Summering in Yosemite: The Logistics

Yosemite is one of the most iconic of the national parks, and rightfully so. The seven-mile-long valley that draws visitors from throughout the world has been described by some as the most beautiful place on Earth, and it’s easy to understand the inspiration behind that sentiment.

The feathery waterworks of Yosemite Fall are as dramatic as the granitic pillar called El Capitan, which is complemented by Half Dome's nearby profile. But there are subtler nuances to the valley that are just as endearing. The tranquil ripples of the Merced River in late summer, the wispy tendrils of Bridalveil Fall, the granite-walled reflections on Mirror Lake.

And as dramatic and beautiful as is the valley in summer, it can be trying, entirely contrary to John Muir’s belief that the park is “a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands...” Visit Yosemite at the height of summer and your senses can be assaulted by the crowds, the noise of delivery trucks, the buses, the occasional emergency sirens. All these things challenge you to enjoy the splendor that is the Yosemite Valley.

But that’s not reason enough to dismiss a summer trek to Yosemite. The park is more than the valley, and the valley can be tamed. If you've never been to the park, definitely plan a stop of at least a day in the valley, but also cast your eyes to the High Sierra with all the beauty and exploration it offers. Hike into the wilderness -- and 95 percent of the park is officially designated wilderness -- and seek the inspiration that fired John Muir's passion for the out-of-doors.

Getting There

Thanks to public transportation, if you’re approaching from the west you don’t need to take your car to the park. Fly into Fresno and you can take a bus to the park, where you can rely on the park’s shuttles to get around. Fly into any number of California cities and you can take the train to the park via Merced ... with the assistance of a bus. And pick the right bus and it'll take you not only to the Yosemite Valley, but also to the White Wolf or Crane Flat campgrounds.

Arriving at Yosemite via the Tioga Road is another story. The closest airport of any consequence is the Reno/Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nevada. It’s a nice airport, just two-and-a-half hours from the park’s Tioga Entrance. But the rental car agencies can be downright thievish. Which is unfortunate, for while the drive through sections of the El Dodorado and Inyo national forests and along the shores of Mono Lake is 135 miles, it is certainly worth it, both for the scenery you cruise through, as well as the gateway you pass through into Yosemite.

Finally, the YARTS Highway 120 bus route runs between Yosemite Village and Mammoth Lakes, with stops at Crane Flat, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows, while the Highway 140 route has stops at Merced, Mariposa, and Yosemite Valley.

Where Will You Stay?

If Yosemite has an Achilles heel, this is it. The valley is where 95 percent of the park’s guests want to stay, and not only are the accommodations limited, but they’ve been shrinking in recent years. Rockfalls that time and the elements have peeled off the face of Glacier Point in recent years prompted a National Park Service decision that accommodations in Curry Village would have to shrink so as to remove future guests from the footprint of rockfalls.

As a result, there are a third less accommodations in Curry. At the same time, Housekeeping Camp, the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, and The Ahwahnee always are in high demand. In other words, if you haven’t already reserved a room for this summer, you might as well look to the fall or next year.

And yet...cancellations due occur. While the concessionaire, DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, does not maintain waiting lists for rooms, if you live within comfortable driving distance of the valley and don't mind spontaneity, it wouldn’t hurt to check back occasionally to see if you can luck into one of these canceled rooms at the last minute.

Plus, while those who like to plan ahead don’t hesitate to make reservations as much as a year ahead of their visit, more and more travelers seem to be making decisions two-to-four weeks out, which means the odds might be getting better for folks who try to land a room three months out.

There are 13 campgrounds Yosemite, four of which are located in Yosemite Valley. All are managed by the National Park Service, and all quickly fill. In fact, park officials say quite frankly that, "For those campgrounds that do accept reservations, don't expect to find a site without a reservation from April through September." As for those campgrounds that don't take reservations, show up early, or you'll like not find a space. These campgrounds routinely fill by noon from May through September.

You can learn more about each of the 13 campgrounds at this page, and make a reservation from that page as well.

