So you want to see Yosemite, huh? Well, good call, the park is most certainly one wonders of the natural world and definitely a place unlike just about any other. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly a secret and so visiting can be a bit of a pain or at least a crowded reality.
Having been lucky enough to make dozens of visits across the seasons and with stays from the backcountry to camping to living it up, I figured it’s only fair to share a few of the tips & tricks I’ve picked up along the way. From hike ideas to just avoiding some of the madness, where to stay and what to do, here’s one adventurer’s take for planning your first visit.
1 – Early to everything is the key.
The trick to Yosemite and avoiding the over 5 million annual visitors is to get an early start. Reservations for camping open up months in advance (learn how to get a spot) so you have to be really early to even have a shot (or really late, people do cancel.)
Lines to get in the park, crowds on trails, even the stores all get crazy mid-day first thing in the morning, you’ll very likely be the only one around. Seriously.
2 – Plan ahead.
Beyond just being early, you want your visit to be planned as best you can. It’s illegal to camp on the road in Yosemite and busy park days do mean it’s common for every campsite and hotel room to be booked.
Similarly, the park is huge, cell coverage is limited, trail signs don’t tell a lot about what’s ahead, so trying to figure out what exactly to do mid-day is a pain. Find a place to stay, dial in your gear, plot out some food options and a few activities before you travel to the park. Then enjoy it all!
3 – Hit the trail first thing in the morning.
Speaking of early, getting a quick start on your adventures is almost always a good idea. Not only do you avoid the crowds but you’ll generally have the most enjoyable trail conditions.
In summer, you’ll hike up before the worst of the heat. In winter, you’ll have more daylight. And at all times of year, you get amazing morning views before the sun comes up overhead. Late afternoon has many of the same perks but do bring a headlamp for that!
4 – See sunrise, see sunset. Then stay for the stars.
On vacation it’s easy to want to sleep in a bit or get caught up dreaming of a nice meal and skip out on the golden hours of the day, big mistake. Yosemite has some amazing sunrise and sunsets and so many great places to see them from. Whether it’s the tourist stops at Tunnel View and Glacier Point, Olmsted Point off Tioga Road, or somewhere remote in the backcountry, get up / stay out and enjoy the glow!
Since Yosemite is the middle of nowhere, the stars on a clear night are something else as well. In summer, there are ranger led programs including some great star gazing around Crane Flat but just heading out into an open space on any trail gives one hell of a view.
5 – Time your visit to what you want to see.
Summer may be the easiest time for most of us to get away but if you’re traveling half way across the world, don’t visit by ease, visit when you can get the experience you want!
Want waterfalls? Plan for Spring when everything is raging even if it’s a bit colder. Want vibrant landscapes? Consider fall when the leaves have fallen and the fog starts to roll in. Looking for tranquility and a unique perspective? Winter is another world in the park. As for summer, well there’s no bad time to visit but expect hot, dry and busy.
6 – Camping is the way to go.
If you want the full Yosemite experience, you really should camp. Sitting around a fire after a day of exploring, making s’mores, waking up when it’s just chilly enough to appreciate the sleeping bag, it’s magical. Even if you’ve never camped before, Yosemite makes it easy with well built sites and lots of them. For developed campgrounds, Crane Flat or one of the other out of the valley spots for a little less madness myself — backpacking into the wild being that much more exciting too of course.
As for amenities, you can grab a shower for $5 at Half Dome Village (towel and soap is included), stock up on snacks and forgotten essentials with shops at Wawona, The Valley, Crane Flat and Tuolumne.
And if you can’t find a spot in the valley, there is National Forest camping along most of the main roads. Just saying!
7 – Escape the valley and leave the crowds behind.
Just about every blog, forum, or guidebook probably makes this suggestion but it really is true. The valley is majestic but it’s just a tiny, tiny sliver of the park. While spending a few nights in the back-country (permit required) will give you a true escape and unique perspective, simply day hiking out of the main trails or driving up 120 / Tioga Road is incredible. Anything out of the valley will quickly cut the crowds too.
8 – If you want to see the valley, stay in the valley.
Look, the valley is popular for a reason. It has amazing views you can get to without leaving the car, there are places to eat, places to stay…. It’s epic.
So if you want to experience the valley, do whatever it takes to stay there for at least one night. While outside the park accommodations may appear to be just a few dozen miles away, that equates to a a couple hours of roundtrip driving and that means less time to play.
9 – In the valley? Stop in at these spots.
Whether you camp it out or opt for the lodge, Half Dome village is a great part of the valley amenities. Beyond having showers (campers and smelly hikers), you’ll find an ice rink in winter, bike rentals in summer, community events, a proper camp store, mountain shop and decent enough pizza (plus adult beverages.) For those staying at Half Dome village, the community building is a great place to hang in the evening too.
The Yosemite Lodge doesn’t have the same events as Half Dome village but the cafeteria is a solid lunch spot after a hike to Upper Yosemite Falls, the mountain room a slightly fancier option and the bar, well, it’s a bar and one with a fireplace!
Of course no visit is complete without a tour of The Ahwahnee (aka the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.) While the rooms are silly spendy, it is fun to have a fancy brunch here if you can swing it and certainly well worth visiting the place. Like just about everything in Yosemite, the building is public and has a shuttle stop. You can also find some nice walking trails behind the hotel that tend to be well shaded and fairly low on the crowd-meter.
