I have always wanted to go to Yosemite. Other little girls dreamed of going to Paris or exotic lands but I wanted to see really big trees and play in waterfalls. I’ve always preferred pine to perfume. Now that Yosemite is only a six-hour drive away, I booked our cabin almost a year in advance, I ordered our annual National Parks Pass so it could ship in time, got my vacation days, and we packed up the car and off we go. See below for our tips as first-time visitors to the Park.
Note: We went the weekend of June 1, as a point of reference
Tip 1: Book your reservation in advance—like 6-12 months in advance. It’s not uncommon for key locations and the best places to fill up even a year in advance, including campsites. Prices definitely “peak” with the summer season so keep that in mind as well.
Tip 2: Do your research. We thought we found the ideal place to stay…until we read the reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp. Places looked and sounded great on the website until we realized the consistency in the reviews regarding it being loud, nosy and having more bugs inside than out. Also, if you outside of the Park Entrances, realize your “Yosemite” location can be 30-90 minutes away, especially on crowded summer weekend afternoons when there is a line of cars backed just to get into Yosemite. I have heard horror stories of people waiting for an hour just to pass through the entrance gates and then couldn’t find any parking. So consider how much time you want to spend in the car when considering your lodging option. We chose the Evergreen Lodge Resort and stayed in a cabin about an hour away and it was perfect.
Tip 3: Getting around the Park. We received a lot of advice about getting to Yosemite early, parking in one of the main lots and then taking the Shuttle, which takes you to just about every popular place, or you can hike from those popular places to where you want to be. This was our plan until my 14-year-old daughter sprained her ankle literally two days before our trip and ended up on crutches. Our plans for hiking now had to be adjusted to Plan B: driving and parking as close to the sights as possible.
Tip 4: Timing is everything. Try to aim for mid-week, early morning, and before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. The snowpack tends to melt May into June (it was still snowing the week the last week in May) so that’s when the waterfalls and rivers will be at their highest, and you can still catch some spring blooms in places. Obviously, the higher in elevation you go, the more likely you are to see snow and catch cooler temperatures.
Tip 5: Ask the experts. There are hundreds of books, websites, Pinterest articles…we tried to read them all and thought we had a plan for our hiking trails, transportation, and sites to see until our daughter ended up on crutches just before our trip. So after a long, six-hour drive, when we arrived at the entrance gate, we simply asked the Park Attendant, “what would you do?” We luckily hit a lull in the traffic bustle, with no cars behind us, and she gave us the following advice:
- Get here early. Everyone says that, but she confirmed that it is true that if you arrive after 9:00 AM, it’s likely that parking spots might be already gone. We arrived at 11:00 AM on Friday, and skipped the most popular spots for another day.
- The “Must See”. She said if you arrive before 9:00 AM, you can drive up to parking areas right at Glacier Point Outlook, inside Yosemite Valley, and there is a small parking area right at Tunnel View. We also found Cascade Creek to be a favorite spot for photos, and there is a small turnout where you can park near it. It holds 6 cars or so, but it has a narrow concrete path on the bridge to view it with cars whizzing behind you on the Tioga Highway.
- Make Crane’s Flat your first stop in the Park, because it’s the only place to fill up on gas, and you will be doing a lot of driving, regardless of your itinerary. Gas stations outside of the Park are also a rarity.
Tip 6: GPS: We thought we were being smart, downloading all of the maps from our GPS maps before we left because once you are in the Park, there is no cell service (not just no WiFi, but no cell service at all, and that includes all of the roads around the Park). However, we did this two weeks in advance, and naturally, on the road trip we made from Yosemite to our next stop, Sequoia National Park, after driving 2 and a half hours, we discovered one of the main roads was closed. And because we had no cell service, we could not find an alternate route. so we had to backtrack and make best-estimated guesses.
Tip #8: Make a point of not trying to see everything. We consider ourselves fortunate that Mariposa Grove with all of the Giant Trees was closed when arrived. It gives us a reason to come back and we didn’t feel like we had to squeeze in everything and not get to spend quality time in the places we did enjoy. In my next blog, I’ll share our adjusted itinerary as we made the majority of our way through the Park via car because of my daughter’s sprained ankle. We also arrived late in the day on Friday and decided to check out Hetch Hetchy, and the guard at the entrance said this site only gets 50,000 visitors per year, and we really enjoyed a few hours there. If you don’t like driving on very narrow roads, high above the canyon with twists and turns inches from the edge, well, this may not be for you. This area of Yosemite does offer unique views with stunning waterfalls, The O’Shaughnessy Dam and Reservoir and 287 miles of hiking trails.