Home Garden & Outdoor The Outside Guide to Yosemite National Park

The Outside Guide to Yosemite National Park

13
0

As of press time, some trails, campsites, and businesses are closed due to COVID-19 precautions. To check for safety protocols and potential closures, check individual websites before you go.


It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the most formative outdoor experiences of my adult life happened at Yosemite National Park in California. It’s where I went backpacking for the very first time (and where I learned that you do not, in fact, need to haul along a full-size pillow and roughly ten pounds of Swedish Fish in order to survive). It’s also where I completed my first multi-pitch climb, saw my first bear, and dug my first cathole (necessary after viewing my first bear). I even completed my first long-distance hike, a two-month stint on the Pacific Crest Trail, which meandered through the park’s Tuolumne Meadows, where Alex Honnold offered me a wave from one of his famous paws as he loped off into the woods. 

Climbing superstars aside, Yosemite is one of the most—if not the most—iconic national parks in the United States. It’s a perpetual bucket-list topper for good reason. Yosemite features some of the world’s tallest granite walls, a parade of thundering waterfalls, and colossal domes and peaks carved in part by the ferocious power of ancient glaciers and volcanoes. It teems with wildlife, from fuzzy little pikas to majestic (and endangered) Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. And it plays with extremes, resting at around 1,800 feet elevation at its lowest point and rocketing to more than 13,000 feet at its highest—the glacier-draped Mount Lyell.

But for all that magic, Yosemite also gets a bad rap for being overrun with tourists. (Reality check: unless you live there, you’re also a tourist.) The thing is that while the popular Yosemite Valley draws crowds year-round, it’s actually incredibly easy to find solitude in the park—after all, the Valley occupies only a tiny slice of Yosemite’s nearly 760,000 acres, almost 95 percent of which are designated wilderness. 

Though the framework for this park was established in 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, these vast lands have a much longer human history, one that you should learn before setting off for adventure. The same actions that reserved this park for the public also forced out its original inhabitants, who included the Ahwahneechee, Me-Wuk, Mono, and Paiute peoples; their ancestors still hold deep ties to the area today. Consider reading Mark David Spence’s Dispossessing the Wilderness for crucial context on some of the more unpleasant history behind Yosemite’s formation and that of several other national parks.

What You Need to Know Before Visiting 

Hiking on the shoreline of Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada mountains, California; the reservoir is one of the main sources of drinking water for the San Francisco bay
(Photo: Sundry Photography/iStock)

Reservations are required (for now). Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the park enacted a temporary restriction in February 2021 that requires all visitors to make a reservation. The only exceptions are people with confirmed lodging inside the park or in specific gateway towns, those with wilderness permits or traveling with approved tour groups, or folks who are entering the park via public transit.

This isn’t a theme park… Yosemite’s natural wonders are incredible—and incredibly powerful. Trails, guardrails, and warning signs are located where they are for good reason, especially because so many of the park’s features require travel across or near water and granite, the latter often polished to a superslick sheen even when it’s dry. Still, you’d be surprised at how many people slip into the drink (or the abyss) each year. Let common sense—and not that deep desire to strike a pose for the ’Gram—prevail around steep drop-offs and water features. 

…but sometimes it can feel like one. I’ll be frank: during prime time in the summer, the roads looping around the Valley floor feel like the world’s longest parking lot. This is no surprise given that, in 2019, roughly 4.5 million people passed through. If you can, drive in as early as possible and leave your car parked until you head back out, avoid visiting the Valley during peak season, or park outside Yosemite and use public transportation to finish your trip. Once inside, the park boasts a robust shuttle system, including a pair of free routes that cruise around the Valley. 

The Valley is incredible, but it isn’t everything. Yes, yes, yes—it’s an iconic place filled with iconic sights. But that gives short shrift to the rest of the park, which is stuffed with special places that aren’t (always) swarmed with crowds. Want an alternative to the legendary Mist Trail? Make tracks south to Wawona to ascend the granite steps alongside Chilnualna Falls. To the west, the area surrounding the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir sees only a fraction of the Valley’s foot traffic but still serves up an abundance of lakes and peaks. Up north, the lush Tuolumne Meadows acts as gatekeeper to the incredibly remote Yosemite backcountry, where trails—and opportunities for solitude—branch in all directions.

How to Get There

Entrance sign at Yosemite National Park
(Photo: venemama/iStock)

Yosemite is located in central California, a couple hours east of San Francisco. While several regional airports dot the surrounding areas, the closest major hub is the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Amtrak and Greyhound also offer service to the park, swapping trains for regional buses operated by the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (affectionately dubbed YARTS) as you draw closer to its boundary. 

