. Water levels tend to run low by year’s end, until snow and rain boost output.

To catch peak waterfall action, consider an early spring visit, when even hiking on trails that flank waterfalls can require a good layer of Goretex.

However, there is so much more to see beyond waterfalls in this 1,200-square-mile park — 95 percent of which is officially designated as wilderness. From its deep valley floor sculpted by centuries of water and grinding glacial ice to sweeping alpine summits, from grand meadows to ancient forests and world-famous rock monuments, there is much to relish about a visit to observe the “Quiet Side” to this very busy national park.

The heart of the park

With its massive, muscular granite formations, Yosemite National Park is a place that simply demands to be noticed.

Located in east-central California south of Lake Tahoe and east of the San Francisco Bay area, this granddaddy of all national parks seems to do everything on a large scale.

It doesn’t just offer waterfalls; it offers some of the world’s tallest — Yosemite Falls, at 2,425 feet, and Sentinel Falls, 2,000 feet.

It doesn’t merely feature big rocks; El Capitan stands 3,593 feet from its base to summit, said to be the world’s largest single monolith of granite.

And if the park itself isn’t enough, it’s surrounded by scenic state and national forest lands, lakes and rivers.

To get there requires a little effort; it’s not exactly along the beaten path. The park has two major entrances along its west flank:  Big Oak Flat, off California Highway 120 and Arch Rock, off California Highway 140. To the south, enter the park off California Highway 41 near Mariposa Grove. To the east, enter at Tioga Pass off California Highway 120. Most routes into the park are scenic, but can be steep and winding; slow down, drive with care and enjoy the views.

Winter weather will affect roads and access. Tioga Road (Highway 120 through the park) to Tuolumne Meadow is generally closed from late November through late May or June, so if you visit during winter, rethink your entrance point. Mariposa Grove Road is usually closed from November or December until April, though visitors may still hike, ski or snowshoe in. Glacier Point Road is typically closed November through late May, however the first five miles are open to Badger Pass ski area.

Be advised: Winter weather requires you to carry tire chains, even if you’ll never use them. Don’t get stuck without them, as it can be a condition of entrance to the park. You can rent or purchase chains in nearby communities, but you’ll suffer a price mark-up. Inside the park, they are only available for purchase. Play it smart. Invest in chains, watch the forecasts, and call the park to check on road conditions (209) 372-0200.

Entrance to the park is pricey by national park standards. But that fee is good for seven days.

Though Yosemite National Park is huge, public roads take you only to select areas. Yosemite Valley is the picturesque seven-mile corridor that plunges from west to east through the heart of the park. It is here that you’ll find the best maintained roads and some of the park’s most famous attractions, including El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rock, Sentinel Rock and Yosemite, Bridalveil, Vernal and Nevada Falls. If you are short on time, this is your don’t-miss stop, easily the most visited section of the park.

Yosemite RVConsider getting your bearings with an in-depth valley orientation. Paid two-hour bus tours will take you to the most scenic attractions, with plenty of photo-ops and depart every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge, Yosemite Village and the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel. Make tour reservations in advance by calling (209) 372-1240.  Or just hop aboard the free shuttle bus, which will take you to 21 stops throughout the valley.

The 8.7-mile Yosemite Valley bike path can also provide a good overview, weather permitting. The path loops around the eastern end of the valley out to Mirror Lake. Bike rentals are available at Yosemite Lodge.

During high summer season, visitors are advised to arrive in Yosemite Village as early as possible to secure parking. Winter visits don’t pose a problem.

Yosemite Valley doesn’t boast a real town, more a congregation of shops, so be sure and gas up before you hit the park. There are no gas pumps in the valley itself, only at Crane Flat and Wawona. You will find a decent collection of stores, restaurants and services — including a post office, general store, emergency medical and dental care — in Yosemite Village, which lies at the eastern end of the valley roadway.

The valley is also a trail head to some great hiking routes, from easy to difficult. Here, you’ll find a place to stock up on provisions, buy a hot cup of coffee and a sandwich, or sit down to a fancy dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel, an architectural gem in itself that you should make time to walk through, or enjoy a beverage in the bar, with views of the hotel’s landscaped grounds.

Winter camping

Yosemite National Park hosts 13 campgrounds, nine of which accept RVs. Some can accommodate RVs with a maximum length of 40 feet; a few sites can hold trailers up to 35 feet.

Though you won’t find hook-ups in Yosemite campgrounds, you can run generators (sparingly) from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dump stations are available in Yosemite Valley, Wawona and Tuolumne Meadows campgrounds. Showers and other facilities are offered in the Valley.

Though winter reduces the number of available campgrounds within the park, a handful remain open to RVs year-round, including Upper Pines (in Yosemite Valley), Wawona and Hodgdon Meadow. Camping isn’t permitted outside of registered campsites.

Yosemite creekReservations are required for Yosemite Valley’s car campgrounds and may be made up to five months in advance through the National Recreation Reservation Service by calling (877) 444-6777 or by going to

Nearly all reservations during summer months are filled the first day they become available, and often within a few hours. Winter reservations are much easier to secure — another bonus.

If you’re smart, you’ll buy supplies before you hit the park. In a pinch, you can also pick up what you need at the Wawona Grocery Store (at the south entrance) and the Yosemite Village Store. Both are open all year.

One park ranger told us that winter is a time of solitude at Yosemite, jokingly calling it “the season for newlyweds and nearly-deads.” But if solitude and serenity are what you’re after, it’s hard to beat.