Outside of the Valley, the old Wawona sights are certainly exciting to explore if you happen to be on a hike that way or coming in from the South side of the park. Tuolumne Meadows off Tioga Road is more basic but has dining options and a small shop as your only store along that side of the park.
Finally there’s Yosemite Village. The main shop is very well supplied for gifts, day snacks and camping needs alike. There’s a deli, a burger type joint, another outdoor shop, the post office, visitor center, Ansel Adams gallery and more.
10 – Staying in the valley? Ditch the car, use the Shuttle.
On a crowded day, I’ll head straight for the main parking lot in Yosemite Village, grab my daypack and leave the car until I’m ready to head out.
The free and frequent shuttles in the park take you all around the valley floor hitting most trailheads and visitor spots without having to hunt for parking. You can extend the reach walking from there or hitch a ride with a friendly stranger if you’re game.
11 – Explore outside the park too.
From scenic drives down the Eastern Sierras on high 395 to historic bars and small towns, there’s a lot around Yosemite not far from the gates. You’ll also find plenty of adventures like some incredible white water rafting in spring and early summer, zip lines, larger adventure resorts and quieter trails.
12 – Bring a powerstrip and a portable battery for your phone.
Much as I’d like to tell you to ditch the phone for the visit, that’s most of our cameras / map apps. With a billion views to snap and spotty cell reception for it, batteries drain fast. Having a portable way to recharge is handy and an extra layer of safety (though a physical map is always ideal, just in case) while the power strip will make life that much easier to charge back up at night, not to mention earning you a few friends.
13 – Bring a refillable waterbottle too. Actually, bring 4.
While you can once again buy bottled water in the park, it’s both wasteful and not necessary. Yosemite has great water with countless filling stations around the park roads. However, there’s no water on the trails (anything you do see from a stream or waterfall should be treated before being drunk, seriously) so grab your waterbottles and fill up before you start driving around or hiking.
14 – Get a proper park map (not just the free ones) and ask the rangers.
One of the easiest ways to get stuck in the crowded spots is to limit yourself to the basic map in the booklet you’ll get after paying your entrance fees. While it’s actually really a rather extensive guide, it doesn’t have the detail you need to know all that you can explore or all the trails you can find. Yosemite is afterall huge (online map.)
Map apps like Carin and AllTrails are great ways to explore, Guidebooks have an actual value as do blogs (hint hint) but beyond all else, head to the visitor center, pick up a proper map and / or ask a ranger!
15 – Buy food outside the park but respect the bear box rules.
Given how remote Yosemite is, prices for anything perishable in the park are not cheap and selection is limited (though some staples are actually a better deal than major markets, go figure.) However, be super diligent about the bear box rules moving all food / smelly stuff out of your car and into them — bears in the park have no issues opening your door to check out a cooler. Failing to use the boxes is a big fine and more so a big impact. Cute as the wildlife is, please don’t feed it.
Also, you can find great deals and great quality wood in the towns just outside the park which beyond being supportive, helps avoid transporting any strange bugs into the park I’m told.
16 – Fill up on gas before you enter the park.
Despite a billion (ok, like a half dozen) signs, people seem to miss that there is really no gas in Yosemite Valley or most of the other roads for that matter.
Wawona, Crane Flat and just beyond Tioga Pass are the only stations which means you may drive many miles up and down steep mountain roads before a fill-up. Rather than having to waste a few hours heading to the very spendy stations in the park, fill up at your last major town (Oakhurst, Lee Vining, Groveland, etc) first.
17 – Check the road conditions before you travel.
Going somewhere for the first time it’s hard to know what you’re in for so most of us just hit Google Maps and go. Bad idea. Map apps do a rather terrible job of keeping up with park conditions and it’s not uncommon to hear someone’s horror story about driving all the way around the park (that’s like 5-7 hours or more.) The park website lists all road and trail statuses on one page, bookmark it.
18 – The right hikes open up the views and leave the crowds behind.
While most of the valley trails are as busy as the roads, the further you go off the main path, the less true that becomes. Driving up to 120 in summer opens a world of options including hiking down to the valley (shuttle cars) while going beyond the main viewpoints on the big trails will not just give you room to breath, you’ll often find even better views.
Yosemite Hikes has a great guide list, here’s some of my suggestions on a busy day:
- The Mist Trail to Glacier Point via Illilouette Falls
- Chilnualna falls by Wawona
- Inspiration Point
- Lembert Dome
- May Lake
- Bigger Hikes include 4 Mile Trail, Clouds Rest (Up), Mt. Dana
19 – Visit in winter (or late fall / early spring.)
As the temperatures drop, the crowds flee and while I wouldn’t call any time of year quiet in Yosemite save for the middle of a snowstorm, the off season is a lot more mellow. More than that, it is absolutely stunning to be in Yosemite as the lakes freeze up and the snow comes down in the mountains. Perfect time for some casual exploring followed with hot chocolates by the fire.
Do however bring chains for your car, even your rental and a jacket or three.
20 – And please, check the details before you head out.
Whether you’re looking at a summer visit or a winter drive through, it’s important to understand that Yosemite is remote and very much in the mountains. The conditions in LA or SF you may start your travels from can be nearly the opposite of what you encounter in the park, especially on the higher elevation roads surrounding the valley.
Snowstorms and chain controls, cold weather days, blistering hot trails with no water, there are many hazards out there and all are so much simpler to face if you just take a few minutes to Google conditions ahead, plot out any adventures and know what you’re getting into.
So there you have it, 20 tips from one traveler to another. Have your own ideas? Favorite stops or suggestions, leave a comment below.