What to do in Yosemite in November?
November is one of the least crowded times in Yosemite. Parking lots that fill by 9am in the summer are half-empty at noon in November. Nature is quieter too. Bears are typically busy putting on fat for hibernation and, if the snows come early, may even bed down for the winter before the end of November. Mating season being far behind them, birds are still present, but often much quieter than during the spring. If snow has come to the high country, the juncos may already be down on the Valley floor. High country snows will tend to push the deer downhill as well.
The Two Rules for a Good November Trip
The low crowds are partly a result of school and holiday schedules, but also the unpredictable weather. I can tell you right now what the weather will be like on July 25, 2018 (clear skies, hot and dry). But I don’t know what the weather will be on November 25, which is only 20 days away. It could be a warm fall day that sees me getting ready to run in shorts or a fierce winter day where I’m pulling out the skis. You just don’t know.
So the key to making the most of Yosemite in November, as we’ve learned from 14 years of living here and over 20 years of recreating here (as of November 2016), is flexibility. I would say the following general rules of thumb apply:
- be ready to use tire chains, though you probably won’t.
- be ready to hike in the rain and snow, though you probably won’t.
If you’re prepared for that, you can fill up a vacation (or several weekends) with Yosemite activities.
Typical November Weather
Most of the time, November is just like any other month except that it’s cooler, less crowded and, at least from the middle of the month on, Glacier Point Road and Tioga Road will be closed (see below: “What are the chances Glacier Point Road is open?”). Other than that, it tends to be a great time to hike. Though the days are shorter, the cool temperatures make it pleasant all day long. For example, it’s still pleasant on the Yosemite Falls Trail at noon, whereas in July the noonday heat on the Falls Trail or Snow Creek Trail (both south facing) is brutal. Most November days will be clear and you’ll just do the “greatest hits” (Mist Trail, Falls Trail, go see El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, etc).
But from the middle of October on, we are in the rainy season and any given period can bring rain or snow. John Dill, in his forwared to the rock climbing guidebook, likes to point out that on October 11, 1983, a climber on El Cap collapsed from heat exhaustion. On October 11, 1984, a party on Washington Column had to be rescued due to hypothermia.
Obviously, our guests won’t be halfway up El Capitan when a storm come in, but you need to be ready for a variety of conditions. Your best bet is to keep an eye on the Yosemite weather forecast and make your decisions on what clothes and gear to bring once you have a clearer sense of the weather.
But what if it snows or rains? What then?
If you’re willing to get a little wet, then pretty much everything is still on the table. If you’re not a fan of a long day out in the rain, there are still a number of indoor or shorter activities that make for a nice pastime on a stormy day. Regardless, it’s worth it to get out. There’s a reason that the pro photographers all come out of the woodwork when the storms roll in. That’s when you see Yosemite at its most dramatic. Most visitors aren’t going to hope for storms, but if it is stormy, you should make the most of it.
I’m going to start with some options that are easy, low-activity and in many cases indoors and move to harder, longer options. If you’re a comfortable hiker and don’t mind getting wet, even rain shouldn’t stop you from any of these.
Indoor or Mostly Indoor Activities
Let’s assume it’s raining or snowing and you just simply don’t want to do deal with it. What is there to do? Quite a bit actually.
- First, we think Alpine Escape is a pretty comfy place to hunker down in a storm. It has a full kitchen, central heat, a fireplace for ambiance and backup in event of a power outage, a large-screen TV with a Blu-Ray player and selection of movies and a handful of games. We also have T1 internet, the best we can get here. It’s not really fast enough to stream a movie, but it is fast enough to surf the web. Obviously, you’re not coming to Yosemite to sit around inside, but that’s just to say that if you go out in the rain or snow and get chilled, you’ll have a very comfy place to warm up in (and a clothes dryer to get your clothes dried out of the next day).
- The Yosemite Valley Visitor Center has a nice set of exhibits on the history of Yosemite from geological times to the present. They show a movie every thirty minutes on Yosemite. As I write this, it alternates between two different movies, both of which I think are well worth watching. Right next door, the Yosemite Museum is small, but has some interesting artifacts from the early days of the park, representing both Indian and settler culture. Also, there is usually an Indian Cultural Demonstrator at the museum who can talk about the culture and also, depending on the person, show you traditional techniques of making baskets, rope, arrowheads and more. If your kids or you (no age limit) are doing the Junior Ranger program, a chat with the cultural demonstrator counts as a ranger talk. Finally, just behind the Museum is the Indian Village, which is also worth a walk (though that is actually outdoors).
