What's Different about Backpacking in Yosemite during Winter?
Winter transforms Yosemite’s familiar landscapes; exploring in winter is like finding a whole new park. But winter is less forgiving for the wilderness traveler, and some extra precautions are in order. Expect winter winter conditions at least from December through April.
Where Can I Go?
From December through April, backpacking in Yosemite nearly always involves snow camping and travel by skis or snowshoes. Even in May, if you want to avoid snow, you're likely to be limited to trailheads in Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and Hetch Hetchy, and, even then, you'll have a difficult time finding multi-night, snow-free trips.
Most winter users enjoy the marked winter trails around the Badger Pass Ski Area (elevation 7,200 feet) and Crane Flat (6,200 feet). Roads are maintained in these areas, although chains are often required. Each area has beginner, intermediate, and advanced trails, which range in length from less than one mile to over 20 miles round-trip. These trails are marked with colored triangular or rectangular signs in trees. Most summer trails cannot be seen or easily followed in winter.
You can download winter trail brochures for these three areas.
Many good overnight or multi-day trips originate in the Badger Pass Ski Area (open mid-December through March, conditions permitting). Overnight wilderness users must get a free wilderness permit at the Badger Pass Ranger Station and leave their vehicles in the area designated for overnight parking.
Another popular trip for more advanced skiers and snowshoers leaves from Yosemite Valley and heads toward Tuolumne Meadows via the Snow Creek Trail. Due to increased popularity, the Snow Creek Cabin now has a quota (six people per night) in effect. This limit on the number of people staying at the cabin provides for visitor safety and preserves natural, cultural, and wilderness values. You must go to the Valley Visitor Center to pick up a wilderness permit (if available) and current combination for the cabin's lock. Permits are available one day in advance of your trip. Reservations are not available. The cabin is generally open during the same time as Badger Pass, which is typically mid-December through March (as long as there is enough snow for skiing). The cabin is closed at other times of the year.
There is a potential for avalanche hazard along this route and users should be competent in avalanche assessment, winter backcountry travel, routefinding, and winter camping. This trip requires intermediate ski skills and winter survival competency, at a minimum.
Winter Wilderness Camping
Wilderness permits, which are required for all overnight wilderness trips in Yosemite, are available at the Big Oak Flat Information Station, Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, Badger Pass Ranger Station, Wawona Visitor Center, or Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station. You must register at the station closest to your starting point. From November through April, wilderness permit reservations are not available. However, trailhead quotas are in effect all year, and quotas can fill up regularly for winter trailheads along the Glacier Point Road (including the ski area).
In general, winter wilderness users must camp at least one mile away from a plowed road. Camping is not allowed within 1½ miles of the Badger Pass Ski Area boundary. Camping is also not allowed at Summit Meadow, Dewey Point, or Glacier Point (camping is permitted near both points, but not at the points themselves).
Camping is not allowed in the Tuolumne Grove.
Typically, the Four Mail Trail beyond Union Point, and sections of the John Muir and Mist Trails, are closed during the winter (portions of the John Muir and Mist Trails remain open, so it's still possible to hike to the tops of Vernal and Nevada Falls and to Little Yosemite Valley, though these trails are often snowy or icy). Check for winter trail closures before your trip.
Winter Trailhead Quotas
Dewey Point (#18/Meadow route): 25
Ostrander Ski Hut
Ostrander Ski Hut is a two-story stone structure beautifully crafted in 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps for cross-country skiers. The hut sits in a small glacial cirque at the edge of Ostrander Lake, elevation 8,500 feet--a 10-mile ski from the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. Very basic overnight accommodations and cooking facilities are available at the hut. It sleeps 25 people and has bunks, mattresses, a wood stove, a kitchen with a gas stove for cooking, and assorted pots & pans. Drinking and wash water is hauled from the lake in buckets; treatment is the individual visitor's responsibility. Solar powered lamps provide light.
Ostrander Hut is operated by Yosemite Conservancy, a non-profit educational organization in Yosemite National Park. The hut is typically open from late December until early April. A hut keeper lives at Ostrander during the winter.
Reservations are required to stay at the ski hut. You can find details about Ostrander Ski Hut and the reservation process on Yosemite Conservancy's website..
Glacier Point Ski Hut
Yosemite Hospitality operates the Glacier Point Ski Hut. Yosemite Hospitality also operates guided cross-country ski trips to the hut and provides food and lodging to other self - guided skiers (reservations required).
Additionally, Yosemite Hospitality offers guided cross-country ski trips to other areas of the park.
Rental skis, snowshoes, and cross-country ski lessons are available at Badger Pass (209/372-8444).
In order to maintain the pristine quality of the Yosemite Wilderness, please follow these guidelines when camping during winter:
Dangers do exist in the Yosemite Wilderness and even small problems can become deadly if winter users are not prepared. Use common sense and caution when planning a trip, keeping the weakest member of your group in mind. Altitude and cold weather sap more energy.
Winter in Yosemite is typically a mixture of beautiful, sunny days interrupted by cold, snowy days. Conditions can change from one to the other in a matter of hours, so you should be prepared for both each time you go out. Winter conditions generally exist from November through April, although early and late storms may occur at any time. Temperatures at 4,000 feet in Yosemite Valley are usually in the 40s to 60s during the day and 20s at night, with temperatures in the high country from 10 to 25 degrees cooler. Storms vary in length but can last for days and can be followed by another. Up to 15 inches of snow may fall in a short time. The high country generally averages three to ten feet of snow on the ground through the winter. (Check current conditions.)
Last updated: April 8, 2021