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Planning your visit to Yosemite
The first thing you need to do while planning your first visit to Yosemite is to take a look at the Yosemite map. Here are the main sites (the most popular ones):
Yosemite Valley: That’s the most crowded site in the Yosemite. Though it represents a tiny part of the park, it’s jam-packed with some of the park’s most iconic sights, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan. Most of those are must-see despite the crowds. That’s also where you’ll find the visitor center and main accommodations.
Glacier Point: That’s an exceptional viewpoint just above the Valley (located about a mile from Yosemite Valley, which transforms into a 30-mile car trip), that gives a different perspective on the valley’s sights. With the views across the surrounding mountains it’s considered as the best (or one of the best) vistas in Yosemite.
Wawona and the Mariposa Grove: The Mariposa Grove, near Yosemite’s South Entrance, contains about 500 mature giant sequoias.
Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Road: Tuolumne Meadows is a large, open sub-alpine meadow graced by the winding Tuolumne River and surrounded by majestic peaks and domes. Tioga Road is a 39-mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows with many impressive vistas.
Hetch Hetchy: Accessed by a separate entrance from the rest of the park, Hetch Hetchy’s main feature is a lake, created as a water supply for the city of San Francisco. It is also home to spectacular scenery and is the starting point for many less-used wilderness trails.
The next thing you should consider for your planning is the season: Yosemite Valley may be almost the only option to you if you arrive in winter. In spring and fall it depends mostly on the weather: Tioga Pass, Mariposa Grove and Glacier Point Roads usually stay closed until late May or early June. In fall Tioga Pass usually closes between mid-October and mid-November. Glacier Point closes when the first snow falls. Although the road to Hetch Hetchy is open year-round during daylight hours (approximately), it may close periodically due to snow in winter and spring. In summer (peak season) all the roads are usually open, though in early June there may be still restrictions because of the weather. We highly recommend to take a look at the current road conditions on the official Yosemite website before your visit.
Avoiding the crowds during high season
The high season in Yosemite is during summer: though early June is relatively calm, it gets overcrowded later and the park keeps seeing big crowds until the Labour Day weekend. Late spring is also a very popular time. Here are some tips if you plan visiting Yosemite from May to September:
Plan well in advance and think about the accommodation: there are limited options on site, and those lodgings that can be booked online, often sell out all rooms half a year in advance. There may be a cancellation: keep in touch with the hotel. In the worst case, try the campgrounds on a “first-come, first-serve” basis, but you’ll probably need to arrive early in the morning to secure a spot.
Eat during off-peak hours or opt for a picnic. In summer it’s not rare to see a giant line for pizza in Curry Village, and Sunday brunches at Ahwahnee Dining Room are so popular you’d have to book a table in advance. Be prepared, or you can get a sandwich and eat it during the day whenever and wherever you like, without exhausting lines and crowds. Consider that most dining places close early, you probably won’t find anything to eat after 9 PM.
Be an early bird to avoid crowds. Try to visit the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove by 9am or earlier. Then you can head to Tioga Pass road trails and views and in and around Tuolumne Meadows, they are less crowded, and you’ll be able to find yourself alone even during peak hours.
Stay late. If you’re not into getting up early - leave the most crowded places for the late afternoon and visit them after 5 PM. Many daytrippers start leaving Yosemite already after 3 PM, so there will be less people.
Avoid doing the most popular trails in late morning or early afternoon. The Mist Trail at 2pm is not the right place to find solitude. Bridalveil Fall trail, Mirror Lake & Tenaya Canyon trail, Vernal Fall Footbridge trail and Lower Yosemite Falls are some of the most crowded hiking routes in the Yosemite Valley. We advise you to check this website, that analyses Yosemite hikes, taking into account crowds, scenery and difficulty factors to choose those that will suit you best.
If the crowds are huge, prefer to visit the Merced Grove instead of Mariposa Grove: you’ll find yourself alone with the giant sequoias. Though there are only about 20 mature trees in Merced Grove compared to 500 in Mariposa Grove, you’ll have them all to yourself, which is a good deal in our opinion.
