If you're like me and born and raised in California, then your winter living/driving skills are likely limited. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area and have only lived in other mild places like Santa Barbara and Australia. So when I was preparing for a winter trip to Yosemite National Park, I found it hard to find the information I needed to feel comfortable making the trip safely. Below are some helpful tips I learned from my recent trip in January!
First rule of thumb before visiting Yosemite: ALWAYS CHECK THE WEBSITE. If you've seen images of Half Dome like the one above, that view is from Glacier Point and the road there is closed all winter. You may be able to snowshoe about 10 miles to a spot that will give you a partial view of Half Dome (Dewey Point Trail) but that adventure is very dependent on conditions. Yosemite National Park does have a ski and snowboard area and there are a couple free shuttles that take you there from the valley, otherwise it's usually chains/snow tires required. The road to Glacier Point usually re-opens in May, but given how much snow we've gotten this year it may be pushed further out. Other roads that are usually closed in winter are Mariposa Grove and Badger Pass Road.
Conditions in the winter are unpredictable. We had no idea if we were going to get snow when we were there because the forecast kept saying rain likely. It wasn't until 11 p.m. on Sunday evening when the snow started falling. It snowed 7-8 inches overnight! It as so beautiful and a dream come true, but if I had stayed outside the valley it would of been hard getting back to the park because of road conditions (and it was mostly melted by 1 p.m.). Sometimes when it snows, they close all roads leading in and out of the valley. With the damage from recent winter storms, it's also a good idea to double check and make sure your reservation is still standing. In winter it is usually easier to find accommodation in the valley, but in spring or summer, I usually book accommodation at least 6-8 months in advance.
If you're planning to visit Yosemite in the winter, you need to carry chains regardless of whether your car has 4WD or not. It's required by law and rangers can pull you over and fine you if you're not adhering to road restrictions. You can call (209) 372-0200, then press 1 and 1 again to find out the latest conditions. They are updated all the time and whenever conditions change. If you're unfamiliar with road restrictions this is what they will tell you in the message:
I took a 2WD car with me because it was unlikely that it was going to snow, but if I was planning to head up there again in winter I would definitely take a 4WD and buy chains for it. You can get them on Amazon or usually any auto center. Just make sure you buy chains that fit your specific tires since they come in various sizes. It's also highly advised that you try putting the chains on BEFORE you're in the snow and have no idea what you're doing, or to find out that they are the wrong size.
Also.. funny side story, apparently my 2WD car that I brought to the snow HATES being cold, and the battery froze, even though it was above freezing temps... luckily we were in a super beautiful spot watching the sun rise over half dome where a coyote was also running around, so we had plenty to keep us occupied while we waited for some good samaritans to help us out with jumper cables :) So if you've never taken your car to the snow, I HIGHLY recommend googling your make and model and see if it has any known issues with cold starts or winter driving. Really wish I had done that!
One other thing I wish I had done was fill up my gas tank before entering the valley. I didn't use much gas last time I visited because I was hiking so much, but this time we were doing a lot of driving. I also got asked by several people when I was shooting where the closest gas station was. It is 30 minutes away. You really want a full tank for a couple reasons.
1) In case anything happens or you drive off the road and get stuck, you can leave your car idling for a long time and you won't freeze.
2) You don't have to constantly worry that if you miss a turn in the valley (which can add 25 minutes to your journey) it's not the end of the world. The loop around the valley is one way, so a missed turn can add on at least 25 minutes depending on conditions.
Rule of thumb if visiting Yosemite in the winter: do NOT take highway 120. It's often closed or icy and it's just not worth it. I also recall it being a downward slope with 1,000 foot cliffs on the side and I really would not want to hit ice heading down that road. Highway 140 does have some rock slides from time to time, so again, call ahead of time and make sure you're in the clear. It can sometimes be a chain zone as well so make sure you leave yourself enough time. Max speeds when driving in chains are around 25 MPH unless you want to damage your car.
Winter in Yosemite is one of my favorite things in the world. Its beauty almost brought me to tears and it is so very special, but it's important that you're safe if making this winter trek. Have questions or think I'm missing something? Feel free to shoot me an email!