In January, I went on a winter National Park road trip through California, stopping in Yosemite, Sequoia, and Death Valley. I wrote a post on my experience visiting during the 2019 government shutdown, which you can read about here. This post is part 2, where I will be giving you all the details you need to do your own photography road trip. I’ll tell you the best hikes to do in winter, what my favorite photography spots were, where you can stay, and I’ll write about other considerations as well. Comment below if you have any questions! Without further ado, here is my destination guide for visiting 3 of the loveliest national parks in California in winter:

Yosemite National Park

What hikes to do in winter

  • Lower Yosemite Falls Trail: a short and 0.5 miles from the trailhead, great for families and accessible, with multiple gorgeous angles to take photos of the falls.
  • Bridalveil Fall Trail: another easy 0.5 mile round trip from the parking lot, but the waterfall spray makes taking a photograph challenging.
  • Upper Yosemite Falls Trail: a challenging 8-9 mile hike with quite a bit of elevation gain, but worth it for panoramic views of Yosemite Valley.
  • Valley Floor Loop: a 7-13 mile half or full loop, but you could hike just your favorite parks, such as starting at Sentinel Meadow to get a shot of Yosemite Falls. This loop also is less busy than other trails.
  • Mirror Lake: an easy 2.4 miles round trip hike that takes you to a lake with absolutely stunning reflections of Half Dome. During the summer, the lake dries up so make sure you visit this spot in spring or winter.
  • Inspiration Point: a 2.6 mile trip from the Tunnel View parking lot that gives you a higher view of the valley, with fewer crowds!

Top winter photography spots

  • Tunnel View: the classic Ansel Adams viewpoint that you cannot miss, great for either sunrise or sunset, but make sure you arrive early as parking will fill up quickly with other photographers!
  • Valley View: a lovely walk up spot in the valley on the Merced River with views of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls.
  • Glacier Point: the road to this viewpoint is closed in winter, but I wanted to still mention it for its beauty, because if you visit in any other season you definitely don’t want to miss these views of Half Dome.
  • El Capitan Meadow: views of El Capitan and in the winter, fog builds up by the tree line and makes for some lovely backlit shots.
  • Sentinel Bridge: stop in the parking lot near the bridge (not on the bridge!) for a perfect reflection of Half Dome in the Merced River.

Where to stay

  • Majestic Yosemite Hotel: the most famous of the park’s hotels, which is right in the Valley, but rooms are very expensive.
  • Yosemite Valley Lodge: another hotel in the Valley, but more budget friendly.
  • Yosemite Westgate Lodge: this hotel is an hour drive outside the park, but you can’t beat its winter rates!
  • Half Dome Village: if you are wanting to camp, there are heated cabins and tent cabins in the Valley which are still open in winter.

Other considerations

  • Glacier Point Road and Tioga Road are closed in winter so some of the classic views and hikes will be closed. Check the park website for the most up to date road and trail closure details.
  • Chains will likely be required for all vehicles, depending on current weather conditions. Park rangers WILL stop you as this is a safety issue, so be prepared. Several shops and gas stations in the area do sell chains.
  • I recommend you bring plenty of layers and hand warmers, and beware of the wind chill factor at the higher elevation viewpoints. Winter weather is no joke, so it’s best to be overprepared. Check out my winter shooting tips here for photo-specific winter advice.

Sequoia National Park

What hikes to do in winter

  • Big Trees Trail: 1.2 easy loop trail, best for seeing those gorgeous Sequoia trees if you don’t have much time in the park.
  • Congress Trail: another great trail for first-time visitors to the park, and it is an easy 2 miles.
  • Marble Falls Trail: an 8-mile, moderate trail that runs up a mountain canyon to a waterfall.
  • Snowshoe and cross-country ski trails: I did not have time to experience either of these, but there are some ranger led hikes or you can explore areas of the park on your own. Pick up a map at the visitor center and enjoy getting away from the crowds

Top winter photography spots

  • General’s Highway viewpoints: starting from the Ash Mountain entrance into the park, there are a few pull out spots on the way to Lodgepole with gorgeous views overlooking the valley.
  • General Sherman Tree: this sequoia is on a short, 0.25 mile trail and is a must-see, as it is the largest tree in the park.
  • General Grant Tree: the second largest sequoia tree in the park, which is right by the visitor center.
  • Moro Rock: a 0.6 mile hike that offers great sunset views.
  • Beetle Rock: another short hike great for sunset as you can see views of the whole valley.

