Yosemite National Park is one of the few American parks which provides every attraction possible. Here you can find majestic summits, stone monoliths, meadows, lakes, sequoias and most importantly: wateralls.
Yošé-met^i in the language of Miwok Indians means “those who kill”, and referred to a tribe that once inhabited the valley. It seems that they were quite a scoundrels, as they earned themselves such a nickname. It is said that all the neighboring tribes were afraid of them. They of course called themselves differently (Ah-wah-ne-chee) and under the leadership of chief Tenaya they built an impressive village in the valley.
The best time of the year to visit the park
The park is open all year round and every season has a specific charm to it.
Yosemite in the Summer
Summer is the least spectacular in terms of landscapes. And not only in terms of landscapes, as there are huge crowds, finding a parking spot is nearly impossible. Waiting in a traffic jam on a one-way park road is the norm. Most of the waterfalls disappear or flow very poorly.
Yosemite in the fall
You cannot count of waterfalls during fall either, except after a huge rainfall. However, the park will welcome you with a plethora of fall colors, grass becomes yellow and tree leaves are covered in gold and red. The crowds become smaller, silence and tranquility enter the park, and the moderate temperatures allow you to go on tougher and longer trails.
Yosemite in the winter
Yosemite in winter looks like in a fairytale with all the snow lying around. Only in February can you admire one of the greatest phenomena of the park: the so called Firefall, a waterfall looking like a stream of lava flowing down from the El Capitan. This phenomenon happens between 12th and 26th of February and requires a clear sky. The Horsetail Fall plays the main role here, when it is lit by the light of the setting sun.
Yosemite in the spring
Spring would be the perfect season to visit the park. The waterfalls are flowing with huge amounts of water, and on sunny days rainbows appear next to them. You can hear the murmuring of flowing rivers all around, and the entire Yosemite looks like Tolkien’s Rivendell. There will be quite a lot of people, but sightseeing is still comfortable. If you haven’t still decided when to visit, I can tell you that there is no better season than spring.
Where to stay?
There are 13 camping sites located in Yosemite National Park. However, only 4 of them, Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines and Crane Flat are available for booking via the internet all year round. Only half of the spots in the Toulumne Meadows campsite can be booked online. On Wawona and Hodgon Meadows you can only book a spot from 9th of April until 15th of October.
Camp 4 (Yosemite Valley), Bridalveil Creek, Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, Porcupine Flat, Toulumne Meadows (partially) operate on a “first come, first serve” basis, so the one to first come to the camping site, will get a spot.
Upper Pines, Lower Pines and North Pines are located in the Valley and are the most popular. Getting a spot is a race, which only the fastest ones will win. Just seconds after the internet booking opens all of the spots disappear. You and your internet need to be fast in order to do a booking.
A week prior to the “judgement day” you should find yourself a place with the fastest internet possible. Of course those employed in the Pentagon will have an advantage over you, as it is said that their connection is the best in the world, but luckily they have a lot of work and do not go on vacations to often. A fast internet connection is crucial. If it takes someone half a second to open the website, and it takes you two seconds, this automatically means that you have lost. Now it is time to practice. Open the reservation form and practice filling it out. When you open the website on the booking day, you will not have the time to ask yourself “what should I write here?”. We have practiced that a number of times. Without a proper preparation we filled the form in a couple dozen seconds, after some practice – in only six seconds. Now I can only wish you good luck!
You will have to book the campgrounds 4 months ahead.
Here you can book a camping spot: [LINK]
First come, first serve
Camp 4 is the most popular first come, first serve campground. Those who work there have lots to do, as every morning there are hordes of people waiting there, hoping to get the desired spot. If you want to get one, you will have to come very early.
There is a booth there, which opens at 8:30 am. You will have to be there around 4 or 5 am. What it worse, all members of your group will have to stand in the que. For example you cannot leave your sleeping child in the car. They will have to accompany you during the wait. Now you can only count on the people to free some spots on the campground, so that you do not have to wait there until sunset. Unfortunately it is entirely possible that you will not be able to get a spot here. I recommend having a backup plan. I personally think that Yosemite is too beautiful to waste time standing in a que. It is better to find some alternatives for the first come, first serve campgrounds.
 Camp 4 pilot program
Since 21st of May 2019 the Park introduced a pilot program, which assigns spots at Camp 4 via a lottery. How does it work? One day before the planned visit you need to sign up for the lottery under this link: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/10004152
You can register for the lottery between midnight and 4 pm. Right after the registering period comes to an end, the lottery takes place. The lucky ones are notified via email. This happens right after the lottery and spots are assigned for the next day. You need to report to the ranger’s booth the next day and show them your email in order to check in. The Ranger should be there between 8:30 am and 4:30 pm.
