Lush waterfalls, sweeping valleys, granite domes and artist-inspiring vistas adorn Yosemite National Park. This icon of the national park system has been memorialized by John Muir and Ansel Adams. More than 800 miles of trails zigzag through Yosemite. Aim for at least a three-day stay to explore this highly popular park.
Yosemite National Park is home to over 400 mammal species from marmot to black bear. Thick forests and meadows of wildflowers and long grasses encompass the valleys and foothills, while rocky subalpine zones dominate the higher elevations (over 9,000 feet). The park is hot and dry in summer, with little rainfall (but afternoon thunderstorms are a regular occurrence). Winter sees more precipitation.
Granite cliffs and domes, waterfalls, valleys, alpine wilderness, and mountains paint a Yosemite National Park wonderland
There are five major areas of Yosemite National Park: Tuolumne Meadows (northeast), Hetch Hetchy (northwest), Yosemite Valley (central), Glacier Point (southeast) and Wawona/Mariposa Grove (south). See the two tallest waterfalls in North America (Yosemite, Sentinel Falls).
Visit in June to watch wildflowers bloom or in fall for cooler temperatures, less crowds and maples and oaks changing colors. Summer is a congested season, but with careful scheduling the crowds can be avoided if you plan excursions at non-peak hours or sneak away to lesser-visited areas. The park has numerous visitor centers and art and history museums with family-friendly activities including the Junior Ranger program.
5 Must-Do’s in Yosemite National Park
Waterfalls: Yosemite, Bridalveil, Vernal, Nevada, Ribbon, Horsetail Falls
Family Climb Up a Dome: Sentinel Dome
Art in the Park: Participate in art classes (Yosemite Art and Education Center)
Adventure Hike: Half Dome
Viewpoints: Glacier Point, Tunnel View, El Capitan
Yosemite National Park Campgrounds
Yosemite has thirteen campgrounds in the park across three main regions: North Yosemite, Yosemite Valley and South Yosemite. Reservations by recreation.gov are highly recommended. Sites book fast from April through September and range from $12 to $30 per night.
Set your clock to log-on as soon as your date opens (most sites open four months prior to a range of dates). If camping without reservations, arrive early. Most campgrounds have RV sites. Group campgrounds include Hodgdon Meadow, Bridalveil Creek and Tuolumne Meadows (summer only) and Wawona (year-round). Maximum stay from May through September is 14 nights, and only seven nights in the valley or at Wawona.
What you need to know: Of the four campgrounds in the valley, these three (Upper Pines—283 sites/RVs up to 40 feet, Lower Pines—60 sites/RVs up to 35 feet, and North Pines—81 sites/RVs up to 35 feet) have the most sites by reservation. Upper Pines is open year-round (with limited sites in winter) and Lower and North Pines are open April through October.
Amenities: fire ring, picnic table, food locker, flush toilets and potable water. There are ADA-compliant/accessible sites. No RV hookups. Groceries can be purchased at nearby Yosemite Village and Curry Village. Showers are at Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp (a more upscale $99 camping option).
Why these campgrounds? These campgrounds are prime real estate, located within Yosemite Valley. No need to drive to nearby trailheads. Visit the stores, restaurants, museum, The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Valley Visitor Center.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Right off the Pines Campgrounds, hop on trails for popular Nevada Fall/Vernal Fall (moderate, 1.6 to 8.0 miles) via the Mist Trail or John Muir Trail (or loop them). Hike to Mirror Lake (moderate, 2 miles to lake and back or do the 5-mile loop).
Explore Lower Yosemite Fall (easy, 0.5 mile) and Bridalveil Fall (easy, 0.5 mile, paved). Snag views of El Capitan (the largest granite monolith in the world) from numerous viewpoints.
More strenuous hikes include Upper Yosemite Fall (7 miles) and Half Dome (permit required). Take the shuttle on the 13-mile valley floor loop (or walk this less busy old bridle path that hugs El Capitan, crosses rivers and weaves through forest).
Hidden Treasure: Grab sunset views of Half Dome on Cook’s Meadow Trail (easy, 0.5 mile).
