Why Visit Yosemite?
This Yosemite Valley travel guide will help you experience the national park like an expert: when to go, where to stay, what to do, and what to pack. From its massive glacier-formed valley and powerful waterfalls to its endless trails and fascinating history, a road trip to Yosemite is bound to leave you feeling inspired and restored. If it’s your first time visiting, I am honored to help you plan your first experience, and if you’re a return visitor, I hope my Yosemite Valley travel guide and tips will help you craft the perfect return.
When to Visit
Summer peak season. Expect high water levels, endless greenery, and lots of tourists. The days tend to generally be warm (with high temps reaching 98 degrees Fahrenheit!), so get your hikes started early in the morning to beat the heat. The high water levels are key for rafting and lazy river drifting, and for gorgeous photos of the booming waterfalls.
Fall spreads across the valley. The water levels are low, which means you won’t see Yosemite Falls in all it’s glory, but it also means less crowds than June or July. Also, less water means less mosquitos. The days can be just as hot as summer, however, as high temperatures continue in California well into October. Expect chilly nights and warm days.
Winter in Yosemite can be one of the most beautiful times of year. Be sure to check the Yosemite websites for updates regarding fresh snow. Snow in the valley is nothing short of magical. Accommodations are limited to the Yosemite Lodge, Curry Cabins, or the Ahwahnee hotel for those looking for indoor rooms, but daring souls have the option to book a tent cabin with stove in Curry Village. Prepare for a lot to be closed in these months, including some restaurants, and any after dark tours and outdoor ranger talks. The shuttles tend to be limited during this time as well, so be sure to ask for an updated shuttle stop map upon check-in.
Non-peak months before the summer crowds. Experiencing Yosemite in spring is a must do. These months tend to be cool in temperature, but the sun shines enough to start melting the ice pack that built over winter. Yosemite falls is at peak glory in these months, but that also means very high water levels and flooding. During these months you may find roads, meadows, bridges and even accommodations closed due to flooding (I once stayed at Housekeeping in April and had to store my things on the top bunk in case flooding came in over night!). The water is too high for rafting or any water activities, and can even be found streaming across roads, causing driving hazards.
Expert Tip: Avoid Holidays:
It can be tempting to plan your vacation to coincide with Labor Day or Memorial Day weekend, but be ready for crowds. Traffic getting into the park on these holidays can cause 2-3 hour traffic delays, parking will be scarce, crowds will fill the best photo spots, and cars will be gridlocked around the park. I once went to Yosemite for the 4th of July weekend, and the last part of the drive that usually takes an hour took about 3 hours instead, and was mostly gridlock. No exaggeration. We expected crowds and had a good sense of humor about it, but I learned that visiting on a holiday weekend is not something I would recommend in my Yosemite valley travel guide.
What to Pack
- Fee to get in is $35 per vehicle, or $20 for bicyclists and people on foot. Yosemite is one of the locations included in the $80 America the Beautiful annual pass (free for military). For info on the annual pass and senior lifetime passes check the passes page on the National Parks Service website.
- Arrival Time: To avoid as much traffic as possible on the drive in, I recommend arriving in the morning or afternoon. Most check in times for Yosemite are at 4pm.
- Curvy roads: Prepare for lots of winding roads on the way to the valley entrance. If you’re like me and get motion sick on drives like this, I recommend packing a bag of ginger chews. I always pack these ginger candies.
- Tunnel view: Plan an extra 10 minutes to stop here on your way in. This is your first glimpse of Yosemite Valley in all its glory. Park your car, get out, and enjoy the view.
Where to Stay
The best way to experience Yosemite is to stay in Yosemite Valley. You can’t beat waking up and already being in the park. Sipping your coffee while watching the sun warm up the mountains, the falls booming and the rivers rushing… there is just no better way to start the day. Reservations for all accommodations listd below can be found on travelyosemite.gov.
1. Yosemite Lodge:
Yosemite lodge is a great choice when it comes to accommodations in Yosemite. Lodge units are the closest you can get to the falls, which provide an amazing backdrop when you step outside each day. Each unit has a private restroom and you have the option to opt for a balcony or patio, which you should 100% do if you can. The Lodge has a large pool, which is popular during the summer months. It also has the most dining options, including the newly renovated cafeteria-style Base Camp Eatery, the climber-themed Mountain Room Lodge, good for drinks and a casual lunch, or the more luxurious Mountain Room, where you can enjoy dinner with a view of Yosemite Falls.
