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Winter Yosemite Trip in 36 hours

Yosemite Weekend in the Winter — 36 hour Trip

After a different trip fell through, we found ourselves at home on Friday with an empty weekend ahead of us. After reading that the the Yosemite Firefall takes place in February, we decided to pack our bags and hit the road in hopes of seeing what the fuss was all about. Neither of us had been to Yosemite, it was on our to-do, and the day before it snowed for the first time all season, roughly 8 inches fell. It was going to be a winter wonderland experience with 45* temps during the day — perfect.

Yosemite Score Card: 7.6/10

  • Transportation: 6/10 (You can drive in the winter / during off peak season and avoid the congestion but the roads my be icy and parking is difficult (although much less difficult than in the summer). Cost of entrance for a regular vehicle as of 2018 is $30 and it’s valid for 7 days. There are tours that leave from San Francisco for day, weekend, and longer trips if you do not want to drive.)
  • Price: 8/10 (lodging/food were about the same as a large city in the US. Most dine-in meals ran around $50 for 2 people and the hotel was about $150 per night. Experiences are free as long as you bring your own equipment for biking / hiking / climbing.)
  • Safety: 9/10 (we felt safe just about everywhere along the way and didn’t see anything that would cause worry)
  • Food: 6/10 (Once in the park, dining options are limited and getting to them is difficult as parking is limited. Bringing food for snacks for hiking is highly recommended as local options are scarce and more expensive than a grocery store).
  • Culture: 6/10 (The offer historical walks and snowshoeing but it’s more of a camping experience)
  • History: 6/10 (It is a natural wonder but the actual history is only so deep)
  • Excitement: 8/10 (We found the hiking, bouldering, rock climbing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor activities to be exciting)
  • Awe Inspiring: 9/10 (Each location was unexpected and breathtaking. We found it soothing to the soul to be so close to so much raw beauty)
  • Technology Equipped: 6/10 (Service was better the farther into Yosemite we got but was still spotty at best with little to no free wifi options. Our hotel and most others have wifi as part of the package but most will want to unplug regardless.)
  • Female Friendly: 9/10 (It’s a safe and friendly place for women to visit.)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 9/10 (If you are a hiker/backpacker/camper — this is the place for you. You can go on your own or meet people at the restaurants and join in on their hiking trips. Everyone seemed very friendly.)
  • Language Barrier: 10/10 (It’s located in California, if you speak English everyone there does, too.)


Official Name: Yosemite National Park
Timezone: UTC/GMT -7 hours (PST)
Currency: USD
Size: 1,169 mi²
Tourists: 4MM+/yr

Where to go in Yosemite:

If you click on the four corner icon to the right you can open it up in a new window and click on the icons to read the information for each location (pricing, hours, important details) as well as download it or save it to your My Maps for Google to reference during your trip.

Where to Stay

With the recent snow, we weren’t properly prepared to camp in the cold so we wanted somewhere with heat. We found that the hotels were nicer with better amenities than the Airbnbs in the area. Since it was off-season, most places had decent rates and same-day bookings were available nearly everywhere we looked up. We went on HotelsTonight and snagged a great deal on Rush Creek Lodge. Regular rate is around $299 per night, we got 2 nights for a total of $307. It’s located 1/2 mile from the entrance to the park whereas some of the other hotels like The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (a 4 star hotel with regular rates easily double that of Rush Creek Lodge), glamping sites like Half Dome Village, and some of traditional campsites like Pines Campsite are located in the valley. The only downside some may find is that the rooms only have showers (no bathtubs) and do not have TVs (but do have fun games and lots of books in each room)

But, it’s new with a heated pool, 2 heated hot tubs, lots of adult and children activities, a game room, s’mores ‘hour’ daily, an onsite bar, an onsite restaurant, and a spa. They have rooms with bed AND a pull out couch, great for 2 couples traveling that want to keep costs down / share a room. Each room has a balcony, too. They also have larger rooms that can sleep 6 and multiple rooms that can join together for bigger groups. We loved it, especially for the deal we got!

It takes 45 min to drive between the Yosemite entrance (where Rush Creek Lodge is located) and the valley. During peak season when car traffic is bad or when it’s really icy, this trip time could be worse and should be factored into your decision on where to stay. Depending on what you want to do during your stay, taking 1.5+ hours each day to travel to/from the main points of interest and the hotel may not make sense for you.

Getting to Yosemite by Car

From San Francisco without traffic it takes about 3 hours to get to Yosemite. We left at 1pm on a Friday and hit a massive amount of traffic (between San Francisco all the way through Oakdale) doubling our travel time. We were told we would need to leave well before 10am to miss the rush. But, it’s an easy route well marked.

