The first protected land area in the United States reportedly took roughly 10 million years to form. That is about the time that upheaval in the California Sierra Nevada Mountains re-formed this mountain range, creating sharp slopes in the east, gentle slopes in the west, and intricate canyons spread intermittently throughout the area. Yosemite National Park was basically at the epicenter of this change.
Humans came to this area as far back as 10,000 years ago. When Europeans arrived as part of the early 1850s gold rush, they quickly recognized the beauty of this place. The native inhabitants welcomed these visitors because instead of exploiting this land, they sought to preserve it. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill which created the Yosemite Land Grant, the first of its kind in American history. Preservation efforts accelerated over the next several decades, spearheaded by John Muir’s Sierra Club, as well as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Muir and the Rough Rider spent about a week on a Glacier Point camping trip.
Today, over four million visitors a year come to Yosemite National Park. They come to be in awe of nature's most spectacular beauty from the highest waterfall in the country, Yosemite Falls, to the mecca for rock climbers, El Capitan, which stands at almost 4,000 feet tall. Seemingly everywhere you turn in Yosemite there are natural features to captivate the eye, such as the mammoth granite peak called the Half Dome. Plus, there are many vistas and overlooks to feast your eyes on nature's glory, such as the Tunnel View and Glacier Point.
Three-quarters of visitors come between May and October, avoiding winter. By the time it starts to look a lot like Christmas until well after Valentine’s Day, Yosemite National Park is pretty much closed. When you visit Yosemite in an RV, you have the perfect base camp for checking out everything: from giant sequoias to delicate wildflowers and towering peaks to remote canyons. Generally, the campgrounds at Yosemite can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet and trailers up to 24 feet, though a few campsites can accommodate larger vehicles. RV camping is the best way to get back in touch with nature at Yosemite since none of the campgrounds inside the park offer hookups.
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RV Rentals in Yosemite National Park
Transportation in Yosemite National Park
There are a number of ways to get to the park. A road trip is straightforward, albeit long, from many major cities. Expect a four to five-hour drive from Reno, Sacramento, or San Francisco and six to eight hours from Las Vegas, Los Angeles or San Diego. Bear in mind that the traffic is quite congested during peak months, and some roads may be closed during off-peak months, so plan accordingly for extra travel time.
Keep in mind that the roads getting into Yosemite National Park are through mountainous terrain, making them winding and steep in many areas. Driving a big rig in these areas may be a challenge for inexperienced drivers. A number of areas along the drive may not feature a guardrail, so use extreme caution while driving. With that being said, most roads are wide enough and suitable for RVs and trailers. There are driving restrictions on some routes, such as Glacier Point Road, Mariposa Grove Road, and Hetch Hetchy Road.
Park officials warn against depending on GPS coordinates when planning your route. When there is a discrepancy, road signs always trump a GPS unit at Yosemite. And depending on your season of travel, be sure to educate yourself on restrictions and requirements inside the park, like road closures and tire chains.
The Half Dome Village Day Use Park and a parking area west of Yosemite Valley Lodge provide space for class A and B vehicles. Smaller RVs can also park in the day-use parking area at Yosemite Village. Though there is designated RV parking in several places, do not expect to find any parking anywhere during the busy season unless you’re a very early riser. Moreover, if you park your RV overnight, it must be in a designated campsite. Your best bet is to camp with your rig at the park and get around another way.
Largely because of the traffic congestion, Yosemite has a better public transportation system than many American cities. YARTS (Yosemite Area Rapid Transit System) provides park access from Merced (Highway 140), Fresno (Highway 41), Mammoth Lakes (Highway 395), and Sonora (Highway 108). Inside the park, there are two free shuttle services. The Yosemite Valley shuttle runs year-round from 7 AM to 10 PM. The El Capitan Shuttle runs in the busy season from 9 AM to 5 PM. There are a couple of other intermittent shuttle services as well. One of the most popular is the Tuolumne Meadows Shuttle, which runs between Olmsted Point and Tioga Pass during the summer. The Glacier Park tour is very popular during the summer as well.
