Yosemite National Park is blissfully serene in cold-weather months, especially under the canopy of changing leaves and a blanket of snow, without the crowds of the high season from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Fall brings as pretty a palate of autumn colors as you'll see in Northern California, and the winter means cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and even downhill skiing—with a fraction of the approximately 4 million visitors the park sees year-round.
A few tips as you plan your visit to Yosemite in winter (and other times of the offseason): Tioga Road, the main access to the eastern parts of the park, is currently closed, meaning your excursions will be focused on destinations around Yosemite Valley. But there's still plenty to do there; be sure to check out the park’s handy Yosemite Guide beforehand—it lists everything you need to know about what’s happening in the park season by season.
1. Go skiing at Badger Pass.
Here’s an interesting tidbit for the powderhounds: Yosemite has its own ski area, and it’s the oldest one in Northern California. Badger Pass may not have the blood-curdling bowls or epic terrain of other resorts, but if you’re already in the park, it can’t be beat for a chill way to spend the afternoon on the slopes, with none of the crowds or pretentiousness that can sometimes plague big-name resorts. Season passes are on sale now for $179 (which is not much more than what you’ll pay for a single-day lift ticket in some places. And military members and veterans receive a free lift ticket.) Opening day is scheduled for Dec. 12 (because there’s no snow-making abilities though, the area is reliant on Mother Nature).
Rather lace up ice skates than strap on skis? Check out the ice skating rink at Curry Village, which is open daily for skating sessions, weather conditions permitting.
2. Explore by night.
Think of it as nightlife, Yosemite-style: The park offers excellent programming year-round, and in the fall, offerings include guided Night Prowl and Starry Sky hikes, while the winter offers full-moon treks. For the Night Prowls, rangers will help you develop your senses in the darkness and teach you about the wildlife that comes out at night. For the Starry Skies outings, it’s all about the constellations. Starting in December, depending on the snowfall, the park will start up its full-moon hikes or snowshoe treks. Don't forget your headlamps.
3. Celebrate the (off)season at the Ahwahnee.
Looking for a way to supercharge your holiday spirit? The Ahwahnee Hotel hosts several high-end culinary getaways, starting with the [Vintner’s Holidays](%20http://www.yosemitepark.com/vintners-holidays.aspx), followed by Chefs’ Holidays in January. The events feature wine and food tastings, demos, and exquisitely prepared dinners by some of California’s top culinary talent. In between sessions (and meals), work off the calories and work up an appetite again by hiking around the park. The events aren’t cheap—rates at the famous hotel start at $449 per person for a two-night event—but it’s a delicious and unique way to experience Yosemite.
4. Strap on a pair of cross-country skis or snowshoes.
Strap on some skis and take advantage of the 25 miles of machine-set track at Badger Pass are an ideal way for beginners to get started. Meanwhile, advanced skiers can take advantage of 90 additional miles of marked trails. Equipment is available for rent at the Yosemite Cross-Country Ski School Center. For an unforgettable experience on snowshoes, check out the Full Moon Snowshoe Walks.
5. Keep an eye on El Capitan.
Depending on the snowfall, one highly recommended way to savor the crisp afternoons is by watching the climbers on El Capitan, which is the largest granite monolith in the world. In January of 2015, a global spotlight shone brightly on the rock, as climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson took advantage of warm weather to ascend the Dawn Wall, generally known as the hardest climb in the world.
And while winter in 2016 is expected to be much colder, it's always worth a stop at El Cap just to see what might be happening. Pop by the Village Store for some adult beverages, grab your binoculars and settle in to spot the climbers on their quest to the top of the 3,593-foot summit. If you stay past nightfall, you may be treated to a twinkling lights display from their headlamps. If you'd prefer to check out the action in the am, check out the park's "Ask a Climber" programs that are offered on the El Capitan Bridge, with telescopes provided.