If you’re driving north from Fresno, a scenic cruise along State Route 41 deposits you first in Wawona and then the Valley. You can also get there from State Route 140, which passes northeast through Merced, or east on State Route 120, which coasts through Groveland before connecting with the park’s Big Oak Flat Road. Known as Tioga Road in the park, SR 120 bisects Yosemite to emerge at its northernmost entrance, Tioga Pass, meeting up shortly thereafter with the equally picturesque U.S. Route 395, which heads south to Mammoth Lakes and the Owens Valley and north to Bridgeport.

When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Yosemite?

Vernal Falls Yosemite National Park, California
(Photo: Pedro Freithas/iStock)

Winter

Summertime gets all the love, but winter is a stunning time in the park if you can handle the temperatures, which routinely dip below freezing in the evenings at all elevations. Keep in mind that beyond the inaccessibility of the high country for anyone not well versed in winter alpine travel, some Valley routes close—typically portions of the Mist Trail, John Muir Trail (also known as the Nüümü Poyo), and Four Mile Trail—once they become slicked with snow and ice. Tire chains are required for snowy park roads, although not all of them are open year-round—Tioga Road usually closes in November and reopens sometime between May and June, depending on the snowpack. Come prepared with the right gear, skills, and mindset, and you’ll have the place largely to yourself.

Spring

Calling all waterfall enthusiasts: this is your time to shine! While higher altitudes remain buried under the white stuff, lower elevations—and waterfalls—come to life as the snow begins to thaw, typically peaking in May. The flip side is that flooding and high water are real issues, not just in the backcountry but also right in the Valley, where the Merced River sometimes overflows into meadows, roads, and even campgrounds. When you’re in the backcountry, exercise extreme caution during river crossings; what was an easy rock hop in late summer can become a deadly torrent come spring.

Summer

This is prime vacation season. Traffic and crowds swell to the max, shuttle buses are standing room only, and any lodging options within what feels like a 100-mile radius are booked solid. While I avoid the Valley during such madness, it’s the perfect time to escape to the high country near Tuolumne Meadows, where lower temperatures and thinner crowds prevail. Long days let you stretch out backpacking trips, and cooler (and thus grippier) rock surfaces make for more favorable climbing conditions up high.

Fall

This is my favorite time to visit the Valley, for the sole reason that I can enjoy the sights without having to jostle for space. While visitation wanes as the mercury drops, the waterfalls also grind to a near halt until they’re replenished by winter precipitation. The upside is that it’s a great time to find backpacking permits, although you’ll need to come prepared with sturdier gear than you might tote in the summer. 

Where to Stay in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park Camping
(Photo: tovfla/iStock)

Camping

Scoring a campsite in Yosemite (from $6), especially if you want to bed down in the Valley, is a competitive sport. Out of the park’s 13 campgrounds, roughly half are first come, first served—arrive as early as possible in the morning to stake out a spot. White Wolf and Yosemite Creek Campgrounds are both beautiful, quiet, and slightly off-the-beaten-path options located near Tioga Road.

The rest of the campgrounds, including the Valley’s coveted Pines trio, require reservations, which can be made via Recreation.gov. A 30-day block of sites is released at exactly 7 A.M PST on the 15th of the month, and you can reserve up to five months ahead of time; I highly recommend enlisting some friends to tag-team the effort, since availability typically evaporates within minutes for summer bookings. The exception is Camp 4, a walk-in campground that has long served as home base for hardcore climbers. During summer, sites are doled out each day via an online lottery system

Many of the park’s campgrounds offer at least a handful of accessible sites; Upper Pines in the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows have the most. Many are open year-round, though higher-elevation campgrounds shutter during winter months, when mountain roads also close to traffic. 

If you only want to sort of rough it, plan a stay at the Valley’s Housekeeping Camp (from $108) or Curry Village (from $90), both of which offer rustic canvas-and-wood structures, along with communal shower facilities. Like the park hotels listed below, these are operated by an outside concessionaire.

In addition, ample camping exists on all sides of Yosemite in Inyo, Stanislaus, and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests. And if you don’t mind snoozing in your car, a quick online search for “free camping” or “boondocking” near Yosemite will also yield results. Just know that you can’t sleep overnight in your vehicle anywhere inside the park.

Hotels

In the Valley, the most affordable options are the cabins and motel located in Curry Village, followed by the Yosemite Valley Lodge (from $249). If you’re up for a splurge, however, plunk down your credit card at the Ahwahnee (from $426), an absolutely gorgeous Craftsman-style retreat that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pro tip for those with smaller budgets: grab a drink at the hotel’s bar, then cozy up with a good book (or a laptop, if you must) by the massive fireplace in the stunning Great Lounge.

