Yosemite National Park
Guide

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Introduction

The first protected land area in the United States reportedly took roughly ten million years to form. That’s about the time that upheaval in California’s 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 whites 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. Three-quarters of these people come between May and October, avoiding winter. By “winter,” we usually mean November, the first bit of December, and late March to early April. By the time it starts to look a lot like Christmas until well after Valentines 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.

Park Alerts (2)

[Information] Expect traffic congestion in Yosemite, especially on Saturdays and holiday weekends [+ Info]

While we welcome you to Yosemite, expect traffic congestion. Be prepared for multiple delays—up to two to three hours—particularly in Yosemite Valley and at park entrances. Arrive before mid-morning, especially on Saturdays and holiday weekends.

[Information] Names have changed for some lodging facilities

As part of a lawsuit settlement agreement, historic facility names in Yosemite have been restored. As a result, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is again known as The Ahwahnee; Half Dome Village, as Curry Village; and Big Trees Lodge, as Wawona Hotel.

RV Rentals in Yosemite National Park

Transportation in Yosemite National Park

Driving

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.

Park officials warn against depending on GPS coordinates when planning your route. When there’s 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.

Parking

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, don’t 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 is to camp with your rig at the park and get around another way.

Public Transport

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 a.m. to 10 p.m. The El Capitan Shuttle runs in the busy season from 9 to 5.

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

Reservations camping

Coleville / Walker KOA

When you stay at Coleville/Walker KOA in the little town of Coleville, you can guarantee some peace and quiet. Here, you’ll be in close proximity to sites like Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and a variety of ghost towns and natural hot springs. At Coleville/Walker KOA, enjoy a hearty breakfast at the restaurant, pick up items at the general store, and do your laundry - all without ever leaving the campground! You can also enjoy the pool, dog park, cable TV, Wi-Fi, and the pavilion.

Crane Flat

This campground’s 166 sites are open from July through October. A few of these sites are a little larger than average; two of them are wheelchair-accessible. Nearby facilities include a dump station, grocery store, and showers.

Wawona Campground

Loop A of Wawona Campground is open all year; Loops B and C are open from April to September. Altogether, this campground has ninety-three RV sites; some of these spots are wheelchair-accessible. During the summer, visitors may use the dump station at the Pioneer Gift & Grocery Shop. There are showers nearby as well.

Pines Campgrounds

Travelers should make reservations for the 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 fifty are available from December through February. Lower Pines has sixty sites, Upper Pines has eighty-one 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.

First-come first-served

Tuolomne Meadows Campground

This campground is quite large. Of its 304 sites, only 50 percent 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.

Bridalveil Creek Campground

Reservations are required for equestrian and group sites, but other than that, this campground is first come, first served. There are 100 standard sites, two non-RV group camping sites, and three equestrian sites. Two nearby dump stations are available in the summer; one is available in the winter. There are also showers and a grocery store close by.

Hodgdon Meadow Campground

Reservations are only required from April through October for this campground’s 105 sites. Showers, a dump station, and a grocery store are all nearby and open year-round.

White Wolf Campground

Each one of this campground’s seventy-four 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. Other nearby facilities include showers and a grocery store.

Alternate camping

Private Campgrounds

Several nearby campgrounds and RV parks can provide options for a trip to the area. Amenities and features range from WiFi and full hookups to swimming pools, concierge service and even a petting zoo and sluice box.

Backcountry Camping

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

Spring

Half Dome

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 is shape and also its name. The mountain which was once dubbed “perfectly inaccessible” is now climabable by professionals and dedicated amateurs alike. A hiking trail leads to the top, if you can negotiate several hundred granite stairsteps and cling tightly to some post-mounted steel cables. But don’t worry because it’s not as risky as it sounds. 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.

Tioga Pass

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, 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. These places are very nice towns. If you do, watch for CHP speed traps on Highway 395. Trust us; we know what we’re talking about.

Yosemite Valley

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’s one of the best places to see wildlife, like squirrels, mule deer, and bears. Lots of birds, including rare Steller’s jays, fill the sky. 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. We recommend the Yosemite Falls trail, Mist trail, and Four Mile trail. The Yosemite Valley was the first protected area of the Park, and it’s easy to see why.

Glacier Point

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

Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall on the continent. So, going over the falls in a barrell is highly discouraged, to say the least. Water levels peak in late spring, mostly because of snow melt 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’s a hiking trail to the area, but it is very slippery and dangerous. Each year, many stranded or injured hikers require helicopter evacuation. Lower Yosemite Falls is probably the most viewed area. Be sure and ask the rangers about the legend of the Poloti witches and don’t wander too far from the group after you hear it.

Summer

Tuolumne Meadows

For something completely different, stop at Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite isn’t all mountains and trees. This area gets lots of moisture, and at certain times of year, the Meadows resemble a large lake. There’s 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.

Vernal Falls

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/curtain of water look which many people associate with waterfalls. When water levels go down, some foolhardy people try to walk across the rocks. That’s extremely dangerous, as the rocks are slippery and there are some very strong undercurrents. There are plenty of warning signs posted throughout the area. Nevertheless, pretty much every year, at least two or three people are killed or seriously injured around the Falls.

Tunnel View

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 $3 million 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.

Bridalveil Fall

This waterfall 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. Other features include a very nice half-mile trail and ample roadside parking.

El Capitan

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. 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. Yikes.

Fall

Mirror Lake

It’s 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’s about a thirty-minute hike through the woods to get to the lake. The fishing is good here, and there’s also a picturesque grist mill on the shore. There’s a reason they call this spot Mirror Lake. It really does reflect the surrounding mountains just like a glass table.

Nevada Falls

These Falls have a bent shape, so the bottom is more like a whitewater area. It’s also one of the few areas of the Park with no swimming restrictions. Be advised that, by this time of year, the water is really, really, REALLY cold.

Mariposa Grove

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.

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.

Majestic Yosemite Hotel

Okay, so it’s not quite the Overlook Hotel. However, the MYH 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’s 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’ll be very glad you did. Hotel amenities included a heated swimming pool and a very nice full-service dining room.

Winter

Yosemite Museum

Preservationist Ansel Franklin Hall began this museum in 1926. 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.

Olmsted Point

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. 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.

Badger Pass/Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area

Omitting this site from a list of Yosemite winter activities amounts to criminal negligence. This ski area has ten 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, and cross-country skiing. The lawyers forced the name change from Badger Pass to the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area due to an intellectual property dispute that no one else cares about.

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; 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.

Happy Isles

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’s 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.

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