Published on January 9, 2021

It’s the dead of winter and the kids have been cooped up too long. Your family room has become a pillow fort the size of both Dakotas, and there might even be old sandwiches hidden deep inside but you’re afraid to investigate. Or maybe the short, dark days have left you and your roommates splayed on the couch binge watching too many seasons of a show that was way down on your list. Perhaps the holidays have passed and the gym can’t seem to remedy the trifecta of desserts you thought were a good idea. Sound bleak? Well, it doesn’t have to be! There’s an easy solution, and it’s closer than you think “” the fresh air and cool inspiration of a Yosemite Mariposa County winter hike.

Can You Really Hike In Yosemite National Park in Winter?

best winter hikes
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing stroll or a wild adventure, check out Yosemite winter hiking opportunities. Photo: Patrick Pike

The answer is an emphatic YES. Winter hiking in Yosemite Mariposa is possible due to its varied topography and range of elevations. Of course it’s essential to check current weather conditions, but the abundance of trails in the 1,000 to 5,000 foot range make for invigorating walkabouts surrounded by a striking palette of deep blues, bold greens and a dusting of white on the nearby peaks. Add to that the long shadows created by the low winter sun and the mood is set! Here are a few of the best hikes in Yosemite Mariposa County in winter to get you out of the house and on the trail…

The Best Winter Hikes in Yosemite Valley

Most visitors are surprised to find out that Yosemite Valley sits at only 3,966 feet. While it can get snow during heavy storms, the Valley is hikeable on the whole with warm boots, insulating layers and a desire to get up close and personal with the sheer granite. Plus, the flat terrain makes it navigable for all ages and fitness levels. What better way to go nose-to-nose with El Cap?

Yosemite Valley Loop Trail

best winter hikes in Yosemite
The Yosemite Valley trail passes just behind the iconic Yosemite Chapel in its winter glory. Photo Elliot McGucken
  • Distance: up to you, but 11.5 miles for the full loop
  • Elevation Gain: Mostly Flat
  • Max Elevation: 4,000 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Following many of the Valley’s original east-west trails and wagon roads, this choose-your-own-adventure allows the ultimate freedom to explore all of Yosemite’s glory. The Valley Loop Trail passes by “” or offers striking views of “” the Park’s iconic landmarks, from El Capitan to Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Whether it’s a few hundred yards or the whole circuit, guests can park at any number of trailheads or turnouts to access this towering playlist of Mother Nature’s deepest cuts – a perfect option for a kid-friendly Yosemite itinerary.

Mirror Lake Trail

  • Distance: 2 miles out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 100 feet
  • Max Elevation: 4,100 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy

This small, but visually compelling “lake” is more of a respite for Tenaya Creek as it flows into Yosemite Valley. Aptly-named, Mirror Lake offers wonderful reflections of Half Dome’s crown on its brooding surface, and winter adds a frosty frame to the masterpiece. Exhibits along this paved trail detail the story of the area’s lake-to-meadow succession as well as its cultural history. Though flat, it’s better to follow the out & back trail on the north side as ice and snow often cover the loop route to the south. Bring your camera!

Vernal & Nevada Falls (Winter Route)

Vernal Fall in Yosemite winter hike
Winter hikers are rewarded with a view of Vernal falls decorated with snow and icicles. Photo: Theresa Ho
  • Distance: 2 miles out & back (to Footbridge); 5.4 miles out & back (top of Vernal Fall); 8.4 miles out & back (top of Nevada Fall)
  • Elevation Gain: 400 feet (Footbridge); 1,500 feet (Vernal Fall); 2,000 feet (Nevada Fall)
  • Max Elevation: 4,300 feet (Footbridge); 5,000 feet (top of Vernal Falls); 5,900 feet (top of Nevada Fall)
  • Difficulty: Easy-Strenuous

One of the most popular “” and challenging “” hikes in Yosemite is the Mist Trail up to Vernal & Nevada Falls. While the artfully-hewn granite steps of this route are closed in winter (ice), another route beckons! Beginning at the Happy Isles Trailhead, there are lots of distance/difficulty options, and no matter which you choose this one-of-a-kind waterfall canyon takes on a new vibe come winter. Plus, it’s far less trafficked in winter than summer. Be aware of elevations here “” snowfall can vary greatly from the Footbridge to the top of Nevada Fall “” so plan your route with respect for all of winter’s majesty!

Yosemite Winter Hikes in Hetch Hetchy

The Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite is an overlooked gem for winter walks. Sitting at approximately 4,000 feet (1,219 m), this less-visited region of the Park boasts similar conditions to the Valley and is great for day hikes around the reservoir where the reflections of billowing winter clouds keep you company. Hetch Hetchy is day-use only in winter, and the gates are typically open 8 am – 5 pm.