Campgrounds and parking in Yosemite National Park
Campsites in Yosemite National Park
Travelers should make reservations for the pet-friendly North, Upper, and Lower Pines Campgrounds at least four months in advance. Upper Pines is by far the largest of the three. It has 238 sites, but only about 50 are available from December through February. Lower Pines has 60 sites and Upper Pines has 81 sites. In addition to fire rings and picnic tables, all campsites have food storage lockers. Some sites have super-size lockers and handicap accessibility. Additionally, Lower Pines has three double campsites and Upper Pines has a dump station. Nearby facilities include showers and a grocery store.
Located one mile north of Wawona, the pet-friendly Wawona Campground is open all year. Loops B and C are open from April to September, but from October through March, all sites are open on a first-come, first-served basis. Altogether, this campground has 93 RV sites, with some of these spots being wheelchair accessible. During the summer, visitors may use the dump station at the Pioneer Gift and Grocery Shop. There are showers nearby as well. The maximum vehicle length is 35 feet.
Crane Flat Campground
The Crane Flat Campground on Big Oak Flat Road just west of Crane Flat has 166 sites that are open from July until mid-October. A few of these sites are a little larger than average; two of them are wheelchair accessible. They can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet long and trailers up to 27 feet. Each site has a food locker, picnic table, and a fire ring with a grill. You'll find a dump station a half-hour away in Yosemite Valley. Pets are welcome but must be restrained at all times.
Tuolomne Meadows Campground
Tuolomne Meadows Campground is typically open from July to September. This campground is quite large; of its 304 sites, only half are reservation-only. This campground is also one of the few with its own dump station. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring, and food locker. Several bathrooms and drinking water spigots are located throughout the campgrounds. Showers and a grocery store are very close by. Dogs and cats are welcome as long as they are restrained and supervised at all times. RVs and trailers up to 35 feet are permitted.
Bridalveil Creek Campground
Just off Glacier Point Road, Bridalveil Creek Campground is first-come, first-served so you have to get here early if you want a spot. Even though there are 110 sites to choose from, the park gets thousands of visitors every day. Each sites comes with a fire ring, picnic table, and food lockers. Reservations are required for equestrian and group sites. There are two group sites and three equestrian sites available. Two nearby dump stations are available in the summer but only one is available in the winter. There are also showers and a grocery store close by.
Hodgdon Meadow Campground
Off the Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 20), you can find the Hodgdon Meadow Campground. Reservations are required from April through October, although most of the campground's 105 sites are open all year long. Each site comes with a food locker, fire ring, and picnic table. Restrooms with drinking water are available. The nearest dump station is about 45 minutes away in Yosemite Valley. Pets are allowed as long as you keep them properly restrained and supervise them while you are here. RVs up to 35 feet and trailers up to 27 feet long are permitted.
White Wolf Campground
Each one of this campground’s 74 parking spaces has a picnic table, fire ring, and food locker. Bathroom facilities, including flush toilets and drinking water, are very close by. During the summer, an RV dump station is available at the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Campground. In the winter, the closest dump station is at the Upper Pines Campground. RVs up to 27 feet and trailers up to 24 feet long can be accommodated. Pets are welcome to join you at your campsite.
Several private nearby campgrounds and RV parks can provide options for a trip to the area. Amenities and features range from Wi-Fi and full hookups to swimming pools, concierge service, and even a petting zoo and sluice box gold panning. Most private RV campgrounds are located in towns on the very western edge of the park, like Oakhurst and Groveland.
When you're ready to forgo a few creature comforts and really experience Yosemite, head out backpacking. Wilderness permits for backcountry hiking and camping are free, but quantities are limited, and demand is high. Sixty percent of the available permits can be reserved by lottery up to six months in advance, but reservations fill quickly. The park maintains a full trailhead report, where you can check to see if permits are available for your preferred route.
