Are you planning a trip to visit Yosemite National Park? You should be. A UNESCO world heritage site, and a park that has something for everyone regardless of the season, you will love exploring one of California’s top sites.
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We love a national park, and one that’s also a world heritage site is just a bonus. California is full of national parks, and they’re all different. Yosemite, however, is probably the most famous and most visited of them. After we visited, we could definitely see why.
In this article:
- Best Time to Visit Yosemite
- Wildlife in Yosemite
- Park Activities
- Best Tours to Yosemite
- From San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
- Camping in the Park
- Yosemite Lodging Tips
Yosemite Travel Blog – Our Impressions
Traveling in the USA is always so varied and so beautiful. We knew that Yosemite National Park has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1984, largely due to the way it was formed – glacial erosion. What it produced was a wonderland of bedrock domes, stunning valleys, waterfalls, and a vibrant national wildlife habitat.
We traveled to Yosemite in August, and stayed for three full days. We couldn’t believe how much there was to do and vowed that we would have to come back and do the things we didn’t get to do next time.
It goes without saying that if you love being in the outdoors, wildlife, and just breathing in that fresh, fresh air that you are going to love this beautiful park.
Some of our favorite places in the park included:
- Tioga Road
- Toulumne Meadows
- Glacier Point Road
- Yosemite Falls
- Yosemite Valley
Best Time to Visit Yosemite National Park
Deciding when is the best time to visit California is a question many people ask. We visited Yosemite in August. Was this the best time of year to visit? Probably not. Summer season was still at its peak tourism level. Lodging reservations needed to be made a year in advance.
The amenities in the park were at or near capacity, so things like checking in, eating in the restaurants, and even getting a spot on the shuttle was a chore. Fortunately, Aramark, the park’s official concessioner, knows what they are doing and do a great job of keeping things moving smoothly.
So what is the best time for Yosemite? The experts all agree that spring in Yosemite National Park is prime time to visit. The valley floor, mountain meadows, and waterfalls all come back to life before the peak crowds of summer. The best time for Yosemite, however, is whatever time you can get there! The mountains and forest change dramatically with the seasons, practically guaranteeing a new experience with each visit. Or, you can always go more than once!
We love to drive, so being able to get out in my own car along the scenic roads is important. Tioga Road (highway 120 out to Mono Lake) and Glacier Point Road both close during winter and don’t reopen until sometime late in May, so to be safe, that means the first week in June is best.
Wildlife in Yosemite
Like most visitors, we drove into the park with high expectations for wildlife viewing. After living in Alaska and taking several trips to Denali National Park and one incredible week in Katmai National Park, we were ready to be underwhelmed by Yosemite. However, we arrived earlier in the day since Jim loves to drag everyone out of bed before sunrise to get an early start.
Our timing was perfect with plenty of time for a scenic drive on highway 120 all the way out to Mono Lake and back before checking in to our lodge. The drive was absolutely gorgeous even before we got to the park. We stopped, paid our fee at the entrance, and weren’t in the park for more than five minutes before we began stopping for every pullout. The views were amazing.
At the Tuolumne Meadows, we spotted a stag with a massive rack. He nonchalantly grazed in the field completely oblivious to the line of cars stopping to get his autograph…well photo anyway. Our best advice for wildlife spotting is to drive slow, but not too slow, with the music off and the windows open. Enjoy the fresh mountain air while scanning the edges of the meadows, lakes or woods.
Alternatively, you can just cruise along and look for cars pulled off the road and telephoto lenses sticking out the windows. Still, there’s something about the thrill of being the first one to spot some new critter in the wild!
Not long after the buck, we saw our first black bear. It was late afternoon, and off to the left as we motored by, a young black bear was feasting on a downed deer. He was too young to have killed it himself. It’s likely that the deer had been hit by a car, limped off the road a few feet before falling, and our bear found it there and took advantage of a free meal. Believe me, it was the only free meal in the park.
We watched him for a few minutes before driving on. We did stop a few times, but the sun was heading down to the coast and we wanted to get checked into the lodge and get the daughters checked into their tent cabins.
Yosemite Park Activities
During the next few days we took full advantage of the park’s beauty. We got up before sunrise and we drove as many directions as we could. Some memorable drives to consider while in the park are the Tioga Road, Glacier Point Road, Mariposa Grove, and the Yosemite Creek campground access road.
Beautiful vistas and prime wildlife spotting are practically around every corner. We did, also, get out of the car, because our group had many kids with us. We needed to be active and there’s lots to do.
We visited the park’s museum, rented bikes to ride around the valley floor, swam in the pool, went on both short and long hikes in Yosemite, even did a little rock climbing. We all just generally enjoyed being outdoors and sharing it with so much of our extended family, and next time we’re definitely going rafting in Yosemite. How fun would that be?
We weren’t there long enough to do everything. The park offers ranger talks, guided walks, photography and art workshops, horseback riding, fishing, and much more.
