Yosemite National Park: A Travel Guide To California’s Crown Jewel
Yosemite National Park, one of the most impressive landscapes in California, boasts over 1,000 square miles of natural beauty and sheer awe. From towering waterfalls and millennia-old trees of Sequoia to cliff faces and extraordinary rock formations, Yosemite is full of gorgeous sights that will snatch your breath away, and leave you speechless. In fact, by just standing in Yosemite Valley, and circling around, you can catch more natural wonders in 60 seconds more than an entire day anywhere else.
Dreaming of going on a trip to this United States National Park? With a little travel planning and a few helpful tips, your respite at Yosemite National Park will be safer, easier and lot more fun. We recommended that you look through all the tip-offs, so you can make your travel planning experience to this park a breeze.
Why visit Yosemite National Park
A visit to Yosemite National Park is, as far as I’m concerned, a great way to get closer to Mother Nature and explore one of America’s greatest treasures. Nestled grandly in California’s central-eastern park, the park is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the country’s third oldest national park. What’s more, it is a sprawling and spacious park, encompassing a massive 1,200 square-mile area, and containing thousands of ponds and lakes, 350 miles of roads, 800 miles of trekking trails and 1,600 miles of streams.
Yet, in spite of its gigantic size, most of visitor activity in the park takes place in a remarkable 7 square-mile area in Yosemite Valley. Here, you will get to spot Yosemite’s most popular landmarks – El Capitan and Half Dome – as well as awesome trekking trails through its natural monuments.
Are you a newbie, when it comes to hiking? Well, fear not! Even inexperienced trekkers can enjoy this national park since there are climbing lessons and guided tours offered by local adventurists.
As with most tourist destinations in America, crowds of tourists are the biggest obstacles to a pleasant vacation in Yosemite National Park. Keep in mind that the park gets at least 4 million visits per year. But, if you visit the park at the right time, the wonders of Mother Nature will unveil themselves to you in a serene and miraculous way.
How to get there
There are 4 major entrances heading to Yosemite National Park. All of these land routes include mountain roads that are relatively windy, meaning you should plan you road trip carefully, and drive safely.
State Route 140 from Merced and Mariposa (west) – It’s the most picturesque western entrance. This route mostly traverses up the Merced River Canyon, and into Yosemite Valley. Tour bus and RV traffic used to congest this route a little too much time during summertime, but the 2006 rockslide in Ferguson has led to restrictions that prevent vehicles over 45 feet from passing through. As a result, Highway 140 nowadays in pleasantly less congested, and the bridges can give you a magnificent view of the gigantic rock slide.
State Route 120 from Oakdale (west) – This is by far the fastest route from Sacramento (northwest) and Bay Area (west). Route 120 is a little steep, so trailers and RVs should instead consider taking Route 140. During winter, snow makes Route 140’s lower elevations more eye-catching.
State Route 120 from Lee Vining and Tioga Pass Road (east) – This route is only available when it’s free of snow – usually from May to October, so be sure to check the road’s conditions in advance.
State Route 41 – North from Southern California or Los Angles and Fresno. Make sure to fill up your gas tank, when you drop by Oakhurst, or pay a bunch of cash, as you get closer to Yosemite.
There’s no landing strip within Yosemite park, but there are a few airports in surrounding communities. Here are the nearest landing strips in Yosemite:
Stockton Metropolitan Airport – Allegiant Air offers flights to Phoenix and Las Vegas, with seasonal flights to Honolulu. It will take around 1 hour and 45 minutes to reach Yosemite’s west entrance from the airport via Highway 120.
Modesto City-County Airport – From the airport, it will take a 1.5-hour drive to the west entrance of the park on Highway 120. It caters a commuter flight to the city of San Francisco.
Merced Airport – It caters flights from Las Vegas, Visalia and Los Angeles. It will take a 2-hour drive to Yosemite Valley from the airport on Highway 140.
