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7 Insider Tips for an Epic Weekend Trip to Yosemite

When Abraham Lincoln created the Yosemite Grant in 1864—the first time the federal government ever set aside a piece of land for preservation—the legendary president probably couldn’t imagine that some 150 years later, nearly 4 million people would visit the park annually. Indeed, Yosemite is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in the the world, drawing awe-struck visitors with its wonderful mix of stunning waterfalls, gorgeous meadows, and iconic rock formations like Half Dome and El Capitan.

Yosemite Sign
Yosemite National Park traces its origins to 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a grant that later became the basis of the national park system. Ray Bouknight

A weekend in Yosemite is an ideal way for outdoor-loving travelers to reconnect with nature. There are options for all levels of adventurers, from hardcore backcountry backpacking trips to cushy digs right within the park. But because Yosemite is such a popular place, especially in the summer high season, planning a weekend getaway requires some legwork. (Keep in mind that the park recently changed its concessionaire, and as a result, names of lodging and other landmarks have changed.) Here are some tips on making the most of your time there.

1. Plan As Far Ahead as Possible

Half Dome Village
With cozy, heated canvas tents and restrooms, Half Dome Village is one of Yosemite’s most popular accommodations. Miguel Vieira

Depending on when you visit, the crowds in Yosemite Valley can feel alarmingly Disney-esque. That’s not to say a weekend visit isn’t well worth it, but you’ll need to do some advance planning to secure lodging or a campsite. The most popular accommodations, Yosemite Valley Lodge, Half Dome Village, and the grand dame property, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee; even if you don’t stay there, cocktails on the patio are highly recommended) fill up months in advance. For the valley’s car campgrounds, reservations are required March 15 through November, as well as summer through fall for Crane Flat, Wawona, Hodgdon Meadow, and half of Tuolumne Meadows. Reservations become available on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time and often fill up in minutes. It’s helpful to have alternate dates in mind as you make reservations, and keep in mind that weekdays often offer more flexibility.

Another (sometimes more affordable) option is to stay farther afield. Just three miles from the park entrance, Tenaya Lodge is a comfy, well-equipped resort that’s undergone a property-wide overhaul in recent years (and its pool is simply heavenly in the summer), while Yosemite West is a development just inside the park that offers cabins and mountain homes at varying price points.

2. Consider an Offseason Visit

Shot of Half Dome
Half Dome is perhaps the most iconic rock formation in Yosemite National Park. Dimitry B.

Imagine a crisp fall hike under a canopy of changing leaves or cross-country skiing through the giant sequoias. Indeed, Yosemite is blissfully serene in the offseason, when crowds thin out and nature seems to breathe a sigh of relief. Winter can be an especially rewarding time to visit, especially if it’s warm—in fact, climbers Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell made their historic climb on El Capitan in January. But there’s plenty of snow-centric fun, too: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and even downhill skiing (the park’s on-site ski area is unpretentious, affordable, and a great spot for families.) Keep in mind that Tioga Road, the main access to the eastern parts of the park, is closed from October through May depending on snowfall.

3. Explore Beyond Yosemite Valley

Some 90 percent of the park’s travelers stick to Yosemite Valley, which makes up less than five percent of its total size. In other words, exploring some of the lesser-visited parts of the park—Hetch Hetchy, Wawona, Tuolumne Grove, Merced Grove, and Tuolumne Meadows, just to name a few—can make all the difference in ensuring some solitude in nature during your visit. If you do stick to the valley (and there are certainly some world-class hikes there), take heart that the masses generally start to disperse the farther (or higher) you go from the trailhead, especially on routes like Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls, and the John Muir Trail.

4. Consider Camping in the Nearby National Forest

Unable to snag reservations anywhere in the park? Don’t fret: Consider the free DIY dispersed camping (read: no toilets, drinking water, bear lockers, or campfires) on national forest land adjacent to the park.

5. Don’t Forget the Map and Binoculars

El Cap Climbers
Don’t forget the binoculars to try to spot climbers on El Capitan, which draws big-name climbers from all over the world. Phil

You’ll find plenty of modern-day conveniences in Yosemite—a well-stocked grocery store, comfy digs—but strong phone signals aren’t one of them. Cell phone signals are spotty, at best, and at most points in the park, nonexistent. Make sure to keep a good, old-fashioned map handy, especially when hiking or driving on remote roads. And while binoculars might seem like an old-school extra, you’ll be glad you have them when you’re savoring the vistas from various viewpoints and trying to spot climbers on crags like El Capitan.

6. Avoid Driving if Possible (Especially During the High Season)

You can explore many areas of Yosemite without needing a vehicle, reducing headaches over parking and traffic. Free shuttles circulate around the valley year-round and along Tioga Road during summer. Another under-appreciated way of exploring the valley (and avoiding traffic): bicycling (rentals available, or bring your own wheels). Get rolling on 12 miles of paved trails in the valley to take advantage of superb views of Yosemite Falls and access to popular sites like Mirror Lake.

No avoiding the car? Then fuel up long before arriving at the park, as gas prices increase the closer you get to entrances. Getting an early start is also highly recommended, and keep in mind that the roads around Yosemite Valley are one-way. It’s much easier to pull into a site and then keep driving if you decide not to explore it on foot than looping back around.

7. Take Advantage of the Programming

Yosemite is one of the most well-funded parks in the country, so take the opportunity to see your tax dollars at work with some of the park’s excellent (and free) nature programs and events: film screenings, moonlight hikes, and ranger walk and talks, just to name a few. And be sure to snag a copy of the equally awesome seasonal guide (available via free, downloadable PDF or at any ranger’s station). This handy resource is chock-full of helpful tips and activities happening in the park.

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