Yosemite National Park is one of my most favorite places on the planet. It’s also a lot of other people’s favorite places on the planet which means come summertime, it can get packed. That’s why I love visiting Yosemite in the fall and early winter before it starts to snow a bunch.
In this guide I’ll be sharing what to expect when visiting Yosemite National Park in the fall or early winter, things to do, what trails to hike, where to stay, eat and more. Keep reading.
Robin and I first visited Yosemite years ago over Labor Day weekend and from my first glimpse of El Captian I fell in love. I’ve been to many national parks, but Yosemite takes the cake. It’s stunning no matter what time of year you visit, but fall and early winter is my favorite time of year to soak up nature without all the crowds.
Pros & Cons Of Visiting Yosemite National Park In Autumn
- Fraction of the crowds
- Fall foliage!
- Cooler temps for hiking
- Easier time parking
- Cheaper hotels
- Risk of early winter Tioga Pass closure
- Snow may fall (so carry chains!)
- Not all the restaurants are open
- Shorter daylight hours for hikes
The park changes so much with each season. Here’s what to expect at each fall month:
Visiting Yosemite in September
At the end of September, expect crowds to still be high. After Labor Day they will decrease a lot compared to summer, but September still brings warmer weather and thus, more people. But, if you don’t like the early cold weather higher elevations brings (or, perhaps you are trying to go camping in Yosemite) then the end of September is for you!
Visiting Yosemite in October
October is the best time to view fall colors in Yosemite. Sierra Nevada Mountain fall foliage peaks at slightly different times each year but you can usually find the valley painted with colors by Mid-October. Because it’s such a great leaf-peeping spot you will probably find other fall lovers and nature photographers in the park (but less than in September!)
This year (2021) there was a rare Firefall in October! We got SO much rain that Yosemite Falls was gushing at full force, which only usually happens in the spring and summer. Don’t count on October Firefalls happening every year, but they are possible.
Visiting Yosemite in November
November may be the secret best time to visit Yosemite in the fall my opinion. Depending on when you go you still may catch some of the fall foliage, but by the time November rolls around the crowds are almost all gone AND the park is still open enough to widely enjoy. Hiking Yosemite in November is great because the trails are empty, we always see tons of wildlife up close and I don’t overheat too much.
This past visit in November, we hiked a brutal trail that was all up up up, and my friend and I both agreed we would have died of heat if we did this in the summer. But November was perfect temps for tackling harder hiking trails!
Once it starts snowing, most of the trails and roads like Tioga Pass Road will be shut down due to dangerous winter road conditions. The national park services are always super cautious about the roads. It might snow in November so you have to keep an eye on updates.
Visiting Yosemite in December
December in Yosemite can be super magical. It will be a bit uncertain about what will be open due to early winter Yosemite weather. Like Glacier Point Road may or may not be open and some longer trails may be closed, and there may or may not be snow on the ground. But, the valley decorates for Christmas.
Camp Curry / Half Dome Village will usually have a Christmas tree and an ice skating rink. The Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite is an immersive Christmas dinner show that has been a tradition for almost 100 years. This dinner is on my Yosemite bucket list!! One day…
Yosemite Lodging In The Fall: Where To Stay In / Around The Park
Before we start chatting all my favorite things to do in Yosemite National Park during the fall, first you need to know where you are booking a hotel. There’s only a few Yosemite National Park lodging spots to choose from if you want to stay in the valley. Luckily, the fall brings a fraction of the crowds so it’s easy stay outside the park at a fun cabin and just drive in each day.
1. Evergreen Lodge
Located near the Groveland entrance, Evergreen is a large cabin resort lodge is a super fun place to come back to each night after exploring the park. They have a pool and hot tub, a sunset overlook, nightly s’mores and a REALLY good onsite restaurant. Like, I was blown away by how good the food was here.
2. Tenaya Lodge
Located outside the park on the Madera County side, Tenaya Lodge is a gorgeous mountain lodge hotel with tons of acres for hiking and fun activities to do in the fall and winter. We stayed here right after Thanksgiving a few years back and I loved their towering Christmas tree in the lobby and holiday activities like ice skating on property. It’s one of our favorite Yosemite hotels! Read more here.
3. Sierra Meadows Tiny Cabin
OMG, I still can’t believe how dang cool this glamping cabin outside Yosemite South Gate was! It’s perfect for a couple and it’s also dog friendly, so bring your pup. Sierra Meadows is super unique and whimsical.
4. Historic Adair House
Looking for a cute Yosemite Airbnb to rent? We LOVED our stay at the Adair House, which is in the middle of Mariposa and within walking distance to their shops and restaurants. Mariposa is one of the entrances to Yosemite, it’s this cute old mining town.