The lottery costs $10, so almost twice more than a $6 camping spot.
This program will stay in effect until mid-September. Should it prove to be working as planned, it will be introduced permanently.
The Housekeeping Camp is not a part of the park reservation system. It is located perfectly, right in the center of the valley, near Yosemite Falls. Here you will get a cabin of sorts – three walls with a curtain. There are three beds with mattresses without bedding (you can rent one for 5$ in the reception), but you have electricity here. It looks rather depressing from the outside, as those cabins stand right next to each other. It will be hard to find any privacy here. However, if you have no other place to stay, it is better than nothing.
Here you can book a spot at Houskeeping Camp: [LINK]
There are also some so called backcountry campgrounds, Glen Aulin, May Lake, Sunrise, Merced Lake, Vogelsang and Hetch Hetchy, but they are meant for backpackers, as they are located on popular trails and you have to walk a couple miles to get there.
Yosemite Valley Lodge
Yosemite Valley Lodge us the most popular hotel in the park, located in the heart of the valley with a view of the Yosemite Falls. This wonderful localization unfortunately brings the prices up to over 200$ for a day. The rooms are rather average, but it is a trait of all park hotels. However, you will have a huge comfort of sightseeing. From here you can reach all the attractions very quickly, and you can leave your car on a parking in front of the hotel. So this solves one of the biggest issues in Yosemite – finding a parking spot. If you plan on having a lot of fun, instead of Vegas or Reno I would recommend choosing Yosemite Valley Lodge. 😉
You can make a reservation here: [LINK]
Half Dome Village Motel, Tents and Cabins
Laying beneath the Half Dome, the motel offers 18 rooms, cabins and tents, both with and without heating. Inside the tents there are beds with beddings and towels. There is also lighting. Shared showers and toilets are located outside. Rooms and cabins have their own toilets and are fully equipped (bedding, towels).
You can make a reservation here: [LINK]
Big Tree Lodge
Big Tree Lodge is a historical hotel in a Victorian style, located in the town of Wawona, 16 km from the Yosemite valley. The rooms there are quite rustic, some of them do not come with a bathroom. The hotel is situated right next to the Mariposa Grove, where you can admire gigantic sequoias.
You can make a reservation here: [LINK]
White Wolf Lodge
White Wolf Lodge is located outside of the Yosemite Valley, but next to the Tioga Road. The valley itself is 50 kilometers away from the hotel. Here you will find fully equipped tents (bedding, towels), unfortunately without electricity,. Fortunately there are wood stoves to keep you warm. White Wolf Lodge additionally offers cabins with bathrooms. The cabins are heated, have access to electricity and are fully equipped.
You can make a reservation here: [LINK]
If you are an eccentric millionaire, who has already done a tour into space and still has some money left to spend, then you can choose the luxury The Majestic hotel. For a sum of only 600$ you will get a room with a view of the Yosemite Falls and the Half Dome.
If you gave your butler an order to make a reservation, he or she can do so here: [LINK] 😉
There is also an option to find a place to stay outside od the park. We tried that once staying in Oakhurst. The necessity to drive was not a huge burden, and the Glacier Point Road as even quite close.
How to move around the park?
Moving around the Yosemite National Park is not an easy task. It often requires you to be patient while standing in a traffic jam. During the summer and on the weekend the park experiences numerous invasions of tourists. Driving is very hard, and finding a spot to park is nearly impossible.
So how to arrange your sightseeing plan in order to minimize those inconveniences? If you are not staying inside the park, you will have to come to the entrance as early as possible. As soon as you enter the park you have to start looking for a parking spot. It is important to leave your car somewhere, later you can move around the park using the park buses. I have heard of people who could not find a single parking spot during 2 hours of driving around and looking. After such a failure they were simply forced to leave the park. So leave your car on the first spot available. The park trails are arranged in such a way that you will be forced to use the park buses anyway, as many of the trailheads do not have parking lots.
You can also try to park at the Yosemite Valley Lodge. The parking spaces there are generally meant to be used by hotel guests, but until 9 pm they are also available to other visitors.
Since 2 years NPS (National Park Service) is testing an experimental parking space reservation program during weekends in August. 150 premium location parking spots near Yosemite Falls are available to be booked from the beginning of June. It is worth checking out how this program functions before you arrive to Yosemite.
The traffic in Yosemite flows one-way. If you miss a certain place along the road, you will have to drive through the entire loop again. This sometimes means wasting an hour, if you encounter traffic jams. We have experienced it ourselves, so we advise you to be cautious!
