USA Travel

Visitor Guide to Yosemite National Park

By
Tim Gillespie
on
June 14, 2021

In this guide you will find the following:

  • Why visit Yosemite National Park?
  • When is the best time to visit Yosemite National Park?
  • How to get to Yosemite National Park
  • Popular things to do in Yosemite National Park
  • Where to stay in Yosemite National Park
  • Frequently asked questions about Yosemite National Park

Why Visit Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite National Park covers nearly 1,200 square miles of wilderness in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The park features towering waterfalls, prominent cliff faces, giant sequoia groves, and picturesque views. Yosemite averages over 4 million visitors a year making it one of the most visited national parks in the United States. With over 800 miles (1,200 kilometers) of hiking trails, world-renowned rock climbing routes, rafting along the Merced River, and countless winter activities, there is something for everyone. Cycling and touring along scenic drives are also popular activities for enjoying the scenery of Yosemite National Park.

95% of Yosemite is designated wilderness. Meaning no cars, no structures, and no electricity, but luckily there are 13 campgrounds scattered throughout the park providing rustic comfort for outdoor enthusiasts and plenty of other accommodations for visitors to choose from.

Check out our visitor guides to Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone national parks.

When is the best time to visit Yosemite National Park?

Spring is perhaps the best time of year to visit Yosemite National Park, especially the Yosemite Valley area. Waterfalls are at their peak, wildflowers are blooming, and the summer crowds have not yet arrived.  

If you don’t want your Yosemite experience to be limited by road, trail, and campground closures, your best bet is to visit between June and September, when everything is typically open and accessible.

Visiting in Winter

Winter temperatures hover around freezing, Most of the park is covered in snow during the winter with snowfall gaining the most accumulation in January. 

Hiking and driving options are limited during the winter season due to the closure of Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road beyond the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area. Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible by car, though tire chains are often required on park roads regardless of the type of vehicle. 

With limited crowds and spectacular winter scenery, winter in Yosemite can be magical.

Visiting in Spring

Spring is a time of transition in Yosemite, with lower elevations in full spring bloom, while higher elevations are still covered in snow. Days can be warm and sunny one day, and cold, wet, and stormy the next. As snow melts, streams and rivers fill or overflow with runoff.

The Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road beyond the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area typically remained closed until mid-May, and sometimes into June depending on snow conditions. Mariposa Grove Road usually opens by mid-April.

There will be fewer crowds than in the peak summer season. The Spring season’s main highlights are that most waterfalls will be at their peak flow due to snowmelt and spring flower blossoms will be at their fullest.

Visiting in Summer

The summer months are the peak of the tourist season, and rightfully so because the temperatures are warm and precipitation is little. There will be occasional afternoon thunderstorms, especially in higher elevations. 

All areas of the park are usually accessible by car by late May or early June, although services along Tioga Road often open a bit later in June. Arrive at Yosemite before mid-morning, especially on weekends, to avoid delays at entrance stations and popular areas like Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point.

During this time, you can expect crowded trails and campsites as well as road traffic. You need to book at least six months in advance to secure accommodations during this time; campsites have been known to reach capacity just days after they become available for the season.

Visiting in Fall

Fall in Yosemite can bring unpredictable weather. It may be sunny and clear one day and then snow the next. Daytime temperatures are relatively mild while nighttime temperatures drop close to freezing. Be sure to bring warm clothes and multiple layers. 

All areas of the park usually remain open through October, however, short-term closures may occur in November due to snow. Along Tioga Road, services are not available after September and overnight parking is not permitted after October 14th.

Similar to the spring season, there will be fewer crowds than during the peak summer months. Perhaps the biggest highlight this time of year is the fall foliage. The gorgeous foliage in the Yosemite Valley stands in beautiful contrast against the giant granite rocks.

How to get to Yosemite National Park

The best way to get to Yosemite National Park is by car. Amtrak and Greyhound offer services to the park though these require transferring to local buses operated by Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System.

There are several regional airports around Yosemite with the closest major hub being Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, located roughly 1.5 hours south of the park. San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose International Airports are all located three or more hours from the park.  

Driving from San Francisco / Bay Area:  Take I-580 east to I-205 east to Highway 120 east (Manteca) or Highway 140 east (Merced) into Yosemite National Park.  

Your most direct route to Yosemite is through the Big Oak Flat Entrance or the Arch Rock Entrance, which is located southeast of Big Oak Flat. Along the way, check out Groveland, a charming little town with shops, restaurants, and hotels. California’s oldest operating saloon, the Iron Door Saloon, is a must-visit when in Groveland. Mariposa, and its historic downtown, is a great place to explore when coming from the Bay area as well.

Driving from the Los Angeles area:  Take I-5 north (or I-405 north to I-5) to Highway 99 north to Highway 41 north (Fresno) into Yosemite National Park.

