A Yosemite Winter Gamble

Will it be “snow globe” or “flip flops”? Book a weekend, roll the dice and find out. You can’t lose.

By Darya Mead


Yosemite National Park is a wonderland any time of year. Spring offers wildflowers and powerful waterfalls, summer, sun filled adventures and autumn a crisp nip in the air and colorful leaf peeping, but winter in this majestic playland has stolen my heart.


Don’t get me wrong, if you have one chance to visit Yosemite, do it, but if your timing is right it can be a snow globe on steroids. And I recommend packing shorts and flip flops, just in case. This is California, after all.

I’ve seen both Yosemite winters. In 2019, my best friend and I decided to take our reluctant younger teen boys on a three-night adventure (this was pre-COVID, of course).  The boys are forever skeptical of us – despite many a successful camping trip – and somehow we cannot live down one failed hike. We lost our way with kids in tow and husbands awaiting us at the end. Suffice to say we survived and are now more than equipped to take on the elements. She is Swedish and I am intrepid, so I figured if we could master the snow chains, we would be ok. We obsessively checked weather reports and timed our departure to arrive before the expected snowfall.

The snow was magical and everything about that trip made me happy. We snowshoed, cross country skied, and every drive unveiled more beautiful scenery. If you can imagine “Dr. Zhivago meets childhood winter picture book, with a dash of Olympic bobsled,” you’d barely grasp the splendor. The way the snow clung to the trees… The “whoosh” when a clump fell in the wind… The snow hare dashing in front of us… It was an unbelievable accumulation of idyllic winter delights unmatched in my life. I play the ‘footage’ in my mind again and again.


In 2020, we decided to try to recapture the bliss. We chose Super Bowl weekend in the hopes the crowds would be small (the SF 49ers were playing).  The only negative the year before had been the torrent of amateurs, ill-equipped for the blizzard-like weather. There were folks driving without chains, spinning out on the road, wearing sweat pants and sneakers, and falling all over the place.


This year, we timed it right vis-á-vis the crowds, but the weather was another story. There would be no snow globe-ing in 2020. In fact, there wasn’t much snow at all! And one day, it was so sunny and warm that tourists in the valley were walking around in shorts and flip flops.


Even though we did not experience the same winter euphoria, we had a wonderful visit nonetheless. We never unpacked our skis and snowshoes, but hiked to Mirror Lake and the redwoods of Mariposa Grove – popular routes in the summer that felt very different with a winter chill.  A brief hail storm made it feel like an adventure.


Both trips – and both climates – were stellar in different ways, full of unusual and tasty vittles, lots of laughs, and great outdoor fun. The boys agreed— once they unplugged — and we talk about the trips often. We decided we would try to make it an annual outing and live by the motto #warmhatcoldcheeks.


Tips for a Winter Trip to Yosemite

Where to stay

In 2019 we stayed in Groveland in Tuolumne County. Sitting at 3,100 feet elevation we were surprised there was snow on the ground. Just 25 miles from the park entrance, it’s a good spot to stay outside the park. We stayed at the Hotel Charlotte a historic, little boutique hotel in the center of the small town. Comfortable, affordable, and with a great clawfoot tub, we ate breakfast every morning at a cafe across the street and dinner one night at the Iron Door Saloon, a landmark tavern offering pub grub and a lively karaoke evening.

This year we stayed at the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines. A motley mix of hostel and room accommodations, this is a unique NorCal kinda place that draws backpackers, foreign travelers and families, with a distinct communal vibe. A cozy restaurant, a well-outfitted spa and well-appointed but affordable rooms made this a fun getaway. There was live music one night, the beds were surprisingly comfortable and the shared bathroom situation was not a problem. The boys found the ‘rustic mountain resort’ nomenclature somehow hilarious, but we all agreed we would definitely be back. Just as close to the park, this is a great place for young families and folks on a budget.

Other places we visited: Evergreen Lodge nestled in the woods, nearer the park, this once rustic spot has been upgraded, but the blizzard conditions made for a magical afternoon of snowball fights, hot chocolate and icicle lollipops. The road down was tricky, not advisable without chains in the winter. The fanciest option was Rush Creek Lodge  where we stopped for dinner, a warm up by the fire and lucked into a talk about the recent wildfire season. This is a full-on resort with a ton of organized activities and amenities, including a pool, hot tubs, spa and daily events and marshmallows for roasting 24/7.

Of course you can book a room at the majestic Ahwahnee Hotel in the park, but the rooms start at more than $350 a night. We stopped by, warmed up by the fire and had lunch there. A meal in the main dining room is worth the price; you feel like you have stepped back in time.

There are other options —  of course — in towns nearby, or even within the park.  In many ways winter is a great time to visit the park and surrounding areas, because there are fewer visitors.

Where to eat 

Food is expensive in the park and not the best. We opted to have big breakfasts and carry loads of snacks for our day adventures and then each night we ate well. In February or March it still gets dark early, so dinner before six, and early to bed early to rise made sense. On both trips we found excellent dining options on our trip to and from San Francisco. Nondescript strip malls often have some of the best ethnic fare and we had wonderful Jordanian and Pakistani meals as well as a never-to-be-forgotten BBQ experience at a now closed joint. Food at the Junebug, the Yosemite Bug restaurant, was hearty and affordable, the meal at Rush Creek was pricey and more precious, but yummy. We brought a thermos and made tea to bring for the day and hot chocolate packets for the evening.

What to bring

Winter gear including sleds, skis, snowshoes if you have it, or rent it before you get there. Places like Evergreen and Rush Creek have stuff you can rent/ borrow. Bring chains — regardless of weather report!! This is not something to fool around with, a 4WD or AWD is preferable. Don’t skimp on the winter gear, long underwear is a must if you hit the wintry snow and snow boots are vital, as the black ice can be treacherous.To be safe, make sure to have blankets, a flashlight and some snacks in the car. We got stuck in a slow-down going into the park because of the aforementioned novices spinning out.


How to budget

We did our trips on the cheap and we spent about $500 total for each trip including food, gas and accommodations, but we have all our own gear. I recommend buying a National Parks — America the Beautiful Pass for $80 online — it’s good for a year— before you go.

If you time it right you might hit the firefall, the namesake of our favorite cafe in Groveland, and a once a year event when Horsetail Fall is alight by the evening sun in such a way that it looks like it is on fire. We drove past the popular event, but the crowds were too massive and we were so charmed by the rest of our Yosemite winter experience, we decided not to push it with the boys. Maybe next year!




Darya Mead – December 2020

ROAM Contributor   

Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.


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