How to Be a Smart Yosemite California Trip Planner

Plan your trip like a pro

Two people stand on a cliff looking out at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Cavan Images / Getty Images

Too many Yosemite visitors fall into the common time-wasters and fun-busters that can ruin their trip. They're sleeping in their car because they can't find a hotel room, stuck in summer gridlock, or standing dejectedly at the door of the restaurant because they can't get in for Sunday brunch. We're here to help you keep from joining their ranks and enjoy your trip without having to learn the pitfalls the hard way.

Follow these tips to be a smarter Yosemite trip planner, enjoy your vacation more, and spend less of your hard-earned money doing it.

High mountains with a green grassy valley in Yosemite
TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

Go at the Right Time

Yosemite is so busy in the summer that it sucks all the fun out of the trip. It may be years before solutions are found. They may include enforcing park visitors limits, a day-use reservation system or improved infrastructure. Or maybe people will just get fed up and stop visiting. 

In the meanwhile, the only sensible thing to do is to avoid the park during the summer, especially on weekends. Or head south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon for similar scenery with fewer people.

Stay in the Right Place for You

You can stay inside or outside the national park, but beware of deceptive naming. Some hotels with the word "Yosemite" in their names are actually quite far away.

Yosemite's Camp Curry canvas tent cabins
John Elk / Getty Images

Reserve Ahead for Camping

It's a little-known fact that only half of the Yosemite camping sites require reservations. If you want to stay in a campground that operates on a first come, first served basis, get there early. On busy days, they fill up as early as 9 a.m.

Know the Weather

Because Yosemite is in the mountains, many first-time visitors expect it to be cool in the summer and snow-covered in the winter. But in fact, Yosemite Valley can be uncomfortably hot July through September. And the valley's elevation is low enough that snow seldom sticks around more than a day or two. Get the lowdown on Yosemite climate and weather before you go.

Bring the Right Stuff

Judging from the items for sale in Yosemite's shops, quite a few visitors don't bring everything they need. When you pack, think about taking these items: Earplugs can be a big help in the campgrounds to block out other campers' noise when you're trying to sleep. For anyone prone to it, motion sickness remedies are a must for driving on the curving mountain roads. 

To combat the effects of dry air, take lots of lotions, lip moisturizers, and eye drops. Unless you're a regular hiker using well-broken-in shoes, a blister pack in your backpack can help keep your hike from turning into an uncomfortable nightmare.

Yosemite Tunnel View from inside the tunnel
Artur Debat / Getty Images

Be Smart About Sightseeing

Don't Drive in Traffic

If you're staying along California Highway 140 between Mariposa and Yosemite, use the Yosemite Area Transit buses to get into the park. This won't actually keep you out of traffic, but someone else will have to deal with it, and you'll save on gasoline.

Avoid Gridlock Inside Yosemite

No matter how you get there, once you're inside the park, use the free shuttle buses to get around and try the inexpensive buses and trams to reach Mariposa Grove, Glacier Point, and other sights.

Fuel Up Before You Get There

It will not only save you money but will also prevent a last-minute panic when you check the gauge in Yosemite Valley and realize you've got only drops left and there are no gas stations.

Check out places where you can buy fuel for lower prices on any Yosemite-bound route before you head for the park. Use the shuttle in the valley once you're there, and one full tank should get you in and out.

Electric vehicle (EV) charging stations are even hard to find. There are only a few near the Yosemite Village Store and the Ahwahnee Hotel. Tenaya Lodge just outside the park has regular chargers and several Tesla Superchargers.

Take a Bike Ride

Yosemite Valley is quite flat, and you can tour it by bicycle on 12 miles of paved trails. Not only is it an environmentally friendly way to get around, but also you'll have time to get a good look at El Capitan instead of having a "National Lampoon's Vacation" moment pointing to it out the car window as you speed past. You can rent bicycles at Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge spring through fall.

Beware of Bears

All the talk about bears at Yosemite isn't just a lot of fuss over nothing. A hungry bear can tear your car door off in minutes if it thinks there's food inside. Follow safety rules to the letter.

Don’t Go Hungry

Yosemite Valley restaurants close fairly early, and only larger groups can make advance reservations. Check their closing times at the beginning of your visit and try to arrive at least an hour before closing time to be sure you get in. Reserve ahead for Sunday brunch at the Ahwhnee Hotel, especially during summer, holiday weekends, and school breaks.

Days Are Shorter Than You Think

Days at Yosemite aren’t quite as long as the official sunrise and sunset times may lead you to believe. Because of high mountains on its west side, the Yosemite Valley falls into shadows about two hours before the sun sets. The light will linger, but it starts getting cooler, and things start winding down as soon as the sun’s last warm rays are gone.

Money Matters

The Yosemite National Park entry fee is charged per vehicle and is good for seven days. If your vacation plans include more than two national parks in a year, ask for an annual pass. During National Parks Week in April, entry fees are waived in more than 100 parks nationwide, including Yosemite National Park. Entry is also free on selected other days that vary by year.

You'll get in cheaper if someone 62 or older is with you. They can get a one-year pass for a lower price than one regular admission.

Traveling With Your Pet

It might be best to leave Bowser home. The park has so many restrictions that having a pet along could hamper your ability to enjoy the place.

If you decide to bring your dog along anyway, the kennel at the Yosemite Valley Stable is open from May through September. You'll need written proof of immunizations, and dogs must weigh at least 20 pounds, but they may board smaller ones if you provide a small kennel.

Get High Safely

Elevation at Yosemite varies, but the highest parts can be up to 10,000 feet. That's high enough to cause altitude sickness in very sensitive individuals or discomfort for others.