Your closest entrance would be the South Entrance, accessed by Highway 41. Just outside the park is the town of Fish Camp, a quirky little town that offers unique tours and activities in and around Yosemite. Check the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad for scenic train rides through the Sierra National Forest. Once entering the park through the South Entrance, you will come to Wawona, an old Native American encampment that is located entirely within Yosemite National Park.

Additional reading:  The Top 14 Best Parks to Visit in California

Popular things to do in Yosemite National Park

Explore the Yosemite Valley

This is the most popular area of the park and home to the park’s most famous landmarks, including Half Dome and El Capitan. There are a variety of hiking trails and scenic drives leading to the natural monuments in Yosemite Valley. Visitors can opt to ride the shuttle and even bike around the valley. Some of Yosemite Valley’s main highlights are:

  • Tunnel View - a car pullout along Highway 41 offers one of the most incredible views in all of Yosemite. In one frame you will be able to capture Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall.
  • Yosemite Falls - Rising 2,425 feet (739 meters) from the valley floor, North America’s tallest waterfall can be viewed from the Lower Falls trail, a 1-mile (1.6 kilometers) loop on most paved paths or by taking on the rigorous 7.2-miles (11.5 kilometers) Upper Falls trail.
  • Sentinel and Cook’s Meadow - A great intro-to-Yosemite hike that takes you through a pair of meadows offering incredible views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.
  • Valley View - one of the most iconic views of Yosemite National Park is a must-stop viewpoint, especially for sunset. Be sure to walk around to find the best view of the Merced River in the foreground and, in the background, El Capitan to your left and the twin Cathedral Rocks and Spires and Bridalveil Falls to your right.

Visit Mariposa Grove

An ancient cluster of giant sequoias, Mariposa Grove is located in the southern section of the park. Among the 500+ protected trees are the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree, which you can walk through! Multiple hiking trails are located in the area and during the winter months, these trails are open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Drive up to Glacier Point

Perhaps the most spectacular view in all of Yosemite. From this high vantage point, one can take in breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley, including Half Dome and 3 waterfalls. Visitors can access this area along Glacier Point Road which is open from late May through October. It is recommended to use the shuttle service or shared transportation as parking can be limited, especially during peak season.

More adventurous visitors can take the shuttle to Glacier Point and then opt to hike down into the valley via the Panorama and Four Mile trails. If you are ambitious, you can hike up one trail and down the other, creating a full day’s adventure.

***Glacier Point Road will be closed for repairs for the majority of 2022.***

Hiking

Hikers can access more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) of trails to take in Yosemite’s dramatic scenery, including towering granite walls, dramatic waterfalls, and giant sequoias. Some popular hikes include Tuolumne Grove Trail, Mirror Lake Loop Trail, and the Mist Trail. Keep in mind that most trailheads have limited parking and these spaces will fill quickly during the busy season.

We suggest using Alltrails.com to research your hikes.

Further reading:  Top Hikes in Yosemite National Park 

Climbing

Often called the birthplace of American rock climbing, Yosemite is one of the world’s premier year-round climbing destinations. A majority of the climbing routes are found in the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows area, though Wawona and Hetch Hetchy are other less-visited climbing areas. Climbing in the park has everything from long free climbs to world-class bouldering. Guided climbing tours are offered by the Yosemite Mountaineering School & Guide Service, the only authorized climbing guides in the park.

During peak climbing season, late summer into fall, the Yosemite Climbing Rangers set up temporary stations in the El Capitan Meadow to talk about climbing and climbing history in Yosemite. Their station typically includes climbing gear, information boards, and spotting telescopes that allow you to see climbers close up as they scale El Cap's sheer face.

Camping

Camping in Yosemite National Park is one of the best ways to make the most out of your visit. You’ll be able to access all the sites and trails while everyone else is still driving into the park.

Yosemite has 13 car-accessible campgrounds offering more than 1,400 total campsites. You can find the complete list of campgrounds here and learn more about backcountry camping here. Campground reservations are highly recommended and a must if you are visiting during the peak season.

Further reading:  Sleeping Bag Guide - How to Choose the Best One for Camping

Stargazing

Yosemite National Park, miles from the nearest city lights, has a very dark night sky that makes it a great place to look at the stars. The El Capitan Meadow, Taft Point, Cooks Meadow, and Olmstead Point are worthy spots to set up and view the tapestry of stars that fills the night sky.

Explore other national parks on these top hikes in Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and Arches.

Where to stay in Yosemite National Park

As we mentioned earlier, camping is a great option for staying in Yosemite National Park. Though if you are looking for a little more comfort, or perhaps couldn’t get a reservation at a campground, there are multiple options for places to stay.

