Two years ago, Chris and I checked a BIG item off the bucket list: visiting Yosemite National Park!
It’s still one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken. Recently, I posted a throwback picture to Instagram, and a friend—who’s planning his first visit to the park this summer—asked if I had any tips. I promptly wrote him a novel of an email. So, with Yosemite on my mind and most of this already written, I thought it would be fun to share some of my experience here!
I’m no authority on the subject, but here are a few big takeaways from our trip:
1. Make time for planning & research in advance.
Ok, so I’m not a spontaneous person. It’s absolutely no surprise that I am suggesting planning and research. But with that said, Yosemite is a BIG place. Especially if you have limited time—or are traveling from far away, like us, and want to make sure you get the most out of your trip—start planning as early as possible!
This advice especially applies for reserving any campsites, cabins, or wilderness passes. There are pretty much two ways to stay in the park: 1) Reserve a cabin or a campsite. 2) Get a wilderness pass to camp in the backcountry. Whichever you plan to do, start looking early—the popular trails, campsites and cabins fill up months in advance.
Chris and I used an unusual strategy that worked like this:
- Reserve a wilderness pass on a different trail, in a different area of the park, every night.
- Spend each day driving around, day hiking, and seeing different parts of the park.
- Each evening, drive to that night’s trailhead and hike in to find a place to sleep. (You’re required to hike at least a mile into the trail before setting up camp.)
This strategy confused the hell out of every ranger we spoke to—people usually either stay in tent cabins/campsites OR plan one long backpacking trip. But we thought it worked really well for us! It was cheaper than a campsite and more remote, and we also got to see a lot of the park in four short days.
A few important notes about wilderness permits:
- Reserving passes in advance costs $5, plus $5 for each person.
- You cannot reserve them online or by email. Yosemite recommends fax as the best option (yep) but we found that calling and talking to a human was pretty easy, as long as you’ve done your research ahead of time.
- Several wilderness passes (40%) are reserved for walk-ups, but word is those go FAST—so if you take that route, be prepared to arrive early!
- You can pick up your permits (at any permit station) only on the day of or the day before your hike, so be sure to build that into your itinerary.
- Don’t forget to research individual trails and trail conditions!
Yosemite’s website can be difficult to navigate and find exactly what you need (although it’s been updated recently and seems to be a little more user-friendly). But all the information you need is in there somewhere, as long as you have the time and patience to find it.
2. Spend more time in the Tuolumne area.
When you blindly start googling “best places to see in Yosemite,” you’re going to find a few things over and over: Half Dome. Glacier Point. Tunnel View. Yosemite Falls.
These are all beautiful places, and definitely worth seeing. But if you want my advice, make SURE you spend some time in the High Sierra! It’s where all the backpackers go to get away from the crowds, and we were blown away by how gorgeous it was relative to the hype it receives. You don’t even need to go hiking to enjoy it—the views and alpine lakes along Tioga Road alone are breathtaking. We unfortunately didn’t spend much time in the area on our first trip, so if (when) we go back, we plan on backpacking there.
As it was, we camped one night at May Lake, a group campsite, but we snagged a secluded (save for a few friendly marmots) spot on the far side of the lake—where we got some of the best stargazing of our lives. So as you’re planning your trip, make sure you save some time for exploring outside of the valley.
3. Don’t screw around with bear safety.
Story time: Less than an hour after we first entered the park, as we were driving to our first trailhead, we hit a traffic jam. After about 15 minutes of crawling along and angrily wondering what the holdup was, we finally encountered the source of the congestion: a mama black bear and her cub, hanging out about 15-20 yards from the road. The long line of cars was slowly rolling past, trying to get a good look and snap a photo as they drove by.
My annoyance at the traffic suddenly disappeared, as it was pretty exciting to see a bear in the wild for the first time (and a cub at that)! But then, just as we were getting close, we watched a woman from a few cars ahead of us leave her car, cross the street, and approach the bears to get a better photo. I’m not good at judging distance, so I’ll just tell you that she was clearly WAY TOO CLOSE. Luckily, she got her photo and returned to her car without incident, but I suddenly understood why the rangers are so adamant about bear safety rules. (Because I wasn’t as bold as this woman, I sadly don’t have a picture that isn’t more than a brown blur among the trees. Also, see #5.)
Bear safety also applies to food (and trash) storage and bear canister use. Yosemite very clearly spells out their rules and expectations for everyone staying in the park—and those are carefully designed to protect both park visitors and wildlife. As we picked up our rental bear canister at one permit station, the ranger told us to be careful not to place the canister near any large rocks or cliffs—because a particular bear in the area had figured out that if he dropped a canister a far enough distance onto a rock, he could break it and get to the food!
Bottom line: bears are smart, and they are dangerous, and they are beautiful creatures that deserve be treated with the proper respect! At popular parks like Yosemite, some tourists have the reputation of forgetting that they’re in the actual wilderness, not a zoo. Don’t be that guy.
4. Raft down the Merced River.
In the summer, the valley tends to be pretty crowded and touristy. But if you’ve never been to Yosemite, you basically have to visit the valley just to see the views from that angle. There are lots of things to do there, but if the water is high enough and it’s a hot summer day, my best advice is to rent a raft and float down the Merced. After spending four days hiking and camping in the summer heat, this is how we spent our last day in the park. And it was GLORIOUS. They give you many hours to leisurely float down the river at your own pace—plenty of time to pause for swimming breaks, have a picnic at Sentinel Beach, and get into an intense splash fight with a group of 10-year-old boys.
I’m convinced it’s the absolute best way to see the valley. It’s stupidly overpriced to rent a raft (I think it was about $40 when we went), but so, so worth it. Especially if you smuggle in a tall boy to enjoy during the ride. 😉
5. Bring a good camera!!!
Last but not least, my #1 Yosemite regret: only bringing my iPhone camera to the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. [Insert face-palm emoji.] If at all possible, bring a nice camera that will let you capture high-res photos. No photo will really do it justice, but iPhone pictures really won’t cut it. Take it from me and my sadly inadequate panoramas that I nonetheless still use as the background on my laptop.
…But on the bright side, I guess that just gives us the perfect reason to go back, right? 🙂
I could probably go on for ages, but for brevity’s sake I’ll stop there. Depending on what kind of a trip you’re planning, some of these tips may be more helpful than others (or not helpful at all). But wherever you go and whatever you do in Yosemite, you are bound to have an amazing time. It’s an incredibly beautiful place with SO much to offer to all kinds of travelers. I can’t wait to go back!