Elsewhere in the park, the Wawona Hotel (from $153) was closed for a while to update the wiring (fair enough, since it was built in 1856), but the Victorian charmer—a National Historic Landmark—is once again open for business. Farther north, the tent cabins that make up seasonal White Wolf Lodge (from $137) and Tuolumne Meadows Lodge (from $141) are more simply appointed but put you right in the heart of high country magic. 

Outside of the park, there’s no shortage of cabin rentals listed on sites like Airbnb and VRBO, although these can be nearly as competitive as lodging inside the park. Most of the gateway towns have at least a few basic roadside motels, along with some slightly more upscale options. Fish Camp’s Tenaya Lodge (from $150) stands apart from the pack with its Ascent Spa, where you can drag your weary bones after a full day of adventure. For something more down-home, the 100-year-old Evergreen Lodge (from $130) near Hetch Hetchy Valley features an array of rustic cabins, or you can sign up for an all-inclusive camping package where the gear is both provided and set up for you. 

What to Do While You’re There

People hikers hiking in Yosemite National Park on sunny day
(Photo: Onnes/iStock)

Sightseeing

You don’t have to break a sweat to enjoy the magic of Yosemite, especially its southern reaches. If entering via State Route 41, the very first opportunity appears at Tunnel View, where some of the park’s biggest icons—Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall—magically appear as you exit the darkness of its namesake tube. Sorry, but it’s pretty much mandatory that you pull off here to gawk for a bit. Pro tip: ascend the rocky staircase next to the parking area to pick up a trail that will reward your sweat equity with crowd-free views as you climb.

Farther south, head up Glacier Point Road—note that it will be closed for repairs in 2022 for the whole year—which deposits you at its namesake vista that is often packed with photographers of all stripes just before sunset. For an equally stunning view with less jockeying for space, park at a trailhead a few miles south on the road to make the 2.2-mile round-trip hike to Taft Point. Save time to visit the Mariposa Grove near Wawona, where you’ll strain your neck (and sense of awe) while taking in an ancient cluster of giant sequoias, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant.

Day Hiking

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you want to haul yourself up Half Dome along the world-famous three-mile Mist Trail, which earns its name from the spray delivered by the Merced as it barrels down toward the Valley floor via a series of waterfalls. Permits are required every day of the week for this hike, except when the metal cables are down (typically mid-October to mid-May). No matter when you make an attempt, take this hike very seriously; people have slipped and fallen to their death on the polished granite that makes up the steep and exposed final climb. Know and respect your own limits, and avoid the trip during wet weather or when it’s in the forecast.

Beyond that, the park is studded with superstar hikes, some more popular than others. In the Valley’s eastern reaches, an accessible paved trail delivers you to seasonal and surprisingly quiet Mirror Lake, created by a swell in Tenaya Creek. Closer to the action, it’s well worth your time to truck two miles up the steep (and sometimes slippery) route to the top of Yosemite Falls, a three-part cascade that boasts the distinction of being North America’s tallest. And the criminally underappreciated Valley Loop Trail offers nearly 12 miles of surprising solitude amid the hubbub. 

Up north, Tuolumne Meadows is the jump-off point for a stroll through bucolic Lyell Canyon, especially beautiful in early summer when its subalpine meadows absolutely glow with chlorophyll and wildflowers abound. For a more alpine environment, start early to avoid crowds and make the seven-mile round-trip trek to Upper Cathedral Lake, which offers a front-row view of its toothy namesake peak. 

Trailheads also dot the length of Tioga Road, making for easy access (for you and everybody else, alas). If you can’t snag permits for Half Dome but still want to enjoy a healthy dose of vertigo, consider the sturdy 14-mile round-trip hike to Cloud’s Rest, departing from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead near Tenaya Lake, which has an excellent swimming beach on its northeast end if you make it back early enough. Farther afield, the trails near the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir are even less traveled, except the still worthwhile jaunt around the waterfront to catch the spray from neighboring Tueeulala and Wapama Falls. If you have a full day free, consider making the roughly 13.5-mile round-trip journey to the summit of Smith Peak, which offers a bird’s-eye view of this remote corner of the park.

Backpacking

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and John Muir Trail (JMT) join forces for much of their journey through the park, except that the former heads north from Tuolumne Meadows while the latter dips south into the Valley. Beyond these long-haul icons, my favorite short route is the less traveled, 13-mile one-way Pohono Trail, a one-nighter that traces the high cliffs south of the Valley and offers jaw-dropping viewpoints every few miles.

