Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful and most visited national parks in the United States. In this article, I’ll share my best tips for your first trip to Yosemite.
What is Yosemite National Park?
Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular National Parks in the United States of America and is located in eastern California. The closest major cities are Sacramento and San Francisco. From here it is about a four-hour drive to Yosemite Vally in the center of the park.
Visiting Yosemite National Park is one of the highlights when you’re exploring West Coast USA. The park is full of steep rock formations, waterfalls, forests (with giant sequoias) and there are many hiking trails. There is a lot of wildlife in the park, with a bit of luck you can even see bears here.
Visiting Yosemite National Park: practical tips
How do you get to Yosemite National Park? When is the best time to visit the park? How much time do you need?
How to get to Yosemite?
There are four entrances to the park:
- Big Oak Flat Entrance – easily accessible from San Francisco
- Arch Rock Entrance – easily accessible from Mariposa
- South Entrance – easily accessible from Oakhurst
- Tioga Pass Entrance – this is the only entrance on the east side, easily accessible from Lee Vining
The entrance on the east side is only open a couple of months a year (usually between June and November) because you’ll have to drive over the Tioga Road, which is covered by snow during the other months of the year.
How much does it cost?
At the entrance, you’ll have to pay $35 per vehicle (price in 2022), and this ticket is valid for seven days. When you’re visiting more national parks in a year, it might be cheaper to get an America The Beautiful Pass. This pass will cost you $80, but it’s valid for a year in all of the national parks. Check out this website for the most up-to-date entrances fees.
Best time to visit Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is open all year round. But because of the elevation, most of the park might be closed during the winter months because of snow. It’s a good idea to plan your first trip to Yosemite somewhere between June and October.
The benefit of visiting the park in June is that you’ll be able to see the waterfalls at their best, because of the melting snow. In July and August it can get really crowded in the park (but are great months temperature-wise). I would recommend visiting Yosemite during shoulder season, June and September are great months.
How much time do you need for your first trip to Yosemite?
You’ll need at least two full days (three nights) to explore the main highlights of Yosemite National Park. That will give you enough time to drive over the Tioga Pass and explore Yosemite Valley. If you’re planning on doing a couple of (long) hikes, I would recommend adding a day or two.
How to get around in Yosemite?
To get into Yosemite National Park, you’ll need a car. But once you’re inside the park, you can better leave the car in the parking lot of your accommodation. Traffic jams are very common in the park, and you don’t want to get stuck in your car. Luckily, there are multiple shuttle buses (free of charge), that can take you to most of the trailheads and other cool places in the park. Check out this webpage for all of the bus stops.
New in 2022: permit for Yosemite
As of 2023, you do not need a reservation anymore to visit Yosemite National Park.
A new addition and one of the most important Yosemite National Park tips right now! To spread the crowds, Yosemite National Park will start working with a permit system in 2022.
When do you need a permit?
When do you need a permit in Yosemite? If you are visiting the park between May 20 and September 30, 2022, and wish to enter the park between the peak times of 6:00 AM and 4:00 PM.
When don’t you need a permit? If you have a reservation for one of the facilities in the park (for example, camping) or a permit for, for example, the Half Dome. And even if you want to visit the park outside peak times (i.e. from 4:00 PM to 6:00 AM), you don’t need a permit.
How do you get a permit?
You can reserve a permit on this website from March 23rd. At that time you can reserve a permit for all dates between 20 May and 30 September.
Are all the dates full? You get another chance. Thirty percent of the permits are available one week in advance, at 8 a.m. Pacific Time. Do you want a permit before July 30th? Then you have to be ready to grab one on July 23. Make sure that you have already created an account and are logged in in time because it can go quickly.
The permit is valid for three consecutive days. If you apply for a permit for Friday, it is also valid on Saturday and Sunday.
More information about permits in Yosemite
- Read more about the new reservation system on this page.
- On this page, you will find answers to frequently asked questions about the new system in Yosemite.
- Check this page for all types of permits in Yosemite.
Where to stay in Yosemite National Park
First, forget about getting a cheap hotel room in Yosemite National Park, they are non-existent. However, there are many options at different prices, so check them all before you make your choice. Accommodations in Yosemite National Park sell out very quickly (especially on holidays and on weekends), so try to book as soon as you can.
A hotel in Yosemite Valley
If you want to stay in Yosemite, you’ll have to find a room in Yosemite Valley. This is the main area in Yosemite, and you can visit most of the highlights in the park from here. This is also the place where most of the hiking trails start. Accommodation in Yosemite Valley can be quite expensive, but it will save you hours of traveling.
Do you have your own tent and do you like to go camping in the USA? Camping is the cheapest option for a night in Yosemite National Park. In Yosemite Valley, you’ll find three large campgrounds where you can reserve a campsite in advance:
The campgrounds are some of the most beautiful campgrounds in West USA and for $26 you’ll get a spacious campsite with a picnic table, barbecue, firepit, and a bear box.
