Streams, waterfalls and cliffs, oh my! Yosemite Valley is definitely one of the best destinations on earth, known for its surreal beauty. So, when I was thinking of a wintery escape close to my northern California home, it was an easy choice.
Yosemite, here we come!
Yosemite Valley is a glacial valley located in Yosemite National Park in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains. For travelers, it is the centerpiece of the park attracting visitors from around the world. It looks amazing during spring, but it’s especially beautiful around winter when the trees are capped with snow and creeks are lined with ice.
We took our time and drove through the valley, which is a big loop, trying to find the best stops along the way. Your lodging will have maps of the valley with all these stops (and many more) or you can get one at the gate to enter the park or download this Yosemite Valley map.
Winter Stops in Yosemite Valley
1. Tunnel View
Tunnel View is a scenic overlook on Wawona Road (highway 41) and is one of the most popular places to visit in Yosemite National Park. Entering the valley by road, it is the first stop after going through the tunnel (hence the name tunnel view!). It’s a must-do stop as you can take photos of the most famous panorama of Yosemite Valley and can admire a perfectly framed forest of pine trees with wide blue skies above.
We stopped here on our way into the valley and again on the way out!
2. Bridalveil Fall
Bridalveil Fall is one of the most prominent waterfalls and an iconic view in the Yosemite Valley; it attracts millions of tourist every year. It’s a very short uphill hike to the waterfall, which is 188 meters in height and flows year round.
During the spring, the melting snow brightens the water force and visitors can feel the water breezes from a far distance. During the winter, snow lines the fall and glistens the top of the rocks. But, be very careful because it can get slippery at this time too. The ice was such a challenge for me, that I fell on my butt and slid halfway down the short hill with my camera in hand!
3. Yosemite Valley Chapel
The Yosemite Valley Chapel was built in 1879 and considered to be the most holy place of Yosemite Valley. It was built by architect Charles Geddes in the carpenter catholic style. Many people find it a very peaceful place as it creates a very positive aura and helps you ease your mind.
The chapel was originally built in the “Lower Village” as called then, its site at the present day is about 1/4 mile past the Swinging Bridge picnic area. It’s one of the first major buildings you will see after entering the valley. If you time it right, you can add to your bucket list experience by attending a service (service schedule)!
4. Mist Trail Hike to Vernal Fall
The Mist Trail is for hikers who love to walk moderate terrains. It is 3 miles (a lot of uphill) to Vernal Fall and 7 miles round trip to Nevada fall starting from the Trailhead parking. If you want to explore more than you can walk from Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) and add an extra 1.5 miles.
This trail is not just about the falls, it’s about the beautiful scenery along the way – stone bridges, flowing streams and the peace of being surrounded by nature.
If you want to make it all the way to the falls, ice traction cleats are recommended because the trail can be dangerously iced over in the winter.
5. Half Dome Village
When you are in Yosemite Valley and looking for a perfect road trip stop for a cheaper bite to eat, then Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) is right up your alley. You can spend the night in one of their 60 cabins, but we made a stop strictly for some food. Dining in the Yosemite Valley is EXPENSIVE, so a quick $20 pizza lunch was welcomed. There’s also a store there in case you need to pick up some mittens, a jacket or a bag of chips!
6. Hike Yosemite Falls
If you just want a quick (and stunning!) view of Yosemite Falls in all its glory, park at Yosemite Valley Lodge and just walk across the street to take a peak. This area is also where you can hike the easy one mile lower falls loop. It’s not that long but the short walk offers fantastic views of both the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.
Getting to the top of Yosemite Falls is much more strenuous – 7.2 miles round trip with a 2,700 foot elevation gain. But, from the top your effort will be rewarded with surreal views.
7. Majestic Hotel for a Peppermint Hot Chocolate
Grab a mug of peppermint hot chocolate and relax on the comfy couches in front of the wood burning fireplace at the historical Majestic Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee Hotel). If you opt out of pizza at Half Dome Village, the Majestic is also a very nice place to stop for lunch, albeit a little pricier. You can check out their menus here.
After you’ve warmed up, take a stroll around to look at its stunning interior and exterior architecture.
8. El Capitan View
After the Majestic Hotel stop you will hit a fork in the road heading back towards the tunnel view on Northside Drive, this is an incredible place to get a glimpse of the massive El Capitan. The granite monolith extends about 3,000 ft. from base to summit along the tallest face and is one of the world’s favorite challenges for rock climbing and base jumpers.
9. Valley View
As you head out of Yosemite Valley, get one last breathtaking glimpse at the Valley View that’s just before the Pohono Bridge (just past the sign for 120/140). It’s a picturesque scene with El Capitan to the left, plus the towering Cathedral Rocks which reflect off of the Merced River.
If you are heading to Northern California looking for a picturesque and adventurous winter destination, then Yosemite Valley certainly has a lot to offer. Even if your base in California is San Francisco, Viator offers a Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoia tour to check out.
If you are driving your own car be sure to have an AWD with snow tires or carry chains (you will need them most of the time throughout the winter). My Jeep Wrangler in 4WD got along just fine, but we saw some cars sliding a little when they failed to put on any chains! After all, driving in the snow can become pretty dangerous.
Where to Sleep
Many choose to sleep inside the park at the Majestic Hotel or Yosemite Valley Lodge, both give easy access to drive the loop (or take the valley shuttle) but there are great choices just outside the park gates too.
On our first visit we stayed at the Evergreen Lodge, which is a smaller and quainter version of the Majestic Hotel. The last time, we absolutely loved the Tin Lizzie Inn which was very close to Yosemite National Park’s south gate (and across the street from Tenaya Lodge). Both were about a 45 minute drive to the center of the valley, but the views along the way occupied the time nicely! Plus, the Tin Lizzie is next to a decent sized city that offers some other dining options and a movie theater. It will be a bonus if Carmen and Jeb are the innkeepers when you are there, because together they are simply the best! She makes delicious breakfasts, he gives informative Yosemite suggestions and both of them are just all around lovely people.
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