Recently I wrote how difficult it can be to book a stay (room, camp site, or backcountry wilderness permit) in Yosemite National Park for this summer or fall since everything usually fills up months to a year in advance.
Summer is, by far, the busiest time of year in Yosemite. It’s when most of the park’s visitors come, when lodging, campgrounds, restaurants and trails are most crowded. Unless you want to backpack through the remote areas of the park, or stay in one of the High Sierra Camps (reservations doled out by lottery), can only visit when your kids are on summer vacation from school, or love big crowds in small, confined places (like Yosemite Valley), summer is not the time to come.
But beginning in about mid-September and continuing until sometime in May, the pace of life in Yosemite slows down. It’s when the savvy travelers visit, and it’s also when some of the park’s most interesting annual events are held.
Here’s a month-by-month summary of Yosemite’s off-season:
- September: The weather is usually very nice in Yosemite Valley, and even up in the higher elevations like Tuolumne Meadows where lodging may remain open through mid-month. (A quick check of the Yosemite reservation system showed room availability for a three-night stay, mid-month, at the Wawona Hotel in the southern end of the park, and in Yosemite Valley, although not at either the upscale Ahwahnee Hotel or the Yosemite Lodge).
- October: It can still be quite warm in Yosemite Valley, although on one trip over Columbus Day weekend I woke up in an unheated cabin. I had to eat breakfast off a paper plate in the Curry Village dining hall because a snowstorm during the night had knocked out all power except that provided by emergency generators and dishes and silverware could not be washed. (My room availability check showed that by mid-October of 2012 rooms would available in all of the park lodgings that had not yet closed for the season).
- November: The road through Tuolumne Meadows and over Tioga Pass on the eastern side of the park will be closed sometime this month. About the same time, the scenic road to Glacier Point, high on the southern rim of Yosemite Valley, will close, although snowplows keep the portion of the road to leading to the Badger Pass ski area open during the winter. The Vintners’ Holidays culinary events begin.
- December: The peaks that surround Yosemite Valley will probably have snow on them and snow can fall in the Valley. Vehicles may be required to carry chains during the winter, although Highway 120 from Merced into Yosemite will probably be open and snow-free most of the time. (If you are flying into California and renting a car to drive to Yosemite, I’d suggest asking the rental car company to provide chains — you may have to pay for a “ski package” to get them, along with a ski rack that you might not need). The fabulous Bracebridge Dinner takes place on several days this month.
- January: This is usually the height of winter in the Sierra Nevada. It’s a good time to go sledding or skiing up at Bear Valley, or build a snowman or have a snowball fight down in Yosemite Valley. The Chefs’ Holidays take place—more great food and wine to sample. When the sun comes out, the cliffs and peaks sparkle like white glitter stuck onto Yosemite’s granite rock faces. This Yosemite Conservancy “Nature Notes – Winter Moments” YouTube video gives one a feel for what’s it’s like being in the park during this time of year.
- February: Skiing continues at Bear Valley, but Northern California weather can be quite warm this month, and Yosemite can have almost spring-like, sunny weather.
- March: The higher elevations of park remain closed, but winter is beginning to wane. Wildflowers start to bloom along the highways leading to Yosemite from California’s Central Valley.
- April: A storm may hit Yosemite, reminding visitors that winter isn’t quite over yet, but daytime temperatures in Yosemite Valley are beginning to climb. Lodging at Curry Village will reopen.
- May: The snow in the High Country will be melting, Yosemite’s waterfalls will begin to roar, and the high-season tourist crowds begin to arrive in the park. (I found no available rooms at the Yosemite Lodge for a mid-month, mid-week, three-night stay, in May, 2013). Summer will soon be here.
See this page on the Yosemite National Park Website for additional information on visiting the park during each season. Pick up a copy of An Explorer’s Guide: Yosemite & The Southern Sierra Nevada by travel writer David Page which covers both in-season and off-season travel to Yosemite, as well as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to the south.
Still can’t figure out how to get yourself to Yosemite, at any time of year? Just take our virtual tour of the park by clicking here.