Seasonal activities in Yosemite National Park
This activity is getting more popular by the minute and the ‘cache fever’ has hit Yosemite National Park as well. What is geocaching? It is an outdoor treasure hunting game where you find caches with the GPS on your smartphone. The cache is typically a waterproof container like a coffee can or Tupperware bowl that has a notebook, pencil, and usually some kind of small trinket or token inside. You get the GPS coordinates from geocaching websites and when you find the cache, sign your name and date in the book and then take a token or trinket, but only if you leave one of your own. Then put it back in the exact spot so others can find it.
Although it encompasses less than two percent of the park’s land area, most of the park’s four million-plus visitors spend most of their time here. Late spring is a good time to go. The weather is just warming up and the area is not nearly as crowded. Spring is also a good time to see Yosemite Falls, which is the highest North American waterfall, because water levels are at their highest. Snow Creek Falls and Sentinel Falls are almost as high.
Most visitors come in from the west, through Tunnel View. That is one of the best places to see wildlife like squirrels, mule deer, and bears. Lots of birds fill the sky, including the rare Steller's jay. The Valley floor is famous for its thick carpet of pine trees; the surrounding peaks offer excellent rock-climbing opportunities. There are also a number of hiking trails in the area such as the Yosemite Falls Trail, Mist Trail, and Four Mile Trail. The Yosemite Valley was the first protected area of the park, and it is easy to see why.
One of the most distinctive Yosemite Valley peaks is made from solid granite. Three sides are round and smooth, and one part is a sheer cliff. That makeup gives Half Dome its shape and also its name. The mountain which was once dubbed “perfectly inaccessible,” is now climbable by professionals and dedicated amateurs alike. Cook’s Meadow is one of the most popular outlooks to take in this majestic peak.
A hiking trail leads to the top, if you can negotiate several hundred granite stair steps and cling tightly to some post-mounted steel cables. On a summer weekend as many as 1,000 people may take this trail. Many hikers break this long trail up into two days by camping overnight somewhere in Little Yosemite Valley. There are also about a dozen rock-climbing routes to the top. That top is wide and flat, so climbers and hikers can sit back and enjoy the view.
The highest mountain pass in California is basically a late spring or early summer must-see. Like many other Sierra Nevada mountain passes, Tioga Pass ascends very gradually from the east and drops very steeply to the west. Snowfall is always heavy, but it varies greatly from year to year. Sometimes, rangers close the pass as soon as mid-October and keep it closed until early July. But May through October is a pretty safe bet. Many people take day trips to Mammoth Falls and Bishop.
Although nowhere near the highest point in the park, Glacier Point’s position offers stunning views of most of the park’s landmarks. The area around the summit is quite rocky, but the slopes are mostly made up of glacial material. Park rangers will be more than happy to point out these materials and explain their significance. To approach Glacier Point, most people either take the tour bus or hike up Four Mile Trail. Some winter activities, like snowshoeing, are available in late fall and late spring. But from December through May, Glacier Point is usually closed.
Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall on the continent. So, going over the falls in a barrel is highly discouraged, to say the least. Water levels peak in late spring, mostly because of snowmelt patterns.
This tiered waterfall has three distinct sections. A hiking trail leads to Upper Yosemite Falls. The view is quite cool, and the noise is exceedingly loud, so be prepared for both. The Middle Cascades are hidden gems that many visitors miss entirely. There is a hiking trail to the area, but it is very slippery and dangerous. Lower Yosemite Falls is probably the most viewed area, which you can access from a relatively easy one-mile loop. Be sure and ask the rangers about the legend of the Poloti witches, and do not wander too far from the group after you hear it.
If you want to take in these famous falls from afar, Yosemite Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge offer great viewing spots.
