Yosemite National Park: 10 Things To Know Before You Go

Nestled deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite National Park is one of the most amazing places in California. There are legendary hikes, jaw-dropping scenic vistas, and wildlife galore. It is also one of the most visited national parks, with nearly 3.7 million visitors each year. That’s a lot, but even more so when you consider it’s barely visited at all in the winter. Almost all those people are also funneled into a relatively narrow valley, it can get quite crowded.

While Yosemite is definitely worth visiting, doing so during the peak season, especially on weekends, might not give you the experience you were hoping for. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you visit.

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There’s often limited access

Certain times throughout the year Yosemite requires a reservation. This is because it’s an incredibly popular park, but also because of limited parking in the valley. Even on days where a reservation isn’t required, it’s very possible the park will be extremely crowded. During the summer, during school holidays, even weekends, might be extremely busy.

You’ll also need a permit to climb Half Dome, which is distributed via lottery.

If you’re visiting in the late fall, winter, or spring, there are likely to be snow chain requirements.

Leave your hotel early

If you’re not staying in the park, it’s worth keeping in mind it’s going to be a long drive to get in. Worse, the narrow roads to enter the park get backed up often. There’s regularly a line of cars just to enter the park, and you still have more to drive to find parking.

You should already be on the road by 6AM, and some guides say even that’s too late. If you leave as “late” as 7, that means you likely won’t even be able to start looking for parking before 8:30-9, and by that point most or all of the lots will be full.

Even if you’re taking a bus from one of the nearby towns (and you should consider this), that bus will likely be stuck in the same traffic.

Limited parking

Many of Yosemite’s main sights are in a long, narrow valley, and as such, there is limited parking. It’s not like they can build much more, or some unsightly parking garage, in an area of such epic natural beauty. So expect lines at parking lots, lines and fights for spaces, and if you’re not assertive, people will steal a spot from right in front of you.

Ideally, you’ll bring a small car and not a big SUV or RV, but that’s not an option everyone can make. If you only have a large vehicle, consider taking one of the shuttles from a nearby town.

Shuttles are great, but can be busy

There are two free shuttle loops inside the parks that go between various sights and parking lots. You should absolutely take these, or walk, and not try to find parking at a second location. You almost certainly won’t.

Because they’re convenient, they also get very busy. Expect long lines during peak times. Along the valley floor the distances aren’t too far, so it’s often faster to just walk. For example, the Welcome Center is only 15-30 minutes walk to several trailheads, picnic areas, and scenic vistas.

Talk to rangers and volunteers

Whether or not you’re the type of person to research everything ahead of time, talk to a park ranger, or one of the many volunteers, when you arrive at the park. These people have a wealth of information, including what trails are best for that day, or time of day, what hikes offer you the views or experiences you want, and more. These folks are exceptionally helpful and well worth seeking out.

Crowded hikes

If you haven’t gathered already, Yosemite can get crowded. If you’re visiting in the off-season, during the week when school’s in session, and so on, you’ll certainly have better luck. In the spring after school’s out? It’s going to be wall-to-wall people. Many of the famous hikes are more crowded lines shuffling through nature. Don’t expect to be able to go at your own pace, and look out for kids and dogs.

Sometimes lesser traveled hikes are better

There are several famous hikes in the park, and they’re famous for a reason. They’re also the most likely to be crowded. There are also some lesser known, or lesser frequented, hikes throughout the park that offer incredible views and experiences. This is why it’s so great to talk to a ranger of volunteer. They might tell you about a hike that’s not busy but one you’ll never forget. The image at the top of this article is from one such hike, where I was able to hike mostly alone on an day that was otherwise extremely busy in the park.

Bring LOTS of water

Yosemite Valley is at almost 4,000 feet, which is a fair amount of altitude. The top of Half Dome is nearly 9,000. So it’s possible to get dehydrated quickly on any hike. There are lots of places to fill up your water bottle in the park, and you should do so whenever there’s an opportunity.

There’s a lot to see

While Yosemite isn’t one of the largest National Parks, it is plenty big. Some of the longer hikes can take many hours. There are also great hikes at either end of the park, requiring significant transit time between them. You won’t be able to “do it all” in one day. It’s best to pick one or two key things, and then once you’ve done those, add in more depending how much time you have. Or if possible, add another day or 3!

There are other options

Don’t get me wrong, Yosemite is absolutely incredible. It’s famous for a reason. But there are other National Parks that aren’t much farther away. In fact, some might be even closer to where you live. Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks are both closer to Los Angeles, and are remarkable (though excessively hot in the summer). Redwoods and Crater Lake aren’t that much farther from San Francisco as Yosemite, and are stunning. Smaller parks, like Pinnacles and Lassen, have more than enough hiking and scenery to fill a weekend. They’re also far less crowded.

I’m certainly not going to try to talk you out of visiting Yosemite, or any National Park, but from my experience, too many people ruin a lot of what makes these places magic. Just food for thought.

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