However, if dry camping in the park isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll find some great alternatives at a variety of private campgrounds outside the park in almost any direction.

The strategy of setting up an outside base camp and journeying into the park for visits has its advantages and disadvantages. The private campgrounds we saw were uniformly attractive, tidy and had good amenities, from full hookups to swimming pools, miniature golf, and even a petting zoo.

Most were within a 30- to 40-minute drive of the park, an easy trek with a tow car or truck. If you’re hauling much more than that, the curvy, steep roads into Yosemite might be a headache to tackle every day.

One of our top picks was Yosemite Pines RV Resort and Family Lodging, located about 22 miles west of the big Oak Flat entrance to the park off California Highway 120 outside of Groveland. The campground provides hundreds of sites (back-in or pull-through/full or partial hook-ups), with water, 20/30/50-amp electric, sewer, bathrooms/showers, a camp store, and oodles of activities for kids, from playgrounds to gold panning, and a petting farm.

“People who’ve stayed in Yosemite tell us they wind up coming back here,” said Jessie, a campground manager. “The weather is generally good, so we can do pretty much anything all year. Plus, it’s only a mile into town for shopping and restaurants.”

Indian Flat RV Park will put you close to the park. This smaller campground is located off California Highway 140 at El Portal near Yosemite’s Arch Rock Entrance. Indian Flat offers 25 RV sites with water, electric and some sewer. No generators are allowed.

If entering Yosemite from the south, check out the High Sierra RV and Mobile Park, located about 20 miles south of the park on California Highway 41, north of Oakhurst. The campground can even accommodate “land yachts,” with full hook-ups, including 20/30-amp electric, water and sewer. Cable TV and phone hook-ups are available at all campsites.

Also, don’t overlook the KOA Mariposa RV Park, off Highway 140 about 5.5 miles east of Mariposa. You’ll find standard KOA facilities, hiking trails, a chance to pan for gold, and — best of all — shuttle bus service into Yosemite.

Yosemite valleyLand of natural wonders

Up until about 250,000 years ago, glaciers filled Yosemite Valley, gradually chiseling land and granite into its classic shape, and leaving spectacular rock formations and towering cliffs for today’s waterfalls to dazzle us.

Only 15,000 years ago, the Valley floor was a broad lake. Sediment filled in to create the flat valley floor of today. Water and gravity continue to shape the landscape here, with dramatic rock slides, seasonal flooding and high-country avalanches.

All the geologic activity left the landmarks we now enjoy, so make the most of your time at the park with this sightseeing checklist:

Bridalveil Fall: The Ahwahneechee Indians dubbed it “Pohono,” or “Spirit of the Puffing Wind.” Today, you can still observe winds sending this lacy ribbon of water swaying against canyon walls, as it plunges 620 feet to the valley floor. A short hike from a parking lot on a paved trail gives a great view.

Yosemite Falls: This famous landmark is actually a series of three connected waterfalls: the upper falls, the lower falls and a middle series of intermediate drops. Together, they cascade 2,425 feet down granite cliffs, making this the tallest waterfall in North America and the sixth largest in the world. It’s also one of the park’s most easily accessible sites, with a trail system that takes you on an easy walk to a great viewpoint of the lower falls. Tougher hiking trails lead to the upper falls.

El Capitan: Easily recognized, this smooth, granite monolith towers 3,593 vertical feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, a favorite with rock climbers spring through fall — now considered a global standard for big-wall climbers. It is thought to be the largest single granite monolith in the world.

Don't Forget

Half Dome: If Yosemite National Park has an icon, it would surely be this famed monument. Located at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome soars to an elevation of 8,842 feet and, oddly, constitutes some of the youngest Plutonic rock in the valley. It is a popular, though rigorous, climb for summer hikers, and can be seen from nearly anywhere in Yosemite Valley.

Vernal Falls Trail: One of the shortest trails in the park, it’s usually clogged with hikers during summer months. From Curry Village, it’s only a 1.3-mile hike to the Vernal Falls Bridge, an excellent viewpoint. Ambitious hikers can continue to the top of the falls, a 2.4-mile trek, or on to Emerald Pool, a 2.6-mile trip. When water flow is high, expect to get drenched with mist and watch for slippery footing on the rock stairs. Weather permitting, you can continue to the top of Nevada Falls, a 5.5-mile trip.

Mariposa Grove: If you can get there, don’t miss Yosemite’s largest stand of giant Sequoias, among three grand groves that thrive within the park. In the winter, this stand of about 500 trees is most accessible. Weather permitting, hike, ski or snowshoe up the two-mile access road to meet the Grizzly Giant, thought to be the fifth-largest tree in the world. At 100 feet around at its base and 209 feet tall, it’s estimated to be about 2,700 years old.

Badger Pass Ski Area: Located on Glacier Point Road, this facility was the first ski resort to open in the west, originally built to attract the 1932 Winter Olympics. When snows fall, this is a great place to sign up for ski or snowboarding lessons, as 85% of the slopes are devoted to beginning or intermediate levels. The season generally runs from mid-December to late March or early-April. Visitors will find downhill and cross-country skiing, snow tubing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing, with rental equipment available.

The Ahwahnee Hotel: It’s hardly a natural attraction, but this grand hotel, built in 1927, is a national historic landmark and not to be missed. Free history tours are available, but feel free to wander the grounds on your own. Native American Miwok designs and patterns have been used to decorate this classic American resort hotel, noted for its great granite facade, walk-in fireplace, and immense, cavern-like dining room, where jackets are required for dinner and entrees can run about $25 and up.

Camping Yosemite tips

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