If you go, make sure to check out the Yosemite National Park website and plan your trip as far in advance as you can. Read through the activities that are going on during the time of your visit, have each family member choose one or two, and then start booking anything that can be reserved in advance.
Pro tip: During the summer months, you will need to make reservations for a timed entry into the park. Trying to minimize traffic, congestion, and pollution, the national park service has begun this system of timed and limited entries. Check the park website and as soon as you know that you will be visiting make your reservations! Don’t wait, they fill up fast.
Driving to Yosemite from San Francisco
So many people want to try take a Yosemite day trip from San Francisco. Can it be done? Sure, I suppose so, but keep in mind it takes nearly four hours driving through some of the state’s heaviest traffic corridors. During summer, with longer days, you could start early in the morning, say around 5:30, leaving the city ahead of some of the morning rush hour. The bleary-eyed driver would arrive at Yosemite Valley around 10:00.
That would allow a good eight to ten hours of daylight for exploring the park, spotting wildlife, picnicking in the spectacular Tuolumne Meadows, snapping off a few iconic images, and then get back in the car for the slog back into the city. Naturally, spending the night, or two or three, would be much better for all involved, especially the driver!
From the San Francisco to Yosemite – Drive east on I-580, then I-205 to highway 120 at Manteca. Keep driving east on the 120 all the way to the park.
Best Tours to Yosemite
Getting around on your own can be tough, but there are some really great tours allowing you to get from San Francisco to Yosemite with no stress or effort. Especially if you are visiting San Francisco or Los Angeles this is a fantastic option for getting into the park, regardless of the time of year.
Some of the tours we recommend include:
- From San Francisco: Yosemite National Park Full-Day Trip – This one day trip is great for letting you get to the highlights of the park as well as stretching your legs and taking a 1.5 hour hike to see the giant sequoias.
- From San Francisco: Yosemite National Park – Another day trip, this one lets you explore Yosemite Valley on your own for four full hours. It’s a good intro into the park.
- From San Francisco: Yosemite Valley 3-Day Camping Adventure – This one is one of our favorites, because it really lets you experience the park at its best.
- From San Jose: Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoias Trip – A another fun trip, complete with giant trees!
Train and Bus from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
Don’t have a car, or don’t feel like spending that much time behind the wheel? Why not take the train? Amtrak can whisk you out of the Bay Area from their Jack London Square station in Oakland (a short ferry ride from San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf) to Merced where a shuttle picks up Yosemite bound travelers and drops them off right at the Yosemite Valley floor.
Total travel time is about six hours and the cost for one passenger is right around $40. To book these tickets, start with a visit to their ticketing page. Enter the station names, Oakland, CA (Jack London Square) and Yosemite National Park, CA (Visitor Center) then enter your travel dates.
Where To Stay In Yosemite
Like many National Parks in The US, Yosemite has a wide range of sleeping options. You can find anything from great Yosemite cabins, no frills campsites, to luxury hotels. Also like most National Parks, reservations can and should be made as far in advance as possible.
If you’re dates aren’t available, however, don’t despair, just keep checking back in the system regularly. Different accommodations are booked through different websites so spending a little more time on the parks official website is helpful.
Camping In Yosemite
For the true outdoor experience, you really should sleep outside. Or in a tent, or an RV. There are 13 campgrounds in Yosemite National Park, eight of which allow reservations. But making these reservations is like playing the lottery. Well not quite, you do have a better chance of getting a camping spot than hitting your numbers on the Powerball. Camping reservations open up on the recreation.gov website five months in advance.
Do your research, know when you want to go, where you want to stay, and then time your website for exactly 07:00 (Pacific Time) on the 15th of the month. Visit their helpful tips page for more advice on how to score your camping spot. You can also stay in five of the campgrounds on a first come, first served basis; but these also fill up fast.
Don’t roll in after watching that gorgeous sunset expecting to pop up the tent and start roasting marshmallows. Getting to the campground as early as possible, mid-morning after previous campers have left is your best bet.
Lodging at Yosemite
Jim and I stayed in the Lodge at the Falls while the daughters stayed in the tent cabins at Curry Village. The lodge was very spacious and comfortable, whereas the tent cabins were more rustic, more like camping in an old Gold Rush tent city even though they had beds and maid service. All of the accommodation fills up months and sometimes a full year in advance…so if you want to stay in the park, plan ahead.
Again, get familiar with the lodging options, gather your dates, and make a plan for your reservation. The system allows reservations 366 days in advance, and depending on when your trip is, you might need to make your booking on that 366th day.
Hotels Near Yosemite National Park
You can find good hotels on all of the approaches to the park. But what looks like a really good way for a small family visit is to rent an entire chalet or home in North Wawona. Here you can get a two or three bedroom house, perfect for up to six people right inside the park. Check out Booking.Com for listings.
Have you been to Yosemite National Park? What other national parks have you visited? What were your favorites?
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.