During our first American Road trip, we left San Francisco to reach Las Vegas. As for many tourists, we stopped by Yosemite National Park.
Here is a long article with all the important information to prepare your visit to Yosemite.
Yosemite National Park: what is it?
Yosemite National Park is in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, at altitudes ranging from 2,000 feet to almost 13,000 feet with its highest peak, Mount Lyell.
Yosemite National Park covers more than 2,000 square miles and is the third-largest national park in California. Famous for its fauna and flora as well as the beauty of its landscapes with numerous waterfalls, the Merced River and gigantic granite domes, Yosemite attracts nearly 4 million tourists every year. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
Yosemite Valley is at an altitude of about 3,900 feet and is the starting point for many hikes.
When is the best time to visit Yosemite National Park?
In the heart of the Sierra Nevada, the climate in Yosemite is mountainous. This means that it is cold in winter, with a big quantity of snow, and summers are hot. The 90°F is easily reached in the valley.
Since some roads are closed all winter, it is better to go to Yosemite from June to October. If you still want to go in winter, be sure to check the conditions of your rental car, as chains are required.
In addition, forest fires are common in California. Unfortunately, the area around Yosemite Park is no exception. Two fires threatened Yosemite and its giant sequoias only a few weeks ago before our visit (July 2022)… You should watch the news a few days before your trip to be able to anticipate a change of route if an entrance to the park is closed. You can do this check on Google Maps which quickly updates any closed roads.
How many days to visit Yosemite National Park?
You can choose to spend only one day in Yosemite. This is what we did. In this case, you have time to do a hike or two (depending on their length) and to stop at the main viewpoints.
If we had to do it again, we would rather stay at least 3 days to fully enjoy the park and hike more, as our quick passage frustrated us a bit.
How to get to Yosemite National Park?
Unless you book a tour with a guide, you will probably visit Yosemite during a road trip after renting a car in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
These are the largest cities near this national park. However, keep in mind that the United States is so big that you will have to allow for a certain amount of travel time. Indeed, San Francisco is about 3h30 drive from the nearest entrance, Los Angeles is 6h00 and Las Vegas is 5h30.
Of course, these times do not include the (numerous) breaks along the roadside to admire the landscapes and take pictures…
There are 4 entrances to enter Yosemite National Park. Three of them are located in the West and only one in the East, which allows you to arrive from Death Valley.
- Big Oak Flat Entrance: this is the quickest entrance if you are coming from San Francisco. It is located on California State Route 120 (CA-120), just past Groveland.
- Arch Rock Entrance: a little further south than the first entrance, this one takes you through Mariposa on CA-140.
- South Entrance: as the name suggests, this is the southernmost entrance accessible by the CA-41. You take it if you are coming from Sequoia Park or Fresno, for example.
- Tioga Pass Entrance: it allows you to enter from the East when coming from Death Valley. This pass is closed in winter.
The Tioga Road
Tioga Road is the name of the CA-120 highway between Crane Flat in the west and Lee Vining in the east. It allows crossing the park and the valley. However, it is important to know that the East Tioga Pass entrance is closed during the winter months, generally between November and May.
The opening and closing dates are not known in advance because they depend on snowfall. The pass is at an altitude of over 9,800 feet.
When the Tioga Pass entrance is closed, you cannot drive in Yosemite Park from east to west on the Tioga Road. But you can still get to Yosemite Valley through one of the other entrances.
We visited Yosemite in mid-October. The risk of snow was not very high, according to the previous years’ data. But we prepared for any eventuality by:
- Noting the detours to take around the park, either north through Lake Tahoe or south through Fresno and Bakersfield.
- Booking our hotel night after Yosemite with a late cancellation option.
Parking and shuttles
During busy times, it can be difficult to get around the valley by car. I recommend leaving your car at your cabin/campground (if you have a rental in the park) or parking at the Visitor parking lot or at Curry Village.
Indeed, shuttles, called Yosemite Valley Shuttles, run throughout Yosemite Valley to transport tourists between the village, lodges, campsites and trailheads. These shuttles are free and run every 10 to 20 minutes.
Be careful not to leave food in your vehicle… Signs remind you that bears live in Yosemite and can loot cars if they are attracted by odors.
