Which Road Should You Take into Yosemite in Winter?

In Road Conditions, Tips, Travel

Highway 120 (Big Oak Flat Road) into Yosemite, New Years Eve 2009. Photo by Janet Crum.

I came across this photo on Flickr and it realize that there’s a topic I haven’t talked about yet, which road to take in winter.

This is a photo of the Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120 from San Francisco/Groveland/Big Oak Flat, etc.) into the park. Notice you can’t see pavement? It’s covered in a layer of icy snow.

Although Highway 120 into the park IS the faster route into the park from San Francisco and the Bay Area (I’ve timed and measured the mileage) in the summer, during the winter months the road is usually be covered by a thick layer of ice and snow making it more treacherous. Usually the ice starts just outside the park as you climb to about 5000ft and continues into the park until around the Big Meadow Overlook when the road curves onto a south facing slope.

From Fresno Highway 41 will often be the same way from just above Fish Camp to around Wawona and sometimes lower.

During the winter months Highway 140 from Merced to Mariposa and into the park is usually the best way to go. There are 2 spots on Highway 140 from Merced that may require chains when the snow level drops to around 4000ft but if you have to chain up there you’re likely to be using your chains in Yosemite Valley as well. Other than that Highway 140 is usually free and clear of snow. You may, however, have black ice in spots along the Merced River especially the bridges. Where the canyon blocks the sun during the winter or where air can circulate under the roadway will often be much colder and ice will form.

The other major concern in all seasons along Highway 140 is rocks in the roadway. Due to the dramatic changes in temperatures during the day rocks frequently tumble down from the sides of the canyon and end up on the road. Nothing puts a damper on your vacation like careening off the road into the Merced River or running over a rock and having it pop up and rip the underside of your car or engine to pieces. Not fun. If you take 140 into the park be sure to keep your eyes peeled for rocks.

Don’t forget, no matter which road you take into the park you are required by federal law to carry chains. Even if you have a 4-wheel drive with snow tires. You can be asked to chain up at any time and if you can’t produce chains when asked you may be cited.

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3 commentsOn Which Road Should You Take into Yosemite in Winter?

  • THANK YOU for a great photo of Yosemite in Winter. The season is my favorite of the year in Yosemite. Quiet. Uncrowded. Slower pace. The visitors who make it are there because they WANT to be there. BTW, I have a set of tire cables in the trunk of my 2001 Prius 365 days a year. I’ve only used them twice in the park – despite 4-5 visits a year.

  • Yeah, for the photo, we can hardly find white snow on the pavement, but a layer of icy snow. It is quite queer.

  • Oh, come on…we haven’t had snow in weeks and the road is perfectly clear. While the routes that elevate into Yosemite do get more snow, I wouldn’t make a blanket desion to use one route only. Check the conditions first. Highway 120 is extremely beautiful on the inbound route and 140 is lovely in either direction.

    We suggest one calls their innkeeper to find out the road conditions on the day of travel and then make the decision. No need to assume 120 and 41 are going to be treacherous, actually it is rather few day over the course of the whole winter that these roads are in an icy condition. The trick is knowing when!

    BTW, Winter guests can book the Hotel Charlotte with confidence! This year we have a new winter cancellation policy with no fees incurred for a cancellatios if Highway 120 into the park requires chains. (We don’t like to put chains on either!)

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