There are plenty of reasons to visit Yosemite in winter. It’s one of the most popular national parks, and therefore it is always crowded. But it is far less crowded in the winter. We’ve been wanting to camp in Yosemite for a while, but could never get our butts in gear to plan for a campsite so far in advance. Luckily, in the winter, the open campgrounds are first come, first served, and it’s nowhere near as crowded as the spring and summer. Angel had a bit of time off from work right as the year began, and so Peter and him planned this winter camping trip.
Part of our reason for winter camping was to try something new. Angel and I wanted to save money, so we tried to keep everything budget conscious. That meant finding free and cheap activities to do. Here’s how we made Yosemite happen on a budget.
Try a Free Snowshoe Walk
Originally, we were hoping to take a Full Moon Snowshoe Walk one evening. When tickets were sold out for the entire weekend, we opted instead for a free Guided Snowshoe Walk in Badger Pass.
The walk meets in the A-Frame in Badger Pass, and since it is a free walk, it is a large group. There were 34 of us on the walk on Friday morning. The ranger taught the group about the history of snowshoes, then we strapped on our shoes and were off.
Along the way, we stopped to look for signs of wildlife and learned about Yosemite in winter. And when we made it to the top of the hill, we were greeted with a clear view of the surrounding land.
The best part? We took our time on the way down, stopping to play in the snow.
These walks happen at 10:30 outside the A-Frame in Badger Pass, weather permitting. Check the schedule to be sure.
Hike in Wawona
Ok, so this one was easy for us, since we were camping at the Wawona campground (less crowded). Angel shook me awake at 4 in the morning on Saturday with promises that the car was much warmer than the tent. The plan was for an early morning hike to the Wawona Vista Point in Mariposa Grove, an easy 3 mile uphill hike.
About three hours later, the sun was up, and we had been going downhill for quite a while. I looked behind us, and there was the vista point, far in the distance. We had made a wrong turn and were back at the main road, about five miles away from our car. While debating whether to hike the trail back up to the parking lot or stay along the road and try to hitch a ride, a truck drove by and I stuck out my thumb.
We were saved by Parker, a fire ranger in Yosemite. Not only did he offer a ride back to our car, he offered to drive us to the top of Mariposa Grove (our intended destination). How lucky we were!
Our wrong turn was the happiest accident of them all, because Ranger Parker was a wealth of knowledge about everything Yosemite. He told us about the history of fire suppression and controlled burning in Yosemite and the Sequoia Grove we were standing in. He also suggested the Chilnualna Falls hike for later in the day.
If you are staying in the Valley, be prepared for an hour drive to Mariposa Grove. If you are at the Wawona campground (we were) it’s a quick ten minute drive.
Check the Yosemite Website for up-to-date information on Mariposa Grove. We learned from Ranger Parker that restoration work has begun to relocate the parking lot to a lower area. This is to restore the ecological processes and protect the majestic sequoia trees in the Grove. As a result, roads and trails may be closed.
Chilnualna Falls tricked us. We bundled up and started to hike, and quickly came to the lower part of the Falls. California has been in a drought for a while, but it’s rained recently, and there was a lot of water flowing over the rocks in the lower falls. It got us excited to make it to the top, so we continued up the trail.
And almost immediately started boiling in our many layers and jackets. I don’t know how people do this hike in the summer, as in the winter it was hot. No matter what time of year you go, be sure to bring plenty of water. Angel also brought our SteriPEN, knowing that when we made it to the top of the falls, we could fill up our bottles and have clean, cold water.
We were the only group at the top of the falls. I would love to come back in the summer, to take a dip in the pools at the top. This time, we contented ourselves with filling up on the falls delicious water (purified with the SteriPen, of course) and filled up on the last of our trail mix. The trail kept going up, and certainly, we could have too. Instead, we started the trek back down, to make it back to camp before dark.
Even though this is listed as a strenuous hike, it is possible to just hike out to the first fall, which is only a mile trip out and back. The hike to the top falls is about 8 miles out and back.
Wander around the Valley Early in the Morning
The first day we visited the valley, it was crowded. I was completely turned off to the idea of exploring, and so we just walked to the visitors center and through the museum. On Sunday, we headed back earlier in the day. Even being there just at 9 o’clock made all the difference. There were far less people, and so we took a little walk around before we started our hike.
Hike in the Valley
Since first-time visitors to Yosemite often visit the Valley, it is the perfect place to start a hike from. For our last day in the park, we were looking for a chill hike, and so we decided to take the 2 mile (out and back) hike to Mirror Lake.
Which turned into a 5 mile hike. We parked far away, we walked right past the start of the trailhead, then took the wrong path a second time. Were we just not meant to have a super easy hike that day? This hike was more crowded than our hike to Chilnualna Falls, but still not crowded enough to be a turn-off.
Mirror Lake was not entirely what I expected it to be. It is a seasonal lake, best visited in the spring and early summer, and it’s becoming shallower every year due to sediment accumulation. On our winter visit, the lake was pretty small and shallow, and much of the area was just sandy beach. It was still beautiful, but it’s hard not to be beautiful in Yosemite.
Consider Winter Camping – But be Prepared
I was getting pretty worried going into this trip that I was going to freeze. And guess what, I was almost right. The nights were pretty difficult. Even in two sleeping bags and a couple sleeping pads underneath me.
That being said, the experience has only invigorated Angel to learn more about winter camping. Next time though, I would prefer a little splurge for a heated cabin.
Where we went wrong
We rented a AWD vehicle. We were so worried there would be snow everywhere. There wasn’t. We could have saved over $100 per person if we had just taken my car! Nonetheless, if there had been snow on the road, I would have been worried about my car handling it.
Have you ever been to Yosemite? What’s your favorite spot and activity?
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