Visiting in January Overview
Learn what to expect when visiting Yosemite National Park in January
Winter is a magical time in Yosemite National Park. There is nothing like watching snow blanket the granite domes and lodgepole pines. Visiting the park in January has wonderful benefits such as avoiding the crowds, as well as some drawbacks like limited access to roads because of snow. If you can make it to Yosemite in January, you will have an amazing trip and leave with an appreciation for the snow and solitude of winter in the park.
benefits of visiting in january
The biggest benefit to visiting Yosemite in January is the lack of crowds. Summer is the busiest time of the year, and spring and fall are also bustling—although not nearly as busy as summer. Winter is a season of peace and quiet without lines of traffic through the valley or the struggle to find a parking spot. The other main benefit to visiting in January is the beauty of the snow falling covering the domes of the Valley or the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove. It is truly a winter wonderland, and the low lighting in winter makes for great photography.
An additional benefit of visiting Yosemite in January is that you are more likely to be able to book a last minute trip. Anyone who has tried to find a place to stay or even a campsite a month or two before their summer trip to the park knows that accommodations in the summer book up to 6 months in advance. But in the winter, if you have a few days off work or happen to be in the area, finding a place to stay is much less of a headache, even if your trip is only a few weeks away.
While road closures due to snow can be frustrating, they are a mixed blessing as they force you to truly explore the areas that still can be reached. Visitors in summer often spend more of their time in Yosemite driving than sightseeing because of traffic and because there is so much to see and do. But in January, visitors are made to spend their time exploring instead of driving, making for a much less hectic and more peaceful trip. And while some of the bigger wildlife like bears will be hibernating, the snow is a wonderful tool for tracking more elusive animals such as bobcat, fisher, mink, and even mountain lion that you are more likely to see in winter because of the lack of crowds. As an added bonus, the bugs will also be hibernating which can be a great relief from the summer mosquitos. Another perhaps less pertinent plus for visiting Yosemite in January is the likelihood of wildfires. The summer brings lightning strike fires to Yosemite National Park every year and even if the fire is not directly threatening visitors, the smokey conditions can still be disappointing as they shroud the parks scenic views. In January, you are much more likely to get the crisp and clear winter air for your pictures.
drawbacks of visiting in january
The snow in Yosemite is a double-edged sword, making it beautiful, but also closing many of the roads. The biggest drawback to visiting in January is the closures of Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road, typically closing in November and opening in late-May. Highway 140 that runs through the Valley is open year-round, but may have snow chain restrictions. Mariposa Grove Road is also closed in January, although you can park your car at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and walk the two-mile Washburn Trail to the grove.
Besides the road closures, it’s very cold in Yosemite in January and if you aren’t prepared with warm clothing and gear that can withstand the temperatures, your trip won’t be the winter wonderland experience you were hoping for. And while accommodations might be easier to find last minute in the January, you will have to spend more time packing as the winter months require more gear than the summer months.
Additionally, visiting in January gives you a smaller chance of seeing certain of Yosemite’s wildlife, such as bears and snakes, as they will be hibernating to wait out the cold.
things to do in january
Things to See in January
Among the many options for things to do in Yosemite in January are an abundance of sights to see and scenes that will simply take your breath away. Here is a short– non-exhaustive– list of a few of the must sees in January.
Granite Monoliths: Half Dome and El Capitan are the most famous, but Yosemite Valley is surrounded by granite cliffs of staggering height. These are a must see– or perhaps more like a can’t-miss– for any season you visit the park but are staggeringly beautiful in the winter. Normally edged with the greens of the pines and aspens, in the winter they wear perfectly white, snowy garments that gives them an air entirely different from the summer. These beasts of rocks are not to be missed in an visit to the park in January.
Waterfalls: Yosemite Falls and Horsetail Falls both flow during winter, though not at their spring levels. Even so, waterfalls surrounded by snow are magnificent to see and make excellent, postcard worthy pictures.
Wildlife: Animals are still active in the winter months, despite the cold and lucky visitors might see some wildlife a summer guest would never dream of.
Yosemite Valley Chapel: Often not given more an a passing glance while driving by, Yosemite Valley Chapel is well worth a stop and a picture. Still an active Christian church, the chapel is straight out of a winter fairytale with red brick walls and simple steeple. Covered in a fresh blanket of snow, your friends will think your pictures are from the ending scene of a Christmas movie.
Yosemite Falls Snow Cone: While visiting Yosemite Falls, don’t forget to take a look for the snow cone, a mountain of snow that builds at the bottom of Yosemite fall each winter. While not the most famous winter site in Yosemite, it is still worth seeing how much snow builds up at the base of this majestic falls.