How to reserve a campsite in Yosemite
Getting a reservation for a campsite in one of these campgrounds is like Russian roulette because it’s a very popular place to stay.
Every month on the 15th, reservations open up for the next five months. So if you’d like a spot in the last week of July, you’ll have to be ready on March 15. Make sure to make a reservation the moment it opens up because all of the campsites will be gone in less than 5 minutes. Check out this webpage for the dates you have to reserve a campsite.
First come first serve campgrounds
All the other campgrounds in Yosemite are first come first serve campgrounds. This means you’ll have to get there early to get a campsite. On this website, you’ll find an overview of all the first come first serve campgrounds in Yosemite.
Get a hotel room outside Yosemite National Park
Is everything booked in Yosemite Valley, or did you just find it too expensive? You can also choose to stay outside the park. You’ll find several accommodations in places like Mammoth Lakes, Mariposa or Oakhurst. Booking a hotel room is really easy when you use Booking.com. When you stay here, you have to know that it will take about 1,5 to 2 hours to get to the park.
Bears in Yosemite
You’ll see the warning signs everywhere: there is a big black bear population in Yosemite National Park. Really cool to see, but keep your distance, because these are dangerous animals. Don’t bring bear spray (it’s illegal in Yosemite). When you go hiking, bring at least two other people and make noise on a regular basis. Also, watch your food. When you’re camping, you have to put everything with an odor in a bear box (besides food, also your toothpaste and deodorant).
What to see and do on your trip to Yosemite
The park is huge, so during your first trip to Yosemite, I would recommend visiting the following places:
As I mentioned earlier, the Tioga Pass is on the east side of the park and this is one of the most scenic roads in the United States. It’s the highest road in the United States, at some points, it reaches an altitude of 3000 meters (almost 10.000 feet). You might even get some symptoms of altitude sickness, so make sure to drink enough water.
It’s not a surprise to encounter some snow when you’re driving on this road. During the months of December to May, the road is closed because of the high snow levels. The opening date of the road is different every year, you can check out this page for the most up-to-date information.
When you visit Yosemite National Park in the months of June to November, driving the Tioga Road is absolutely a must. There are many beautiful places to see and the landscape seems different at every turn. Tuolumne Meadows and Olmsted Point are some recommended stops.
Visit the waterfalls
There are many beautiful waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, but at some points, during the year you won’t be able to see them. If you’d like to see the waterfalls at their best, make sure to visit Yosemite National Park in May or June. When I visited the park in July, I was only able to see two waterfalls. One of them was Yosemite falls, with 739 meters (2400 feet), which is the tallest waterfall in the United States and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
The other waterfall I was able to see in July, was the Bridalveil fall. Another beautiful waterfall where you can see a rainbow if you’re lucky. You can find more information about the waterfalls in Yosemite on this website.
Explore the hiking trails
If you like hiking, Yosemite National Park is perfect for you. There are many trails, from short and easy to long and strenuous. You can see beautiful lakes, amazing views of Yosemite Valley, and waterfalls. Ask a ranger in the Visitor Center which hike is perfect for you. Once you start, the trails are well maintained and you’ll see clearly where you have to go. Make sure to bring enough water, because it will be hot (especially in the summer months), and you won’t be able to find a water source everywhere. If you’d like to read some more about the hikes, check out this webpage.
Check out the viewpoints
If you don’t like hiking as much, you can always check out some of the many great viewpoints in Yosemite National Park. Tunnel View is one of the best viewpoints in Yosemite. From here, you can see the famous rock formations El Capitan and Half Dome, but also the Bridalveil Falls. And as I mentioned before, Olmsted Point is also a great viewpoint to visit.
Book a trip to Yosemite
These are all my tips for your trip to Yosemite! Would you like to visit the park? These are some helpful websites for you to book your trip to Yosemite.
- The nearest (big) airports are in Sacramento or San Francisco. You can usually find the cheapest flights via Skyscanner.
- It’s very difficult to get to Yosemite by public transport, therefore, it’s smart to rent a car for your trip to Yosemite. Check Rental Cars and Discover Cars for the best rates.
- Check Booking.com or VRBO if you’d like to stay in an accommodation just outside the park.
- Don’t feel like arranging a trip to Yosemite yourself? You can book a guided tour to Yosemite from San Francisco via Get Your Guide.
Would you like to read more about Yosemite & California?
These are some great guides:
You can also find a lot of information about traveling in the USA on this website. You might like to read these articles as well:
- 35 Best Books on National Parks + other gift ideas (2022)
- 33 Fun Activities for your San Francisco Bucket List
- 10 fun Route 66 attractions in California and Arizona
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This article was published in December 2016. Last update: February 2022 with information about the new permit system.
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