When the snow blankets the high country, where do you go?
Spring in Yosemite is one of the coveted times to visit. The waterfalls are booming, the wildflowers are blooming, the daytime temperatures range from cool to pleasant (and occasionally cold). It’s a magic time when you smell life rebounding on the air.
But spring comes late to the high country and that is all the more true in big snow years like 2023 or 2011 (or 2017 or 2019 for that matter). In terms of scenery and waterfalls, that’s great, but it does mean that hikers need to target lower-elevation hikes and perhaps pack a bit of extra gear they wouldn’t bring in midsummer.
Also, we hope it goes without saying that what follows are general guidelines and best guesses. There is no way to predict how much snow there will be at a given altitude on a given date unless that date.
As this is quite long, here are some links to help you jump to the part that most interests you.
- Just Give Me the Answer!
- April and May Hiking in Yosemite
- Recommended Gear
- The Mist Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Four Mile Trail
- Hiking Suggestions Area by Area
For more general information about park operations, see our page on Yosemite in 2023.
The Short Version
The short version of these thousands of words is simply this: in the spring, you want to focus on waterfalls and wildflowers.
- Waterfalls: Yosemite Falls, Upper and Lower; Wapama Falls in Hetch Hetchy; and as the spring advances, Chilnualna Falls in Wawona and the Vernal and Nevada Falls in Yosemite Valley.
- Wildflowers are less predictable, but the Hite’s Cove hike in the Lower Merced Canyon Area is the most famous. In general, you follow the flowers up in altitude as the season progresses until, by late August, spring finally comes to the high north slopes along the Sierra crest. So depending on the spring and the exact timing, you’ll find great flowers in the El Portal Area, Hetch Hetchy and the Wawona Meadow Loop. Of course, this can’t be predicted very far in advance.
April and May Hiking in Yosemite
First things first. Again, wildflowers and waterfalls are what draw people to the park in April, but April is a challenging month for hiking up high. Typically the Badger Pass ski area closes the last weekend of March and with it easy access to the high country. And, of course, even in a drought year, the Tioga Road opening is weeks away for the early-April visitor.
In general, this means that spring hikes start from lower altitude trailheads (Yosemite Valley, Wawona, Hetch Hetchy). Some of the hallmark spring walks are even lower, such as the famous Hite’s Cove wildflower walk.
In a drought year, things might start to open higher up as early as the end of April, but in an average year, April is still snowy month above 6000 feet. The park service does not even start plowing the high-elevation roads until April 15 and it is quite an involved process getting the Glacier Point Road and Tioga Road open.
In most years, you should not expect Glacier Point Road to be open in April, and in many years it will not open until late May. In 2023, due to heavy snow and some unfinished road construction from last year, the National Park Service has already announced that the road will not open in May.
The Tioga Road basically never opens in April and opens before the end of May only in low-snow years. In heavy snow years, it will take much of June, even into July, to get the road open.
If you are a skier, April and May are commonly good months to hike to snowline and get some great corn skiing. In a big snow year, you can just hike higher and higher and keep skiing all summer long if you’re willing to go high enough.
Down in Yosemite Valley, Wawona and Hetch Hetchy, April can feel like summer or winter. On the day I write this, April 4, 2023, it was 18 degrees this morning and only warmed up to 37 and sunny by afternoon. Just five days from now, it is forecast to be 66 and sunny. Some Aprils have no precipitation. Our first April living in Yosemite West (2003), it snowed something like 20 days. In short, for an April visit you may encounter conditions that feel a lot like winter or conditions that feel a lot like summer. Flexibility is mandatory in April, much like in November.
By May, precipitation is less common, but we can get snow. In fact, there is a local saying that it always snows once on the dogwood blossoms, which typically peak around Mother’s Day (second Sunday of May in the US). We even occasionally have snowstorms in June, with the latest being four inches of snowfall on June 12 at our house.
We can’t talk about spring without mentioning waterfalls. Usually the peak runoff is late April in a drought year and late May in a big snow year, with May 15 being the rough average in an average winter. That said, it’s hard to tell with the naked eye when the falls are at peak. Generally, early April to late May will have excellent waterfall viewing and destinations with waterfalls and cascades (and wildflowers) should go at the top of your list.
People differ on what they like for gear, but if you are going to be hiking up in the higher elevations (that is, above the Valley floor), you might find microspikes and poles useful.
Tom never uses microspikes, but uses poles often. Theresa rarely, but occasionally, uses some extra traction on her feet and also uses poles most of the time. You can get microspikes for as little as $10 on Amazon. Fancy brands will set you back $30 to $100. For us, the really aggressive (and expensive) ones are overkill for what most people need. You’re basically looking for a bit of extra traction on trails that have been packed firm.
