A beginner’s guide to visiting Yosemite National Park

Aug 6, 2020

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Few national parks loom quite as large as Yosemite National Park.

Located in the High Sierra of Northern California, Yosemite is one of the country’s oldest and most visited national parks. Outdoor adventurers and nature lovers flock to the natural wonders of Half Dome, El Capitan and the park’s many waterfalls.

I began visiting Yosemite with my husband nearly two decades ago, not long after he finished a summer working in the park’s High Sierra Camps in college. After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area just 3.5 hours away, we returned for a number of visits in the years that followed. We recently took our kids with us for their first Yosemite trip this summer when the park reopened after its COVID-19 closure.

If you’ve never been to Yosemite National Park, here’s everything you need to know to plan your first visit.

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Yosemite National Park basics

Yosemite National Park Sign
Photo by Leslie Harvey.

At nearly 1,200 square miles, Yosemite is one of the larger national parks and definitely deserving of much more than a day trip. The park averages between 4 and 5 million visitors in a typical year, making it one of the most visited national parks in the U.S.

The park is best known for its many waterfalls and granite monoliths like Half Dome and El Capitan, which climbers dream of conquering. Yosemite also has a number of epic hiking opportunities as well as abundant wildlife, including bears that are masters at breaking into cars if you dare leave any leftovers behind.

Yosemite entry costs $35 per vehicle. Consider purchasing an America the Beautiful annual pass if you plan to visit a few other national parks or public lands within the same 12-month period. At just $80, it’s a solid value and a great way to visit the nation’s parklands for less. Also, remember that 4th graders get free entry to national parks if they register with the Every Kid Outdoors program.

The park was closed for several months in the spring of 2020, but reopened in June under special coronavirus restrictions. Visiting Yosemite during COVID-19 definitely means a few differences from usual operations, but those differences are overwhelmingly positive.

Advance park entry reservations are now required for anyone not staying in lodging located within the park’s boundaries, and park capacity is heavily restricted. Travelers absolutely must plan ahead because the $2 reservations sell out quickly, especially for weekend visits. But if you’re able to snag a coveted reservation while the park is in this partially reopened stage, you’ll see Yosemite like few people in our lifetimes ever will again: totally uncrowded.

Related: 7 trips to take right now if you want to escape the crowds

How to get to Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is enormous, so before you decide how to get there, you need to decide which parts of the park you want to visit.

Most first-time visitors head to the Yosemite Valley, taking either Highway 120 or 140 into the park from the west. There’s also a south entrance at Wawona, an entrance on the northwest into the Hetch Hetchy Valley and an eastern entrance at the Tioga Pass that’s only accessible in the summer.

The closest airport to the park that offers a reasonable amount of commercial service is in Fresno, California. The Fresno-Yosemite Airport (FAT) is approximately a 1.5-hour drive to the southern entrance at Wawona or 2.5 hours into the Yosemite Valley.

Many visitors arriving by air opt to fly into one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s airports, which offer more airlift and usually cheaper fares. Oakland International (OAK) is the closest at 3.5 hours away from the valley, but San Francisco International (SFO) or Mineta San Jose International (SJC) are viable options at about 4 hours away.

Related: National parks are reopening: Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip

Top things to do and see in Yosemite National Park

Given its size, it really does take nearly a full week to get a glimpse at the entirety of the park.

Yosemite Valley

If you only have a day or a weekend, the most popular area of the park is the Yosemite Valley. Here you’ll find creature comforts like shorter paved trails, restaurants, stores and car-accessible stops. But some incredibly challenging hikes start here as well, so more adventurous travelers shouldn’t write off the valley.

You can take a shuttle around the valley or walk or bike parts of it, though the shuttle is not running during coronavirus restrictions. Some of the highlights in the Yosemite Valley include:

  • Tunnel View: The car pullout at Tunnel View on Highway 41 offers the quintessential Yosemite backdrop for a photo, with El Capitan and Half Dome in view.
Tunnel View with El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall visible. Photo by Leslie Harvey.
  • Bridalveil Fall: Stroll a half mile on a paved (but not wheelchair accessible) trail to view this famous waterfall. (Note that the trail is currently closed in 2020 for repairs.)
  • Sentinel Beach: In the summer months, set up a towel on the banks of the Merced River that flows through the valley. Sentinel Beach is one of the top spots for wading or tubing when the water isn’t flowing too fast.
  • Mist Trail (Vernal & Nevada Falls): The Mist Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the valley, ascending up two waterfalls. The roundtrip climb is 5.4 miles and fairly strenuous due to elevation changes. If you aren’t up for a full day hike, consider doing the round-trip to the footbridge that offers views of Vernal Fall. It’s less than a mile each way but is rated as a moderate hike due to the vertical climb (my 6-year-old did it, but not without some complaining and a few breaks).
Yosemite Vernal Fall Footbridge
View from the footbridge on the first part of the Mist Trail. Photo by Leslie Harvey.
  • Yosemite Falls: One of the easier and most popular hikes in the valley is the stroll to Lower Yosemite Fall. The 1-mile loop is paved and mostly stroller and wheelchair accessible. Hikers looking for a bigger challenge can ascend the longer trail to the top of the upper fall, a 7.2-mile hike with 2,700 feet in elevation change.
  • Mirror Lake: One of the most photographed spots in the valley is the reflection of Half Dome in the water at Mirror Lake (which becomes Mirror Meadow later in the summer and fall when the water recedes). Take the short interpretive nature path to view the closer end of the lake, or hike the mostly flat longer trail that circumnavigates the water.
Yosemite Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake receding in mid-summer. Photo by Leslie Harvey.
  • Half Dome: Ascending Half Dome is a bucket list hike for many travelers. But at 14 to 16 miles round-trip, it’s one of the most strenuous hikes in the park and requires substantial preparation. In order to prevent overcrowding on the cables that help hikers climb the last part of the trail, the park instituted a permit system a few years ago. You must now enter a lottery in March each year for a chance to hike Half Dome.

Glacier Point

Yosemite National Park Glacier Point
The views at Glacier Point are worth the drive. Photo by Leslie Harvey.

Perched high above the valley floor is one of the park’s most popular drives to Glacier Point. Even though Glacier Point is only a few miles from the Yosemite Valley, the drive itself takes 45 minutes to an hour from Yosemite Village due to the elevation change.

Glacier Point has a short, easy trail from the parking area to a variety of lookout points. Both a side view of Half Dome as well as Vernal and Nevada Falls are visible.

Parking can be a major challenge at Glacier Point, so when shuttles and tours are running again, shared transportation is the preferred way to see it. Taking a shuttle to the top is also the best option for hikers who want to take one of the many trails down into the valley. In particular, the Panorama Trail (8.5 miles) and Four Mile Trail are popular options. Some more ambitious hikers will take one of those trails up and the other down!

There are other hikes available on the road to Glacier Point as well. In particular, the trailhead about a mile from the top of Glacier Point is an excellent choice for the moderately adventurous, with 2.2-mile hikes leading to either Sentinel Dome or Taft Point.

Yosemite Sentinel Dome
The climb to the top of Sentinel Dome is steep but doable for kids. Photo by Leslie Harvey.

For now, during COVID-19 restrictions, shuttles are unavailable, but there’s ample parking at Glacier Point for the park’s limited number of visitors. Note that the road to Glacier Point will be closed all of 2021 to make improvements.

Mariposa Grove

One of the draws of California’s outdoors are its enormous and imposing trees. The giant sequoias located at Mariposa Grove are excellent specimens. The famed Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree that visitors can walk through are just two of 500 trees protected within this area of the park.

Under normal park conditions, there’s a shuttle from the Mariposa Welcome Center that delivers guests to an arrival area. There are a variety of trails that originate here, including the easy Big Tree Loop (a third of a mile) or the moderate 2-mile Grizzly Giant Loop Trail. During COVID-19 restrictions, however, your only option is to hike 2 miles each way from the parking area to the arrival area, making hikes here a much longer time investment.

Tuolumne Meadows & Tioga Road

Visitors looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Yosemite Valley often head for Tuolumne Meadows. Located past the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park on Highway 120 along Tioga Road, this high elevation alpine meadow area is accessible only in the summer and early fall.

After leaving Crane Flat, stop at either Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias or Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias as you make your way along Highway 120. Picnic by Tenaya Lake and stop by Olmstead Point for a very different angled view of Half Dome. There are a number of moderate and strenuous hikes along Tioga Road as well as plenty of car pullouts with magnificent views.