Tire Chain Requirements

If you are expecting SNOW / ICY conditions, buy chains BEFORE you get there. They usually do not have chains for purchase near Yosemite but they will most likely be required to drive through the valley. The cost of buying chains on the off chance you find a place to buy them will be much higher than if you bought them at home.


Download / Cache a map of Yosemite. We lost service 1.5 hours outside Yosemite and rarely got it back (aside from in our room at the hotel). Having a cached map helped us find our points of interest and drive from place to place.


Bring cash or credit card, all places we visited accepted both forms of payments as options.


During off-peak season it’s easy to walk in and place an order. During peak season, lines should be expected and reservations should be made in advance when possible.

Packing List for 2 days in Yosemite in the Winter:

  • DJI Mavik, accessories and charger
  • DSLR, charger and lenses
  • Travel Tripod
  • GoPro, batteries, accessories and charger
  • 2 laptops
  • 2 backpacks, 1 duffel bag
  • Toiletries: travel toothpaste, toothbrushes, contact solution, deodorant, comb, brush, hair tie (Jenni), shampoo & conditioner (Jenni), small makeup (Jenni)
  • 1 pack of hot hands
  • Waterproof hiking shoes
  • Workout tights / thermal underwear + outer legging layer
  • Jeans
  • Skiing jacket, gloves, scarf, hat
  • Ski socks
  • Tank top, sweater, skiing long sleeve layer
  • Sunglasses
  • Small backpack
  • External battery, cellphone cords/cables
  • 3 Cliff bars
  • 2 refillable water bottles

Yosemite Fun Facts:

  • Know the company The North Face? Their logo is based on Half Dome!
  • The giant sequoias can be upwards of 3,000 years old
  • Abraham Lincoln signed the initial Yosemite Grant which covered Yosemite valley and and Mariposa grove, President Roosevelt in 1906 made it federal land, then John Muir pushed to make the area more encompassing as it stands today
  • Half Dome is over 5,000 feet above the valley floor

Yosemite Costs: $600 for 2 days / 2 nights

  • Gas: $100
  • Rush Creek Lodge Hotel for 2 nights: $307
  • Yosemite Entrance Fee: $30
  • Food for 2 with 2 dinners, 1, breakfast, 1 lunch: $160


    • 1pm Left San Francisco (stuck in major traffic most of the way)
    • 5:45pm arrive at Yosemite’s gates, drive a bit in and watch the sunset
    • 7pm Check into the hotel, drop bags, enjoy s’mores
    • 8pm grab dinner at the restaurant at the hote
    • 9pm go in the hot tub
    • 10pm watch movies then sleep
    • 9am wake up and grab breakfast at the restaurant
    • 9:45am pack for the day then head out to the valley
    • 10:30am arrive at Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
      • It’s a 400m change
      • Downhill the whole way out (but get ready for a workout on the way back)
      • Expect 1.5-2 hours for a round trip walk from the parking lot
      • When you get to the gigantic tree that says do not touch, there is a fork with a trail to the right — take that if you want to go to the tree you can walk through
    • 12pm — Tunnel view to get a idea of the valley layout
      • It has a parking area and viewing area right new to the parking lot the overlooks the valley. Easy access — great for kids / adults / less mobile people.
    • 1pm BridalVeil Fall
      • The parking lot was a quick 3 min walk to the bottom of the falls
      • We ventured up the rocks (beyond the fences) and hopped along the fresh show adorning the rocks
      • When large chunks of snow and ice fell from around the falls it was a loud, thunder-like sound (scary at first)
    • 2pm stopped for lunch at Village Grill Deck and grabbed a pizza
    • 3pm went to pick up our FireFall parking permit / passes
    • 3:30pm walked the trail to lower Yosemite Falls
    • 4:15pm went to Horetail falls for FireFall viewing
    • 5:15pm headed back to the hotel (brief stop at Tunnel View, too much cloud coverage to wait for any good night photography pics)
    • 7pm S’mores at Rush Creek Lodge
    • 8pm Dinner at Rush Creek Lodge
    • 10pm Movies
    • 9am woke up, packed up, and headed home
    • 12:30 arrived back in SF

If We Had to Do It Again

  • We would have brought a second pair of gloves and few more hot hands. We wanted to do night photography but it was too cold once the sun set.
  • It was tough being out in the cold and our hotel 1 hour away from all the action. We weren’t able to go back and warm up, then go back out. I would have liked to have done one night at Rush Creek Lodge then one night somewhere in the Valley (with heat).
  • Various lenses to capture the wide angle shots, we rushed out of the house and completely forgot them
  • Sucked it up and braved the cold at 4am to get some clear night photography shots followed by sunrise in the valley
  • More snacks for our hiking trips
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