Published on December 14, 2019

Considering a family trip to Yosemite and the High Sierra over the winter? It’s a beautiful, safe, quiet and inspiring time of year to visit. Yosemite puts on her finest decorations of the year during this quiet & spectacular season. If we’re lucky, a sparkling white coat of snow rests lightly on the ledges of Yosemite’s grand cliffs, and settles peacefully among the pines. Plus, there is plenty to do to keep everyone excited and engaged. Read below for large family vacation ideas, find the perfect Yosemite lodging and discover why Yosemite is the perfect destination for family travel.

See How The Yosemite Area is Transformed in Winter

Everyone on the family trip will appreciate the changes in Yosemite’s scenery in the winter. The park’s already vast, already grand vistas turn it up another notch in the winter. The soaring cliffs look even taller, and the forest is decorated in white. Morning ice will cling to the sheer cliff walls next to the renewed waterfalls, draping them in white lace. On particularly cold mornings, Yosemite explorers may be rewarded with the rare sight of Frazzle Ice in the rivers below the big waterfalls. A snowy walk among the Giant Sequoia is a sight and experience few could ever forget.

Explore Yosemite’s Snow-Covered and Not-So-Snow-covered Trails Together

Anyone can enjoy snowshoeing through this winter landscape. Snowshoes provide traction as well as float on the snow, and it’s fun to stomp around with giant feet. You can also combine a snowshoe adventure with learning new things about Yosemite’s winter ecology and wildlife on a ranger-led snowshoe walk or guided tour. And if you go on your own, make sure you also keep an eye out for wildlife tracks from deer or squirrels that can give you a hint of who you are sharing these winter woods. Lessons are mostly unnecessary. Just strap on your showshoes and start walking. Backing up is a little harder because the tails of the snowshoes can get hung up in the snow, so find some soft snow and challenge the energetic in your group to a backward running race. That should be good for some laughs. Most people won’t need poles for extra balance, but these are also available with a rental – just ask.

Another large family vacation idea for those up for a little more slipping and sliding adventure, upgrade to some cross country skis for your Yosemite trail exploration. This will make the hills a little more fun and exciting, and it’s also easier to cover more ground. Lessons are also available.

Cross country skiing at Badger Pass
Explore Yosemite’s winter wonderland by sliding along on cross country skis. Badger Pass Ski Area is one hub for XC skiing, with groomed trails that make skiing easier. Also look for ungroomed ski trails at Crane Flat or go skiing through a sequoia grove when the snow conditions allow. This photo is taken from the top of Badger Pass Ski Area.

Groomed cross country ski trails lead from Badger Pass Ski Area up to Old Badger Summit with views of the mountains, and all the way out to Glacier Point for those up for a 21 mile (34 km) round trip ski to the iconic Yosemite Valley overlook. There are also many ungroomed trails that are marked with a series of blazes. Usually, it’s possible to follow tracks from other people who have been on the trail, but if you’re the first group on a trail after a snowstorm, it can also be a fun opportunity for a treasure hunt. Who can find the next trail marker on your family trip?

Snowshoers and XC skiers will tend to go at a different pace, but as long as people are willing to make an effort at staying together, this is a fun way for everyone to find an activity to match their energy and adventure level and enjoy a bit of Yosemite together. You can even rent Pulk Sleds to tow the littlest ones behind you at the Cross Country Center.

When the snow is firm after being packed out by the groomers or by other people’s tracks, you may not need to have something on your feet to distribute your weight. The snow tends to be the most solid in the morning. Then as the day warms up, the snow softens and you’ll be more likely to sink in – also called post-holing – which is much more tiring.

If you do decide to hike the groomed trails, please remember that your deep footprints can make things difficult for the skiers, so stick to the very edges of the groomed trails when walking. The parallel tracks and wide center lane are for cross country skiers and skate skiers.

Grandparents walking with their grandchild with Half Dome in the background.
Yosemite Valley tends to have less snow than the higher elevations like Badger Pass and easy trails with amazing scenery that everyone will enjoy. This photo is on the trail through Ahwahnee Meadow with Half Dome in the back ground.

Some of the most popular trails in Yosemite Valley are plowed (though they may still be slippery), and others see so much traffic that the snow is packed and firm enough to walk on. Some people appreciate having poles or inexpensive lightweight traction devices for their shoes. There are also plenty of trails just downhill of the park along the Highway 140 corridor that are mostly snow free. Check out our list of top winter hikes, and explore some of them for large family vacation ideas.

