Enjoy low cost eco-activities and lots of free winter fun outdoors at Yosemite National Park. This northern California preserve is truly one of America’s favorite and most easily accessible national parks.
Plan ahead, during the pandemic era, to take advantage of the park’s many scheduled family activities. While visiting Yosemite with the kids is a fun experience at any time of year, winter is special. Summer is truly mobbed, and between May 20-Sept. 30, 2022, reservations are required to enter or drive through the park.
School Break Kids Recreation
During the winter school holidays, try skiing, cross country skiing, snowboarding and ice skating. Snowshoe with the rangers free of charge and explore the wilderness. Catch the occasional Wee Wild Ones program held around the great fireplace in The Ahwahnee Village. It’s modeled on the regular summer program held from May-October at the Curry Village Amphitheatre.
Kids age 10 and younger learn all about the park’s animals through fun stories, songs, games, crafts and activities. Cozy up at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and The Ahwahnee Village, where free and low cost evening programs are held. Fireside storytelling teaches the family about park history and wildlife. And, if you have fourth graders, remember that your student and their entire families can visit all national parks at no charge.
Yosemite Hotels Offer Free Family Programs
Most seasons, there are many interpretive programs in the park to choose from, all of which are either free or inexpensive. These activities are geared to all ages and designed to be enjoyed as a family.
In addition to the park’s organized programs and taking in the beautiful scenery, check out the hotels. Take advantage of the many inexpensive activities, such as the free tours offered year-round at Ahwanee Village. There are live music performances and historical events at the Wawona Hotel, and photography and ranger-led walks throughout the park.
Ask the on-site National Park Service park rangers for the inside scoop on the more popular options, so you can plan ahead. At least in winter, these special family acitivities are rarely overbooked.
Winters Only Yosemite Fun
During the deep snow season, however, crowds diminish even more and the park stays operational. From December to late March, Yosemite operates its own Badger Pass Ski area. Badger Pass is equipped with five lifts and plenty of beginner or intermediate runs.
Also offered is their Yosemite Ski School with lessons that are useful for beginners as well as refresher courses for children and adults with some experience.
Enroll beginning skiers and snowboarders in the guaranteed to learn the sport in one day program. For just $115 (adult) or $105 (kids 7-12), they’ll provide a beginner area lift ticket, morning and afternoon lesson and equipment plus helmet. If your novice doesn’t master the sport, they can repeat the experience the next day at no cost.
Your younger ones can enroll in the Badger Pups Program, designed to accommodate the needs of preschool students. It introduces them to the world of downhill skiing. While skiing always has its price, in comparison with many other ski areas, Badger is a bargain.
Warm Me Up Indoor Activities at Yosemite in Winter
Other winter activities within Yosemite Park include sightseeing tours from heated and enclosed motor coaches, nature walks, and visiting the Yosemite Museum and Ansel Adams Gallery.
The Yosemite Valley Visitor Center is the place to start your park visit and get a behind the scenes look at an extraordinary natural environment. (Double check their schedule as the Visitors Center has been closed during the pandemic.)
See displays that feature a replica giant sequoia, a bear cave that kids can enter and a “glacier” that welcomes a hands-on approach. There are pull-out panels and drawers and exhibits that make sounds. Don’t miss the animated displays about topics ranging from Yosemite’s geology to human history and local artists.
Yosemite Lodging on a Budget
The Ahwanhee Hotel is as distinctive as it is beautiful. This national historical landmark houses 123 rooms and features a blend of Native American, Middle Eastern and other design influences. Many public rooms such as the Solarium and the Great Lounge can be accessed by guests and non-guests alike and there are free tours.
The historic Wawona Hotel and Housekeeping Camp open late Spring to October. Housekeeping Camp is like glamping; guests get the look and feel of camping without having to set up their own tents. These “tents” sleep up to four people with two single-size bunks and one double bed. Shared restrooms are a short walk away.
Staying at Curry Village allows guests easy access to many dining and activity options, including a pizza deck and bar, coffee shop and buffet. In winter, head to the outdoor ice skating rink that remains open daily from November to March. Choose from hotel style rooms, standard wood cabins or canvas-covered cabins. Not all options are open throughout winter.
Getting Around Yosemite in Winter
If all the park lodging is booked up, the privately-run Tenaya Lodge is just 2 miles south of Yosemite in the Sierra National Forest. Each winter, the lodge offers guided snowshoe hikes, kids’ snowmobiling and horse-drawn sleigh rides. For those looking to stay onsite, try the outdoor ice rink and cap it off with marshmallow roasting and s’more-making over the outdoor fire pit.
Another alternative is the park service-run campgrounds in nearby state parks. Check out this list of alternative camping sites near to Yosemite.
Families typically drive into Yosemite and it can be an absolutely beautiful drive, although it isn’t the only way to get into the Park.
Go Green on Your Next Yosemite Visit
There are other options to get around too. Choose free shuttle buses to pick you up and drop you off from place to place within the valley.
Even better than driving, Amtrak offers train service to Merced. Merced is where the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) buses pick you up and send you into Yosemite Valley. The Valley is the hub of the park, where you will find all of the shops and hotels. Look for special savings if you book ahead on Amtrak, as well as discounts for kids and students.
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