Don’t let the possibility of Yosemite snow chains and winter driving conditions keep you from enjoying Yosemite National Park in one of its most beautiful seasons. Many locals consider winter their favorite Yosemite season, and if you make the journey, you’ll see why. The scenery is more spectacular with a dusting of white, and with peace and quiet filling the valley.
Installing chains is easy as long as you plan ahead and know what to expect. However, if you read through all of this and you want an even simpler solution –take YARTS and the free shuttles instead. There are YARTS bus stops at many of the lodging locations along Highway 140 that will take you into Yosemite Valley. Once there, regular free shuttles circulate between Yosemite Valley destinations. You can also take a free bus from Yosemite Valley to Badger Pass Ski Area in the morning and return by bus in the afternoon.
Chain control areas can exist on any road when and where the snow conditions require it – both inside and outside the park. When there is snow on the road, Yosemite snow chains can become essential for reliable stopping and starting. When that happens expect to encounter chain controls. It’s a small price to pay to get to see Yosemite in her winter glory.
It’s hard to know exactly when and where you’ll need to carry Yosemite tire chains until right before your trip. In general, chain control areas are more likely to be in place during the winter months. Expect to find them from November through March, especially on higher elevation roads like Highway 120, Highway 41 and the Badger Pass Road. Depending on the weather, we could see chain requirements as early as September or as late as May, but these are less likely. Lower-elevation roads like Highway 140 through Mariposa or even Yosemite Valley roads can also have chain controls, but they tend to be less frequent.
If you want to drive through a chain control area, you must have chains or cables with you in your car. Period. There aren’t any exceptions for four-wheel-drive or rental vehicles. All vehicles are required to carry chains in a chain control area.
Within a few days of your trip, you can start to get a better idea of what the weather is going to be like. The closer you check to your actual visit, the more accurate these resources are going to be.
Check the current road conditions:
As your trip approaches, the most important resource to have is the road conditions hotline. Rangers update the information on this recording in real-time as conditions change, so it is the most up-to-date resource available. The recording will tell you which roads are open and what level of Yosemite tire chain restrictions are in place.
Call the road conditions hotline at 209-372-0200, press 1 and 1 again to hear the recording.
Check the short term weather forecast by elevation:
Although we strongly recommend checking the road condition hotline right before making your drive, sometimes those conditions can change quickly, and you may not be able to get good cell phone reception when you’re in the park.
So even if you’ve checked a hundred times before you drive in, it’s important to keep your eyes open while you’re on the road.
There will be signs letting you know when you reach a chain control area. The top part of the sign says clearly “Chains Required”. That means you’re entering a chain control area and need to have chains with you in your vehicle. The second part of the sign reminds you that regardless of the normal speed limits, the speed limit within chain control areas is 25 mph (40 kph). The bottom part contains information on whether those chains need to be on your tires or can continue to ride comfortably in the back of the car.
There are three levels of chain controls, and whether or not you need to put your chains on depends on how much traction your vehicle has without them.
R1 Conditions: Most cars & pickups with snow tires are OK to drive without chains if they are relatively light and have the appropriate tires.
R2 Conditions: Light four-wheel drive (or all-wheel drive) vehicles with snow tires are OK to drive without chains.
R3 Conditions: All vehicles are required to have chains.
Put your chains on right away:
Chain control signs are placed next to a big pull-out where you can safely get all the way off the road to put your chains on. If you will need to put chains on, it’s important to take advantage of these pull-outs to do that, even if the road doesn’t seem particularly snowy yet. If you wait until your car starts slipping, there may not be a safe place to pull out of traffic and put them on. And getting out of your car in the middle of a slippery road to put your chains on is desperately dangerous. Remember, the cars that will need to get by will have bad traction at that point too. It will be hard for them to keep from hitting you.
You can buy tire chains at many auto parts stores and gas stations, especially in the communities surrounding Yosemite. The Village Garage in Yosemite Valley and at the Wawona gas station also carry a small supply. However, if you know you want to go to an area that is likely to have chain controls it’s better to buy them earlier rather than later. Tire chains come in different sizes, and if you wait until the last minute, there is a chance that they won’t have an option that fits your vehicle.
Every set of chains or cables comes with a slightly different set of instructions for you to follow. If you know what you’re doing, it doesn’t take long before you’re on your way again. Here are a few general tips that will help with almost any set of chains/cables.
Looking for more information on planning your winter trip to Yosemite? Check out our top Yosemite winter travel tips.
If you have a question that isn’t answered here, stop by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @YosemiteNation and ask. We’re happy to share what we know.
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