Planning a successful trip to Yosemite NP

yosemite-national-park

Camping in California’s Yosemite National Park either takes months of planning or a Leprechaun’s-pot-of-gold-worth of luck. Actually, it’s usually both of those things at once. Plus a good internet connection and a deft clicking finger.

Yosemite is one of the world’s most famous national parks and a UNESCO World Heritage site so it stands to reason that campsites are booked out months in advance and those unbookable ones are snapped up quickly on the day.

I’ve been to Yosemite twice – the first time (five days after I arrived in the US) we drained the luck from Ireland and appeared at Porcupine Flat on a Saturday morning to pounce on an empty campsite.

The second visit was highly-organised affair, thanks to Mr M’s mum (mom!) who is basically the camping and vacation planning queen. She printed maps, compared camp site plans, highlighted, circled and noted bits and bobs.

Consider this an ode to her magnificent skills and everything I’ve learnt from watching her put together this trip.

PLAN AHEAD

If you want a guaranteed campsite (barring weather catastrophes or natural disasters), you’ll need to book one online, months in advance. Though you don’t have to rough it if you don’t want to.

There are a huge variety of ways you can stay inside Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite-Sam

Even with all of these options, there is lots of competition for securing a place to stay while you explore the park. Some lodges and the Majestic Yosemite Hotel accept bookings a year in advance, so it pays to plan ahead.

Other accommodation options, such as the campgrounds, open for online reservations a few months in advance. So you really need to know how you want to do your Yosemite visit well before you set off.

TRANSPORT

Before you set your accommodation decision in concrete, you really should think about how you’re going to get around Yosemite. It’s a big place. Spanning almost 3,100 square kilometres (1,200 square miles), there’s a fair distance between Yosemite’s most-loved sights.

There are various shuttle services that run to and inside different areas of the park, though most are seasonal and some charge a fee. If you’re not planning on long-distance hiking, you might want to bring a vehicle that you can easily drive from one side of Yosemite to the other.

Yosemite-roads

Most roads within the park are well surfaced and are wide enough for two vehicles, however there are some hairpin turns that become a little more difficult to navigate in an RV or towing a trailer.

Driving your own (or a hired) RV is a great way of lugging all of your gear and having a slightly more comfy place to sleep, but it might not be your best bet when it comes to driving around the park. So keep that in mind.

ACCOMMODATION

Brace yourselves, this infographic is a long one, but it condenses all of the need-to-know information about Yosemite’s accommodation into one easy-to-read spot. For more details, check Yosemite’s lodging website.

The reservation website for most campgrounds opens in February and they go in the blink of an eye, but more on that later.

Accommodation-options-for-Yosemite-National-Park

FINDING THE PERFECT CAMPSITE

This is the part that requires a bit of mental maneuvering. It’s all commonsense but once you’re in the depths of planning, some things can slip your mind. Use the campsite reservation website to get all of the extra information you’ll need.

RV or trailer

If you have an RV or trailer, make a list of the campsites that will safely accommodate it’s length. Other things you should consider:

  • The driveway grade: If it’s a severe grade it’ll be a bit trickier to park your vehicle, level it and chock the tyres if necessary.
  • Back-in or pull-through: A site that you can drive straight through will be much easier to get in and out of than one that you have to reverse into.
  • Maximum length: Check the maximum lengths available for RVs and trailers (they may differ), the max lengths depend on the turning radius available in back-in sites.
  • Dump station: Even if there isn’t a dump station near your site, there will be some on the way out of the park or near other RV-friendly campgrounds.
  • Hookups: There aren’t water, sewage or electrical hookups within the park so plan for that.
  • Reservations: Is it a reservation-only campground or will you have to take a gamble by showing up at 12pm on the day?

Tent camping

Picking a site to pitch your tent is a little easier, although not without a few little challenges.