Although it’s closed in 2020 due to COVID-19, there’s normally a visitor center at Tuolumne Meadows as well as a wilderness center.

Related: I went to Glacier and Yellowstone during COVID; 6 ways visiting national parks is weird right now

Where to stay in Yosemite National Park

Of course, camping is a popular choice for many travelers in Yosemite. Reserved RV and car campsites are available at many locations within the park, although a number of campgrounds are closed in 2020 due to the park’s capacity restrictions. Wilderness permits are also available for backcountry hikers camping overnight.

For guests who prefer a four walls and a bed during their overnight stay, there are two hotels in the Yosemite Valley: the Ahwahnee and Yosemite Village Lodge. The Ahwahnee is an iconic national park lodge that exudes old-world charm. At over $500 a night, however, it’s also an expensive choice, and it doesn’t exactly meet modern luxury hotel standards. That said, my family thought it was worth the splurge for the historic experience and central location on our most recent trip.

Yosemite Ahwahnee Hotel
Old world national park lodge charm at the Ahwahnee. Photo by Leslie Harvey.

Rooms at the Yosemite Village Lodge are less expensive (around $250 per night for standard rooms) but in a more rustic setting with basic amenities. The location of this hotel is truly ideal, within an easy walk or bike ride of many of the valley’s top sights.

Also in the valley is Curry Village, which offers lodging mostly in tented cabins. The experience is somewhere in between car camping and a motel. The private cabins have concrete floors and basic beds with frames, but they also have tent walls and bathrooms are communal. I probably wouldn’t recommend Curry Village to families with very young kids due to the noise and challenges of communal living, but it’s a fun option for families with older kids, backpackers and anyone on a tight budget.

Yosemite Curry Village Tent Cabins
Rustic tent cabins at Curry Village. Image by Leslie Harvey.

To the south, the other in-park hotel is the charming Victorian-era Wawona Hotel. The hotel is closed in 2020 for repairs. There are also some private cabins in the Wawona area available for rent as well.

Ultimately, there really aren’t enough places to stay within the park to accommodate Yosemite’s many annual visitors. That’s why a lot of visitors choose to stay in lodging just outside the park’s several entrances.

To be sure, points-friendly hotels are few and far between in the area. Most lodging is independently owned, motel-style and budget-friendly. Two of the newer and higher-end properties for travelers seeking extra creature comforts are Tenaya Lodge, near the south entrance, and Rush Creek Lodge near the Big Oak Flat entrance on Highway 120. Coming soon is an upscale glamping camp from Under Canvas.

Related: Exploring national parks in 2020: Where to stay using points

The best times to visit Yosemite National Park

Image by Leslie Harvey.
Image by Leslie Harvey.

Yosemite is open year-round, but the high season is undoubtedly the summer. Legions of families and international visitors on summer break flock to the park in summer months. Of course, this can mean some pretty crushing crowds. In fact, one of the major reasons my own family had not returned to Yosemite with our kids until this year was the uncomfortable crowd levels.

If you must go in the summer (in non-COVID times), pack your patience and allow extra time for everything. Try to go on a weekday to avoid some of the worst chokepoints and start early in the morning. Also plan to get out of the valley, where crowds will be lighter.

Shoulder season in spring and fall can be an excellent choice for travelers with more flexible schedules looking to dodge even more crowds. In fact, the very best time to visit Yosemite might just be late spring. The month of May, especially, is when waterfalls are often at their highest flows from snowmelt, and the weather is mild for hiking.

Winter in Yosemite is a very different national park experience. Tioga Road closes from about November to late May or early June every year. But much of the rest of the park is accessible, with opportunities to snowshoe or even cross-country ski. The park also is home to a ski resort, Badger Pass, that’s less expensive or overwhelming than the mega-resorts elsewhere in California in Lake Tahoe or Mammoth.

Bottom line

Yosemite is certainly a national park worthy of its placement on many travel bucket lists. With both easy and challenging hikes and an array of breathtaking sights, it’s a national park that has something to offer a wide variety of travelers.

Just be sure to make plans for crowds when coronavirus restrictions are lifted. And if you’re able to safely and responsibly travel to Yosemite while park capacity is limited like my family was, the payoff is pretty tremendous.

Read on for more tips on visiting America’s National Parks:

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