Why Go To Yosemite
One of California's most formidable natural landscapes, Yosemite National Park features nearly 1,200 square miles of sheer awe: towering waterfalls, millennia-old Sequoia trees, striking, daunting cliff faces and some of the most unique rock formations in the United States. But despite its enormous size, most of the tourist activity takes place within the 8-square-mile area of Yosemite Valley. Here you'll find the park's most famous landmarks – Half Dome and El Capitan – as well as excellent hiking trails through the natural monuments. Even inexperienced hikers can enjoy Yosemite: Guided tours and climbing lessons are available from local adventure outfitters. Just don't expect to experience it by yourself. Like so many other American tourist destinations, crowds are the biggest obstacles to an enjoyable Yosemite vacation – approximately 4 million people visit each year. But if you go at the right time (and start your day a little earlier than usual), Mother Nature's wonders will reveal themselves to you in a miraculous and serene way.
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Yosemite Travel Tips
Best Months to Visit
The best times to visit Yosemite are May and September, when the park is accessible but not too crowded. It's important to know that many roads and trails in Yosemite are closed for the majority of the year due to snow. Snow can come as early as October and arrives in full force in November, typically remaining until March. But just because the snowstorms stop in March doesn't necessarily mean closed parts of the park suddenly swing their doors open. Depending on conditions, all seasonally closed roads and trails don't open till May or June.
Seasonal park closures are precisely why so many travelers visit during the summer months, making it the park's busiest time of year (think packed trails, road traffic, sky-high hotel rates and more). To avoid this, the best time to visit is before or after the summer crowds come, which is typically late May and September. Late May and early June is the best time to view waterfalls, roaring from freshly melted snow, and September offers cooler temperatures ideal for hiking (summer temps can reach the 80s). If the only time you can visit is during the summer, be sure to book several months in advance. Campsites are known to reach capacity the moment they become available for booking. If you're looking for a bargain on accommodations, winter is the best time to visit Yosemite.
Weather in Yosemite
Data sourced from the National Climatic Data Center
What You Need to Know
- It's huge The park takes up a whopping 750,000 acres. Many visitors often don't realize how long it can take to get from point A to B in the park. From certain entrances, and especially from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows, expect about an hour or more in the car.
- You'll probably stay in Yosemite Valley Yosemite Valley is where most of the park's top attractions (think Half Dome, El Capitan, Glacier Point and the Mist Trail), accommodations and amenities are.
- Summer is really busy All seasonal closures lift during summer. As such, the park becomes packed. Expect traffic jams, crowded trails and campsites and hotels booked months in advance. If you don't want to deal with this chaos, try visiting late spring or early fall.
- Start your day early If you do visit during the summer, park officials say you can beat the crowds in the trails and on the road if you hit attractions before 10 a.m.
- Bring warm clothes Even during the summer, nighttime temps can get downright chilly, plunging into the low 50s and high 40s. Bring warm clothes or a coat even if you're visiting during August.
How to Save Money in Yosemite
- Rough it Camping in the park (which includes bringing your own tent, food and supplies) is the cheapest way to experience Yosemite. Just be sure to book a spot early, especially if you want to visit during the busy summer season.
- Don't visit during summer Summer is peak travel season in Yosemite, so expect lodging costs to be at their highest. To avoid this, come during fall or late spring.
- Take advantage of public transit Yosemite's bus service is extensive and free, taking visitors to popular points of interest including the Mist Trail and Tuolumne Meadows.
What to Eat
In comparison to other national parks, Yosemite offers a decent amount of dining options. You'll find many of Yosemite's best restaurants in the park's hotels and lodges, including the Dining Room at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the Mountain Room at the Yosemite Valley Lodge or the Dining Room at the Big Trees Lodge, to name a few. Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and White Wolf Lodge also offer dining rooms, but they are much more casual in comparison to the more grandeur lodges found in Yosemite Valley.
There are also a handful of stand-alone restaurants in Yosemite and Half Dome Villages, including Pizza Deck and The Loft at Degnan's, but overall they are few and far between in the park. Half Dome and Yosemite Villages also feature general and grocery stores that sell food and hiking supplies, such as camping amenities and dehydrated food and water.
Whenever you're outdoors, you should exercise common sense and caution. Never hike or rock climb alone or without an experienced guide, especially at night, and be sure that you're equipped with the proper clothing, sturdy footwear, sunscreen and an adequate amount of water (the NPS recommends 1 quart for every two hours of hiking) before entering the wilderness. Also, know your limitations. Many of the hikes and trails in Yosemite, such as the trek up to Half Dome, are very strenuous and are not meant for everybody. And if you're hiking up to one of Yosemite's many beautiful falls, do not swim in any body of water connected to the falls. Even streams, rivers, ponds and lakes that look calm and shallow carry unsuspecting swimmers to the falls, resulting in death. For more information about hiking safety, visit Yosemite National Park's website. And although it's tempting to want to go off the grid in Yosemite, it's advised to keep a charged cell phone with you at all times in case of an emergency. Cell service is available in Yosemite, but access and quality are dependent on your carrier. For more information on service and Wi-Fi in the park, consult this guide.
It's also very important to observe local laws and rules regarding what you can do as well as bring in and out of Yosemite. Approaching wildlife and collecting plants, even pine cones, are illegal. If you're camping, know it is illegal to drive off-road, stay in undesignated campgrounds and if you are staying in designated campgrounds, you must keep your food locked in food lockers. The NPS advises that even items that aren't food, but have a smell to them, attract bears. Failure to comply with these regulations will result in a hefty fine.
Getting Around Yosemite
The best way to get around Yosemite is by car. Unless you're taking a private car or public transportation from one of the park's nearby airports, there's no point in ditching your (albeit expensive) rental car and taking Yosemite's shuttles around the park, especially after a long hike. However, during the park's peak travel season, these shuttles will be your friend. Road traffic during the summer is known to cause major delays and trailhead parking lots can fill up fast. If you aren't interested in getting up early to hit popular spots or the trails (which is highly recommended by park officials to avoid crowds), the park's shuttles can save you some serious time.
There are a variety of airport options around Yosemite, making the park one of the most convenient to visit in the USA. The closest airport is the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport (FAT), which is about 65 miles south of the park (about a 1½-hour drive). San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK) and San Jose International Airport (SJC) are also within driving distance of park. However, know that the drive will be considerably longer, clocking in at more than three hours on the road.
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