Even slackers should consider a bit of preparation before heading to Yosemite National Park to enjoy the gushing waterfalls, glistening snow, misty meadows and dramatic lighting that are hallmarks of a wintertime visit. In addition to the unique scenery, winter travel to the park means less traffic and more rooms available in neighboring communities at cheaper rates. But it also means fewer services in the park and, at times, treacherous driving.
Here are some points to ponder before making the trek:
Keep tabs on the weather: A winter storm can shut down Yosemite in a big ol’ hurry. In addition to checking your favorite weather app, be sure to check out National Park Service alerts for the most recent information on park conditions and road closures.
Don’t forget your chains: In true slacker fashion, we neglected to bring a set of tire chains or cables for our vehicle. Oops. We encountered Requirement R-1 restrictions upon entering the park at Big Oak Flat. R-1 means that while we didn’t have to chain up, we were required to carry chains in the vehicle. Rather than backtrack to Groveland, we forged ahead. Nothing bad happened but the lack of chains made for a slow, nerve-wracking drive to the Valley Floor and back to our hotel at Bass Lake. Even the roads and parking areas in the Valley were slick. Chastened, we picked up a set of cables at an Oakhurst auto parts store and enjoyed a much more relaxing drive into, through and out of the Valley the next day.
Watch your step: There are a number of snow play options in the park, but don’t count on hiking unless you have a set of snow shoes. After several days of thawing since the last winter storm to hit the Sierras, the trails we tried were icy. We contented ourselves with several short, tentative walks and with stops along the road for numerous Kodak moments.
Bring snacks: Park services are limited during the winter. We did manage to find a hot lunch at Yosemite Valley Lodge, but that was the extent of available food services we found in the park. We did find snacks at the store adjacent to the Big Trees Hotel , but that was 27 winding miles from the Valley Floor. (The hotel, formerly known as the Wawona Hotel, was closed.) Pit toilets at park trailheads were open but not heated. Cheers for car seat warmers!
Consider your approach: Align your entry into the park with road conditions and the location of your hotel. Allow plenty of time for travel to accommodate traffic, slick roads and unexpected closures. The Tioga Road from the east is closed each winter, all winter. The drive from the west on El Portal Road along the Merced River avoids steep grades. Big Oak Flat Road from the northwest and Wawona Road from the south are steep and twisty in spots. We had to take a lengthy detour back to our hotel at Bass Lake when Wawona Road closed unexpectedly due to a traffic accident. Be patient. Be flexible. Enjoy the scenery.
Make new friends: Cell service in the park is spotty at best, so enjoy the park unplugged. You’ll find the tourists are chatty and helpful, so no need for selfies. Ask someone to take your picture. Offer to take theirs. Share home towns. Have fun!