Wilderness in Winter

Sunrise over Donahue Pass in March 2013 with tent in snow
A March sunrise over Donohue Pass.

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.

  • Routefinding: Most winter travel is cross-country travel; trails and trail markers are covered with snow, requiring advanced navigation skills. Few trails are marked for winter use.

  • Travel is by ski or snowshoe.

  • You may need a stove to melt drinking water; streams may not be accessible.

  • Weather can change rapidly and dramatically. Check weather forecasts before your trip, but be prepared for a wide range of conditions.

  • Some areas are prone to avalanches. Be sure you have the equipment and skills to travel through avalanche zones.

  • Days are shorter; night comes quickly (and is cold).

  • Campfires are often impractical: Fires are only allowed in existing fire rings, which are typically buried under several feet of snow, with no way to locate them.

  • Human waste must be buried in a hole six inches into the ground: That means you have to dig through snow, then dig six inches through the frozen soil to bury human waste. Alternatively, you can pack out your waste.

  • Snow is a durable surface. Finding a site to set up camp can be easier in winter, as snow is a durable surface. Just ensure you are still 100 feet from trails and water sources.

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. The road to Badger Pass in late March or very early April each year.

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 Welcome 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 Welcome 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
Dewey Point (#14/Ridge route): 10
Horizon Ridge: 15
Bridalveil Creek: 20
Merced Crest: 10
Badger Pass (other than other places listed above): 45
Mariposa Grove: 8
Crane Flat: 10
Tioga Pass: 10

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.

Depending on snow conditions and weather, the ski (or snowshoe) in can be either a perfect glide through the piney woods or extremely difficult. We strongly recommend that only skiers at the intermediate level or above and in good physical shape make the trip.

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

Closed for the winter of 2023-2024.

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).

Minimum Impact

In order to maintain the specialness of the Yosemite Wilderness, please follow these guidelines when camping during winter:

  • Camp out of sight of all trails, water sources, and one mile from any plowed road.

  • Use a portable stove for any cooking. Open fires should be used for emergencies only.

  • Pack out all trash.

  • Pets and over-snow vehicles are not permitted.

  • Do not cut tree limbs or boughs.

  • Dispose of human waste properly. Use the "well" or indentation around a tree trunk and dig down into the soil to bury human waste. Be sure you are not in or near an area used in summer or near any sort of water source or drainage. Pack out all toilet paper.

  • Protect water quality by disposing of wastewater by scattering it at least 100 feet from water sources. All drinking water taken from open sources should be purified by boiling for at least five minutes, or by chemical treatment with an iodine based purifier (let purify for one hour in icy water), or a Giardia-rated filter.


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.

  • Choose a reasonable route—know your limitations. Keep in mind your physical condition and winter travel experience

  • In winter, the consequences of an unplanned night out are more severe, so it is even more important to tell someone responsible where you are going and when you plan to return. Don't go out alone unless you are very experienced.

  • Group dynamics are even more important in winter. Do not separate from your group. Watch out for signs of hypothermia, exhaustion, or dehydration in others as well as yourself. Make decisions based on the weakest party member.

  • Prevent hypothermia by managing clothing as needed. Take off a jacket before getting sweaty; warm up your fingers before they are too stiff to work a zipper. Dry winter air means you need more water to stay hydrated—don’t forget to drink because it’s cold out.

  • Carry and know how to use a map and compass (even if you have GPS). Most winter travel is cross-country travel; the trails are covered with snow. Make sure your navigational skills are up to the challenge. Even following the marked ski trails in the park requires care and attention in new snow, at night, or in stormy conditions.

  • Wear or carry a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, gloves, warm jacket and raingear (both jacket & pants).

  • Be prepared for sudden changes in weather. Wear proper clothing (no cotton). Synthetic or wool clothing keeps you warm when wet and will help keep you alive.

  • Carry emergency equipment, such as a signal mirror, whistle, waterproof matches, emergency space blanket, and a flashlight/headlamp (with extra batteries).

  • Be prepared to spend a night out if necessary.

  • Drink plenty of water (and carry extra).

  • Eat and carry high energy food.

  • If you are not trained in avalanche avoidance and rescue, stay out of avalanche terrain. Don’t go on or beneath slopes steeper than 20 degrees.

  • Plan for the unexpected. A foot of new, heavy snow can drastically affect the speed one can travel, make route finding more difficult, and greatly increasing the avalanche hazard.


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 1, 2024

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