Yosemite Valley shuttle operates in the valley all year round since 7 am until 10 pm.
El Capitan shuttle operates from mid-June until the beginning of October from 9 am until 7 pm.
El Capitan shuttle kursuje od 9-tej do 19-tej od połowy czerwca do początku października.
It is possible that you will be forced to use the park shuttle to get to the Glacier Point. Sometimes in the height of the tourist season the roads loose their capacity. In order to reduce the traffic, the rangers close the Glacier Point Road and they offer a free shuttle from the Budger Pass. It departs every 20 minutes and stops at all of the trailheads.
Do I need a permit on any of the trails?
Yes, you will need a permit to go to the Half Dome. You will find more information about this trail later in this post.
Glacier Point Road
When entering the park from the south via the Wawona Road, so via the most popular entrance, the first attraction ahead of us is the Glacier Point Road. This road will take you to the elevation of 2200 meters, from where you can admire the Yosemite Valley from 1 kilometer above. There are some of the most interesting trails in the park along the Glacier Point Road. Among them there are many easy trail that are great for children. You can read about the Glacier Point Road in more details here (currently only in Polish):
Sightseeing in the Yosemite Valley
When you enter the park from the south you will be greeted by one of the most famous view in Yosemite – the Tunnel View. Here you can admire a beautiful overview of the valley. El Capitan, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Sentinel Dome and the Bridalveil Fall, so basically – Yosemite in a nutshell. It is usually very crowdy there as this is a must see for every large trip. However, it is worth waiting.
When we visited Tunnel view last year, we were greeted by an uncommon sight. Dozens of tripods were encircling the entire viewing point. We figured that we can also take advantage of the fact that we have a tripod in our car trunk, and decided to set up our tripod as well. We joined the rest, constantly wondering what this crowd was doing here. Nothing was happening. No one was taking pictures. Everyone just stood there and gazed at the view. We started to think that maybe it was a sort of an artistic performance or happening. However, everyone was patiently waiting, so were we. We quickly counted that there are about 50 thousand dollars’ worth of cameras on tripods around us. So there we were, happily waiting surrounded by 50 thousand dollars, when suddenly the crowd awakens. Everyone gets to their cameras and starts taking photos. A quick glance at the valley and suddenly everything becomes clear. The Bridalveil waterfall starts generating a beautiful rainbow. This is what those people have been waiting for. We were so glad that we stumbled upon this event totally by a chance, especially because it lasted only a couple minutes. Everyone packed their equipment and Tunnel View quickly became deserted. We overheard some photographers saying that this phenomenon only happens when there is a huge water flow in the waterfall, and a specific angle of sunlight. Our rainbow appeared at 4:05 pm, but as the days get longer, the phenomenon moves in time.
From Tunnel View you can take a trail to Inspiration Point (2.5 miles long, 900 feet elevation gain). From there you will have a view very similar to this from Tunnel View, with the difference being that you will be way higher. Usually there is no one here, with only the ones coming back from Pohono Trail passing you by.
Now, taking the North Drive, we reach the Bridalveil Fall. There is a large parking lot. If it is full it is worth to wait, since a spot should be freed relatively quickly. There is about 0.6 miles on a paved trail to the waterfall. When we first visited it, it was barely flowing, and there were huge crowds all around it. However, our second visit in the beginning of May was totally different. Everything was wet even on the parking lot with a mist all around us. After walking just a couple of feet towards the falls we were being struck with loads of water. It was practically impossible to continue going forward. My daughter was the only one thrilled with the situation, as she was jumping in joy through rainbows in the air. The rest of us withdrew to dryer positions. Back on the parking lot we reached for out towels and started drying our waterproof clothing.
In the end, we were not able reach the falls, but we were able to admire it from afar. Only about a kilometer away, approximately at the height of El Capitan, there is a splendid viewing point with an excellent overview of the Bridalveil. You can leave your car there at the side of the road. There is also a wonderful meadow there, through which you can reach the river. Here you will have a great view of the El Capitan on the other side, and a bunch of angered photographers as you just entered their frames. Apparently it is a great spot for photographing the Bridalveil Fall. We sat down there for a moment and listened in to the hum of the river, enjoying the moment. Luckily we were not murdered by the photographers, as the river safely separated us.
Swinging Bridge is our next stop. From here you will have one of the greatest views of the Yosemite Falls. The Falls reflect in the river, of which the current is not to slow, and you can take epic pictures. It is a great spot for lunch or a short break.