My Top Favorite Things To Do In Yosemite In The Fall & Early Winter
Now for the fun stuff – chatting about my favorite things to do in the park during the fall and what you can expect to be open. Again, always check the park website prior to visiting to make sure that you are aware of any seasonal updates from the park service (like weather, road or trail closures, etc).
1. Hike Mirror Lake Trail
Mirror Lake Trail is my favorite hike in the park. It’s 2.5 miles round trip and mostly flat, which is great for me since I’m not always in the best of shape (I love hiking but I can’t handle a 9 mile round trip hike easily!) Mirror Lake dries up over the summertime and in the fall and early winter, you can walk out on the lakebed. That’s why is makes a great lunchtime hike. Bring a picnic and blanket and stretch out in the middle of the lake bed!
2. Snap Photos At Tunnel View
Tunnel View is that classic photo spot that you probably recognize from Mac screensavers and Instagram posts. You access it via Wawona Road, which you’ll be driving on if you are coming in from the Yosemite West Entrance (near Tenaya Lodge and Madera County.) There’s a parking lot right there for you to park and walk over to the viewpoint! Come here at Golden Hour or sunset to see the whole valley flood with beautiful light before you.
3. See Lower Yosemite Falls
Yosemite is full of waterfalls and Lower Yosemite Falls is one of my favorites to view, especially when the light hits it justtt right and you can see a rainbow through the water! It’s a short 1 mile loop that’s paved and more of a nice stroll rather than a hike, making this a great stop if you have kids or disabled family members with you. It should take 20-30 minutes so I always squeeze in a visit when I’m in Yosemite!
Some years the water rushes less than others, but there’s usually always some water. If you feel up to it, you can also climb on the rocks at the base of the waterfall to get closer!
4. Bridalveil Falls
Another easy loop is to Bridalveil Falls, which is similar to Lower Yosemite Falls (easy hike in, stunning waterfall at the end!) This waterfall is super powerful in the summertime, it can be so wet that the trail is slippy and you might get soaked if you get too close. That’s why it’s nicer to visit in the fall when the water is lower and a little less intense.
5. Hike Upper Yosemite Falls
If you’re looking for a harder hike, you can hike Upper Yosemite Falls Trail instead! It’s 7 miles roundtrip and I’ve never done it personally but I’m told the views from the top are amazing. I bet in the fall you can see stunning foliage in the valley below!
Or, you can hike to Vernal Falls, which I have done and is my one of my favorite Yosemite hikes. It’s a moderate hike about 2.5 miles round trip that leads you right up to the base of the falls, which is really pretty. In the summer this trail is very crowded which is why I love to do this hike in the offseason. If you have a lot of steam, stay on this trail and hike to Nevada Falls (it’s a 5.5 mile roundtrip hike). This hike is also called the Mist Trail.
6. Wine Taste At The Grand Grape Celebration
Each November the Grand Grape Celebration is hosted inside the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. You can stop by for a free wine tasting session or stick around for a multi-course paid dinner. We popped in for a tasting during one fall visit and it was such a fun way to take a break from hiking!
7. Taft Point Trail & The Fissures
Taft Point Trail closes in the winter due to snow, sometimes as early as end of October, but if you hike it right before the season ends, you can probably catch the fall foliage in the park at peak. This trail is about 2.5 miles and rewards you with stunning views of the valley below. It’s an easy hike if you are looking for views but not willing to hike Upper Yosemite Falls.
8. Visit The Chapel
You’ll pass the famous Yosemite Valley Chapel on your way into the park and I always love to stop by to visit it and snap photos. This chapel is over 130 years old. You can’t usually go inside unless they’re having a service, but it’s so dang cute and makes a great classic Yosemite photo opp! On a previous fall visit, it was snowing the morning we drove in and UG, the church was so pretty!
10. Catch Yosemite In The Fall Colors
If you time it right, you can catch the whole valley in beautiful autumn colors! I’ve done a few road trips into the park ever the years and haven’t caught the leaves as stunning as we did on our last visit in 2021. Every single corner we turned – BOOM, more orange and yellow leaves dotting the Merced River!
Since Yosemite is a mountain national park, the weather can change really fast. If you’re not sure if leaves are popping yet, or if they have all fallen off for the winter, try the Yosemite Falls webcam to figure out of leaves are still there or not.
11. Hike Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias Tunnel Tree
There’s a tunnel tree in the Toulumne Grove which is near the Groveland side! It’s an all-paved path that is downhill on the way there and uphill on the way back. As you can see from the photo above, we did it in sandals.
12. Or, The Mariposa Wawona Tunnel Tree!
On the other side of the park is Mariposa Grove, which is one of my favorite places in California to view Giant Sequoias. And there’s another Tunnel Tree here, too! This grove is accessed by a hike, as the shuttle has been closed since 2020. But it’s worth it. We visited last November and it was covered in snow!
As with anything, you can always check the park website for updates on current Yosemite closures. This is actually worth checking no matter what time of year you visit.
