How to take a Winter Road Trip in California: Adventure in Yosemite, Sequoia, & Death Valley National Parks
California Road Trip Stop 1:
Yosemite National Park
Begin your winter road trip through California by flying into Fresno or San Francisco, renting a car, and driving out to Yosemite National Park – unless you are a California local, in which case, start the road trip from your location! It’s about a three to four hour drive from San Francisco or a ninety-minute drive from Fresno. Check into your hotel (see where to stay below) and plan on spending 2-3 days in Yosemite to fully take in as many as the hikes and views as possible.
What to do in winter in Yosemite
- Go for a wintery hike
- Take in a winter wonderland view
- Ski or snowshoe in the backcountry
- Photograph winter scenes
- Ice skate in Curry Village
- Eat a special holiday feast at the Ahwahnee Lodge called the Bracebridge Dinner
- Take a scenic drive
- See Firefall in February (!)
Best hikes to do in winter in Yosemite
- Lower Yosemite Falls Trail: a short and 0.5 miles from the trailhead, great for families and accessible, with multiple gorgeous angles to take photos of the falls.
- Bridalveil Fall Trail: another easy 0.5 mile round trip from the parking lot, but the waterfall spray makes taking a photograph challenging.
- Upper Yosemite Falls Trail: a challenging 8-9 mile hike with quite a bit of elevation gain, but worth it for panoramic views of Yosemite Valley.
- Valley Floor Loop: a 7-13 mile half or full loop, but you could hike just your favorite parks, such as starting at Sentinel Meadow to get a shot of Yosemite Falls. This loop also is less busy than other trails.
- Mirror Lake: an easy 2.4 miles round trip hike that takes you to a lake with absolutely stunning reflections of Half Dome. During the summer, the lake dries up so make sure you visit this spot in spring or winter.
- Inspiration Point: a 2.6 mile trip from the Tunnel View parking lot that gives you a higher view of the valley, with fewer crowds!
Best views & top winter photography spots in Yosemite
Where to stay in Yosemite
Other winter travel tips for Yosemite
Want my full Yosemite Guide?!
California Road Trip Stop 2:
Sequoia National Park
From Yosemite, head south to the second California winter road trip stop: Sequoia. Due to winter road closures, you’ll be driving a little under four hours via Fresno. In summer, you can drive through the Valley towards Tioga Pass and south from there, but this road is closed in winter, so just make sure to double check your GPS route accordingly.
Spend one last sunrise in Yosemite and then start your drive. Get checked into your hotel (see where to stay below) and plan on spending 1-2 days in Sequoia (unless you have more time and want to stay longer!).
What to do in winter in Sequoia
- Go for a wintery hike
- Gaze at some of the oldest and biggest trees in the US
- Go sledding
- See the General Sherman tree
- Play in the snow!
- Ski or snowshoe around the park
- Photograph winter scenes
- Take a scenic drive
Best hikes to do in winter in Sequoia
- Big Trees Trail: 1.2 easy loop trail, best for seeing those gorgeous Sequoia trees if you don’t have much time in the park.
- Congress Trail: another great trail for first-time visitors to the park, and it is an easy 2 miles.
- Marble Falls Trail: an 8-mile, moderate trail that runs up a mountain canyon to a waterfall.
- Snowshoe and cross-country ski trails: I did not have time to experience either of these, but there are some ranger led hikes or you can explore areas of the park on your own. Pick up a map at the visitor center and enjoy getting away from the crowds.
Best Views & Top winter photography spots in Sequoia
- General’s Highway viewpoints: starting from the Ash Mountain entrance into the park, there are a few pull out spots on the way to Lodgepole with gorgeous views overlooking the valley.
- General Sherman Tree: this sequoia is on a short, 0.25 mile trail and is a must-see, as it is the largest tree in the park.
- General Grant Tree: the second largest sequoia tree in the park, which is right by the visitor center.
- Moro Rock: a 0.6 mile hike that offers great sunset views.
- Beetle Rock: another short hike great for sunset as you can see views of the whole valley.
Where to stay in Sequoia
- Wuksachi Lodge: this hotel is near the Giant Forest in Sequoia and it is open year round.
- Montecito Sequoia Lodge: this is located right in the middle between Sequoia and Kings Canyon, so if you are planning an extension to your trip to visit both, this could be a good choice.
- Sequoia vacation rentals: much of the accommodation in the area is closed in winter, but there are B&Bs, Airbnbs, and other vacation rental options not to far away from the park entrance, such as this 3-bedroom house, this 4-bedroom house, or this farm and family-first house.
Other winter travel tips for Sequoia
- Chains will definitely be required here as well in winter. When you drive up, the weather can be completely different but as you drive into the park, you gain a huge amount of elevation. When I arrived, it was warm and raining at the base of the park, but freezing and snowing at the top.