Enjoy Snow-covered Lawns and Crackling Fires in the Fireplace at The Ahwahnee On Your Family Trip

Kids and the kids at heart love playing in the snow. If we’re lucky and there is snow on the valley floor, fanciful snowmen sprout on the back lawn at The Ahwahnee hotel, their pine cone faces turned skyward to admire Half Dome or Glacier Point. They pose for selfies, their stick arms raised in excitement, or maybe they are laughing in surrender to the snowball fight that erupted around them. Large windows looking out onto the grounds mean those seeking warmth can relax in the elegance and splendor of The Ahwahnee hotel while still enjoying the antics of those playing outside.

After all the snow fun, it’s nice to have The Ahwahnee nearby to warm up again around the immense stone fireplaces in the public areas. You can cuddle up on the comfortable chairs, and sofas with a book. Play cards or spread out for a board game on one of the many coffee tables while enjoying a cup of hot chocolate or cider.

You might even enjoy a lunch or dinner in The Ahwahnee Dining Room where the 34-foot high ceilings lend an air of majesty and grandeur to the dining event.

Other fun snow-play areas can be found inside and close to the park, such as Goat Meadow in Fish Camp. These are a great place for families with tots and younger kids to explore, build a snowman, make snow angels or go sledding down gentle slopes.

Enjoying snowy views from warm tables in The Ahwahnee
One of the many spots in The Ahwahnee where you can stay warm and enjoy a quiet moment or hot beverage while enjoying the winter Yosemite landscape.

Fun Holiday-specific Activities for the Whole Family

After a day enjoying the outdoors, imagine entering a spacious ballroom with tables full of brightly colored candies. Table after table is covered with bowls of marshmallows, candy canes, cookies, M&Ms, thin mints – you name it, it’s probably represented. Around the central candy tables, families gather around smaller tables laughing together as they design their own magnificent gingerbread houses with all the available supplies. Grandma oversees the walkway lined with gumdrop trees decorated for the season with the candy sprinkles. The kids run back and forth from the central tables with more candy ideas. What if the roof is shingled with thin mints, or covered with cookies? What would your family create?

The Gingerbread House Decorating Workshop is just one of many ideas for large family vacations hosted by Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite. And families in the know make their reservations early so they can come back for this delightful and popular part of their Yosemite holiday tradition.

Travel with the Family Through Star-filled Nights and on Moonlight Walks

A star-filled snowy night overlooking the Merced River.
Bundle up and take a stroll through crisp star-filled snowy evenings in Yosemite Valley. Photo: Hazel Galloway

As they say, “Half the park is after dark”. During the winter, the shorter days and longer nights make it easier to explore Yosemite after sunset. Add moonlight reflected off a blanket of fresh snow and Yosemite’s white granite walls and you’ll be able to enjoy Yosemite in an other-worldly glow. A short stroll to the base of Yosemite Falls is a magical journey at night, and you don’t have to go far to enjoy the spectacle. Even looking out through the window of your car or hotel room is enough to experience the beauty of a winter night in Yosemite.

If the moon isn’t up, take advantage of a truly dark sky to wonder at the millions of stars and the milky way, and see how many constellations you can find. Star maps and stories, available in the park’s gift shops, add richness to this special opportunity in a parade of legends written across the sky. Use a red-light flashlight or headlamp covered with red saran wrap to preserve your night-vision while consulting star maps, or simply take the time to let your eyes adjust afterward to see how many more stars will appear once your eyes become used to the darkness.

So, bundle up, grab a flashlight headlamp and bring a thermos of hot chocolate for an extra special treat. It’s an enchanting experience that is sure to be a highlight of your family trip.

Logistics and Where to Stay On Your Family Trip

Yosemite is the place for family travel this winter – a place where everyone from great-grandma down to the newest family member will find something to enjoy. So, how to get here, where to stay?

There are literally hundreds of options of places to stay in Mariposa County both close to and inside Yosemite National Park. Decide whether you are looking for a charming bed and breakfast experience, a Yosemite vacation rental cabin for the whole family to enjoy together, camping options (for hardy adventurers) or a conveniently located hotel experience on our online Yosemite lodging guide.

Learn more about Yosemite winter travel tips, large family vacation ideas, and explore more winter activities that your family might enjoy.

Do you have a favorite Yosemite winter family tradition? Stop by FacebookTwitter and Instagram at @YosemiteNation and share your story. Or ask a question – we’re happy to share what we know.

Categories: Family and Kid Friendly, Holiday, Itineraries, Lodging, Outdoor Activities, Winter