Opt for beginning of June, late August or early September to visit the park. Out of high season these are the calmest periods, allowing you to enjoy the scenery in a quieter environment. Consider however that waterfalls may be dry in August, it’s when the water level is at its lowest.
Leave something spectacular for the sunrise and sunset time. You’ll find the fewest crowds at these hours in the park, with most tourist buses and day trippers not yet on site or already gone. Yosemite Falls are just one of the options.
Another option to avoid crowds during high season’s peak hours (midday) is to head to Hetch Hetchy Valley, 40 miles from Yosemite Valley, to enjoy a quiet afternoon amid spectacular scenery and waterfalls. This part offers the least crowded trails that many consider underestimated.
Half Dome trail may be the top hike on everyone’s bucket list, but you can opt for Cloud’s Rest instead: way less crowded, from the top of it you’ll get a nearly identical view as you do from the top of Half Dome, and as a bonus, one of the best views of Half Dome too.
Leave your car in the car park and use Yosemite shuttles: though there may be queues for the buses, it will save you time and you won’t need to worry about parking lots available here and there. If you try, for example, to drive to Mariposa Grove at noon, you’ll be almost for sure turned around and sent back to Wawona to park as the parking capacities are limited, and the place is very popular.
Car traffic in Yosemite on Memorial Day Weekend - photo credits to Joe Lewis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Avoiding the crowds the rest of the year
The park is open all year round, though you will find many roads and sections closed in early spring, late fall and winter. Check the road conditions while planning your trip to Yosemite.
Avoid visiting during school holidays, public holidays and long weekends. Thanskgiving week, Christmas/New years time, and President’s Day weekend can be busy times in the Yosemite, and you’ll find it difficult to get lodging/camping reservations.
To truly avoid the crowds, visit from December through March (except for the periods mentioned above). These are the months where you’ll easily find solitude even in the most popular parts of the park.
Periods from mid-April through Memorial Day and from mid-September through October are a good compromise between weather and crowds, the latter will be higher than in winter but still OK compared to the summer months.
Arrive mid-week, there are always less visitors than on Fridays and weekends. Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the least crowded days in Yosemite.
We recommend, starting your day early in the morning, or staying late and going off the beaten track during peak hours: these tips always work!
Photo credits to Regan Buker via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Seasonal events and phenomena in Yosemite
Though summer is the most popular time, every season has its own peculiarities and natural phenomena.
Horsetail Fall is famous for appearing to be on fire when it reflects the orange glow of sunset in mid- to late-February.
Frazil ice can occur in fall, winter, or spring, as long as there is a relatively high flow over waterfalls and Yosemite Valley has overnight lows below freezing. This most commonly occurs in spring (usually in April, but sometimes in March and May). The flowing frazil ice usually occurs in the morning, before 9 am.
Late spring is the best season to see waterfalls, with the water level at its highest.
Wildflowers blooming occurs in June, with redbud, Sierra onion, lupine, Mariposa lily, pentstemon, and flowering dogwood beginning in May.
Though Yosemite isn’t the most colorful place during fall (most of the trees are evergreen), some trees, especially dogwood maple trees put on their best show in mid-October.
The annual Vintner’s Holiday begins in early November and continues through early December. These popular programs feature prominent wineries and industry experts in two- and three-day sessions of seminars, panel discussions and wine tasting moderated by wine authorities.
Photo credits to Giuseppe Milo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Yosemite is a three to four hour drive from San Francisco and about six hours from Los Angeles. It is accessible by several routes:
- From the West: CA Hwy 140 or CA Hwy 120;
- From the South: CA Hwy 41;
- From the East: CA Hwy 120 and Tioga Pass.
Yosemite Area Transportation System (YARTS) offers bus service along CA Hwy 140 between Merced and Yosemite Valley. During the summer YARTS also offers one round trip a day between Mammoth Lake and Yosemite Valley.
The nearest commercial airports are in Fresno and Merced, but both are small. For more frequent flight schedules served from more locations, opt for Sacramento, Oakland or San Francisco. In summer when Tioga Pass is open, Reno, Nevada may also be an option.