For an even more immersive experience, don your pack for a traverse of the deep gouge known as the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, which spans roughly 33 miles between its namesake meadow and the White Wolf area to the west. If you’re more interested in smiles than miles, sock away your pennies to enter the lottery for a spot on the famed High Sierra Camps Loop, a summertime hut-to-hut circuit that deposits you (and your day pack) at a series of fully outfitted tent cabins each evening, with catered meals to boot.

Permits are required for all backpacking trips in the park. Most trailheads maintain a 60/40 split of reserved permits to walk-ups; you can apply online for reserved permits beginning 24 weeks before your start date. Expect heavy competition, especially for Half Dome and JMT permits, the latter of which must be applied for during a special lottery period that runs from December through March. It’s worth bookmarking the Yosemite Conservancy’s listing of permit availability, broken down by each area of the park. 

Climbing

Yosemite is one of the world’s premier year-round climbing destinations, made even more famous by a recent spate of adrenaline-soaked documentaries like Free Solo, The Dawn Wall, and Valley Uprising. But you don’t need to live in Camp 4 or spend months projecting a route on El Cap to enjoy the park’s storied granite. Its main climbing draws are the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows areas, both filled with opportunities to boulder, clip bolts, and place gear at all levels of the game. 

For more advanced climbers, the alpine backcountry provides unlimited opportunities for scrambles and peak bagging, and of course the Valley’s big walls offer some of the world’s longest and most iconic trad routes. Beginners can sign up for classes or guided adventures with the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service. If you’re not at all interested in dangling off the side of a cliff, you can still get in on the action by lounging in El Capitan Meadow with a pair of binoculars.

Snow Sports

Not one to rest on its summertime laurels, Yosemite kicks into winter play mode as soon as the flakes start flying. Hover near creature comforts (like hot chocolate from the Ahwahnee’s bar) in the Valley while carving figure eights around the Curry Village ice rink. Or head up Glacier Point Road to the Badger Pass Ski Area, California’s oldest downhill resort, which offers the opportunity for skiing and tubing throughout the winter months. Bring your gear and skills, or rent some from the attached ski school. 

There’s also a whole world of (mostly) horizontal snow travel to explore. Strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis to make tracks along a groomed section of Glacier Point Road, or head to the Crane Flat area to pick up the relatively short trails to the Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove of giant sequoias. Just remember that even though the trails breeze downhill, you have to hoof back up that same incline.

Or make a reservation to bed down at the Glacier Point Ski Hut, a roughly ten-mile ski or snowshoe from Badger Pass. Experienced winter travelers can grab a permit for the arduous trek to overnight at Snow Creek Cabin, a nearly 100-year-old outpost hidden in the forest below Mount Watkins. Good snow navigation skills, self-reliance, and endurance—there’s a generous 4,000 feet of elevation gain on your inbound journey—are required. 

Stargazing

One of my most memorable nights in Yosemite was a rare evening spent camping in the Valley. I wandered off just before bedtime and found a log to sit on at the edge of Stoneman Meadow, and then I looked up. It was late enough that traffic had all but stopped, so it was easy to let the expansive darkness—and silence—fold in like a blanket. Of course, that’s not the only spot with such airy views, as just about any lakeside or peak-top perch (or, say, a portaledge on the side of El Cap) will grant you the same million-dollar celestial show. 

Watersports

The power of the mighty Merced is somewhat diluted as it meanders along the Valley floor, making it the perfect natural lazy river. Take a dip (for safety’s sake, enter the water only at designated beaches) or enjoy a float (bring your own raft or rent one at the activity kiosks located in Curry and Yosemite Village, the Ahwahnee Hotel, or Yosemite Valley Lodge). Kayaking is a great way to enjoy the park’s infinite lakes, all of which are open to paddlers except Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Don’t forget your personal flotation device.

Fishing

Anglers, rejoice: you can fish just about any body of water in Yosemite, most of them teeming with (non-native) trout, among other species. When given the choice, I’ll always aim for one of the glacier-carved lakes deep in the backcountry, but I wouldn’t turn my nose up at the opportunity to cast into any length of the Tuolumne River, especially its dreamy Lyell Fork. While lakes are open to year-round fishing, casting on streams and rivers is only allowed from late April to mid-November; a California fishing license is required.