What you need to know: Wawona, open year-round, is located south in the park, and requires reservations during peak (summer) season and is first-come, first-served October through March. There are 93 sites, including RV (up to 35 feet, no hookups) and ADA-compliant/accessible sites.
Amenities: fire ring, picnic table, food locker, flush toilets, potable water and groceries (small store in Wawona). Nearest showers are in Yosemite Valley at Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp, an hour north.
Why this campground? Wawona is close to the South Entrance, near Mariposa, Wawona Visitor Center, historic Wawona Hotel, Pioneer Yosemite History Center and Mariposa Grove and museum. This less-crowded region offers campsites among forests and along the Tuolumne River.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Head over to nearby Mariposa Grove to see over 500 giant sequoias and redwoods via several trails: Grizzly Giant (easy, 1.6 miles), Wawona Point (moderate, 6 miles) and Outer Loop (moderate, 6.9 miles).
Tip: go early or late or take the shuttle because the Mariposa parking lot fills quickly. Take the easier 3.5-mile Wawona Meadow loop along an old fire road, starting at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center near the Wawona Hotel and golf course. Soon, the golf course disappears, and it is just you and nature—meadows, birds, quietude.
Hidden Treasure: Not far from Wawona General Store, find parking for Wawona Swinging Bridge, an easy 1-mile trail with a swinging bridge that crosses South Fork Merced River. You can even swim in the river (be mindful of hazards). Spring and summer bring a bounty of wildflowers on the shore.
Bridalveil Creek Campground
What you need to know: The season here is shorter, July through September, and this is a first-come, first-served campground with 110 sites (RVs up to 35 feet, no hookups). The road closes with bad weather (but could re-open). The campground is 45 minutes away from both the valley and Wawona.
Learn how to camp in Yosemite without reservations here. Amenities: fire ring, picnic table, food locker, flush toilets and potable water. Groceries/showers in Yosemite Valley.
Why this campground? Camp in a quieter area along the creek and away from the hustle and bustle of the valley.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: The easiest hike here is 1.6-mile McGurk Meadow that takes you through a meadow and to an old cabin. Sentinel Dome is surprisingly not as difficult as it sounds and rewards the hiker with panoramic views of the park (moderate, 2.2-miles roundtrip).
Be advised of afternoon thunderstorms/exposure and the final slick trek up the granite dome. If seeking a hike with more solitude, forest and meadows, take the longer Bridalveil Creek Trail (easy/moderate, 5 to 6 miles).
Hidden Treasure: Spectacular views of the valley including Half Dome from Glacier Point.
Hodgdon Meadow and Crane Flat Campgrounds
What you need to know: Hodgdon Meadow is located near the northwest Big Oak Flat entrance. The campground has 105 sites including RVs (no hookups), is open year-round, and requires reservations for April through October (first-come, first-served November through March).
Amenities: fire ring, picnic table, food locker, flush toilets and potable water. Groceries can be purchased near Crane Flat and in Yosemite Valley. Showers are in Yosemite Valley. Crane Flat Campground with 166 sites is a bit farther down the road toward the valley and is open July through October, and is reservable, with similar amenities.
Why this campground? Want to avoid crowds? Head west to these regions near Hetch Hetchy.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Take the moderate 2-mile hike to Lookout Point with a view of Hetch Hetchy. Merced Grove (easy, 3 miles) and Tuolumne Grove (easy, 2.5 miles) nature trails weave through secluded sequoias. Along Tioga Road, hike easy trails at May Lake (views of Half Dome) and Lukens Lake.
Hidden Treasure: In spring and summer, soak in the beauty of wildflowers—poppies, wallflower, columbine, irises—on a drive from Arch Rock Entrance, then up Tioga Road all the way to Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass.
Tuolumne Meadows Campground
What you need to know: This campground is the highest in the park at 8,600 feet (the valley is at 4,000 feet) and therefore is seasonal (July through September). Of the 304 sites, half are by reservation and the other half are first-come, first-served. There are ADA-compliant/accessible sites and RV sites (no hookups).
Amenities: fire ring, picnic table, food locker, flush toilets and potable water.