- The Majestic Hotel (Yosemite Valley). The name has changed (it used to be the Ahwahnee), but it’s the same building that set the style of architecture for much of the parks. The dining room, which looks like it could easily house a school for wizards, is worth a look even if you don’t want to pay Majestic prices for a meal (though lunch is not outrageously expensive). There are also historic tours of the hotel that are fun — Presidents Kennedy and Obama stayed here, as did Queen Elizabeth II.
- Big Trees Lodge, Hill Studio and the Pioneer History Center (Wawona). This is the Wawona equivalent of the Valley Visitor Center, Majestic Hotel, and the Indian Village. Like the Indian Village, the Pioneer History Center is more of an outdoor activity. It includes a covered bridge (covered by the Washburn brothers, from my home state of Vermont where covered bridges were the norm), the old jail, Wells Fargo office and other buildings from the settler days all assembled in one place. So you’re moving in and out of buildings, but mostly outdoors. The Big Trees Lodge is fully indoors and though no president has stayed there, President Theodore Roosevelt ate lunch there on his way to the Mariposa Grove during his Yosemite visit in 1903. It’s a stately old Victorian hotel that is a wonderful place to stop for a hot chocolate on a blustery day. I know firsthand because I have hunkered down here a few evenings on my way home from work while waiting for the road to clear after an accident. If you’re lucky, you’ll land there on a night that Tom Bopp is at the piano, playing songs from the 1800s and telling stories of the early days of the park (this is several evenings a week, usually beginning around 5pm). If you’re there during the day, the Hill Studio in the Wawona Visitor Center has some remarkable early paintings of the park and is worth a quick look.
- Drive Highway 140 to El Portal. This may seem like an odd suggestion, but in a heavy rain, this is a fun drive. You’ll go past Cascade Falls, but also see several other waterfalls that only run during a rainstorm. In a light rain, this may not be worth it, but in a heavy rain and perhaps even the day after, it can be great. One caveat: beware of falling rocks, especially if it’s the first rain of the season.
- Drive anywhere. For that matter, just go for a drive. Clouds and storms make for dramatic scenery and great photography.
Short Activities for a Rainy or Snowy Day
These are all worthwhile activities rain or shine, but let’s say it’s raining and you don’t want to hike one of the long trails, but you still want to get outdoors and see the park, where can you go? So many options, but to choose a few that may be better in the rain or snow than in the shine:
- Track animals. If it’s snowing enough to collect on the ground, my absolute favorite activity is to pick a trail (the one leaving from the bathrooms by the Glacier Point Road intersection with Hwy 41 is a good choice) and follow animal tracks for a few hours. November is a great time for this because animals that may hibernate (bears, some squirrels) or go down to lower elevations in winter (mountain lions, deer) will still be active and up in the hills. Some days after the first snows, tracks are absolutely everywhere in the forest. One tip though: get going early if you can, because once the sun melts the snow off the trees, the tracks are harder to see and it can feel like it’s raining in the deep forest. Otherwise, just find a set of tracks and follow them for a while. It’s a great way to learn about animal behavior.
- Lower Yosemite Falls Loop (Yosemite Valley). If it’s raining hard enough that you don’t want to do a long hike, by definition the water will be flowing in the falls. When the falls are up, you’ll get wet standing on the bridge at lower falls anyway, so the rain shouldn’t be a deterrent. This is only about a 10-minute flat walk from the Yosemite Valley Lodge or about 45 minutes if you do the whole Lower Falls Loop. You can go back to the Mountain Room Bar for a cup of hot chocolate. If you’re lucky, you’ll score a place next to the fireplace, but that’s going to be hard on a weekend.
- Bridalveil Fall (Yosemite Valley). This is just a five minute walk from the parking lot. Like Yosemite Falls, rain or shine you’re going to get wet at the viewing point if the falls are in high flow, so there’s no reason not go in the rain when there’s some extra water in the falls!
- Mirror Lake Loop (Yosemite Valley). This is a little longer, but unless the cloud ceiling is very low, it will give you spectacular looks at Half Dome and is only about a mile of mostly flat walking each way. If you’re feeling good, you can do the whole loop, which is about seven miles. Get off the free shuttle at stop #17.
- Photography at Tunnel View and Artist’s Point (Yosemite Valley). In the summer, if you go to Tunnel View at the exit of the Wawona Tunnel, you’ll see crowds of people with their cameras taking pictures of Yosemite Valley (assuming you can find a place to park). What you will not see are many locals or professional photographers. Why? Because the scene is not nearly as interesting as it is with some clouds and autumn light. The famous photos are mostly taken during a storm or just after it clears. On a drizzly fall day, you’ll see the serious photographers out there with their big setups and umbrellas waiting for just the right cloud formation. If, however, you want a little more than what you can see from the car, go across the street from the main lookout and start hiking up the Pohono Trail. After about a half mile, you encounter the old road. Turn left and hike about half a mile downhill until the view opens up (if you keep your eyes open you’ll see a USGS survey marker too). This is Artist’s Point. It’s where Thomas Ayre’s made the first known sketch of Yosemite in 1855 and where generations of artists and photographers planted their easels and tripods until the Wawona Tunnel rerouted the road in 1933.