The Best Places to Eat and Drink Around Yosemite

The Big Trees Lodge in Yosemite National Park, California
(Photo: Cheri Alguire/iStock)

If someone else is feeling spendy and wants to treat, my first choice for in-park eats is the upscale Ahwahnee Dining Room, although taking a meal here does mean leveling up your attire, since there’s a dress code (no shorts, T-shirts, or flip-flops). The Wawona Hotel Dining Room provides just as much ambiance with a slightly less exclusive air; in summertime it hosts an even less stuffy buffet-style barbecue every Saturday night.

When it comes to more casual grub, you’re looking at a pretty standard concessions operation, with a few notable exceptions. I can’t think of a time I’ve been in the Valley without visiting Curry Village to grab a slice from the Pizza Patio and a brew from the nearby open-air bar. Meadow Grill, in the same area, offers a surprising variety of goods, including breakfast burritos and rice bowls. My meat-loving friends swear by the barbecue cooked up at The Loft at Degnan’s in Yosemite Village. When in Tuolumne Meadows, stop at its seasonal summertime grill for a post-hike burger and fries, washed down with a fluffy swirl of soft serve.

Tasty eats proliferate beyond the park’s boundaries. Near the Tioga Pass entrance, the small town of Lee Vining is famous for its Whoa Nellie Deli, which is tucked inside an unassuming Mobil station. Trust me: grab some fish tacos for lunch, then order a pizza to eat later for dinner. 

Just 15 minutes south of Wawona, tiny Fish Camp boasts the rustic Fish Camp General Store, where you can grab groceries, outdoor gear, tchotchkes, and sandwiches as thick as your thigh. Head 15 minutes southwest from the Valley and hit up the gateway town of El Portal to grab a pie from Parkside Pizza, which crafts crusts that you won’t want to leave on your plate. Keep driving a half-hour south to Midpines for the June Bug Café, a rustic gem serving elevated comfort food, much of it sourced regionally. Not far beyond that is Mariposa, a larger burg with plenty of options, including slurp-worthy noodles at the Little Shop of Ramen.

If You Have Time for a Detour

Devils Postpile National Monument in the summer, in the Eastern Sierra Nevada of California
(Photo: Melissa Kopka/iStock)

Block out at least a day or two to take in the natural wonders located within a short drive of the park’s northern entrance at Tioga Pass. Start with a visit to Mono Lake, a body of water with a chemistry so complex that chalky, stalagmite-like towers of tufa rise from its bed. Its beauty is haunting any time of day, but the view at dusk or dawn is absolutely surreal. From there, head south for a drive along the scenic June Lake Loop, which is especially stunning in fall, when quaking aspen blaze bright yellow. In summer, hop the seasonal shuttle from the ski town of Mammoth Lakes to visit Devils Postpile National Monument and its massive stack of perfectly geometric basalt columns, a dazzling reminder of the area’s ancient volcanic history. 

If you’d rather hang out near Yosemite’s southern gateway, Bass Lake is only a half-hour south of Wawona and offers a host of recreational opportunities, including excellent warm-water fishing. Farther afield, carve out some time to road-trip 160 miles to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to stand among the world’s largest trees and experience a double dose of High Sierra bliss. 

Finally, if you’re heading west on Highway 120, make a pit stop an hour outside of the Valley in Groveland, a historic town with a laid-back groove. Every time I pass through, I make a beeline for Mountain Sage, a coffee shop that doubles as an art gallery and plant nursery. Put that caffeine to good use by hiring locals from the Echo Adventure Cooperative, who can, among other things, introduce you to the world-class rafting opportunities that exist outside the park. 

How to Be a Conscious Visitor

Peregrine falcon on the rock. Bird of prey, female portrait, Falco peregrinus
(Photo: JAH/iStock)

Each spring, Yosemite’s steep cliffs offer safe harbor to the world’s fastest animal, the peregrine falcon, which is capable of dive-bombing its prey at nearly 200 miles per hour when on the hunt. While nesting with their chicks, however, these rapid raptors need a little peace and quiet, so the park restricts climbing and other activities near nesting sites for several months beginning each March.

Rock hounds should also familiarize themselves with the park’s climbing regulations. These prohibit the use of power drills and the removal of foliage while establishing new routes, and they ask that folks haul away all their gear and trash—including human waste, for big-wall climbers who overnight on their routes—when finished on the rock.

Speaking of rock stars, the whole of Yosemite is one giant bearea—that is, it’s absolutely teeming with black bears. In a bygone era, visitors were allowed to feed them during ranger programs, but luckily management wised up and realized that, as the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear. Keep our ursine pals safe by following all regulations regarding the storage of food and other scented items. Also be sure to mind posted speed limits; each year, well over a dozen bears are hit by cars on the park’s roads. 

Lead Photo: agaliza/iStock

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here