Can you believe that I’ve been married to a native Californian for over 25 years; we visit the state at least every other year, and I had never been to Yosemite National Park?! We’ve been to national parks all over the country like Denali, Theodore Roosevelt, and even hard to get to Katmai, but never Yosemite. John Muir, Ansel Adams, my cousin’s kids, and over 3 million people per year…it seems everyone has made it to the US’ premier national park before I did. And to top it all, UNESCO had inscribed Yosemite National Park on the World Heritage List due to its exceptional natural and scenic beauty. Why hadn’t we visited? But I finally made it and it didn’t disappoint!
Yosemite Travel Blog
Even though Jim grew up in northern California, he never made it to this spectacular park. You would think this would make it even more likely that we would go together or later with our kids. For some reason, however, we just never made it.
That all changed when his family decided to hold a major-league family reunion there. Can you believe it? His parents, all seven of his brothers and sisters, their children, and even grand children all coming together in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Planning and making arrangements for such a large group is a colossal undertaking. Our event needed to be during summer to accommodate everyone’s schedule, and everyone would need lodging. Needless to say, there were busloads of tourists, carloads of tourists, and plenty of bikers that were tourists the whole time we were there.
You would have thought that would diminish our experience, but it’s a big place and it wasn’t really an issue. We had a grand time and we figured, what a perfect opportunity to write our Yosemite blog post!
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Best Time to Visit Yosemite National Park
Deciding when is the best time to visit California is a question many people ask. We visited 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? Naturally, if you’re not planning on visiting Yosemite for a family reunion, then time is on your side. However, the experts all agree spring in Yosemite National Park is prime. The valley floor, mountain meadows, and waterfalls all come back to life before the peak crowds of summer.
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.
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.
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. We were meeting up with the rest of Jim’s family in the evening, 40 or so Vails converged on the park for a family reunion.
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 — all kinds of activities.
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.
Getting to Yosemite
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 Bay Area, head east on I-580, then I-205 to highway 120 at Manteca. Keep driving east on the 120 all the way to the park.
Train and Bus 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 at https://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak. Enter the station names, Oakland, CA (Jack London Square) and Yosemite National Park, CA (Visitor Center) then 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 a hike in, 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. Get 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.