The next stop on our list is Yosemite Chapel. The Chapel was built in 1879 and is the oldest structure in Yosemite. Originally it was erected a mile from its current spot, but it was moved in 1901. The New England style building is exceptionally beautiful in its simplicity. There is a mass held here every Sunday. It is just a perfect spot for a wedding. The chapel has a pastor who invites people of all religions to visit. From the chapel you can set out onto the Sentinel/Cook’s Meadows trail.
Sentinel/Cook’s Meadow Loop
Sentinel/Cooks’s Medows Loop is one of the easiest and the most beautiful trails in Yosemite. During a 1.9 miles walk you will pass through meadows while having the Yosemite Falls constantly in sight. After reaching the river, you will reach the famous Sentinel Bridge, from which you will have a great view of the Half Dome. Crowds of photographers come here at sunset to photograph Half Dome with the river. Sentinel/Cook’s Meadows Loop is a great trail for kids. You can also enter the trail on the other side from the Yosemite Lodge.
Lower Yosemite Falls
Now it is finally time for Yosemite’s renowned landmark – Yosemite Falls. The trail to Lower Yosemite Falls is about half a mile and leads to the lower section of the falls. When Yosemite Falls is not intensively flowing you can reach the rocks surrounding it. You can even enter the cold water. The Rangers, however, advise not to do so, as it is easy to slip on the wet stones. In spring, on the other hand, you will need waterproof clothing to see the waterfalls, as the splashing water will make you wet from head to toes in a matter of seconds. Even in the summer it is noticeably cooler around the waterfall, so consider taking clothing with longer sleeves. The trail is completely paved and you cannot count on having even a brief moment of solitude here.
To reach Upper Yosemite Falls you will need to take a hard and long trail, which I will cover in the section Trails from the Yosemite Valley.
El Capitan and El Capitan Meadow
Now we are entering the North Drive, El Capitan being our next objective. This is the largest stone monolith in the world, measuring 3000 feet. This is also a favorite spot for rock climbers. Even captain Kirk was climbing here, until Spock came flying and interrupted him, leading to him falling. But as things are in Star Trek, if you are not wearing a red shirt, you should not die. Kirk did not, thus he lived.
The El Capitan itself is not too visible here, it is covered by trees, but the meadow in front of it on the other side of the road is a great spot for a rest. There are picnic tables in front of the El Capitan itself.
Bridalveil Fall from the riverside
The next spot we approach very carefully, with tightly locked doors, as this is where all the photographers whose shots we ruined with our presence on the other side of the river were.
The view on the Bridalveil Fall from here is amazing. It is worth a stop, even for a brief moment.
Gates of the Valley
Our trip through the valley is slowly coming to an end. However, the Valley View, also known as the Gates of the Valley is the cherry on the top. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful view in the Yosemite. I prefer it even to Tunnel View. During our first visit here I unfortunately missed it, becaue it is barely visible from the road. On the left there is a small pullout with a dozen of parking spots. After you pass the Bridalveil Fall you need to look out for it carefully. The view from there is picturesque. On the right you will see the Bridalveil Fall, on the left the El Capitan and the Merced River flowing below. You will fall in love with it for sure!
Trails leading from the Yosemite Valley
Upper Yosemite Falls
It is best to park next to the Yosemite Lodge or anywhere in the valley, and take the park shuttle (stop nr. 7), the trail starts next to Camp 4.
12 kilometers to the top, 825 meters of elevation gain, about 6-8 hours.
Upper Yosemite Falls was already on our bucket list during our first visit. However, the waterfall was already almost dry. We thus decided that it is not worth climbing just to admire the valley. Especially because we had read that the trail is not an easy one and often overrated.
Last May the waterfall was flowing with amazing intensity, so we quickly agreed that we would go! Right from the start the trail leads steeply upwards. It is hard to walk, as big stone steps are even 1.5 feet high. However, every time we stopped to catch a breath we were attacked by squadrons of mosquitos. Nothing surprising, we were walking through a dense forest after all. This also meant that we did not have any nice views. And those mosquitos! There are crowds of people, with some treating the other hikers disrespectfully. We looked at each other. I could see the phrase “do we really wanna continue?” on everyone’s faces. But really? We have already come a long way, we need to continue! Every a couple of minutes we have to cross a small stream, and I am glad that I have waterproof shoes with me. While crossing one of those stream I decided to gracefully jump from one stone to another, which resulted in me falling down spectacularly. I was a bit disheartened that I had wet my clothes, but oh well, we have to go further. But then my husband grabs my arm and tells me: “We are for sure not going further!”. After a while I felt streams of warm fluid flowing from my forehead, and our entire group looked at me with frightened eyes. It turned out that I had cut the skin on my head. Even though we quickly put a professional dressing on the wound, going further would have been risky. No one was really sad about aborting our hike, we all agreed that it was repelling.