12. Artist Point Trail For Sunset
An alternative to the popular Tunnel View parking lot spot for sunset is Artist’s Point Trail. The trailhead is at the parking lot and is 2.3 miles round trip up the mountain. You end up with a stunning aerial view of the valley below and most likely, nobody will be there so it’s a totally private spot to see the sunset.
Where To Eat In Yosemite In Fall Time
During the summer, all the cafes and spots are open but they have limited hours in the fall. Some just aren’t open – like all the spots in Half Dome Village / Curry Village are closed for the season. It’s best practice to bring all the water and snacks you need in the park with you. We even packed sandwiches and a lunch. Or, you can grab lunch from one of these spots:
The Majestic Hotel Ahwahnee Dining Room
Treat yourself to a bowl of hot soup and salad at the Ahwahnee Dining Room in the Majestic Hotel. This restaurant has 30 foot high ceilings and huge windows so you can look out on the valley while eating lunch! They open at 11:30am.
The Loft at Degnan’s
This spot is super chill. They have strong wifi, seating around a fireplace and serve up pizza, sandwiches, and coffee. A great affordable and quick lunch spot in the valley if you’re packing in a lot of hikes!
Top Things To Do Outside The Park
As you’ll discover when you drive into Yosemite, there are 3 main entrances to the park and thus 3 small towns to choose from for activities after a day of exploring the valley. I have a whole guide to the old mining town of Mariposa packed with details on what to do there that you should view if you are planning on coming through that entrance. In the meantime, these are my other favorite things to do in the areas right outside the park!
Drink Craft Beer at The Grove House
The Grove House is the best craft brewery in Mariposa. The owners are actually from the Midwest just like my husband and I are. They started their brewery & have built a fantastic gem in the mountains. Start with a flight to see what beer you like best then stick around for another pint or two.
Mountain Sage Cafe in Groveland
You can’t miss breakfast or lunch at Mountain Sage Cafe if you are coming into the park from the Groveland Enterance, you can’t miss breakfast or lunch at Mountain Sage Cafe! The food here is amazing and I love the vibes of this cafe house. It’s like an art gallery meets nursey meets cafe. I stop here every time I drive by. Plus, they have a bathroom!
Ice Skate at Tenaya Lodge
If you are visiting the park in late November or December, Tenaya Lodge will probably have their ice skating rink up! I had such a fun evening ice skating around and listening to holiday music.
Waterfall Swim At Rainbow Pools
Sometimes autumn in California is still really hot. If you find the temps are warm enough to swim and are driving in from the Groveland entrance, stop by Rainbow Pools waterfall for a dip!
Paddle Bass Lake
Over on the Oakhurst side of Yosemite is Bass Lake, which is usually a summer spot but I went kayaking in November here at Miller’s Landing and it was so much fun! I had the whole lake to myself and it was a fun way to view fall colors.
Ride The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad
I’ll be honest, I thought this would be just for kids but hot diggity, this was so much fun! This historical train ride takes you around the Sierra National Forest. We lucked out and it snowed that morning so everything felt extra magical – almost like I was taking the Hogwarts Express into Yosemite.
Frequently Asked Questions About Yosemite National Park In The Fall
Do I Need Tire Chains When Visiting In The Fall?
Probably not. But, as I’ve mentioned, weather in Yosemite can be all over the place and it could snow in November and December. Check the weather and chain advisories before you leave.
What Should I Wear For A Day In Yosemite in The Fall Season?
Again, the weather is all over the place so pack layers (kind of like if you are visiting San Francisco!)
Yosemite in September will still. bewarm in the day, but start to get chilly at night so bring a mix of summer and fall stuff. October in Yosemite will be a true fall season so expect crisp days and chilly nights.
November is a toss up. One time we visited in Yosemite National Park in November and the day started out with snowfall and ended with 60 degrees and sunshine, so I was happy I wore layers! And of course, in December there will probably be snow on the ground, so grab your favorite winter hiking outfits.
Is there cell service in Yosemite?
Yes – there’s actually wifi now, too. We find that we get service or wifi anywhere in the Valley, but no wifi and limited service once you explore beyond the valley. Still, always smart to download maps offline first.
Are Dogs Allowed in Yosemite National Park?
Leashed dogs are allowed on paved trails only, so you can take them to Mirror Lake and the two falls, along with other paved areas.
I hope this helps you plan an awesome trip to Yosemite National Park in the fall or early winter season! There so MANY fun things to do in the park and so many trails. Did you know that 90% of visitors never see anything beyond the valley? That’s because the park is HUGE! I’ve explored a bit of Tuolumne Meadows passing through on my way to June Lake Loop, but these high sierra areas of the park deserve a whole travel guide of their own.
Basically, if you have additional Yosemite travel tips to add, please leave a comment below so everyone can see it. If you have any questions at all, please leave a comment below or DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll be happy to help!