Glacier Point Road: If you’re up for the snowshoe or ski trek, Glacier Point road, closed to cars in the winter, is a must try. Offering stunning vistas and a chance to get away from the town and into the wilderness, this road is great for beginners or experts in snow sports. Unfortunately, the only way onto it in winter is by snowshoe or ski, but we promise the views are worth the trek.
Tunnel View: The most iconic of all lookouts on the road into Yosemite Valley, the Tunnel View is the picture that everyone has with El Capitan to the left, Bridalveil Falls cascading down the cliffs to the right, Half Dome standing tall in the distance, and the Merced River snaking through the entire valley. But your pictures will stand out from the crowd as all these sights will take on a new remoteness and mystery when cloaked in snow.
hiking in january
While there are many trails that are closed for the winter, there are plenty that are still accessible. Many of the lower trails in the Valley, such as Bridalveil Falls, Mirror Lake, Lower Yosemite Falls and the Vernal Falls footbridge on the Mist Trail stay open through the winter. But trails that take you higher in elevation, like Upper Yosemite Falls and 4-mile Trail are closed. Hetch Hetchy and Wawona remain open all year, and their trails will be snow-covered but open. You can read NPS’ current conditions before heading out for the day and check out the best Yosemite hikes for more ideas.
If you’re up for an adventure, snowshoeing is a great winter alternative to hiking. You can snowshoe (as well as cross country ski) the Glacier Point road for an unmated view of the valley and Badger Pass Ski area. Dewey Point Meadow Trailhead which branches off of Glacier Point Road is another excellent option. The Crane Flat area also offers snowshoeing options for beginners and experts alike. The 4 mile roundtrip Clark Range View Trail is nice for beginner snowshoers and offers wonderful views of the Merced River. If you’re up for a challenge, the Tuolumne Grove Trail will take you through a remarkable sequoia grove. While shorter than Clark Range View coming in around 2.5 miles, it is a bit of a climb and definitely a harder trek. Another great option is a snowshoe trek in Mariposa Grove which boasts massive sequoias that you won’t want to miss
Early mornings will be very chilly in Yosemite, so be prepared with hats, gloves, warm base layers, and jackets. Even though it is cold out, make sure you are still drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Plan on starting your hike around 8 or 9 and make sure you can finish it within 5-6 hours due to the shorter days of winter. Also keep in mind that micro spikes or crampons for your boots and trekking poles can be very useful for hiking in the snow and maintaining balance. Some trails may be obscured completely by the snow forcing hikers to navigate by the tall, yellow triangle trail markers that some trails have or by GPS alone. Please keep in mind that if it is actively snowing (and even if it is not), you cannot rely on your footprints to lead you back to the trailhead.
BACKPACKING in January
Traditional backing in Yosemite in January is very nearly impossible. Any of the trails that lead higher out of the valley, such as John Muir Trail which begins in Yosemite Valley, are impassable because of the snow. But if you really want to try out your four-season tent and your sleeping bag rated for -10 degrees, Yosemite still has some options. You can try out your winter gear at base camp in the campgrounds that remain open in the winter which allows for a snow free– but still cold– experience.
As an alternative to traditional backpacking, there are some snowshoe and cross country ski trails that allow overnight stays. There are a few marked trails on Glacier Point Road and in the Crane Flats and Mariposa Grove areas as well as two overnight ski huts, one at Glacier Point and the other at Ostrander Lake. These basic structures of stone and brick provide rustic accommodations for those looking for an adventure. Only advanced skiers should attempt the trail to Ostrander Lake, but beginners can make it to the hut on Glacier Point. Reservations and/or wilderness permits are required for overnights stays.
weather in january
Yosemite National Park encompasses much more only Yosemite Valley so weather conditions vary drastically depending on where you are. Of course, in the winter months, other sections of the park at higher altitude such as Tuolumne Meadows are only accessible on skis. Generally across the park, Yosemite in January is typically very cold with a good amount of snow. Although sunny days with warmer temperatures are not too uncommon, the average temperature in Yosemite Valley and Wawona in January is a high of 48, and a low of 28 degrees Fahrenheit (9/-2 degrees Celsius). On average, it snows 8 days in January. Water levels tend to be low, although some falls still tumble over the mighty cliffs but not at spring levels. The mornings and evening will be crisp and chilly so best to plan extended outdoor activities in the afternoons as long as you have enough time to complete your adventure before the early onset of winter nights.
The gateway to Yosemite on the southwest side, the town of Oakhurst, has lows in the 20s and highs in the 60s in January with less snow than the valley while the north eastern gateway, Lee Vining, which will only be used by skiers in the winter, has lows in the low 20s and highs in the 40s.
