Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019
Best Time to Visit Yosemite National Park
Winter, summer, spring, or fall, there's never a bad time to visit America's iconic park.
All seasons bring a unique experience to Yosemite National Park in California.
But before you go, there are many things to consider in determining the best time to visit the park.
Spring and summer usher in new life but are also the busiest seasons.
Fall and winter bring fewer visitors but are typically cooler and have significant snowfall, especially at higher altitudes.
Yosemite is split into a few areas that are all within a 2-hour drive of one another - the main part of the park, Yosemite Valley, is often much more crowded than areas a short distance away, like Tuolumne Meadows.
Yosemite Valley is popular because it houses famous attractions such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and waterfalls including Vernal, Nevada, and Bridalveil falls.
However, visitors seeking a more relaxed experience might head quickly to Tuolumne meadows for cooler weather and fewer crowds.
We'll get into all that and more in the article, but before we get started...
Here's a quick video on Yosemite in case you're unfamiliar with the area:
Yosemite in Spring
Higher elevations (10,000 ft. and up) in the High Sierra will not be accessible until mid-June, but moderate elevations (~7,000 ft.) are accessible around mid-May.
Yosemite weather will vary in spring but the average temperature generally reaches 70oF during the day at lower elevations in Yosemite Valley and Wawona (4,000 ft. elevation) and may fall below freezing at night.
Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 ft. elevation) will be slightly colder on average with a daytime average temperature of around 50oF and a nightime average temperature of around 20oF.
Yosemite Wilderness Permits are available during spring, but backcountry camping options are limited as snowfall typically remains through May and sometimes June.
Navigation can be something of a challenge due to snowfall on the trails, so most hikers choose to stay around the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (formerly Badger Pass; elevation ~7,200 ft.) and Crane Flats (elevation ~6,200 ft.) where trails are marked with color signs on trees.
Skis or snowshoes will likely be required if you choose to hike during this time.
Mariposa Grove Road, which is key to seeing the grove of giant sequoias, usually opens by sometime in April.
The upside to Yosemite in March is that only 5% of annual visitors go during this month (about 190,000 based on a 5-year average, 2014-2018), with only 7% in April (~280,000).
Compared to the ~75% who visit during the busiest season (May-October) and 15% who visit in July alone (~630,000), the busiest month, visiting Yosemite in March or April is nearly like having the park to yourself.
If you do the math, that's 630,000 / 30 days = ~21,000 visitors per day who visit Yosemite in July vs. 190,000 / 30 days = ~6,500 per day who visit Yosemite in March - roughly a third as many.
Yosemite in April is slightly busier but almost equally as good as Yosemite in March at ~9,500 visitors per day.
See Visitation Statistics on the Yosemite National Park site for a breakdown of visitors by month (based on a 15-year average - which is too long, in our opinion); if you really love data, you can check out the NPS Stats page for even more detail.
Yosemite in Summer (Peak Season)
Summer is the best time of year for warmer average temperatures but also more crowds to the park as peak season generally runs between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Weather will vary by month and location, but average temperature for Yosemite Valley typically ranges from a high of 72oF in May to a high of 89oF in August; average temperature lows can range from 45oF in May to 56oF in August.
If you are seeking cooler average temperatures and waterfalls, Tuolumne Meadows, a part of the park approximately an hour east of Yosemite Valley, is typically 10 degrees cooler due to its higher elevation (~8,600 vs. 4,000 ft.).
Park visitors build from over 400,000 in May to around 600,000 in July before settling back down to about 500,000 in September (based on a 5-year average, 2014-2018).
As mentioned before, about three times as many people visit in July as those who visit in March, so keep this in mind as you're planning your trip.
Waterfalls generally run until the end of summer when the snow run off from the mountains dries up, resulting in reduced waterflow.
This usually occurs around August, with waterfalls peaking in May or June.
Yosemite receives less than 5% of its annual precipitation during summer months, so early season is the time to see waterfalls.
There's a Yosemite Falls webcam that shows the falls live and they even have a timelapse archive that allows you to watch videos from different days in the past; this will give you a sense for how the falls might look during your visit.
The Half Dome Trail is the 14.5-mile trip (~7 miles each way) to the top of Half Dome.
This is one of the best hikes in Yosemite and requires a 4,500 ascent, including a terrifying last 400 ft. up the granite dome. It takes about 10-12 hours round trip to hike the Half Dome Trail, so be sure to leave early (around sunrise) and turnaround if you haven't made it to the top by 3-4pm.
It may pay to pack a headlamp for the trip back down. Also be sure to take plenty of food and water (about a gallon per person for the round trip) and wear comfortable shoes, we specifically recommend trail running shoes as these have better traction than typical running shoes and are lighter / more comfortable than hiking boots.
A day pack may be necessary.
Tuesday and Wednesday are the least-requested at <10% of all submissions each.
If you can be flexible with dates, it may help improve your chances of securing a permit.
Backcountry camping is a less popular but perhaps more rewarding activity.
It's also a nice way to escape the crowds.
If you're particularly ambitious and have the time, you can try the Yosemite Backcountry Loop.