2. Housekeeping Camp:
This one is for my fellow glampers. I’ve listed a brief summary here, but I have so much to say about Housekeeping, that I’ve created a separate post called Housekeeping Camp in Yosemite: Everything You Need to Know. Housekeeping units are partially exposed and have camping elements along with the extra comforts of electricity and beds. Each unit consists of a concrete base and 3 walls, a canvas roof, and a canvas door closing (think tying a tent closed). Inside the unit is a double bed, a bunk bed, outlets, lighting, and shelving. Each unit comes with a patio, including a picnic table, lights, more outlets, and some raised shelving for cooking appliances. Outside your patio you have your own fire ring with grill. Be sure to check my Housekeeping Packing list for tips on what to bring specifically for this camp site.
Restrooms and showers are in separate shared facilities on site. There is a housekeeping general store that sells camping essentials, first aid supplies, ice, firewood, alcohol, and food essentials (in case you forgot the s’mores). Don’t forget you are sharing this space with wildlife (I hope you like squirrels), so don’t leave your food unattended. Food storage lockers are provided to protect the camp from small critters and bears. More on bears below.
3. Curry Village:
Curry village provides 3 types of accommodations: tent cabins, cabins with bath, or rooms at the Stoneman cottage. The cabins with bath and rooms at Stoneman Cottage provide standard indoor comforts with electricity and private restrooms. However, Curry is most popular for its tent cabins, so that’s what I will focus on here. A favorite among hikers, tent cabins contain a wood base, frame, and door, and are wrapped in canvas. Each tent cabin has beds, shelving, and a food storage locker outside. There is lighting but no outlets, so prepare to unplug. Heated tent-cabins with stove are only available for part of the year, starting the Tuesday after Labor Day until the Friday before Memorial Day.
Shared bathrooms, showers, and a coin laundry are on site. Curry has a shop for camping supplies, first aid, alcohol, and food basics. Dining options include the Pizza Patio and bar, the Meadow Grill (serves a mean breakfast burrito), and the cafeteria style Pavillion. There are no fire rings in Curry around which to hang out at night, so it tends to get quiet after the dining options close, which is perfect for hikers who are planning to be up and out before sunrise.
There are four reserved camping options in the valley: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, and Camp 4. All campsights include a picnic table, fire ring, food storage locker and have shared restrooms on site. To shower, you will have to head over to Curry Village or Housekeeping Camp. The Upper, Lower, and North Pines campgrounds require reservations via recreation.gov, and are available up to five months in advance. These spots are highly sought-after, and usually sell out within minutes of being on sale. Reserving these camp sights requires research, flexibility, and determination, but the payoff is absolutely worth it. Camp 4 is unique in that it operates half the year via a daily lottery on recreation.gov, and the other half of the year on a first come, first serve basis.
Backpacker’s Campground is located near North Pines and is dedicated for single night use by hikers who are on their way to or from a wilderness trip. Wilderness permits are required and the cost per night is $6. Visitors who arrived into Yosemite by bike or on foot are also able to spend one night in the Backpacker’s Campground. For more information on Yosemite wilderness permits, visit the Wilderness Permit Page on the Yosemite National Park Service website.
The Ahwahnee Hotel:
For our luxury travelers. Built in the 1920’s, this elegant hotel with unique, rustic architecture is full of history and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Accommodations vary between standard rooms, suites, parlors, and cottages. The Ahwahnee dining room is the epitome of class and fine dining. I recommend reserving a table in advance. Ordering drinks at the gorgeous hotel bar is a wonderful spot to get some air-conditioning and sip a craft cocktail or two while enjoying the views of the park outside. The hotel lobby has plenty of inviting arm chairs and fireplaces for some mid-day lounging. The hotel lobby, dining room, and bar are open to the public.
Blue Sails Tip:
Planning dinner or cocktails at the Ahwahnee is the perfect way to soak up some of that luxury without having to pay the high price of the hotel stay. Even when staying at Housekeeping Camp or Curry Village, I always pack a nice outfit for a night out at the Ahwahnee. Plus how fun is the contrast of walking out of your campsite in a dress and heels or nice suit jacket? My husband actually proposed to me outside of the Ahwahnee while we were strolling the grounds with cocktails before our dinner reservation. He was in a suit, the falls were in the background, and we were at my most favorite place on earth. The guy scored a home run. He even had a surprise engagement photo shoot planned immediately afterwards. This place will forever make my heart full.
