Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite National Park is probably (along with Yellowstone) one of America’s most renowned national parks. From the iconic landscapes immortalized by Ansel Adam’s photography, to the adrenaline raising hike to the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite has something for everyone. With around 4 million visitors each year it’s important to time your visit to the park to avoid the crush. But there’s no denying that Yosemite, in any season and with any amount of visitors, is a highlight of a visit to California.
Yosemite Top Tips
Yosemite is easily accessible from a whopping 5 airports; San Francisco (the biggest major airport), Oakland, Mammoth Lakes, San Jose and Fresno. The most convenient way to get to the park is to self-drive; but if you’re intent on using public transport then THIS National Park Service guide was the most valuable document I found when we were arranging our trip. If you’re planning to base yourself in San Francisco then you might also want to consider a day trip / tour. There are plenty of them available and a good starting point is the Viator website.
In terms of getting around once you’re in Yosemite nothing can compare to having your own car (unless of course you’re one of those brave souls backpack hiking across the park). However, if you don’t have your own car (or don’t fancy the hassle of finding parking everywhere you go in the height of summer) then the Yosemite Valley Free Shuttle System and the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) are your lifesaver. The free shuttle, while limited in scope, is incredibly useful for dotting around between valley floor accommodations, major vistas and trailheads. The YARTS routes extend beyond the park to some of the surrounding towns, Mariposa Grove and Wawona. The best resource I found whilst planning our trip was the interactive map on the YARTS website that shows both the YARTS routes and the free shuttle routes in one handy dandy place.
At the time of writing the standard park entry fee is $20 per vehicle (a real bargain, particularly if you cram clown-cars worth of people into your SUV) or $20 per person if you decide to hike up to the gate. You can buy passes online in advance here and my advice would be to print the pass out. My cell phone service was patchy in and around the park so if you don’t have a good old-fashioned hard copy you run the risk of having to buy another one. If Yosemite is just one of many US National Parks you planning on visiting then you might well want to shell out and get yourself an “America the Beautiful Pass” which, for a mere $80 gets you a year’s worth of access to over 2,000 national parks and recreation sites across the US. For a full list of said sites take a gander at this 45-page beast of a catalogue. Quite the bargain!
The changing of the seasons affects Yosemite in two main ways: tourist numbers and weather-related closures. It goes without saying that the summer season (June-September) is the peak for visitor numbers to the park. I have never been in the summer but, having spoken to a couple of park workers during our December visit to Yosemite, I don’t think I’ll ever visit in the summer (at least not Yosemite Valley Floor – see below). The main benefit of visiting in the summer is that the entirety of the park is accessible. Whilst Yosemite Valley Floor and Wawona remain open all-year round you run the risk of specific road closures due to snow in any other season. If you want to avoid the summer crowds but want a 95% chance of the entire park being open then the best time to visit is probably late October. Once you get into winter and on into spring (late November until May) there’s a strong likelihood that road closures will be in effect. The most long-term of those closures are between Yosemite Ski Area and Glacier Point in addition to Mariposa Grove Road (although you can still hike to the Grove itself from the Welcome Plaza (see below). Tioga Road also closes for the season which means that Tuolumne Meadows usually can’t be accessed after mid-November. In those winter season months tire chains are often required on park roads and you’ll be expected to carry them and actually know how to put them on properly!
Although Yosemite isn’t as famed for its wildlife as the likes of Yellowstone there are still a whopping 90 species of mammal lurking in them there hills! The most exciting of those mammals are probably the American black bear, bobcat, mountain lion and coyote (grizzlies unfortunately haven’t ben in the park since the 1920’s). In other words, and despite the relative dearth of wildlife when compared to some of the U.S’ other National Parks, it’s still a good idea to keep your eyes open and take certain precautions (particularly in the summer months when the black bears are out of hibernation and on the hunt for your food). If you’re planning on taking food into the park then make sure you read these guidelines in order to avoid potential fines of up to $5,000. For tips on bear safety in the event you’re confronted by one (both thrilling and self-defecation inducing at the same time) see here.
Tunnel View: If there’s one particular picture-perfect scene that comes to mind when you think of Yosemite it’s this particular spot. Just as you come out of the Wawona Road Tunnel (State Route 41) and emerge into Yosemite Valley there’s a parking lot perched high above the valley floor. It’s from here that you can get your Ansel Adams-worthy sweeping photograph of the entire valley including Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. There’s also a hiking trail starting from here up to Inspiration Point (5,390 feet). If the crowds at Tunnel View are too much for you (summer can be unbearable and parking can become difficult) then Inspiration Point offers a similar view from higher up the mountain and with only a fraction of the crowds (the laziness of others can be to your benefit). Either way, the best time to get your photos is during the ‘golden hours’ just after sunrise and just prior to sunset. Add a wintery smattering of snow over the valley floor and you’ll be wowing your family with your photos in no time.
Yosemite Valley: For most visitors the Yosemite Valley Floor is probably the highlight of any trip and, for some, will be the sole destination. The 7.5 mile long glacial valley plays host to most of Yosemite’s well-known landmarks, including El Capitan, Half Dome (see below), Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point (see below) and the Majestic Hotel (see below). If there’s any one part of Yosemite that’s most affected by seasonal changes in visitor numbers then this is it. Although the Valley Floor’s road layout is designed as a one-way loop to ease traffic it can become ridiculously congested to the point that peak summertime becomes unenjoyable. My advice is to look at the shoulder season or, in my opinion the best option, visit during the winter. Sure, not everything is open in the winter and the bears are hibernating, but you get the chance to see a picturesque coating of snow or frost across the valley and take a much more relaxing drive stopping for photos whenever you choose (and being able to find a parking spot).