Why this campground? This northern part of the park is a gem. If you have the time, don’t skip it. Just keep in mind the higher elevation range of 8,000 to 10,000 feet, colder temperatures and earlier precipitation.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Take a stroll through easier, alpine Tuolumne Meadows (1.5 miles), or on 2-mile Gaylor Lakes Trail that takes you to views of a high valley with multiple lakes.
One of the most popular trails (and worth the scramble through forests and rocks), Cathedral Lakes is a moderate/strenuous 7 miles, and brings hikers to dramatic views of alpine peaks and crystalline lakes.
Hidden Treasure: Many people visit or picnic at Tenaya Lake, but few take the easy 2.5-mile trail around it to see reflected views of granite domes and pine forests in the water.
Camping without reservations? Try Bridalveil Creek, Camp 4* (walk-in tent sites, chosen by lottery), Yosemite Creek, Porcupine Flat*, Tuolumne Meadows, Tamarack Flat* and White Wolf.
* = open in winter
“Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things. Nearly all the [Yosemite National] park is a profound solitude.” – John Muir
Yosemite National Park Backcountry Camping
Ample backcountry opportunities present themselves in Yosemite—95% of the park is wilderness so grab that permit (not needed for day hikes except for Half Dome).
Trails have daily quotas; 60% of permits can be obtained by reservation (highly recommended). Hike along streams, lakes and waterfalls, between granite cliffs, and scale mountains. Lose yourself among blue spruce, fir and wildflowers.
Take a longer day hike to Taft Point (12 miles) and watch the sunset dance along the valley and El Capitan. Go northwest to the quiet Hetch Hetchy region; visit gorgeous Wapama Falls and the deep blue reservoir. Stay in the High Sierra Camps near Tuolumne.
In the mellow south, trek on the 22-mile Wawona Loop (at lower elevations among forests, streams and vistas; the season extends to October with lake-side campsites).
Go for the gold: hike the 215-mile John Muir Trail that includes Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Ansel Adams Wilderness, culminating at Mount Whitney (highest peak in the lower 48 states) or part of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Exciting Sites & Scenic Drives Near Yosemite National Park
Go for the ultimate 5-hour road trip (or break it up into sections): Yosemite Valley Loop Road with Wawona Road (open to cars year-round), Glacier Point Road (closed November through May) and Tioga Road (closed November through May). See signatures like El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Horsetail Falls, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Tunnel View and Tioga Pass.
Make note of gas locations within the park and pay attention to weather as roads can close earlier than November, or open later than May. Chains may be required in winter. Badger Pass Ski area is open in winter. Visit nearby Bodie State Historical Site (ghost town) or Mono Basin Scenic Area.
Insider Tips for Visiting Yosemite National Park
Fresno, Merced and Modesto City are all a two to three-hour drive. Airports in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento and Reno/Tahoe are within five hours. To the northeast, Lee Vining and Mammoth Lakes are smaller towns.
Yosemite has five entrances: South (near Mariposa), Arch Rock (west), Hetch Hetchy (northwest), Big Oak Flat (northwest) and Tioga Pass (northeast, the only road that crosses over the Sierra Nevada Mountains). All entrances are open all hours except for Hetch Hetchy.
A shuttle system makes getting around easier during peak seasons. Yosemite Village is the terminal hub, with free, year-round shuttles running in the valley. Fee-based tours/shuttles are available throughout other areas of the park and run seasonally.
Wear and pack layers for hikes. With higher elevation, snow can fall in any month. Popular trailheads fill up early; plan your start to begin by 7 a.m. at some. Avoid the crowds by going in May and October (peak: July through August), and rise with the sun.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK CAMPERS BEWARE:
When camping, be aware that wood fire smoke tends to trap in the air in mornings and at night and may degrade air quality near campgrounds.
Be mindful of bears on the road and in camps. Their biggest threat in the parks are people. Speeding results in numerous bear deaths a year.
Be careful near water, especially river crossings, hidden currents, rapids, and waterfalls with slick rocks.
Choose a safe, calm water location for crossing or leisure.
Know your ability and route before setting out: Half Dome is not for the unprepared or unfit.
If going on a longer trail, be advised of weather (afternoon thunderstorms can come in quickly), exposure (lightning, rockfalls), closures, wildlife activity and other conditions.