Aaron and I have made it our mission this year to really focus on having more experiences. That means getting out there and traveling more, making more mistakes, and connecting with the world around us… even if that means a painful process.

Visiting Yosemite National Park in winter was one such experience.

A cloudy valley on the way to Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

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The Story

I’ve said many times that I simply love visiting national parks in the wintertime. After all, it means cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, and generally more beautiful photography.

A snowy forested trail in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

So when we got an annual national parks pass for Christmas, we couldn’t wait to break it in!

A friend was visiting Death Valley, so we decided to join her. And since we were driving, why not make a road trip out of it and stop by Yosemite on the way?

I’ve been to this beautiful park before – also in the winter! – and I loved it. I couldn’t wait to show Aaron around.

Where things went south.. literally

A smiley face drawn into snow resting on a log | BIG tiny World Travel

We spent a snowy first day inside the park, which was a little cold, but actually a lot of fun! However, when we went to leave for the evening along the northern pass, we were surprised to find flashing blue and red lights blocking our way.

The police said Hwy 120 was closed because of the snow. We learned later that there was a 10-car pile-up, and the pass was very treacherous. We’d have to go out the west entrance out to Mariposa, then drive north to get back to our hotel. We were dismayed to see the route estimate at about 4.5 hours.

There had to be a better way!

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As I investigated further, I was delighted to find that Google Maps was set to biking directions – ha! No wonder it was so long. Adjusting back to car, 1.5 hours. Much better.

A screenshot of Google Maps, showing bike directions taking more than 3.5 hours | BIG tiny World Travel

However, the snow was really coming down by this point, and it was dark. The roads were slick, and we couldn’t drive very quickly.

We decided to stop off in Mariposa for some dinner, figuring we’d rather eat sooner than later. And perhaps the delay would find us in a better spot in the snowstorm.

An hour later, the snow was no better, so we pressed on.

Enter: the Koosh ball

The pass along highway 49 is fairly direct, but it’s also very windy (“wine-dy”). Every turn was stressful, especially with all the snow flying into our field of vision.

If you’re from my generation or older, you might remember the old Koosh balls – thin strands of rubber tied into a ball. They were fun to toss about, and you could fidget with all the ends of the strands. I fondly remember mine – black and hot pink.

As you drive into a raging blizzard, it looks very much like one of these old Koosh balls – streaks of snow splayed out from a single central point. It’s always directly in front of you; you can’t escape it. And in the dark, more light only makes visibility worse.

We drove for hours into this white Koosh ball, tired and cold from the day and just anxious to get back to our room.

Occasionally, we were fortunate enough to have a pair of tail lights to lead us, and we were seldom blinded by oncoming headlights.

But the road just dragged on and on.. and on… and on.

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The aftermath

Aaron lying face-down on a bed, tired from the long drive | BIG tiny World Travel

We finally made it back safely, and we simply crashed. I’m glad we didn’t still have dinner to worry about. And the joke was on us, because with the dinner stop, it still took us over 5 hours to drive back.

The next morning, we were pleased to see the storm had passed, and sunlight shone on all the newly fallen snow. We were in high spirits as we drove up 120 for a new day in the park.

…only to find the gates closed. After driving 20 minutes from our hotel. Ugh.

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Apparently, 120 was still closed, and we’d have to drive back through Mariposa to get into the park.

On the plus side, the pass in daytime was much easier, and it was so pretty with all the snow! It also only took about 1.5 hours, so it didn’t eat too much into our day.

A valley view with just a sprinkling of snow | BIG tiny World Travel

The Lesson

If you go…

  • Make sure your car is equipped with all the necessary essentials for winter driving. This includes chains/snow tires, a small shovel, kitty litter (for traction), and spare washer fluid. Also prepare yourself in case you get stuck: fresh water, nonperishable snacks, and extra warm clothing.
  • Check road conditions for your entire route before setting out.
  • Position yourself as close as you an afford to minimize driving. If you can’t be closer, prioritize routes that are less likely to be impacted by weather.
  • If you do hit weather, try to keep a positive attitude, take it slowly, and take notes for the fun story you’ll be able to tell!

I still love visiting national parks in the wintertime, and I won’t stop doing so. However, after this experience, we’ll be much more cognizant of where we place ourselves. Knowing that of the three main entrances into Yosemite, two traverse high-elevation passes, we’d shoot for the one least likely to close should we hit snow (i.e. the one closest to Mariposa).

We also failed to check the road status before setting out the second day, which was a mistake. Yosemite posts these closures on their website, so we could have saved a 40-minute dead-end by simply checking beforehand.

A lake shrouded in clouds as it snows in Yosemite National Park | BIG tiny World Travel

Visiting Yosemite in the off-season can be risky, but I still think it was worth it. Not all experiences are good ones, but they still make for a good story!


What’s the worst weather you’ve ever driven in?

Psst… don’t miss these other driving mishap experiences:

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