Poles are much the same. Because we use poles a lot, we have expensive, super light, carbon fiber poles (which we love). But mostly with poles you are paying for lighter weight. For most people a pair of budget poles is all you need. You can sometimes find them at Costco or other budget stores. Sierra Trading Post has a decent selection of poles for under $30. One caveat: you cannot bring poles in carry-on luggage. Typically for a spring trip, you’ll need to check a bag anyway because you’ll be bringing more clothes, but it’s good to be prepared for this.
Extra shoes are handy if you have them. A lot of the trails have wet spots throughout the spring and well into summer in a big snow year. It’s nice to have dry shoes for the car or going out to eat or whatever. Two pair of comfy shoes is a worthwhile luxury in the spring.
Lots of socks. As a corollary to the advice to bring extra shoes, extra socks will be welcome too.
And, of course, it can still be chilly and we can still get precipitation, so a warm layer, a warm hat and a rain layer are all wise to have with you.
Beyond that, all your usual walking stuff. Days are getting longer, but it’s still not summer, so a headlamp is also an excellent idea.
The Mist Trail, JMT and Four Mile Trail
Most trails are open all year. If you have the gear and the experience, you can hike in the dead of winter. We’ve hiked Half Dome in January and skied Mount Starr King in February. There are three exceptions to this rule where trails have hard closures, meaning it is illegal to jump the gate and hike the trail. This is because there is a place on the Mist Trail and place on the John Muir Trail subject to ice fall, and there is a place on the Four Mile Trail subject to avalanche with a nasty fall if you were to slip crossing the icy avalanche debris.
Note that you can pretty much always hike to the top of Vernal and Nevada Falls, as we did in February 2023 (and many other times), but you follow a special winter route that goes up the bottom of John Muir Trail to Clark Point, then comes down to the Mist Trail just above the top of Vernal Fall. From where you join the Mist Trail it is just a short detour to the top of Vernal Fall. Overall, the winter route is perhaps a mile longer than the most direct summer route.
The park service maintains a super helpful web page on historic opening dates for roads, trails and campgrounds. The recent year most like 2023 was 2011. Not only because we get a ton of snow all winter, like in 2022-2023, but also because, like 2023, lots of snow fell late and low (we got over 10 feet of snow at the house March 20-23, 2011). So when trying to guess opening dates for 2023, 2011 is the closest recent analog, though when the April snow survey numbers come in, it is likely that 2023 will have even more snow than 2011.
A quick look shows:
- The Mist Trail up the Vernal Falls stairs typically opens in late March, but that can get extended to late April in a big snow year and opened on April 28 in 2011.
- The John Muir Trail through the Ice Cut typically opens in late April to mid-May and opened on May 13 in 2011.
- The Four Mile Trail was still closed in mid-May in 5 of the last 13 years (2010 to 2022) and 2023 will almost certainly make that 6 of the last 14. It opened on June 10 in 2011.
Again, for hiking to see Vernal and Nevada Falls, you have a winter option that is just a bit longer. For the Four Mile Trail, however, there is no nearby option of similar length for getting to Glacier Point. Simply put, for the vast majority if hikers, if the Four Mile Trail is closed, Glacier Point is probably too far for you to hike to.
Where Is the Good Spring Hiking?
Of course, we can’t predict the future and when a given trail will open in a given year, but here are some options for the early season. In some years, “early” means April, maybe even late March in a record drought year like 2015. In other years, “early” means May and into June.
Yosemite Valley Area
- Upper Yosemite Falls Trail and Yosemite Point. This gets a lot of sun and melts out quickly except for a couple places in the middle where snow sloughs off the cliffs above and piles up at the base. These areas can be snowy well into summer and many people like to have microspikes for these sections especially as the season wears on and they get firmer and firmer. The sunny upper reaches melt out faster, but once you crest the rim of the Valley, the deep forests as you go toward Eagle Peak and El Capitan hold snow quite late. The sunny slopes up toward Yosemite Point melt out earlier.
- Mist Trail and John Muir Trail (see above).
- Pohono Trail to Artist Point, Inspiration Point and, as spring wears on, Old Inspiration Point (6640′). Beyond Old Inspiration Point, the trail goes up above 7000 feet and stays pretty high, reaching 7336′ by Dewey Point, so it takes longer to melt out. April 4, 2023, update: we spoke to some people who hiked to within a mile of Stanford Point. They said the trail is packed out and recommended microspikes.
- Valley Loop Trail. The west end is surprisingly nice given its proximity to the road. I (Tom) avoided this for years even though a fellow ranger told me it was his favorite walk in the Valley. I finally did it and, though not my favorite, it’s a surprisingly peaceful tour of the Valley.