Visiting Yosemite National Park: fees and reservations
Yosemite National Park is open every day of the year and at all hours.
There is a fee to enter the park. Depending on your means of transportation, you must pay :
- $35 per car
- $30 per motorcycle
- $20 per person (on foot, bike or bus)
When we went in 2018, reservations were not required to enter Yosemite. Nevertheless, a reservation is sometimes necessary during the day when there is road work (this was the case in summer 2022).
What are the best hikes to do in Yosemite Valley?
If it is possible to indulge in many other activities depending on the season (rafting, climbing, skiing …), Yosemite is best known for its many trails that allow you to admire the waterfalls and mountains. Although you are in the wilderness, the trails are well developed, even paved on entire sections.
1. Mist Trail
- Difficulty: difficult
- Distance: 6 miles
- Duration: 5 hours
The Mist Trail is one of the best known and most beautiful hikes to do in Yosemite. With over 2,000 feet of elevation gain, it is considered difficult. This trail takes you to two of the park’s most beautiful waterfalls, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall.
2. Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
- Difficulty: difficult
- Distance: 7.5 miles
- Duration: 5h30
The Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is a hiking trail that takes you to the 2,400 feet high falls of the same name. This trek is not suitable for everyone because of its difficulty, with almost 3,300 feet of difference in altitude. But if you are motivated and like sport, you will not be disappointed!
3. Half Dome Trail
- Difficulty: difficult
- Distance: 6.8 miles
- Duration: 5 hours
Half Dome is a symbol of Yosemite National Park. To go there is possible but very difficult. The hike ends, for the most experienced, with the ascent of the dome itself. The shortest route starts in Little Yosemite Valley, which is 6.8 miles round trip and more than 2,620 feet of ascent.
4. Sentinel Dome Trail
- Difficulty: easy
- Distance: 1.9 miles
- Duration: 1 hour
The Sentinel Dome Trail is an easy trail to hike. It is ideal with children and offers a 360° view of Yosemite Valley.
5. Bridalveil Fall Trail
- Difficulty : easy
- Distance: less than a mile
- Duration: 20 minutes
Bridalveil Fall is a must-see on a first visit to Yosemite. The path is short and not difficult.
Where to sleep in Yosemite Park?
There are a few lodges and cottages in and around Yosemite Valley.
To save money and as we had only planned one day in the park, we booked one night in a hotel before the park’s entrance and a second one after our crossing. We stayed in the following hotels:
- Yosemite Westgate Lodge, located in Groveland: 20 minutes from the Big Oak Flat Entrance on the west side of the national park and 1 hour from Yosemite Valley.
- Edelweiss Lodge, in Mammoth Lakes: 50 minutes from the Tioga Pass entrance and 2.5 hours from the visitor center.
A few campsites are also available in Yosemite Valley. This can be very interesting in terms of price if you want to stay for several days. In addition, they are located near the trailheads.
Where can I eat in Yosemite?
There are several restaurants in Yosemite Village and Curry Village. Some are independent and others are offered by the park’s lodges.
To recuperate after or between hikes, you can also fill up at the Village Store. This is a large store with a grocery and produce section as well as souvenir gift departments.
Things to see around Yosemite
Looking for places to see on your tour of the American West? Here is a list of some of the places of interest around Yosemite National Park:
- Mono Lake: a lake 3 times saltier than the ocean, recognizable by its limestone formations protruding from the water’s surface.
- Mammoth Lakes: a ski resort in winter, this town is often a stopover between Yosemite and Death Valley, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
- Sequoia Park: its name says it all. Discover the biggest and most massive redwoods in this incredible national park in the United States.
- Kings Canyon National Park: less known than the previous one, it also has impressive giant trees.
- Death Valley: no doubt you have thought about it, the crossing of the mythical Death Valley is essential during your road trip.
- Lake Tahoe: if you can’t or don’t want to cross the whole Yosemite National Park, the northern bypass will make you discover this magnificent lake located in the mountains.
- Alabama Hills: these rock formations on the east side of Yosemite near Lone Pine are known to host many movies and TV shoots.
For anyone who loves hiking and adventure, a trip to Yosemite National Park is a must.
However, like any good road trip, this trip must be prepared for any unexpected event. Think carefully about the dates of your stay, your equipment and… don’t forget your camera!