Yosemite Valley has fewer visitors in the off-season for two simple reasons. It can be difficult to get there, and difficult to get around once you’re there. Our favorite friend, and often our most hated foe, snow, stops most people in their tracks. It makes driving a challenge, camping a chore, and even changes the definition of “walking” from a “pleasant stroll” to a “contact sport”.
We’ve only had Charley for six months now, so we haven’t had a chance to try out our new Roadtrek Agile in the snow. I haven’t even picked up a set of chains, though I know I’ll have to soon. I’m not really in a hurry because our other vehicle, an all-wheel drive Subaru Outback, is amazing in the snow, and it’s even better when I switch out its summer shoes for a set of snow tires.
But no matter if you’re bringing your Class B motorhome, your family car, or even a rental, you’re still going to have to get into the park. There are four major roads into Yosemite Valley. The most scenic is the Eastern Entrance, where you’ll take Highway 120 from Lee Vining over the Tioga Pass. Unfortunately, this road closes every Winter because of snow. The closing date varies from year to year, but looking at the last 20 years of data, it appears to close most often in mid-November, reopening around mid-May.
That leaves you with three other routes, all originating in California’s Central Valley. If you’re coming up from LA, you’ll take Highway 41 from Fresno. If you’re coming from San Francisco, you’ll probably want to take Highway 120 from Manteca. But, if it’s been snowing a lot, you’ll want to skip both of these routes and take Highway 140 from Merced. That’s because, while Yosemite Valley is at a reasonable altitude of only 4,000 feet, Highways 41 and 120 both top out at over 6,000 feet. The more weather-friendly Highway 140 never heads higher than 4,000 feet. It’s a little longer from most places, but probably safer in winter conditions.
Once you’ve arrived in the Valley, you’ll have a few choices for getting around. You can drive your motorhome or car, take the convenient shuttle busses, ride a bike or walk. Driving in the Summer in Yosemite is a lesson in frustration. Traffic Jams that will remind you of commuting in a big city are commonplace. But driving in the off season is a great way to find some of the park’s well-known photographic wonderlands.
My recommendation is simple. Stop wherever you see a turnout. They’re mostly big enough for your Class B and they’re there for a reason. You might have to get out and hike around a bit, but you’re sure to find something that makes it worth your while.
Parking can be a bit of an issue at many spots in the Valley, even in the off-season. The most difficult parking is at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, the Yosemite Lodge, the Village Store and the Ahwahnee hotel. But, don’t fret. Yosemite has a wonderful shuttle bus system that will take you directly to each of these locations, and many others as well. The shuttle runs from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM. It concentrates on locations in the Eastern part of the Valley. A special shuttle runs down to El Capitan in the Western End of the Valley as well. There aren’t as many busses running in the off-season as in the Summer months, but you won’t wait longer than 20 minutes for the next bus.
Biking in the Fall and the Spring is lots of fun, but keep your eye out for ice, especially on the darker, colder South side of the Valley. Bikes can be rented at the Yosemite Lodge from Early Spring through Late Fall. There are bike paths throughout Yosemite, but remember you’re sharing most of them with hikers. The West end of the Valley isn’t a great place to ride, as you’ll be sharing narrow roads with cars and busses.
Let’s get back to that nasty subject of snow for a moment. The roads are cleared of snow pretty quickly in the Valley, but ice can stick around all day. If the signs say “Chains Required”, you’d better have your chains on. In fact, it’s a requirement to “Carry Chains” pretty much all winter. The Valley is mostly flat, so those crazy long-distance skids are pretty rare. But, there are a few places, most notably the climb up to the famous Tunnel View that are steep and dangerous when icy.
Every year is different, but most winters in California include at least one or two longish dry spells. Most often occurring in January, these dry spells are fantastic times to visit the Valley, especially if you arrive shortly after a good snow storm. You won’t have to fight the weather, nor the crowds and you’ll be blessed with some amazing Yosemite goodies. For more information on Yosemite, make sure to visit the parks home page.
Next time, Where to go for Season-based Photography.