Outside the valley but still within Yosemite’s borders you’ve got the Wawona Hotel, an elegant and historic accommodation, one that in May 1903 saw President Theodore Roosevelt check into for a meeting with John Muir. From its location just 4 miles inside the park’s south entrance, the Wawona is close to the Mariposa Grove of sequoias, as well as to hiking trails, such as the Chilnualna Falls Trail.

Holding but 104 rooms in a small complex of buildings, Wawona can fill up fast, and far in advance.

The tent camps found at White Wolf and Tuolumne Meadows offer an entirely different experience than that found either in the Yosemite Valley or at Wawona. Canvass tents set atop concrete slabs with woodstoves and heavy wool blankets for warmth and cots, and candles for light, these facilities are not as comforting as those in the valley or Wawona. (However, White Wolf does offer some cabins with bathrooms).

And yet... they carry a distinct charm popular with many. To awake in the morning to the mist rising off the Tuolumne River and the sun glinting off the high peaks is unforgettable. And the meals served in the two camps’ respective dining halls are as delicious as those served elsewhere in the park. Not to be overlooked is the fact that these tent camps are not as crowded or noisy as Curry Village. True, you're not in Yosemite Valley. But the surrounding landscape is wonderfully spectacular.

If even those tent camps seem too tame, consider hiking the backcountry by connecting overnight stays in the High Sierra tent camps that are sprinkled about along the trails.

Getting around the Park

One of the earliest entries in the park shuttle business was Yosemite National Park. The park's free shuttle system includes service in Yosemite Valley as well as to outlying areas such as Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and Tuolumne Meadows.

For a fee, separate bus service and tours are available to Glacier Point, various trailheads on the Tioga Road, and neighboring communities.

What Can You Do In Summer

For some, just standing in awe before the granite walls that wrap the Yosemite Valley is enough. “Glassing” El Capitan with binoculars to watch climbers en route to the summit, gazing at the falls that plunge into the valley, and trying to find the perfect angle, and time of day, to capture a photo of Half Dome all are good ways to spend the day.

But Yosemite should be experienced, not merely admired. Take a hike to Mirror Lake to see the reflections it captures. Venture up the Mist Trail that climbs, steeply at times, alongside the Merced River as it leaps into the valley via Nevada and then Vernal falls. This is the route to Half Dome; if you’re planning to take a shot at reaching the dome’s top, start early in the day, at least by 7 a.m., to give you plenty of time to reach the top and return to the valley in time for dinner. If that 17-mile trek seems a bit ambitious, hike to the top of Nevada Fall, enjoy the view back down into the valley, perhaps dip your feet into the river, and then return via the John Muir Trail, which makes a nice day trip of roughly 14 miles, but certainly not as strenuous as the hike up Half Dome.

If you are planning to go for the top of Half Dome, and your visit will fall on a weekend or a holiday, you’ll need a permit. Visit this page to get one. You can reserve one four months’ out, so after you secure your lodging in the valley this might be the very next thing to do.

You can explore the valley on your bike, but be careful. Cyclists cannot win collisions with automobiles.

Do get out along the Tioga Road. This ribbon of pavement carries you through some gorgeous high country, and past many trailheads. Stop at Tenaya Lake for a picnic, or set off across the granite domes that bulge along the highway. Plot out a backcountry trek from White Wolf to Hetch Hetchy.

And explore the park's groves of sequoia trees, either the Tuolumne Grove near Crane Flat along the Tioga Road, or the Mariposa Grove near Wawona.

What Do You Need To Pack

The relatively dry, hot High Sierra summers require lots of sunscreen and other protection to keep you going. A wide-brimmed hat is essential, as are sunglasses, systems for carrying water with you on the trail, be they hydration packs or water bottles, and long-sleeved shirts.

For hikes of any consequential distance a good, broken-in pair of hiking boots, a daypack, and a hiking stick or two are worthy additions, too.

And if you’re planning on hiking the Mist Trail, some rain gear to stay dry can be valuable...unless it’s a hot day, in which case you'll enjoy the mist.

A decent pair of binoculars is handy to have, too, both for birding and for watching climbers as they inch their way up El Capitan or one of the other big walls.

There's a grocery in the valley for picnic items and anything you might have overlooked at home.