There are many places in Yosemite National Park where you can do some whitewater rafting, but the most popular spot is the Merced River. If you are an experienced rafter, you can go on your own, but most people elect to hire a guide or outfitter to show them the ropes and help them navigate the rapids. Early summer is the best time to do some rafting and at peak snowmelt, it can be a Class IV run but as the snowmelt wanes away and the river drops, the rapids can go to a Class I or II.
El Capitan is one of the most famous sites in Yosemite. Unlike the smooth Half Dome, this granite peak is incredibly rocky and craggy. It's also in the northern part of Yosemite Valley, so it is basically a summer-only attraction. Tunnel View is one of the most popular places to get the best view of this legendary rockface.
A hiking trail moves through Yosemite Valley past Yosemite Falls to El Capitan’s summit. Rock climbers aplenty dot the face of the mountain. The approaches have names like Sea of Dreams and Iron Hawk, so they are strenuous to say the least. For most climbers, the route to the top is about a four-day excursion. But some speed-climbing teams have ascended El Cap much faster than that. In 2017, free-climber Alex Honnold ascended the mountain in just under four hours.
This waterfall is the first waterfall you will see in the park. It is geologically unique because of the rock formations that surround it and the water’s angle of trajectory. In fact, on windy days, the water is sometimes blown sideways. You have to see it to believe it as it plunges 620 feet to the bottom. Other features here include a very nice half-mile trail and ample roadside parking. The trail to Bridalveil Falls is an easy half-mile route.
Since the park first opened in 1933, visitors have awed at the view from this point. For many, this part of State Highway 41 is their first taste of Yosemite, and what a taste it is. As you enter from the south, El Cap is on the left, Half Dome is in the middle, and Bridalveil Falls is on the right. There's also a very large turn-out, so even in the busy summer season, RVers might get lucky and find some parking here. The turn-out was part of a three-million-dollar facelift in 2008. Other improvements included even wider sidewalks, more safety rails, and improved viewing vantages. From this area, hikers may walk up to aptly named Inspiration Point for an even better view of Yosemite Valley.
The most visible waterfall in the park runs pretty much year-round. However, by late summer, the volume is much lower. It's not nearly as high as some other waterfalls in the park, but it does have that Niagara Falls look which many people associate with waterfalls. There are a number of ways to get beautiful views of Vernal Falls, including the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail. One of the best views is just before the mile point on the popular Vernal Fall Footbridge. When water levels go down, some foolhardy people try to walk across the rocks. That is extremely dangerous, as the rocks are slippery and there are some very strong undercurrents. There are plenty of warning signs posted throughout the area.
For something completely different, stop at Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite is not all mountains and trees. This area gets lots of moisture, and at certain times of year, the Meadows resemble a large lake. There is also quite a bit of groundwater just below the surface. So, vegetation thrives here. Try to come in late summer to see the wildflowers bloom. Visitors to this area enjoy hiking as well as the unique porphyritic granite rock formations.
Make sure you pack those bikes in the camper before heading to Yosemite National Park because there are more than 12 miles of bike trails here. You can also bike on paved roads. The Lower Yosemite Fall Trail by Yosemite Village is an awesome path to take during autumn so you can enjoy the changing colors of the leaves. There are also paths that take you around Yosemite Lodge by the swinging bridge and through the park to the Royal Arches and Mirror Lake. If you forgot your bike, no need to worry. You can rent one in Yosemite Valley.
Majestic Yosemite Hotel
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel has a very rich history. Royalty and Presidents have stayed here in the past. The hotel also has a lot to offer today’s visitors. Later in fall, when many park areas begin to close but the weather is not bone-chilling cold, many guests appreciate the frequent guided tours that leave from the hotel. There is no danger of getting lost or stranded and all the wonders of the park are there to enjoy with much smaller crowds. Consider splurging a bit on one of the hotel suites. You will be very glad you did. Hotel amenities included a heated swimming pool and a very nice full-service dining room.