Fresno Yosemite International Airport – Not a large airstrip, but it is by far the largest of the 4 airports in Central Valley (San Joaquin Valley) – west of Yosemite park. It takes a 1.5-hour drive to reach the Yosemite’s entrance by car on Highway 41 from the airport. It has flights to Tacoma/Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Portland, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu, Guadalajara (Mexico), and Denver.
Airports in the Bay Area, such as San Jose International, Oakland International and San Francisco International Airport, are way larger than the ones mentioned above, and they also cater more regular flights to a lot of different destinations. From the Bay Area, driving to the park will likely take 4 hours. But, landing at the San Francisco International means that you’ll have to cross one of the San Francisco Bay bridges, which normally are congested in early evening and late afternoon. Sacramento International airport is another big airport that’s just about hours from the national park.
When to visit Yosemite Park
June to August
The magic of the park can be disrupted slightly by the crowded summer Yosemite campgrounds. Daytime temperatures reach into the upper 70s, with nighttime chills that drop into the 50s. The sunlight can be pretty intense, depending on the area, so make sure bring plenty of sunscreen.
September to November
Fall’s diminished crowds let you enjoy the natural scenery in a peaceful fashion. But since most trees within the park are evergreen, don’t expect to see autumn colors. Also in autumn, the park will see temperatures ranging from 30s to the mid 70s.
March to May
If you do not mind chilly temperatures, you may visit the park between December and March, when Yosemite is mostly empty. Also, winter sports aficionados will love and admire the snow-blanketed playground, especially around the oldest ski spot in California – the Badger Pass Ski Area. While Yosemite Valley’s temperatures stay between the mid-40s and upper 20s, some areas of this vast park can be even much colder.
March to May
In my opinion, the best time to visit the park between the months March and May, when springtime is in full bloom. With leaves greening, animals coming out of hibernation and dogwoods blossoming, spring in Yosemite is truly a great time to experience irresistible beauty. Furthermore, the melted snow will boost the waterfalls – they are the most scenic during this time of the year. Also, a visit to the park in spring lets you escape the rush of tourists that arrive in summertime.
How to get around
The best way to get around the park is by shuttle, which is supremely reliable and free. The Yosemite Valley Shuttle, managed by the National Park Service, provides free service from and to all major sites, accommodations and restaurants within the valley, from 7 am to 10 pm, year round. There are a few additional buses operating to different parts of Yosemite from spring to fall.
You won’t need your car inside Yosemite National Park. Limited Park and crowd sizes make it fairly difficult to enjoy your vacation with driving hassles, and the gorgeous landscape is definitely not a place for road rage. The park, though, is almost impossible to reach without a car.
By bus and shuttle
There are a lot of tour bus companies that offer tours from the Bay Area. Some of them will just take you to the popular Yosemite Valley, while others provide full tours that let you see Glacier Point or the Giant Sequoias.
Additionally, the Yosemite Area Regional transportation System offers affordable transportation into Yosemite Valley from locations west and east of the park, including Highway 120/395 (Mammoth Lakes, Lee Vining), Highway 120 (Groveland, Jamestown, Sonora), Highway 140 (El Portal, Mariposa, Merced) and Highway 41 (Coarsegold, Oakhurst, Fresno).
Permits and fees
All entrance fees to the park are valid for 7 days. You can get the Yosemite Annual Pass for $60, which will give you park entry for a year. Fees for the entrance were raised on March 1, 2015 – the first increase in Yosemite’s entrance fees since 1997.
- $15 for people ages 16 and above on non-commercial bus, horse, bicycle or foot.
- $20 for motorcycles – no per individual fee
- $25 (November to March) and $30 (April to October) for private vehicles
There are a few passes that give free entry to individuals on bike or foot, or groups that travel together in a private vehicle. These passes are valid at all US National Parks, including Yosemite.
- Permanent residents or US citizens with disabilities can get an access pass – valid for holder’s lifetime – at a federal recreation site in person for free. Alternatively, the person can get through mail for a small fee of $10. Applicants should provide documentation or permanent disability or document on citizenship. The pass will also give a 50% discount on some of the park’s amenities.