Half Dome: Probably Yosemite’s best known geological feature, Half Dome is an appropriately named rock formation that has one sheer side and three round, smoothed sides i.e. it looks like half of a dome, genius! However, the true appeal of Half Dome lies beyond how round and shiny it is. For the most adventurous amongst you, the real highlight is scaling it on a 14.2 mile return hike. In the main, it’s a delightful stroll (if you regard a 12 hours walking time and an elevation gain of 4,800 ft as a stroll) commencing with a nice stretch of your legs along the Mist Trail (See below). However, the last portion of the hike is a nerve-jangling, cable assisted, steep ascent to the summit (that, whilst rare, has led to a few deaths here or there….you know, no big deal). The hike became so popular, and the crowding so dangerous, that the park service instituted a permit system for the cable route in 2011. Permits are issued based on a lottery system and you have to get them in advance. If you’re interested in this death defying objective then you can apply for your permit here. You might also want to scan over these helpful tips for a successful cable ascent (I didn’t do it myself – I much prefer terra firma – and so have no advice to offer on how to avoid death).
Badger Pass and Glacier Point: Although only open during particular times of year, both Badger Pass (winter season) and Glacier Point (summer/fall season) are located on Glacier Point Road (turn at the Chinquapin intersection). Badger Pass is otherwise known as Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area and consists of 10 ski runs and 5 chairlifts. Admittedly, it isn’t a ski resort for the advanced skiers amongst you; but it doesn’t get much more scenic than skiing in Yosemite. Typically open between mid-December and mid-March (snow permitting) rentals (including downhill, cross-country and snow shoes) are available on-site and lifts are open daily between 9am and 4pm. If you visit during the summer then make sure you continue on up Glacier Point Road past Badger Pass to Glacier Point. From here you’ll witness one of the best views in Yosemite across the Valley Floor and high country. Glacier Point road beyond Badger Pass is usually closed due to snow between late October and late May.
The Mist Trail: If you have no great desire to attempt the full Half Dome hike, but wish to experience the stunning scenery that leads up to the cable ascent, then the Mist Trail is the right option for you. It is probably Yosemite’s most famous hiking trail which unfortunately means that it gets extremely congested in the peak season. If you want to avoid the peak season crowds then head off early (no later than 7.30am-8am). There are three highlights of the trail; bridge overlook, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. A 3 mile, 1,000ft ascent, round-trip hike will get you to Vernal Falls and a 7 mile, 1,900ft ascent (and notably more strenuous), round trip hike will get you to Nevada Falls and back to the trailhead. To get to the trailhead hop on the free Yosemite Valley Floor shuttle bus at Half Dome Village. Here’s a handy map of the shuttle route (the trailhead is in the bottom left corner of the map).
Mariposa Grove: Although, arguably, not as impressive as some of California’s giant redwoods (you can drive through some them for goodness sake), or as big as the General Sherman (the world’s largest tree, located in Sequoia National Park also in California), Mariposa Grove’s 500 mature giant sequoias are a sight to behold . You can navigate your way through the grove, which is just south of Wawona, on four different trails: The Big Trees Loop (an easy 0.5mile hike), the Grizzly Giant Loop (a moderate 2 mile hike), the Guardians Loop (a strenuous 6.5 miles), or the Mariposa Grove Trail (the most strenuous of the bunch at 7 miles). Parking is available at the Welcome Plaza with a free shuttle to the Grove Arrival Area operating from March 15 until November 30. In the winter you’ll have to hike the extra distance on either the road or, more scenically and what I chose, the Washburn hiking trail. If the crowds at Mariposa are putting you off then you might want to check out Tuolumne Grove (northwest of the Yosemite Valley) or Merced Grove instead.
Tuolumne Meadows: Only open during the summer months, Tuolumne Meadows is a backpacker and hiker haven. It’s also a much less visited spot than the nearby Yosemite Valley. This makes it the perfect place to go to experience the more serene side of the park whilst marveling at the 8,600-foot-high, sub-alpine meadow dotted with glacier-weathered granite outcrops. Some of highlights include Tenaya Lake, Soda Springs (yes, the water is naturally carbonated) and Olmstead Point (for great views). Also make sure to check out the visitor center (located in an old log cabin) for more information on the area including the resident flora and fauna.
The Majestic Hotel: Probably better known by its former name of the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Majestic is a luxury hotel located slap bang in the “primest” of real estate on the Yosemite Valley Floor (and therefore has spectacular views out of every window). I don’t normally include things like luxury hotels on my activities lists. However, on this rare occasion I’ve succumbed to temptation because the Majestic is a National Historic Landmark that serves an excellent buffet breakfast (you don’t have to be staying there to enjoy that) in a restaurant that looks somewhat akin to the dining hall at Hogwarts. On the subject of films, the hotel also starred in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror, The Shining and having had guests as iconic as Queen Elizabeth II, JFK, Barack Obama and Walt Disney it’s worth popping by to add your name to list of illustrious visitors.
Activities: Where to start!?! Outside of the main ‘sights’ I’ve mentioned above the real highlight of a visit to Yosemite is the chance to explore this vast wilderness whilst enjoying a whole multitude of potential activities that change across the seasons. If you’re looking for something serene then photography tours, art classes, nature hikes, fishing or astronomy parties might be your thing. For the more adventurous your options include rafting on the Merced River, rock climbing, mountain biking and horseback riding. Finally, if you’re planning to visit in winter then skiing, snowshoeing, ice-skating (at Half Dome Village), tubing, sledding and cross-country are all available.
Yosemite Additional Resources
Major Airport Travel Directions: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/airportpublictransit.pdf
National Park Service Website: www.nps.gov
Travel Yosemite Website: https://www.travelyosemite.com/
Majestic Hotel Website: https://www.nationalparkreservations.com/lodge/majestic-yosemite-hotel/