- Mirror Lake Trail. This is the the east end of the Valley Loop Trail and is also the start to the Snow Creek Trail (below). It has nice views of Half Dome and Watkins. The loop around Mirror Lake is also nice and we love the part that passes under the shadow of Half Dome, but that shadow of Half Dome makes snow linger there longer than other places. Between water on the trail and snow, it can be a bit of an adventure in the early season.
- Snow Creek Trail. This leaves from near the east end of the north side of the Mirror Lake Loop. The attraction of the Snow Creek Trail is not so much in doing the whole trail, but getting above treeline. It has a lot of slabs and open areas and 15-30 minutes of walking gets you to a nice open slab to have lunch with unobstructed views across to Half Dome. If you continue to the top where you re-enter the forest, the snow can linger long there in the shade.
- Old Big Oak Flat Road from the wood yard near the west end of El Capitan. Again, very sunny. Great views of El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall. The caveat here is that though this was once the main road into Yosemite Valley, this is considered a cross-country route now as the rockslides have reclaimed sections (indeed, the trailhead is called the Rockslides Trailhead when applying for a wilderness permit). So especially in the spring when winter rains and runoff have loosened things up, it is important to exercise great caution when moving around any rocks that could potentially move. That said, the bottom of it is quite safe and gets you to an open talus field with excellent views.
Wawona Area and the Mariposa Grove
- Mariposa Grove. The grove is “open” year round. In fact, we spent a wonderful New Years Eve 2022 camped in the Upper Grove near the museum with five feet of fresh snow on the ground. The question is really whether or not the shuttles are running and how much snow is on the trail.
- To answer the first question: no. Shuttles run roughly Memorial Day to November 1. Outside of those dates, you have to walk the two miles to the summer shuttle terminus. So while the road might be “open” if you have a handicap placard, that doesn’t mean the shuttle is running.
- As for the amount of snow, our pictures from mid-April 2011 show a lot of snow in the grove, but my pictures from May 20 show us walking on pavement. We were on our way to ski Mount Raymond and, as I recall, we had just barely enough snow at the top of the grove to put our skis on. So I would say it should be melted out by then. Generally, people hike this all winter and it gets packed out even if there is snow. I would expect this to be quite hikable within a few weeks of a storm. Update, 5 April 2023: NPS plowed the road to the grove and opened it to the public after being closed for roughly a month. As the road is plowed, the two miles to the grove should be an easy hike, then it will become quite snowy, though it should pack out quickly as people return.
- Chilnualna Falls Trail goes quite high, like the Upper Falls Trail, but like the Falls Trail, it is south-facing along most of its length. Of course, the higher you get the more likely to encounter snow. The lower cascade at the start of the trail is a striking destination in itself, even if it is only a few minutes from the car. From there, the trail is sunny and faces south and southwest for most of its distance so the snow retreats early, but expect snow to linger much longer on steeper slopes of the last half mile or so.
- Wawona Meadow Loop. This is only about 3.5 miles. I (Tom) used to run it a lot after work. It’s main attraction is that in the right season it has a wide variety of wildflowers. In some periods it will have big, showy displays, but the main attraction is variety. We’ve counted more than 50 species in bloom on some walks. You can couple this with the Yosemite History Center or a walk across Swinging Bridge, another short walk (less than a mile each way) in Wawona that takes you across an old suspension footbridge. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, just much much much smaller.
- Alder Creek Trail. This is about halfway between Yosemite West and Wawona. It’s not one of the iconic falls in Yosemite, but it’s a pleasant hike to a waterfall that is maybe 75 feet tall. There’s also a bit of logging history there — the last part of the trail is the old logging railroad bed that once ran from El Portal, through Yosemite West, all the way out to Alder Creek Fall. When you come into Yosemite West, you’re driving on the same railroad bed that ends at Alder Creek Fall. The fall is at about 5600 feet, roughly the altitude of our house. So when the snow is gone here, it should be gone there roughly speaking.
- Lewis Creek. Like Alder Creek, this is not really in the Wawona Area, but it’s along the same road. The Lewis Creek hike is outside the park about halfway to Oakhurst on Highway 41, and known for Corlieu Falls and Red Rock Falls. A bit obscure, but not a bad walk, especially if the flowers are in. See the description on Yosemite Hikes.
El Portal, Foresta and the Lower Merced Canyon
- Hites Cove outside the park is the most famous wildflower walk in the region. It also walks through the stunning steep canyon of the South Fork of the Merced River. The trail itself, however, is only steep along brief sections as it mostly contours along the canyon wall. Normally the wildflower blooms are a mid-March to mid-May event, but obviously that shifts depending on the weather. Amazing when in bloom. It was this hike that turned me (Tom) from a person who didn’t think about flowers to a wildflower obsessive for several years. People often post conditions on the California Wildflower Report Facebook Page (no account necessary to view and read) as in this post from April 2, 2023.