Wapama Falls Trail

Yosemite winter hike in Wapama Falls
Hike past Wapama Falls in Hetch Hetchy. Photo: Byron Hetrick
  • Distance: 4.6 miles out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet
  • Max elevation 4,100 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Prior to being damned as the primary water source for San Francisco, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was described by John Muir as the most beautiful in all of Yosemite. The trail begins at the O’Shaughnessy Dam and takes hikers along the crystal clear Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and over several footbridges to 1,000 foot Wapama Falls. While the falls are best viewed during spring snowmelt, there may be decent flow after recent rains. What better winter outing than to explore the jumble of granite leading to one of Yosemite’s least-visited waterfalls?

Lookout Point

  • Distance: 2.8 miles out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 500 feet
  • Max Elevation: 5,300 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Beginning at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station, this little-used trail climbs steadily to rocky Lookout Point with its 360-degree views of the distant Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Sierra crest to the east, and the Central Valley foothills to the west. When you reach the fork at the 1-mile mark, turn left for Lookout Point (right takes you into the Hetch Hetchy high country). The higher elevation of this trail can result in snow, so check conditions and bring a thermos of something warm to accompany the view!

The Best Yosemite Winter Hikes in Wawona

The Wawona area in the south of Yosemite is another brilliant winter surprise. With its historic hotel and landmark golf course, Wawona sits at 4,000 feet and offers meadow hikes as well as frosty forays along the South Fork of the Merced River.

Wawona Swinging Bridge

Swinging bridge on winter hike in Wawona
Enjoy the views from a snowy swinging bridge over the South Fork of the Merced River in Wawona. Photo: Theresa Ho
  • Distance: 1.5 miles out & back
  • Elevation Gain: Mostly Flat
  • Max Elevation: 4,100 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy

Not to be confused with Yosemite Valley’s Swinging Bridge, this “locals” spot features a short, flat hike along the South Fork of the Merced River to a bouncy yet secure suspension bridge over a gentle cascade of water and granite. The Wawona Swinging Bridge can be reached two ways “” from a trailhead at the top of Chilnualna Falls Road for a slightly longer, more scenic route, or the short & sweet route mentioned above that embarks from the end of Forest Drive. A great spot for a winter picnic if the sun is out and you’re feeling bold! Be sure to check out the Pioneer Yosemite History Center after your swing.

Wawona Meadow Loop

Wawona Pioneer History Center in winter
Stroll across this historic covered bridge while exploring Wawona’s Pioneer History Center. Photo: Theresa Ho
  • Distance: 3.5 miles loop
  • Elevation Gain: Mostly Flat
  • Max Elevation: 4,000 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy

Starting at the historic Wawona Hotel, take the paved road across the golf course and turn left on the fire road that loops around Wawona Meadow. Here, the forest edges up to a beautiful expanse of frosty green and soon you leave the links behind as you head southwest (the trail goes well beyond the golf course). Your counterclockwise loop is worlds apart from the bustle life back home, not to mention dog and kid-friendly (no particular order!). A great destination for a brisk run on a winter morn’. Note: the Wawona Hotel is currently closed for the 2020-21 season due to renovations.

Chilnualna Falls

  • Distance 8.2 miles out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 2,400 feet
  • Max Elevation: 6,400 feet
  • Difficulty: Strenuous

Starting at the Chilnualna Falls Trailhead (pronounced Chill-new-all-nuh) at the top of Chilnualna Falls Road, this pristine hike follows cascading Chilnualna Creek for the first half-mile or so. After that the switchback begin and it’s steep “” approximately 600 feet per mile for 4 miles “” so you’ll definitely get in your steps for the day. Flowing year-round, the winter volume of H2O won’t be as impressive as late spring, but the trail provides multiple views of the icy cascades as well as the Wawona Basin below. Due to the extreme range in elevation (4,000 to 6,400 feet), only the lower portions of this hike may be accessible after winter snowfall so be sure to check conditions.

The Best Winter Hikes in Greater Mariposa County

Outside the Park, greater Mariposa County offers copious lower-elevation hikes with a range of habitats from steep, almost Scottish highland-like hills with little vegetation (great views!) to dense conifer forests, as well as rolling, oak-studded foothills and flat, lakeside paths perfect for a stroll with your trusted pooch.

