Yosemite, established in 1864, is a superstar of the National Park System for good reason. A visit, whether you stay in well-connected Yosemite Valley or head out into the vast wilderness, is a humbling experience. Explorer John Muir called it a “temple of nature” and it was this place, more than a century ago, that prompted him to campaign for the protection of America’s wild spaces.
Despite its infamy and infrastructure (areas have been developed to allow for an estimated 4 million visitors per year), it is still surprisingly easy to find solitude and dazzling nature – including charging waterfalls, soaring granite domes, deep valleys, emerald green forests, and giant sequoia trees.
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Hikers and adventurers return year after year to explore Yosemite’s 760,000 acres and conquer its legendary hikes (including sections of the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail), which have reached almost mythical status across the globe. They have made household names out of outdoorsy people that tackled them in style, including climber Alex Honnold and hiker Cheryl Strayed.
This raw nature is begging to be discovered and is accessible to all if you plan ahead – recent rule changes may leave spontaneous adventurers disappointed. And those who ignore proper park etiquette could ruin this protected space for generations to come. Here are some essential tips you should know before visiting Yosemite National Park.
1. How long do in need in the park?
The park entrance fee ($20/35 on foot/in a car) is good for seven days, while the Yosemite Pass ($70) and the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass ($80 for a full car) are valid for a year.
How long you spend in the park really depends on what you want to do. A day is enough to do a couple of hikes and get a sense of the awe of the place, but three days will allow you to see all the main sights, plus some hidden beauties. Those who want to go into the wilderness can spend weeks or months in the park, depending on how long they want their adventure to last.
Winter in Yosemite National Park means fewer crowds and stunning snowy views © Peter Amend / Getty Images / Image Source
2. When should I visit?
Winter in Yosemite is spectacular – the park turns into a frosty wonderland, with snow-tipped peaks and frozen lakes – and you’ll likely have the trails to yourself. But be prepared for temperatures below freezing and for some areas of the park to be closed (including the roads through the High Sierras). Spring is the time to visit if you want to see rushing waterfalls, as the snow melts from the mountains and flows into the rivers around the park. Be aware that river levels may be too high to cross on some trails, forcing you to U-turn.
Summer is the most popular time of year, with traffic jams, packed trails and shuttles, but early summer provides the chance to take an outdoor swim in Yosemite’s designated spots. It is also immensely busy in early fall when the landscape begins to pop with fiery reds and golds. It’s a truly magical time of year, but it seems the whole of the world knows it – solitude is scarce in Yosemite Valley so head into the backcountry.
3. Do I need a permit?
Visitors can face disappointment after paying to enter the park and then realizing they need a permit for the trail they want to hike. Most day hikes can be done without a permit, but wilderness hikes (including all overnight stays) and the popular Half Dome (with its steep drops and cable-assisted climbs) require a permit.
Three hundred permits are given out each day for the aforementioned trail (roughly 225 a day for day hikers and 75 for backpackers), which can be obtained by lottery (via recreation.gov) either during pre-season 1 to 31 March or two days before you want to hike. Half Dome cables are usually up from late May to the first week of October and only backpackers are granted permits to climb to the top of Half Dome.
Most wilderness permits can be obtained by lottery 24 weeks in advance, the others can be booked seven days in advance. It costs $10 to apply for a permit (non-refundable), then it’s $5 per person in the group if you are granted a permit. The size of the group must be detailed as part of your permit application and only one member of each group can apply.
4. Can I stay overnight at Yosemite?
If you’ve got a wilderness camping permit, you can camp anywhere in Yosemite’s wilderness (with the exception of the areas around the five High Sierra Camps and Little Yosemite Valley, where you have to camp in designated areas). There are also wilderness campgrounds, but these can get full early, so be prepared to find your own camping spot. The campgrounds in Yosemite Valley have toilets and potable water, spaces for RVs and accessible camp spots (apart from Camp 4), but none of the park’s campgrounds have hookups.