Where to stay

  • Wuksachi Lodge: this hotel is near the Giant Forest in Sequoia and it is open year round.
  • Montecito Sequoia Lodge: this is located right in the middle between Sequoia and Kings Canyon, so if you are planning an extension to your trip to visit both, this could be a good choice.
  • Sequoia vacation rentals: much of the accommodation in the area is closed in winter, but there are B&Bs, Airbnbs, and other vacation rental options not to far away from the park entrance.

Other considerations

  • Chains will definitely be required here as well in winter. When you drive up, the weather can be completely different but as you drive into the park, you gain a huge amount of elevation. When I arrived, it was warm and raining at the base of the park, but freezing and snowing at the top.
  • The entire road up to the top of Sequoia is an hour long drive full of tight, hairpin turns. Slow down and enjoy the ride, and be extra careful of driving during winter conditions.
  • Wolverton and Grant Grove are the designated areas for sledding, so please enjoy playing in the snow here and do not sled elsewhere in the park.
  • Check out the Giant Forest Museum near the visitor center, which gives you an introduction to the giant sequoias.

Death Valley National Park

What hikes to do in winter

  • Mesquite Sand Dunes: the Mesquite Sand Dunes were my favorite place to explore – there are no designated hiking trails, you simply hike anywhere in the designated dune area. Hike up tall ridges for stunning views and be careful of high winds.
  • Badlands Loop Trail: a 2.5 mile loop hike from Zabriskie Point with views of the colorful badlands.
  • Golden Canyon Loop: also from Zabriskie Point, there is a 5.8 mile loop hike through the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch with scenic, colorful views of the incredible landscape.

Top winter photography spots

  • Mesquite Sand Dunes: my absolute favorite sunset spot – there are endless compositions and gorgeous textures abound.
  • Zabriskie Point: beautiful, rolling canyon views that are fantastic for sunrise or sunset!
  • Artist’s Palette: a drive through some of the most colorful rocks you will ever see, best photographed in afternoon light.
  • Badwater Basin: a perfect sunrise spot where you can also be creative with your composition, due to the miles of sand flats stretching out as far as the eye can see. Note: this area is prone to flooding in winter so avoid it during storms or bring your mudboots and check with a ranger if the conditions are alright for hiking out on the flats.
  • Dante’s Point: a stunning sunrise location with panoramic views of the entire valley – absolutely breathtaking.

Where to stay

  • The Inn at Death Valley: this is the super luxurious option in the park, and is at the same location at The Oasis.
  • The Oasis at Death Valley: this is the second-most luxury option in the park, complete with a pool, restaurant, and golf course.
  • The Ranch at Death Valley: located one mile down the road from The Inn and The Oasis (honestly the three main hotels confused me as they are all under the same company but had rather similar names), this is the budget friendly option for accommodation in the park, which recently just underwent a grand reopening.
  • Hotels: Several hotels are outside of the park, so you will need to drive about an hour in to see the sights if you stay there. Stovepipe Wells Village Lodging and Panamint Springs Lodging are both good budget options.
  • Camping: Furnace Creek and most other campgrounds are open in winter, but three campgrounds were closed when I was there due to flooding or winter conditions, so check the park website for current campground closures.

Other considerations

  • The temperature fluctuation in Death Valley is extreme. At night, temperatures can be in the low 30s (F) but 70-80 degrees during the day. There can also be icy cold winds, so wear layers for sunset, sunrise, or night photography, which could be taken off for daytime photography.
  • Most of your best light will be early or late in the day, so save hiking for the middle of the day – but make sure you have enough water with you. Even in winter the temperatures can get fairly high in the middle of the day.
  • In summer, hiking may be dangerous due to high temperatures, so hike early in the morning or late in the evening instead.
  • Several roads may be closed in winter due to flooding, so check the latest conditions on the park websites, and respect closures – you could severely damage the landscape or get your car stuck if you do not respect posted closures. Flash floods can also occur in the valley so be aware of the weather forecast.
  • Finally – do not feed the wildlife! You may see coyotes hanging around, but feeding them is actually worse for their health – they may hang around cars and be hit by speeding vehicles, human food is unhealthy for them and may make them sick, and feeding them may be dangerous to you as well.

Comment below if this guide inspired your own winter National Parks road trip, and let me know what destination you would like to discover next. And definitely don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to be notified of future blog posts, upcoming workshops, shop sales, and more! Plus, get 5 free Lightroom presets and my free travel packing checklist when you sign up!

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