Stockton Creek Preserve

Stockton Creek Preserve Trails are snow free for winter hikes
Stockton Creek Preserve trails are typically convenient and snow-free all winter long. Photo: Tony McDaniel
  • Distance: 3.1 mile loop
  • Elevation Gain: 501 feet
  • Max Elevation: 2,500 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Starting a few blocks from downtown Mariposa, the dog-friendly Stockton Creek Preserve trail winds through a classic California oak and chaparral setting up to Stockton Creek Reservoir. The 410-acre Preserve is a magnet for many bird species, the Oak Titmouse, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Raven, Northern Flicker, Hooded Merganser, American Coot and Wood Duck among them. The lower loop trail features a graded fire road, while the upper loop provides expansive vistas overlooking the water and surrounding hills. In addition to the bird show, numerous amphibians and reptiles, including the Western Pond Turtle (the West Coast’s only native freshwater turtle) live here. After your hike, explore the charming Gold Rush town of Mariposa for food, museums and the oldest (1854) Superior County Courthouse still in use west of the Rockies.

Lewis Creek Trail (Corlieu and Red Rock Falls)

  • Distance: 3.9 miles out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 531 feet
  • Max Elevation: 4,200 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

With its shady tree cover and fern grotto feel, the Lewis Creek Trail transports hikers to a mythical paradise. Located near Fish Camp , the journey is a two-for-one special when it comes to waterfalls. A few hundred feet from the turnout on Highway 41, the trail forks right (downstream) and drops .5 miles to Corlieu Falls. Named after the “Cliff Man” Clifford Corlieu, this multi-tiered waterfall drops 80 feet and the rock foundation of a cabin where the Corlieu lived from 1910 to 1929 can still be found. Going left (upstream) at the fork, the trail follows Lewis Creek where the remnants of a lumber flume can be seen. The flume was operated by the Sugar Pine Lumber Company from 1900 to 1931, plunging 54 miles to the Central Valley town of Madera. After arriving at Red Rock Falls, hikers will experience a wider, more powerful cascade of 20 feet. This outing is great for kids, dogs are welcome, and with fewer winter visitors the trail can be serene.

Hite Cove Trail

the best winter hikes at Hite Cove
In late winter/early spring, the Hite Cove Trail is resplendent with many shades and hues of wildflowers.
  • Distance: 9 miles out & back.
  • Elevation Gain: 980 feet
  • Max Elevation: 1,600 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous

Historically significant to both native peoples and European-Americans, the Hite Cove area was used by the Ahwahneechee people in winter and spring to avoid the harsh high-elevation snow, before returning to Yosemite Valley in summer. John Hite settled here in 1862 where he operated a gold mine for the next 17 years. The mine produced a total value of 3 million in today’s dollars. The trail follows the steep Merced River canyon offering spectacular views in crisp, cool winter air.

Merced River Trail

winter hiking at the Merced River Trail
The Merced River Trail provides excellent hiking all year round.
  • Distance: 5.5 miles out & back
  • Elevation Gain: 482 feet
  • Max Elevation: 1,100 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

Starting near the BLM-operated McCabe Flat Campground, the Merced River Trail follows the old Yosemite Valley Railroad line above and along the Wild & Scenic Merced River. The hike features the ever-present serenade of flowing water to compliment the azure winter skies. At trail’s end there’s a narrow spur that climbs to a seasonal waterfall, worth the effort if running. The Merced River Trail is dog-friendly (on leash) and great for kids

Pro Tips for Yosemite Winter Hikes

  • Weather First “” know weather conditions ahead of time (cell coverage can be spotty or nonexistent).
  • Ditto Navigation “” bring a printed map!
  • Layer It On Thick “” wear insulating layers, head covering, sunglasses and waterproof shell.
  • Slippery When Wet “” winter trails can get muddy; bring waterproof boots/shoes and wool socks.
  • Snack Up “” sometimes we forget to fuel/hydrate when it’s cold out; bring ample food & water.
  • Exit Strategy “” time your hike for short winter days, and bring a headlamp for emergencies.
  • Plan B “” if winter trails see higher than usual snowfall, try our Yosemite Mariposa Snowshoeing page!
  • Pack Some Screen ““ Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you can’t get a sunburn. Pack sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF of at least 15 to keep away an uncomfortable burn.
  • A Warm Place To Land “” try our Lodging Guide for post-hike fire pits and toasty beds.

Take A Peek “” check our Yosemite Mariposa webcams as a supplement to (not substitute for!) current conditions. Or, if you’re in Yosemite Mariposa County a little early, be sure to explore our best Yosemite fall hikes as well.

Categories: Family and Kid Friendly, Hiking, Outdoor Activities, Winter