It’s best to prepare for the toughest conditions that you might face when traveling to Yosemite in the winter. While it may be that your trip consists of mostly sunny days on the warmer side, at least the evenings will be very cold. Snow presents another complicating factor when packing as some materials loose their warmth if they get wet. Visitors should keep in mind while Yosemite is in one of the most mild mountain ranges in the world, it is still the mountains and the weather can change quickly. Layering your clothing is the best way to be prepared for these changes along with knowing when it’s time to turn around and get to shelter.
While natural wildfires are less likely to occur in the winter months, the National Parks Service does occasionally burn mimic wildfires for the health of the forest which can create hazy or smokey afternoons.
Wildlife in January
While wildlife viewing may not seem to be a draw to Yosemite in January, your opportunities for seeing the local species abound in the colder seasons. While you are not likely to see bears or snakes because of their hibernation in the winter, other wildlife rarely seen in the summer is more visible in the snow. Animals that are unusual to see in the summer such as snowshoe hares, otters, and minks are easier to catch glimpses of due to the lack of crowds and the winter behavior of these animals. Birds such as eagles, owls, and water fowl abound and are wonderful subjects for photography. Hunting coyotes, often seen in summer as well, are entertaining to watch and are often found even around campgrounds. Of course, the mule deer that are as tame as can be in the summer (but still, please don’t approach them), are beautifully set against snowy backdrops in the winter. If you’re really adventurous and want to trek into the backcountry with snowshoes or skis, you might be able to see– or at least see the footprints of– some of the more elusive animals like bobcats, mountain lions, or even the Sierra Nevada Red Fox. Fresh snow makes for a great opportunity to see the evidence of these creatures as their foot prints are perfectly preserved and clear for visitors to see.
Many visitors are happy that the mosquitos and other biting insects that are a nuisance in the summer are in hibernation in January as well as poisonous snakes that find it far too cold to make an appearance. While the wildlife in January may be more difficult to spot than the bears poking around for scraps in the summer, it is well worth taking some time to see what you can find.
Recommended Wildland trips in January
Traveling to Yosemite in winter is an amazing experience, but the snow, cold, possibility for bad weather, and logistics of finding activities that are safe to do can be intimidating. If you want to experience this park in the colder months, but don’t want the headache of planning out your trip, Wildland Trekking offers a selection of trips that are designed specially for winter in Yosemite so that you can enjoy this unique season without the hassle or stress. Feel free to explore all our day hiking options or our winter tours but here are a couple we especially recommend in January.
Yosemite Autocamp Winter Hiking Tour: This tour is not to be missed as you and your fellow travelers enjoy the beauty of Yosemite with almost no one around and an expert guide to show you the way. Each day of this 4 day tour will find the group embarking on day hikes or snowshoe treks through the accessible regions of the park. Perhaps just as fun as the hiking will be the accommodations at Yosemite Autocamp where guests will have private Airstream accommodations to watch the snow fall. You’ll visit Badger Pass, a grove of giant sequoias, and get a thorough taste of what Yosemite has to offer in January.
Mariposa Snowshoe Private Tour: If you were looking forward to doing some of the planning for you Yosemite excursion in January, Wildland Trekking still has options for you especially if you’ve never visited the park before in the winter. This day hike or snowshoeing trek leads you to the wonders of Mariposa Grove, perhaps the most famous of all Yosemite’s giant sequoias groves. You won’t want to miss this hike that includes lunch and snacks, a day pack, snowshoes, trekking poles, and an expert guide to lead you.
JOIN A GUIDED HIKING ADVENTURE
Yosemite National Park is home to some of the most epic and amazing hiking vacations in the world. Wildland Trekking offers trips with the best of Yosemite: waterfalls, views, wildlife, solitude, adventure and fascinating natural and cultural interpretation.
Guided Yosemite treks are all-inclusive which covers permits; local transportation (excluded on certain tours); meals; equipment; safety systems and professional hiking/wilderness guides; all of which allows visitors to maximize their time in Yosemite and focus entirely on enjoying the Park.
YOSEMITE ADVENTURE TOURS
GUIDED BACKPACKING ADVENTURES: these are for people interested in an authentic Yosemite hiking adventure away from the roads and crowds.
PORTERED TRIPS: on these innovative trips, guests hike with light day packs and camp near in stunning backcountry locations.
INN-BASED PACKAGES: these tours are all-inclusive packages with lodging, amazing daily hikes, expert guides, meals, transportation and more!
CAMPING-BASED HIKING PACKAGES: camping-based hiking packages provide all-around hiking experiences of Yosemite on wonderful outdoor vacations.
DAY HIKE TOURS: maximize your day in Yosemite on a fully guided, award-winning hiking tour on one of the Park’s best trails.