- The entire road up to the top of Sequoia is an hour long drive full of tight, hairpin turns. Slow down and enjoy the ride, and be extra careful of driving during winter conditions.
- Wolverton and Grant Grove are the designated areas for sledding, so please enjoy playing in the snow here and do not sled elsewhere in the park.
- Check out the Giant Forest Museum near the visitor center, which gives you an introduction to the giant sequoias.
California Road Trip Stop 3:
Death Valley National Park
From Sequoia, head south to the second and then east for the final winter California road trip stop: Death Valley. Get settled in and put on a good playlist or some podcasts, this drive will be quite a bit longer (but I promise you, it will be worth it!). From Sequoia it will be about five hours to get to Death Valley, and again it’s a bit longer than it would be in summer as we’ll have to avoid winter road closures. As you get closer the Death Valley, the views get better but you will also likely lose cell service.
Once you the park, check into your hotel (see where to stay below) and plan on spending 2-3 days in Death Valley. From Death Valley, you can return your rental car and fly out of Las Vegas – about two hours from Death Valley.
What to do in winter in Death Valley
- Go for a hike
- Take in stunning views
- Explore the Mesquite Sand Dunes
- Photograph Death Valley in all its beauty
- Walk across the salt flats at Badwater Basin
- Take a scenic drive
Best hikes to do in winter in Death Valley
- Mesquite Sand Dunes: the Mesquite Sand Dunes were my favorite place to explore – there are no designated hiking trails, you simply hike anywhere in the designated dune area. Hike up tall ridges for stunning views and be careful of high winds.
- Badlands Loop Trail: a 2.5 mile loop hike from Zabriskie Point with views of the colorful badlands.
- Golden Canyon Loop: also from Zabriskie Point, there is a 5.8 mile loop hike through the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch with scenic, colorful views of the incredible landscape.
Best views & top winter photography spots in Death Valley
- Mesquite Sand Dunes: my absolute favorite sunset spot – there are endless compositions and gorgeous textures abound.
- Zabriskie Point: beautiful, rolling canyon views that are fantastic for sunrise or sunset!
- Artist’s Palette: a drive through some of the most colorful rocks you will ever see, best photographed in afternoon light.
- Badwater Basin: a perfect sunrise spot where you can also be creative with your composition, due to the miles of sand flats stretching out as far as the eye can see. Note: this area is prone to flooding in winter so avoid it during storms or bring your mudboots and check with a ranger if the conditions are alright for hiking out on the flats.
- Dante’s Point: a stunning sunrise location with panoramic views of the entire valley – absolutely breathtaking.
Where to stay in Death Valley
- The Inn at Death Valley: this is the super luxurious option in the park, and is at the same location at The Oasis.
- The Oasis at Death Valley: this is the second-most luxury option in the park, complete with a pool, restaurant, and golf course.
- The Ranch at Death Valley: located one mile down the road from The Inn and The Oasis (honestly the three main hotels confused me as they are all under the same company but had rather similar names), this is the budget friendly option for accommodation in the park, which recently just underwent a grand reopening.
- Hotels: Several hotels are outside of the park, so you will need to drive about an hour in to see the sights if you stay there. Exchange Club Motel and Panamint Springs Motel & Tents are both good budget options.
- Camping: Furnace Creek and most other campgrounds are open in winter, but three campgrounds were closed when I was there due to flooding or winter conditions, so check the park website for current campground closures.
Other winter travel trips for Death Valley
- The temperature fluctuation in Death Valley is extreme. At night, temperatures can be in the low 30s (F) but 70-80 degrees during the day. There can also be icy cold winds, so wear layers for sunset, sunrise, or night photography, which could be taken off for daytime photography.
- Most of your best light will be early or late in the day, so save hiking for the middle of the day – but make sure you have enough water with you. Even in winter the temperatures can get fairly high in the middle of the day.
- In summer, hiking may be dangerous due to high temperatures, so hike early in the morning or late in the evening instead.
- Several roads may be closed in winter due to flooding, so check the latest conditions on the park websites, and respect closures – you could severely damage the landscape or get your car stuck if you do not respect posted closures. Flash floods can also occur in the valley so be aware of the weather forecast.
- Finally – do not feed the wildlife! You may see coyotes hanging around, but feeding them is actually worse for their health – they may hang around cars and be hit by speeding vehicles, human food is unhealthy for them and may make them sick, and feeding them may be dangerous to you as well.
Winter is such an amazing and underrated time of year to travel, especially in the National Parks. I hope this helps you plan a winter road trip through California and it helps get you out in another season instead of staying at home! If you have any questions or feedback for this trip, please comment below!
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Hey I’m Rebecca!
I’m a freelance travel & outdoors photographer and blogger living in the US but you can find me adventuring around the globe! On this blog I share tips to help you improve your photography, inspiration to explore the outdoors, destination guides, and travel tips, and more to plan your own adventures!
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