- Permanent residents or US Citizens who are 62 years old or more can get a senior pass – valid for holder’s lifetime – at a federal site for $10 in person, or via mail for $20. Applicants should provide documentation of age and citizenship. The pass will also give a 50% discount on some of the park’s amenities.
- For $80, you may get the interagency pass – valid for a year from the date of issue – and get free entry to national wildlife refuges and national parks. This pass covers sand amenities at lands managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management as well as national grasslands and forests.
Things to do in Yosemite National Park
Enjoy the panoramic views at Glacier Point
Glacier Point is deemed as one of the best and most extensive lookouts in Yosemite. It is also one of Yosemite’s highest points, highlighting sweeping panoramas of the park’s most remarkable landmarks, such as the Yosemite Valley’s floor and the Half Dome. And unlike most of the park’s points, Glacier Point is easily accessible by roadway, which allows drivers and visitors to forego a difficult climb.
Tourists aren’t exaggerating when they say that Glacier Point is one of the park’s most awe-inspiring sights. As a matter fact, most visitors have said that this lovely lookout point made them feel like they were standing of the world, and often describing them view as “majestic”, “iconic” and “incredible”.
Trek Half Dome
Trekking the Half Dome Cables Route in Yosemite can be a life-changing and unforgettable experience. But, make no mistake about it – this expedition is, by no means, for the faint of heart. The challenge starts immediately with a trek along the Mist Trail and into Vernal Fall – a hilly ascent that will test you, and let you know if you are in the right condition for the remainder of the escapade.
Then, the trek will continue to Nevada Fall’s top, followed by a flat and long section through the famous Yosemite Valley. As soon as hit the dome’s base, a rocky and steep climb will take you to the Half Dome Cables – an exposed, vertical rock face that’s scalable by a couple of steel cables.
Mist Trail, one of Yosemite’s most popular trekking trails, serves as a gateway to a lot of the top sights in the park, such as the Half Dome. Although the trail mostly beckons hardcore and seasoned trekkers, it also accommodates newbies with short half-day hiking adventures.
Explore Tuolumne Meadows
The Tuolumne Meadows, located in the park’s east section, is famed for its excellent rock climbing opportunities, winding river and grassland. Standing proudly at 8,600 feet, it is also known as one of the largest high-elevation meadows in Sierra Nevada.
Swing by Yosemite Village
Yosemite Village, one of the national park’s few facilities, functions as a station for travelers who are heading for campgrounds and hiking trails. If you are looking for a nice place to sleep or want to add some equipment to your own supplies, the Yosemite Village is the right place to go.
There are plenty of lodges with the Yosemite Village that have souvenir shops, offering an assortment of products and items. Plus, it has a handful of hotels that offer upscale dining options, like the Ahwahnee.
Yosemite Valley offers some of the most spectacular and rock climbing escapes in North America, with vertical faces that stand over 2,500 feet. While wildness permits aren’t required for a night spent on a wall, you are not allowed to camp at the base of any of the Valley’s wall.
Swimming is allowed in most of the park’s bodies of water, but is either strongly discouraged or prohibited near the waterfalls due to the extreme danger of being swept away. Likewise, there are other places in Yosemite where swimming is prohibited, including Tuolumne River’s Dana Fork, Wawona Domesntic Water Intake, Lake Eleanor Reservoir, Silver Apron, Emerald Pool and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Where to stay
Recommended hotels in Yosemite
- The Ahwahnee Hotel
- Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite
- 1849 Condos at Mammoths Canyon Lodge
- Sierra Nevada Lodge
Camping is indeed the cheapest means of staying within Yosemite Park, but campgrounds can quickly fill during summer, and may require reservations a few months in advance. You can make reservations through the National Park Service by calling 1 877 444 6777 or +1 518 885 3639 (for those calling outside the US).
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