A Note on Bears
Yosemite is home to 300-500 black bears, which are actually brown in color. Black bears naturally like to mind their own business in the woods, and no one as ever been killed or seriously injured by black bears in Yosemite. At night, some bears get brave and go sniffing around campsites looking for unsecured snacks. That’s where the food storage lockers come into play.
If you see a bear from a distance while hiking in the woods, do not get closer. This will be the advice given in any Yosemite Valley travel guide. The bear will not bother you if you do not bother it. Take a moment to admire its beauty from a far and move along. If you come across a bear where it should not be, like in a campsite, maintain your position and scare it away. Bears cannot learn to be comfortable around humans, and we need to do our part to make sure they continue to keep a healthy distance from us. You may see or hear park rangers patrolling campground perimeters at night with noisemakers to remind bears to stay away.
Getting Around the Park
Biking is the most efficient way to get around. Walking is certainly possible, but will just take up more of your time and energy. I enjoy the taking the park shuttle, which operates daily from 7am- 10pm, and stops just about everywhere in the valley. Be aware that the number of shuttles and stops decrease in the winter time. Do not drive in the valley unless absolutely necessary. You will have a hard time finding parking, you miss some great views along the way, and you’re just creating more traffic.
What to Do
Every trail, every waterfall, and every sunrise in Yosemite has the potential to create lifelong inspiration and memories. The order in which to explore the valley is up to you. I’ve created a list of 10 Things to Do in Yosemite Valley for those planning their own activities, and have put together a list of some top hiking and camping tours for those looking to experience the park with a little guidance. However, as with any travel destination, some of the best moments happen in between the planned activities. Allow yourself some downtime to relax and read a book at your camp or have a long picnic with an amazing view. I like to plan relaxing activities the day after a long hike when I know my body will need the rest.
My Related Yosemite Itineraries:
Where to Eat
(For a an updated list of what is open for the remainder of 2020, check the Yosemite dining webpage).
- Degnan’s Deli: Sandwiches, soups, salads, and pizzas. Indoor seating.
- The Loft at Degnan’s: Nice BBQ spot above Degnan’s Deli with beer, wine, and indoor seating.
- Village Grill: Burgers and sandwiches. Outside seating.
- Pavilion: Cafeteria style spot in Curry Village. Lots of indoor seating.
- Pizza Patio: Fun pizza spot with outdoor seating.
- Curry Village Bar: Located right next to the Pizza Patio. Mostly outdoor seating.
- Meadow Grill: Variety of foods including burger, rice bowls, and breakfast.
- Food Trucks at Curry Village: These are here temporarily while renovations are done on some of the Curry Village food spots.
- Base Camp Eatery: Cafeteria style spot in Yosemite Lodge.
- Mountain Room: Seated dining restaurant at Yosemite Lodge with a view of the Falls.
- Mountain Room Lounge: Casual appetizers and cocktails. Indoor seating.
- Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room: Upscale dining. Reservations recommended.
- Ahwahnee Hotel Bar: Upscale craft cocktails.
Where to Shop
- The Village Store: The largest shop in the Valley, stocked with just about anything you could need. From groceries to souvenirs to camping supplies, it’s all here.
- Yosemite Valley Bookstore: Books, guidebooks, maps, and souvenirs.
- Lodge Gift Shop: Snacks, essentials, and souvenirs.
- Curry Village Gift and Grocery: Groceries, essentials, camping supples, and souvenirs.
- Curry Village Mountain Shop: Hiking supplies.
- Housekeeping General Store: Groceries, essentials, and camping supples.
- Ahwahnee Gift shop: High end gifts like jewelry and local pottery.
Leaving the Park
It’s always sad to leave, but when the times comes, be sure to clean up your area. Use the recycling and trash bins, and leave the place cleaner than you found it. I recommend checking out early and getting a head start down those curvy roads ahead of the crowd, or taking your time and leaving in the afternoon after the crowds. This could be a good time to grab some souvenirs and lunch on your way out. Say goodbye to that gorgeous valley, and perhaps make one last stop at tunnel view on your way out.