The Ahwahnee - an iconic national park lodge listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a distinctive Yosemite hotel that offers a perfect balance of history, hospitality, and elegance. Rooms start at over $400 USD a night.

Yosemite Village Lodge - ideally located within walking distance to many of the park’s famous landmarks, rooms start at around $250 USD per night.  

Curry Village - features standard hotel rooms, wood cabins, and canvas tent cabin accommodations in the Yosemite Valley. Various dining options and activities are accessible as well. Accommodation options start at around $100 USD per night.

Wawona Hotel - one of California’s original mountain resort hotels, this National Historic Landmark near Mariposa Grove has rooms starting from $150 USD per night. Seasonal amenities include a 9-hole golf course, swimming pool, and riding stables.

White Wolf Lodge - offers 24 canvas-tent cabins and four traditional wood cabins with private baths starting at around $140 USD a night. This remote, peaceful lodge is an ideal starting place for hikes to Lukens and Harden Lakes.

Tuolumne Meadows Lodge - offers 69 canvas-tent cabins that are available from mid-June to mid-September, conditions permitting. The cabins are constructed with metal frames and cement platforms and can accommodate up to four guests. Prices start at around $140 USD per night.

High Sierra Camps - Accessible by foot or by mule, these camps are nestled high in the wilderness. Spaced out every 6 to 10 miles (9 to 16 kilometers) along a looped trail, the idea of these camps is to provide the joy of backpacking without the burden of a heavy backpack filled with tents and cooking gear. Plan your High Sierra adventure here.

New to camping? Check out our Camping Tips: A Beginners Guide to Their First Trip

Frequently asked questions about Yosemite National Park

How many days do you need in the park?

To see most of the main sights and hike a few trails, 3 days in the park is sufficient. This can be broken down as the following:

Day 1: Enter via the Big Flat Oak Entrance. Stop for a hike to view the giant sequoias at Tuolumne Grove. Drive down into Yosemite Valley stopping first at Bridalveil Falls and then having a picnic lunch at El Capitan Meadow or Valley View. Drive around the loop making sure to stop and take in the scenic viewpoints. After checking into your accommodation (located in the Yosemite Valley), head out for a late afternoon hike on the Sentinel & Cooks Meadow Loop. To end the day, return to Valley View in the evening to stargaze.

Day 2: Rise early and choose from one of two hikes: The Mist Trail or the challenging Upper Yosemite Fall trail. Enjoy a hearty lunch after your hike and then drive through the Wawona Tunnel, stopping at Tunnel View for photographs. Drive up to Glacier Point and if you are feeling up for it, hike to either Taft Point or Sentinel Dome before reaching Glacier Point. Return to the valley and relax after a busy day. If time permits, check out the Ansel Adams Gallery.

Day 3: Wake up early and hike the Mirror Lake Loop Trail. Bring a swimsuit to splash around in the waters of Mirror Lake. Before leaving the valley, visit any landmarks or vistas that you have yet to cross off before driving out to Mariposa Grove. Hike among the giant sequoias and exit the park via the South Entrance. Stop off in Fish Camp and take a scenic train ride through the Sierra Mountains.

What are the park entrance fees?

$35 USD per vehicle. The pass is valid for 7 days from the date of purchase.

Are permits required to climb Half Dome?

Yes, permits to hike to the top of Half Dome are required seven days a week when the cables are up. Check here for more information on obtaining a permit.

When is Tioga Pass open?

Clearing of the Tioga Road begins on or around April 15 each year and usually takes between one and two months. Predicting when the road will open is not possible, even in late spring, because the weather in April and May can affect plowing progress significantly.

What are some nearby attractions?

Many natural wonders and interesting gateway towns surround Yosemite National Park. When planning your trip, be sure to block out some time to explore some of these areas.

Bass Lake is only a half-hour south of Wawona. It is renowned for excellent fishing, hiking trails, and warm waters. Enjoy wine and contribute to agritourism by driving the Madera Wine Trail. A short drive from Yosemite’s northern Tioga Pass Entrance is Mono Lake, an ancient saline lake that is Home to trillions of brine shrimp, millions of birds, and world-famous tufa towers. Not too far from the Mammoth Lake ski town is Devils Postpile National Monument, a rare geologic formation and one of the world's finest examples of columnar basalt.

Be sure to check out the small towns surrounding Yosemite such as Groveland, Oakhurst, El Portal, Mariposa, and Fish Camp.

Do you offer guided trips in the park?

Yes. You can find out about all of our USA hiking and camping trips on our website.

Check out other articles related to national parks:

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Tim Gillespie
Tim is U30X's Thailand Manager & Community Builder, and has been living, traveling and accumulating experiences in SE Asia since 2009. He loves being in the outdoors, immersing himself in local cultures, and tasting exotic foods.

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