- Hite’s Cove (El Portal area down Highway 140). This is technically a few miles outside the park, but if it were anywhere else, it would be a major destination hike. In fact, I think if it were inside the park, it would be a major destination hike. The trail is very steep right at the beginning, but soon mellows out and contours along the steep hillsides of the South Fork of the Merced River. It’s a striking landscape and after a couple of miles, you’ll descend to the level of the river to some interesting black rocks with swirls of white quartz that makes a nice lunch spot. If you want a long hike, you can go all the way to the ghost town of Hite’s Cove. All that remains now is a bit of mining equipment and a few foundations, but the town once boasted a hotel, a Chinatown and a sizeable population.
- Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias (Crane Flat area). Stormy days are great times to visit the sequoia groves. In our many visits to Yosemite’s sequoia groves, the one that stands out is a trip to the Mariposa Grove (closed until 2017) during a snowstorm. Despite having been among the big trees many times, to be among them with the snow falling was indescribable (so I won’t even try).
Longer Activities for Snow and Rain
- Four Mile Trail (Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point). If you aren’t afraid of the snow and rain, then you can pretty much do anything you can do in the sun. There are a few things that can be extra special in November, though. Assuming Glacier Point Road is closed, but the Four Mile Trail is open, you can make the long hike up to Glacier Point (9.5 miles round trip or 13 miles if you go down the Panorama Trail). That said, once we get our first decent snowstorm, the Four Mile Trail will close until spring. To find out current status, check the NPS Trail Conditions page. The reward for this long trip? You stand at Glacier Point much as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt did with no crowds. You will, in fact, likely be alone for at least part of your time. In the summer, the parking lot fills and you have to take the shuttle from the ski area parking lot and at any given moment you share the view with a hundred new friends. When we have gone there when the road is closed and the ski area is not yet open, we have been alone for hours. Yes, the railings are still there and all the signs of civilization, but it’s the quietest it gets in the twenty-first century. A wonderful experience.
- Mist Trail (Yosemite Valley). The most popular trail in North America. On a busy summer day, as many as three thousand people start up the trail. You typically won’t be completely alone here even on a rainy day in November, but you just might be. If not, you’ll at least have a quiet experience and the extra flow in the river will not detract from the falls. This trail does not close, but gets rerouted around two dangerous areas once the cold weather hits and it ices up. See the NPS page about the winter route for details. The pleasure of this trail is the rushing water and, of course, the falls, so it’s a great choice for days when visibility is limited.
- Chilnualna Falls Trail (Wawona). This trail is fairly long (about eight miles round trip), but there are nice cascades in the first quarter mile if you just want a quick hit. If you’re feeling good, keep walking. The top cascades are in three levels. You arrive at the top of the first one, a bit more hiking brings the second into view and then the upper cascade is one more switchback up.
- Upper Yosemite Falls Trail (Yosemite Valley). This is a steep, rocky trail, but if the rain is falling, the falls are flowing. Go as high as you want, but you have to get about halfway for a good view of the falls.
Will Glacier Point Road Be Open? Will Tioga Road Be Open?
The short answer: there’s a decent chance one or both will be open in early November, but a very low chance by late November.
If we look at the 21 years from 1995 to 2015, inclusive:
Glacier Point Road (discounting three years with no records)
- Closed on or before November 10 seven times (39% of years)
- Closed on or before November 20 twelve times (67% of years)
- Closed on or before November 30 fifteen times (83% of years)
- Closed on or before December 10 sixteen times (89% of years)
- Closed on or before December 20 eighteen times (100%)
In short, it’s rare for Glacier Point Road to close before November 1, but if you want a better than 50% chance of being able to drive out Glacier Point Road, come in early November.
- Closed on or before October 31 three times (14% of years)
- Closed on or before November 10 eight times (38% of years)
- Closed on or before November 20 fifteen times (71% of years)
- Closed on or before November 30 eighteen times (86% of years)
- Closed on or before December 10 nineteen times (90% of years)
- Closed on or before December 20 twenty times (95% of years)
- In the 2011 season, the Tioga Road did not actually close until January 17, 2012.
So similar to Glacier Point, you have a good chance in early November, but in late November not so much.
There is plenty to do in November, but the key is to come ready for anything. Watch the forecast, select your clothes and toys accordingly!