- Foresta Falls from Foresta (short) or El Portal (long). The El Portal version would likely only be worth it if the flowers were in bloom or you just wanted a long, possibly rather hot, walk. You can also do the somewhat longer Little Nellie Falls from Foresta. Though higher than Yosemite Valley, the lack of steep walls means this area gets a ton of sun and is already melted out as we looked across from Wawona Road on April 1, 2023.
- Merced River Trail. This is a fair bit outside the park, but a good option if higher things are snowy. More on the Merced River Trail.
- Zephyr Rafting. Okay, this is not a trail, but it’s a great way to see the Merced River Canyon from river level. It’s pricey, but a fun day in high spring flows. There are a couple of outfits, but we’ve always had a good experience with Zephyr Rafting.
Hetch Hetchy Area
- Hetch Hetchy, Wapama Falls, Poopenaut Valley. At the same altitude as Yosemite Valley, this is one of the first places in the park to melt out.
- Wapama Falls is about five miles round trip to the bridge. The park service is moving the bridge to make it passable in high water, but until that is done, the bridge will be the end of your walk in spring. Two backpackers were killed in June 2011 trying to cross this bridge in high water. Another was killed more recently (2017?). Don’t take chances. In any case, you do not need to cross the bridge to get nice views of Wapama Falls and the smaller Tueeulala Falls along the way. And if you hit it right, the flowers can be amazing.
- Above Hetch Hetchy. There are other options out of Hetch Hetchy as well, such as taking the left fork and hiking up and out toward Beehive rather than staying at the reservoir level as for Wapama Falls. Of course, this trail will eventually take you into snow country, but the pleasure of this hike in the early season is the wildflowers that line the trail low down.
- Poopenaut Valley. Before arriving at the main Hetch Hetchy parking, you’ll pass the trailhead for Poopenaut Valley, a valley at the bottom of the Tuolumne River Canyon at one of the lowest altitudes in the park.
- Carlon Falls along the road to Hetch Hetchy. A short hike to a small but popular waterfall.
Tuolumne and Merced Groves (near Crane Flat)
- The smaller cousins to the Mariposa Grove. They have far fewer trees (a couple dozen each versus hundreds) but when the Mariposa Grove shuttle isn’t running, these groves offer a shorter walk (one mile to the first mature sequoias instead of two for the Mariposa Grove) and some great trees. They both start above the groves and hike down which means they will be snowy in the spring, but people hike these trails all winter long and they typically get packed out for relatively easy walking. Many hikers will want microspikes and/or hiking poles. Both groves are nice, but parking is quite limited in the Merced Grove, so it can be more of a challenge.
Because people have asked.
- Panorama Trail. Generally faces south over the high-altitude portion, so those slopes melt out quickly compared to the Four Mile Trail on the shady side of Glacier Point. In the shadier areas down lower, snow will linger longer. Usually by mid-May the snow should be quite consolidated so walking is usually not bad. Poles help. That said, it’s a long hike as an out and back when the Four Mile Trail is closed.
- High trails, peaks and passes. These are all open. They are always open. But in the spring, the approach is long and you will need skis and winter camping experience. If you fall into that category, it can be awesome. We skied Mount Starr King in February 2023. We climbed Snake Dike on Half Dome and came down the Cables Route in January 2012. If you have the gear, energy and experience, very little is truly off limits, but some hikes that are easy dayhikes in the summer might be multi-day expeditions in February or April. There is one caveat though: unbridged creek crossings present a genuine danger. If you want to get deep into the backcountry early in the year, try to plan to routes that avoid unbridged creek crossings.
Definitely Not Open
- Tioga Road. Any opening before Memorial Day is considered early. In big snow years, the road has opened as late as July 1.
- Glacer Point Road will occasionally open in April in severe drought years, but usually NPS targets late May and in 2023 they have already said they will not be able to meet that schedule as first it needs to be plowed then some construction tasks need to be completed.
- Half Dome Cables. Definitely not up in May in a big snow year.
If you have other questions, drop us a line. And again, these are general guidelines and best guesses. There’s a reason the National Park Service is vague on their website: these things genuinely cannot be predicted. There is no formula. A moderate snow year with a very very cold spring might see some trails slower to melt out than a big year with a very very hot spring. Who knows what will happen? And that’s part of the fun, right? If we knew what was going to happen every time we walked out the door, would there be any point in walking out the door at all?