This is a 60.2-mile trip with over 20,000 ft. of total elevation change; an absolutely epic hike through the northern section of the park.
There's a Wilderness Trailhead Map that's useful for planning your trip and you can check trailhead availability (hikes are reserved based on quotas for each trailhead starting point) on the Full Trailhead Report.
If you're going into the backcountry, the most important investment you can make is in your shoes.
You want something that's breathable, not waterproof, and we recommend trail running shoes over hiking boots as they're lighter and more comfortable.
Waterproof shoes and hiking boots will cause your feet to "sweat" which invariably leads to blisters - not good on a 60+ mile hike.
The second most important investment you can make is in your backpack.
Hiking several days with ~40 lbs. of weight is challenging under the best of circumstances, but compounding that with a sub-par backpack is nearly unbearable.
Osprey backpacks are the best in our opinion; they won't eliminate the challenge, but they'll make it slightly more enjoyable.
If you're going for >3 days, get a 65L pack or larger. If for 2-3 days, ~50L should do it.
If you can pack light, a smaller pack may work, but this will vary depending on your gear list.
This is also a great way to escape the crowds in Yosemite Valley during peak season.
Half of reservations are available online through recreation.gov and are block-released five months in advance on the 15th of each month.
The other half are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Camp 4 is also a popular site and is open year-round, but operates on a first-come, first-served basis only.
Yosemite in Winter & Fall
Fall and winter bring fall colors and an entirely different visitor experience to Yosemite with fewer crowds and a chance to see the elusive Yosemite Firefall - a natural occurrence that lasts roughly two weeks in mid- to late-February.
Parts of the park at higher elevation close, e.g. Tuolumne Meadows (~8,600 ft.), in late fall and winter; however, most areas remain open through October and sometimes September with the occasional temporary closing due to snowfall here and there.
For winter, the average high falls to 47oF in December, 48oF in January, and then back up to a balmy 52oF in February; lows will average 28oF, 29oF, and 30oF, respectively.
Visitations to the park fall of pretty spectacularly after peak season with average monthly visitors at ~500,000 in September, ~400,000 in October, and then dropping in half to ~200,000 in November (based on a 5-year average, 2014-2018).
January is the least-visited month at around 125,000 visitors.
This presents something of an opportunity for those who don't mind a little bit of snow and can handle the cold temperatures.
Activities are limited, of course, but the trade-off in reduced crowding may be worth it to some travelers.
Yosemite in November and December, in particular, seem like unusually good opportunities with reasonable weather and only 5-7k visitors per day.
Fall and winter in the park are much quieter and bring with them winter activities such as skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating.
In addition, these seasons can also produce extraordinary and unique photos of the snow covered mountains.
While road closures and reduced hiking opportunities may scare some visitors off, this makes what remains that much sweeter to the rest.
Final Thoughts on The Best Time to Visit Yosemite
Trips from San Francisco to Yosemite take about 3 hours by car (without traffic).
But before you head out, always check park information for current weather conditions including road closures due to weather, forest fires, and other potential issues in the park.
As the United States' second oldest National Park, Yosemite houses some of the most spectacular natural sites in America, so a trip in any season is likely worth the effort.
However, if you time it right, you can maximize the benefits of good weather, while minimizing the inconvenience of large crowds.
Visit the National Park Service's Yosemite Seasons site for further information.
Also, check out our article on how to make the most of your time at Yosemite National Park for tips on where to eat, where to stay, and what to do during your next trip to the park.
Looking for more on the best time to visit Yosemite and other national parks? Try these:
- Things to Do in Maine: Acadia National Park Camping & Other Activities
- National Parks near Las Vegas, Nevada
- Best National Parks in California & Beyond
- 6 Least Visited National Parks You Need to See
- Ideal Winter National Parks
- Valley of Fire State Park: The Complete Guide
- Hiking Boots: Why You Don't Need Them and What to Buy Instead
- Mastering Your Charcoal Grill
What is the best month to go to Yosemite?
May or October, depending on your preference.
As you can see from the chart below, visitations to the park peak in June, July, and August, but begin to fade starting in September.
While September is a better month to visit than June, July, or August due to visitations and better than May or October due to average temperature, the number of visitors to the park has not yet fallen significantly enough to generate a measurably better experience.
Nevertheless, September is also an excellent time to visit if you want to catch 80oF temperatures with slightly fewer crowds.
Therefore, it is better to go in late May or early October while average highs are still in the 70s, but visitations are roughly 1/3 lower than those in peak season.
What is peak season for Yosemite?
Peak season, as you can see from the table below, runs from June through August (or roughly Memorial Day through Labor Day).
Although there does seem to be quite a bit of variance from year-to-year.
For example, August 2018 had only ~450k visitors compared to nearly ~700k two years prior. This appears to happen every 10 or so years (as it did in 2013, 2005, and 1990) and It's unclear what's causing the sudden drop.
See NPS Stats for full data set.
During what months does it snow in Yosemite?
November through March, mostly, but it depends on the elevation and average temperatures that year.
Snow may begin as early as September at higher elevations, but generally not until November for Yosemite Valley. The last snow in Yosemite Valley typically falls before mid-April.
See Yosemite Weather for further information.