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.
But it is also the time of year when the weather becomes less predictable, so you need to be ready for anything and for changing conditions. In most years, all roads will be open on November 1, but there’s a good chance the Glacier Point Road and the Tioga Pass Road will be closed by the end of the month.
- Two Rules of a Good November Trip
- A Gallery of November Images
- November Weather
- What if it rains or snows?
- If Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass Road are still open
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, 2029 (clear skies, hot and dry, hazy, possibly heavy smoke from fires). But I don’t know what the weather will be on November 25, which is only 20 days away as I write this. 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 17 years of living here and over 35 years of recreating here (as of November 2020), is flexibility. The following 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.
Gallery of November Scenes
This is meant to show the range of conditions, but does not represent the frequency of those conditions. We tend to take more photos when it’s more dramatic, so this gallery might give you the impression that you should definitely pack your skis. In the large majority of years, you shouldn’t.
If we look at averages for Yosemite Valley weather, it looks like this:
- Average daily high: 56F/13C.
- Average daily low: 33F/1C.
- Average monthly precipitation: 4.6in/117mm.
That said, as you know, if it’s 120 degrees one day and zero the next, the average is a wonderful 60 degrees. November weather can range from nice hiking weather where you keep your jacket in the pack all day, to, albeit rarely, a fierce snow storm that can drop two feet of snow. Again, November demands flexibility.
From the middle of October on, we are in the rainy season (hopefully) and any given period can bring rain or snow or gorgeous warm days. John Dill, in his forward to the rock climbing guidebook, likes to point out that on October 11, 1983, a climber on El Capitan collapsed from heat exhaustion. On October 11, 1984, a party on Washington Column had to be rescued due to hypothermia.
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 hardy 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 simply don’t want to do deal with it. What is there to do? Quite a bit actually. Note that since 2020, some of these options have been impacted by Covid-19 and who knows what the future will bring in any given year.
- 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 board games. We, unfortunately, are stuck with satellite internet, which is not really adequate for streaming movies, 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 Ahwahnee Hotel (Yosemite Valley) helped set the style of architecture for much of the parks (“parkitecture” as some call it). 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 Ahwahnee 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.
- Wawona Hotel, 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. The Wawona Hotel 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. During the heavy rains last January, we saw at least a couple of falls we had never seen before. 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. There are many cascades that you only see during or right after a storm. 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 an obscure trail that doesn’t get much traffic 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 often still be active. Get going early if you can. 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.
- 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 (not running in 2021, so that adds about a quarter mile each way if you park at the old stables lot near North Pines campground).
- 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. 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 close to (thought not exactly) the point 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 1931.
- 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.
- Mariposa Grove of the Giant Sequoias. Not to be missed and this is a great outing in any weather. We have been through the grove in sun, rain, snow and even a blizzard with huge snow avalanches coming off the trees. .
- Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias and the Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias (Crane Flat area). These are smaller groves and a longer drive. If you have time for just one, that would be the Mariposa Grove (hundreds of mature sequoias instead of 10-20). But the others are quite enjoyable as well.
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 (Muir and Roosevelt camped near Glacier Point in March and received about six inches of snow overnight). 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 the park. 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 nine 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.
If Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass Are Still Open
I would expect Tioga Pass to be open most years in the beginning of November and closed in most years by the end of November. Most of our guests on short stays do not have time to get up to the high country (it’s a 2-hour drive to Tioga Pass), but if you have time, it’s an amazing place with high-alpine scenery quite different from what you’ll see in the Yosemite low country.
Glacier Point is similar, though there is a slightly greater chance of it being open and it is quite close to our home. So if it’s open, it’s definitely worth a drive if staying at Alpine Escape. If you are up for a hike, I recommend:
- Sentinel Dome: 2.2 miles round trip, with panoramic views of the high country
- Taft Point: 2 miles round trip, with great views into Yosemite Valley.
- Taft Point to Sentinel Dome Loop: 4.8 miles with the best of both, plus some bonus views out over the Valley.
- Dewey Point: 7.8 miles round trip, with more rolling terrain than a lot of Yosemite walks, ending in a great view straight across at El Capitan.
Will Glacier Point Road Be Open? Will Tioga Road Be Open?
We don’t know in advance, but we have some thoughts about when Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road will close (and open).
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!