Perhaps if we had reached the waterfalls our overall experience would have been better, as the beautiful view at the end would have made it up for the hardships of the trail.
We went to the Yosemite Medical Center straight from the trail, where we learned that I am already the third victim of the Upper Yosemite Falls trail today. A man who came there before me fell from 10 feet, he also slipped while crossing a stream. I have to admit that he looked far worse than me. There was also a man who fell from 30 feet, however, he had just been transported to a hospital by a helicopter.
As for me, I had several bruises and a cut on my forehead. Stitches and an anti-tetanus vaccine cost us 600 dollars. Remember to have a good insurance and do not jump on wet rocks!
There is no parking next to the trailhead. It is best to park somewhere in the Yosemite Village or Curry Village and walk here or take a bus to Happy Isles (stop nr. 16). The trail begins next to the Happy Isles.
To the top of Vernal Falls: 2.5 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain, 3 hours
To the top of Nevada Falls: 5.5 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain, 5-6 hours
Mist Trail is a wonderful trip to two impressive waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada Falls. It is worth taking the trail when the falls are flowing intensively.
Right off the bat the trail leads steeply upwards, but it is not too challenging, because the trail is paved, however, it is tiring. The crowd on the trail is huge, we are practically a part of a long marching column. After an hour we reach the bottom of Vernal Falls. There is not too much water flowing, but it still looks pretty impressive. Some of the people decide to come near the waterfall to climb large rocks. It is a very dangerous spot, a number of people had already died here, as they were taken by the strong water current. We do not risk it and we keep on walking to the top of Vernal Falls. Now we reach a staircase leading upwards, with steep granite steps, which are slippery and wet from the waterfall. It is easy to slip and fall down. The statistics show that this trail is indeed dangerous; Mist Trail has claimed the most lives in the entire park, even more than Half Dome.
After making our way through the steps we reach the top of Vernal Falls, the waterfall is humming below us. We take a small break and enjoy the view of the valley. Then we continue upwards to Nevada Falls. The trail is no longer so steep and it is also not so wet. After reaching the destination some of us fall asleep immediately, the rest gaze at the waterfall. It is not as breathtaking as Vernal, but still pretty interesting.
Walking back down goes smoothly until we reach the steep steps. It is even harder to go down than up, people fall and sometimes push others. I hold on to the backpack of my nephew, as he is a pretty muscular and thus stable guy. We can finally catch a breath when we reach the asphalt pavement, from there reaching the trailhead takes us 40 minutes.
This trail is rather not advised for children, however, you can definitely safely take them to the bottom of Vernal Falls. However, this trail is a must for all waterfall lovers.
Same as Mist Trail
The shortest way is to go through Mist Trail, 14.3 miles round trip, 5300 feet elevation gain, 10-12 hours
The hardest part about the trail is not the hike itself, but rather obtaining a permit for it.
How to get a permit?
There are 300 permits per day issued for the Half Dome. 225 of them entitle you to take the trail without staying there overnight. 75 allow you to stay the night on one of the campsites along the trail. Day Hiker Permits are issued in two ways. One of them is the preseason lottery, for which you register between the 1st and the 31st of March. You get the results via email in mid-April. One permit is valid for maximum of 6 people. In the registering form you can type in 7 dates that suit you (better than The Wave, as for The Wave you can only pick 3 dates). 225 permits are issued this way. About 50 permits are issued via an online lottery held two days beforehand. Those are the permits that were not issued via lottery or were returned by the winners.
You can sign up for the lottery here: [LINK]
If you want to stay overnight on the trail you will need to obtain a backcountry permit. There are 75 of those per day, 50 can be obtained 24 weeks beforehand, preferably using fax. You will need to pick it up one day before you trip in one of the Wilderness Centers. 25 permits are issued in a first come first serve way. It basically means that you will have to besiege the Wilderness Offices.
Staying overnight on the trail is a good idea, as you can reach the part with the chains early in the morning before the others come. You can, for example, camp on the Little Yosemite Valley Camp; here you will sleep right beneath the hardest part of the Half Dome.
You can obtain your wilderness permit here: [LINK]
The part with the chains is the hardest one on the trail, however, not too many people had died here; most of the casualties result from lighting strikes. One man also shot himself here.
We did not take this trail because too much here depends on the behavior of others, over whom we do not have any control. If people push you around on the chain part of the trail it can become very dangerous.
In the next post I will cover the drive along the Tioga Road from Mono Lake down to the Yosemite Valley, and further to Mariposa Grove and Hetch Hetchy (currently only in Polish):
If you enjoyed this entry, I would be honored if you supported me on Patronite!