Reservations are required at campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. Other areas may have walk-in sites, including South of Yosemite Valley and North of Yosemite Valley, but these fill up fast in peak season. Campgrounds cost between $10 and $36 per night. The only showers are at the Curry Village pool and cost $5 per person. There are more than two dozen guesthouses and hotels inside the park perimeter and booking in advance is recommended.
The car parks in Yosemite Valley can get very crowded and the shuttle bus may be a better option © photosbyjim / Getty Images / iStockphoto
5. Can I drive into the park?
Yosemite has some fantastic drives but the majority of visitors enter via Yosemite Valley, which can get clogged up with traffic in peak times. Take the shuttle bus into the valley, where possible. These continuously loop around, stopping at 19 stops, next to major trailheads, between 7am and 10pm. The Valleywide Shuttle runs every 12 to 22 minutes, while the East Valley Shuttle runs every 8-12 minutes.
If you decide to drive, enter the park at non-peak times and avoid holidays to beat the crowds. Prepare for delays of an hour or more at park entrance stations and expect to wait for parking spaces. Some high-altitude roads close during the winter months due to snowfall – these are usually plowed in spring. Check for updates at the visitors center or online before you set off. Fill up with gas before you enter the park. There are two gas stations in Yosemite National Park, but none in Yosemite Valley.
6. What rules I should know about?
Hikers and campers should ‘pack in pack out’, which means leaving no trace of their stay – no trash, food, or anything else left in the wild. It also means not disturbing flora or fauna to make your camp. The motto is ‘campgrounds are found not made’. When in the backcountry, solid human waste can be left in catholes dug at least six inches deep in soil (and at least 100 feet from water, campsites, and trails) and all toilet tissue should be taken with you. You must also camp at least 100 feet from water sources and any cultural or historic sites.
Avoid having a campfire where possible and cook on a portable stove so as to not disturb your surroundings. However, if you do have a fire, only collect wood from the floor, which can be broken by hand. Put campfires out completely.
When hiking up and downhill, hikers coming uphill have priority. If you are going downhill, stop and let other hikers pass.
Do not follow, feed or approach wildlife in the park – keep your distance. If camping, be bear aware; use the bear locker or a canister to store your food away from your tent, especially in the backcountry. Use a bell on trails, so bears know you are approaching and aren’t startled. Don’t leave food in your car overnight.
Yosemite National Park is a huge wilderness area and it’s important to come prepared © Kelly vanDellen / Shutterstock
7. Are there dangers to be aware of?
While the trails around Yosemite Valley are well-maintained, and quickly attended to when there is a hazard, hikers are more like to face challenges when in the backcountry, from changing weather conditions to landslides, fast-flowing rivers blocking the trails, fallen trees, fires, and more. These may make trails inaccessible or unsafe. Before you go into the wild, check the status of a trail at the visitor center, which will have the most up-to-date weather and hiking information. If you come across a hazard on a trail, only tackle what you are capable of and report potential hazards to rangers when you finish your hike.
Some hikes involve climbing, hiking along ledges or crossing rivers – if in doubt don’t continue on a trail. The straight section of a river is generally the safest to cross, but don’t attempt to cross a river that is more than thigh-deep. Never swim in a river in Yosemite, check at the visitor center for designated swimming spots in the park.
If doing multi-day hikes, plan your food and water consumption. Check where you can fill up your water bottles on the route, and use sterilizing tablets or a water filter when filling up from wild water sources.
Don’t rely on your cell phone, the signal is patchy and almost non-existent in the backcountry. Take a waterproof paper map, use GPS or download offline maps before you enter the park.
Take the right gear on hikes. Temperatures in Yosemite can be warm and sunny during the day and plummet at night. Take waterproof outer shells for you and your gear, plus warm clothes and camping equipment, to avoid hypothermia.
Be aware of elevation changes and distances. Don’t overestimate the distance you can hike at high altitudes, and when tackling steep ascents.