The Nevada Falls have a bent shape, so the bottom is more like a whitewater area. It is also one of the few areas of the park with no swimming restrictions. However, you should be advised that by this time of year, the water is really cold though. The water rushes down a 594-foot drop into the Merced River at the west end of the Little Yosemite Valley, where you can enjoy a nice day of splashing in the water and watching the wonders of wildlife here. You can also hike to the top, which is three miles, along the Mist Trail.
This trail is short and rather strenuous. That combination makes it one of the most popular hikes in the park. Mist Trail follows the Merced River through Yosemite Valley, beginning around Happy Isles and ending around Nevada Falls. This part of the Merced River is basically whitewater rapids. Large boulders, many of which are the size of houses, jut out into the water, making the rapids move even faster. The John Muir Trail branches off from the Mist Trail. There are also a number of backcountry camping opportunities in this area.
This large cluster of giant Sequoia trees reopened in the summer of 2018 after a major, three-year restoration project. Mariposa Grove is at Yosemite’s southern entrance, so like Tunnel View in the north, this forest is the first thing that many people see. Some noteworthy trees include the 2,000-year-old Grizzly Giant, the 36,000-cubic foot Washington Tree, and the seemingly fireproof Telescope Tree. The Mariposa Grove Museum, which helps visitors enjoy these majestic and serene trees, is a listed National Historic Place. From March to November, you can take a free shuttle to the grove from Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza.
It is hard to believe that this glacier-melt lake once filled almost the entire Yosemite Valley. Today, only this portion remains. It may not be around much longer, due to the accumulation of sediment. Of course, in geological terms, “not much longer” could mean several hundred years or more. It is about a 30-minute hike through the woods to get to the lake. The fishing is good here, and there is also a picturesque grist mill on the shore. There is a reason they call this spot Mirror Lake. It really does reflect the surrounding mountains just like a glass table.
If you want to stay nice and toasty warm, then it's a good idea to take a tour of some of the museums at Yosemite National Park. The Yosemite Visitor Center is open year-round and features an orientation film and amazing exhibits detailing the history of this stunning landscape. Plus, you won't want to miss the Indian Cultural Exhibit and other art galleries at the Yosemite Museum
John Muir Trail
This 210-mile trail is one of the most famous ones in the National Park System. Most of it winds through protected wilderness area and about the last third of the trail is more than 10,000 feet high. Some 1,500 people a year try to hike the whole thing. Fortunately, there are plenty of designated starting and ending points. We recommend the Ansel Adams Wilderness/Devils Postpile portion, especially when there is snow on the ground.
Badger Pass/Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area
Omitting this site from a list of Yosemite winter activities amounts to criminal negligence. This ski area has 10 runs and five lifts. Winter sports were not very popular here until Yosemite bid for the 1932 Winter Olympics; the Summer Games were in Los Angeles that year. In addition to downhill skiing, visitors enjoy snowboarding, snowshoeing, tubing, and cross-country skiing. You can also book a backcountry ski tour or take skiing lessons. If you want to go ice skating, head to the Curry Village Ice Skating Rink.
As long as Tioga Pass is, well, passable, Olmsted Point is accessible. It offers a very nice view of this part of Yosemite Valley, especially when snow is on the ground. You'll get breathtaking views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Tenaya Lake. Brave souls may hike directly out to the Point for even better views of the surroundings. We recommend sunrise or sunset viewing, as the pink sky accents the pink granite very nicely at this altitude.
Preservationist Ansel Franklin Hall began this museum in 1925 and was designed by architect Herbert Maier. The first-of-its-kind National Park museum was a model for all future facilities throughout the National Park system. The rustic architecture blends in nicely with the surroundings. The facility offers a variety of rotating exhibits about the park’s people and places from the Yosemite Renaissance 32 Art Exhibit to the Landscape Paintings of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
The easternmost portion of Yosemite Valley includes these two Merced River islands. Many people camp here even in winter but be sure and bundle up. Many other people enjoy the serenity of this area. There is something very calming about the sound of rushing water. That water flows pretty freely even when temperatures dip below freezing for long periods of time.