Pick-a-campsite-yosemite

  • Proximity to toilets/running water: If you have young children you might want to be closer to the bathrooms. Also check if it’s a vault or flushing toilet and whether is drinkable or needs to be treated or boiled first.
  • Level of seclusion: Do you want to feel like you’re almost alone in the forest? Or do you like the community feel of being surrounded by others? Campgrounds within Yosemite Valley are the most popular, campsites are smaller and squeezed together. If you want more space, choose a campground outside of the valley.
  • Which site: Print out a map of the campground you’re considering and highlight the ones that fit your specifications. You can see which sites back onto forest and which sit in the middle of the campground. This will make it easier to pick the sites you like the most.
  • Fires: Check whether coal or wood fires are allowed in the site and plan accordingly.
  • Reservations: Is it a reservation-only campground or will you have to take a gamble by showing up at 12pm on the day?

BOOKING A YOSEMITE CAMPSITE

Most campgrounds take bookings up to five months in advance. But as we’ve pointed out before, once reservations open at 7:00 AM Pacific Time, they are snapped up quickly. Sometimes they go within minutes.

yosemite-campground-reservation-guide
Courtesy of YNP.

There are two ways you can make a reservation: online or by phone. Visit www.recreation.gov for the online reservation system. Otherwise you can call:

  • 877-444-6777
  • 877-833-6777 for TDD
  • International (outside the US & Canada) +1-518-885-3639

Only two campsites can be reserved per phone call or visit to the website. If you need more than two sites, have someone else call in or use the website. Make sure you have registered on the website before D-Day. Choose your sites early and log into the reservation website just before 7AM so that you’re ready for the opening.

WHAT TO TAKE

Seasoned campers know the drill, but if this is your first time camping, there are a few things you should consider.

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For the most part you’ll be bringing your own food to cook (unless you’re in a hotel or lodge). If you don’t have your own gas-powered cooker to bring along, remember that you’re going to have to build a fire for everything that needs cooking.

I’ve put together a checklist of food, clothes, toiletries and personal items that you should take on a camping trip. Sign up below to get it straight to your inbox.

 

22 thoughts on “Planning a successful trip to Yosemite NP

    1. You’ll definitely want to spend a few days there Christine, there’s so much to see! And if you can, try to get there during the week, maybe in late Spring or early Autumn to beat the huge crowds. It’s about a 3 hour drive from me (without traffic) and I live on the peninsula.

  1. This is such good info! I recently moved to the Bay Area and have been wanting to visit Yosemite…but I had no idea it was such an ordeal! I’ll definitely do my advance planning now.

  2. That’s a seriously impressive infographic, Katherine! This is an absolutely fantastic resource for anyone planning a trip to Yosemite. I’d LOVE to go one day so I’m saving this for sure. Thanks for sharing all your experience on #FarawayFiles

    1. That makes me very, very happy! It took me so long to put it all together, I hope it helps any camp-happy travellers. You’re now my new favourite person of the day. Thanks for visiting 🙂

  3. I can’t believe that I’ve never been to Yosemite – my husband grew up going there and I grew up going to Yellowstone. Trying to nab the perfect campsite is always a challenge. I have sat up until 12:01am to jump on sites when they became available online for places that have limited slots. Fab tips – definitely saving – as the mighty Yosemite is a must do upon return to the States. Thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles, Erin

    1. Well Yellowstone is also on my list for someday, when I have more time off. Oh wow, you were really dedicated to getting the perfect campsite!

  4. There is so much good information in here! I have not been able to camp in Yosemite. I think the feat is more feasible during the week on low season. We ended in a private campsite located about 15 miles outside the park. It worked fine for us but we would have preferred to be closer to the action.

    1. That’s a great option if you can’t get a spot inside of Yosemite though. It’s a bit more of a drive, but you still get to see all the sights!

  5. This is incredibly thorough! I have yet to make it to Yosemite but would love to check out this national park – I had no idea there were accommodation option within the park!

  6. Yosemite has been on my list for quite a while. Your post and info made me really wanna go even more. I could not decide on accommodation though – too many great choices.

  7. Some great tips here for planning a trip. I am really bad at planning anything in advance so it is good to know about booking accommodation 1 month in advance. I hope to visit the Yosemite National Park soon.

    1. Have a great time when you go Kathy! You won’t be disappointed. 🙂 And I’m happy to have been of some help with the planning stage!

  8. Totally love that info graphic about accommodation! I’ve seen so many pictures of this NP that I’m really looking forward to go… will probably drive with a van through South and North America next year, and hope to visit then! 🙂

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