the Glen Aulin Trail in Yosemite’s high country along Tioga Pass

Yosemite National Park’s extreme beauty and big crowds

Tips to make your Yosemite visit more enjoyable

Ansell Adams and John Muir devoted part of their lives to protecting wilderness and Yosemite National Park. Today, millions of people each year, domestic and from abroad, marvel at its majesty. And it’s those throngs that make planning a vacation to Yosemite a complex and thoughtful exercise.

Yosemite suffers from severe overcrowding. Visitors can feel like they’re driving the wrong way on a downtown New York street during rush hour.

My family has visited Yosemite six times. And despite my rather worrisome description above, the park’s beauty always overpowers any memories of congestion and frustration. Based upon our experiences, here’s my travel advice. I hope it helps you plan a vacation to America’s third national park.

Yosemite wildflowers Columbine
Yosemite’s wildflowers, like these Columbine, are famous.

Choose the Yosemite you can enjoy

If you simply want to drive from one scenic overlook to the next, you could see much of this vast ecosystem in 2-3 days. But if you plan on hiking at all, and seeing what many people never glimpse, then choose accordingly from the park’s many pieces: Yosemite Valley, where crowds and traffic can frustrate the most patient of guests; Hetch Hetchy, which we finally hiked during our fifth trip; Glacier Point and the Mariposa sequoia grove; and the Tuolumne Meadows high country region, whose access road is sometimes snowed in until mid June.

The National Park Service website contains a history of road openings, but each winter is different. In 2017, Yosemite’s snow pack equaled 177% of the historical average, which meant the high country, Tioga Road and the east entrance near Tuolumne weren’t cleared for passage until June 29.

Yosemite's Mirror Lake in May
Yosemite's Mirror Lake in May, along a short hike in the Valley

Last minute accommodations are scarce

You should plan ahead, at least a year, especially if you desire to stay inside the park from May through October. That’s our goal because we prefer not to fight traffic each morning by commuting from hotels outside of the park. As a matter of fact, our 2017 trip included just Yosemite Valley, where the crowds and traffic can be stifling. But since we stayed at a valley lodge, we used the park’s shuttle bus system to reach trailheads, restaurants, visitors center and other nearby destinations. More relaxing!

This summer we stayed just outside the park near the north entrance so we could easily access the high country and Hetch Hetchy. We didn’t even attempt to visit the hectic valley since we’ve stayed there before. We chose Evergreen Lodge, with pool, massage, yoga, outdoor adventure services, great restaurant, crafts for kids, room diversity, s’mores every night and other amenities, all nestled in a forest setting. We also enjoyed special events during our stay, such as a live outdoor music performance by Manx Anita and craft beer tasting. Plus there’s resort quiet time at 10 p.m. We were impressed.

Yosemite Falls during huge spring thaw
The valley’s Yosemite Falls during a huge spring thaw.

Yosemite waterfalls draw the crowds

 Spring thaw powers the parks iconic waterfalls and streams, such as Vernal, Nevada, Bridal Veil and Yosemite Falls. Our 2017 trip in early May treated us to a force of nature we’ve never before experienced. Because of that winter’s epic snowpack, the valley’s waterfalls were mightier than any of our previous trips. We gawked until our jaws and eye sockets throbbed.

Yes, part of our timing was luck – we couldn’t have predicted the record winter snows. However, we specifically chose this time of year knowing that the waterfalls slow down as the summer progresses. So, hats off to me, since not all of my vacation hedges turn to gold.

So, if waterfalls flip your switch, remember the spring and early summer timing. If you travel in late summer and early fall, many of the waterfalls might be reduced to trickles of their former selves.

Fewer people visit Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy region
Fewer people visit Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy region

Quick tips: giant sequoias to giant vistas

 Yosemite features several stands of giant sequoia trees, but the best grove is Mariposa just inside the south entrance and near many hotels in Fish Camp.

The best vista is from the top of Half Dome, which involves a tough hike, a permit and careful planning. It’s 19 miles round-trip with a 5,000 foot elevation gain. I did the hike at age 60; my brother-in-law accomplice was 70. So it’s doable if your train.

If you’re not a hiker, the view from Glacier Point is breathtaking. And from the high country’s Tioga Road, try the pullout at Olmstead Point or the short hike up Lembert Dome.

Our favorite hikes? The 10-mile round trip to Glen Aulin and Tuolumne Falls. Or the three-mile to Vernal Falls and back, in the early morning before the trail crowds make it less desirable; if you feel like adding another four miles to your hike, then continue to Nevada Falls.

Visiting Yosemite once is like eating a single chip

 We’ve been on a schedule to visit Yosemite every other year – it’s that special. We vary the season and concentrate each trip on specific parts of the park. This year we included the Inyo National Forest area around Mammoth Lake on the park’s east side.

If WRT can help you plan, just leave a comment here or use the contact form. We enjoy helping people wander. And Yosemite is oh-so wander-worthy.