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California, Cloud, Forest

Pirates on Tour: Why Yosemite National Park definitely deserves a spot on your must-see travel list

Is Yosemite worth the hype? I get this question a lot when friends ask for recommendations when touring California, wondering if they should make time to see Yosemite.

My answer: as a native Californian, and someone who grew up visiting Yosemite, I can easily say that there are few places that rival the beauty that is found in Yosemite National Park. However, this comes with one giant caveat – only if you do it right.

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Did you know that the Sierra Nevada is the tallest and longest mountain range in the United States? The landscape of the Sierra Nevada alone is unlike any other; which is, in part, what makes Yosemite so unique. And it is no wonder why Yosemite is undoubtedly one of the most popular national parks in the USA.

This doesn’t always make for the best experience if you’re trying to have a moment with nature and nearby Mr. “let’s take another selfie” is harshing your vibe. In peak season, Yosemite can easily turn into a theme park-like set up, with queues for popular hiking trails and loads of crowds everywhere you look.

To keep you from experiencing this, my advice is to visit in the spring and stay in the park. This is exactly what I did, and it was by far my most enjoyable trip to Yosemite. If aren’t able to do either of those, then all is not lost, I’ve got some advice on that too if you prefer to skip ahead.

I visited Yosemite in late May for two nights, just before the mandatory reservations for the park came into effect. We completely lucked out and found a last-minute opening at Housekeeping Camp in the Yosemite Valley, and jumped on it. We had originally planned to stay at a campsite in El Porto, which is located outside the national park and about an hour’s drive from the Valley.

The drive from San Francisco to Yosemite is an easy and pleasant one, though the first half is mainly highway; the second half is through farm land and small towns. After three hours, we entered the national park. From the park entrance, it is about a 30-minute drive to the valley. One of the main reasons you should stay in the park is that it will cut your driving time by an hour each day. It will also allow you to beat a lot of the crowds in the mornings, which means you can experience some of the most popular sites in peace.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: If you’re planning to visit more than one national park while visiting the US, then I would recommend getting a National Parks Pass. Entry to Yosemite National Park is $35 per car; whereas the pass is $80. You can even share the pass among friends, which is what we did.

One of the coolest things about driving into Yosemite Valley is the million-dollar view you'll have, which is known famously as “Tunnel View”. It is the perfect amalgamation of everything Yosemite is known for, and you’ll most definitely want to stop and take pictures. The fresh snow melt meant the waterfalls were flowing, so we could see three different waterfalls, El Capitan, Half Dome, the Merced and the Valley all ahead of us. It was absolutely breathtaking.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: To get this view, you’ll want to take the North Entrance to the park and stop at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel along the Wawona Road (Highway 41).

Our reservations said that check-in wasn’t until 4pm, but we arrived around 1pm and decided to push our luck further to see if they would let us check in a bit earlier. None of us had stayed at Housekeeping Camp before, so we weren't entirely sure what to expect.

We were directed to a tent near the Merced River. Our tent consisted of three solid walls and a roof, inside there was a bunk bed, with two twins and a full bed – perfect for the four of us. We had a picnic table in front of the tent, which was surrounded by two walls for further privacy, and then in front of that we had an open side with a fire pit. It was a lot more glamorous than we had imagined, more like glamping than camping. Did I mention that we even had electricity?

The best part, however, was our view. In front of us, we had the Merced River which was flowing nicely and had a sandy river bank to sit on; to the right of us, we had a spectacular view of Half Dome; and to the left of us we had a full on view of Yosemite Falls. Suffice to say, we were totally chuffed with our campsite!

The first day, after setting up camp and making sure all our food was locked up in the bear bins, we walked around Yosemite Valley. Due to Covid, the shuttles were running on a very limited schedule, however, they are free to use and normally are a great way to get around the valley. We decided to walk the loop, which turned out to be a little too much for our first day.

Highlights include hiking the Yosemite Falls trail and visiting The Ahwahnee, a famous hotel from 1927 that is a historic landmark and well worth a visit for the history alone.

Our second day, we decided to be a little more ambitious and hiked the Mist Trail, a popular hike for tourists that follows the Merced River and passes several waterfalls. We didn’t realise how steep the hike would be, and were a bit surprised to find tourists of all ages and fitness levels hiking this supposedly easy trail – some even in high heels! We definitely noticed how the pandemic and various lockdowns had effected our fitness abilities, so we decided to turn around at Vernal Falls, the first waterfall, after one of us became injured. The hike itself was gorgeous, and I am hoping to go back to finish it one day soon.

We all agreed that one more day in Yosemite would have been perfect. After so much walking and hiking the day before, it would have been a better idea to have had one day at camp to hang out in between. I think one of the best experiences was at night, sitting around the campfire with a cold beer in hand, a roaring fire in front of you and a full sky of stars above.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: Each camp has its own convenience store that sells food, toiletries and drinks. We weren’t aware of this beforehand, so we brought all of our own food and drinks into the park. Our particular favourite find was a Yosemite-themed craft beer by a local brewery, Mammoth brewery. I am not ashamed to admit that it also made for a great photo op ;)

On day three, we packed up camp and headed back out, sad to leave but also ready to go home and get clean. On our drive back to San Francisco, we talked about the parts of our trip that we loved most and decided that we wanted to make this a regular camping trip, already planning for next year.

When is the best time to go to Yosemite National Park?

There might not be a wrong time to go to Yosemite, but figuring out when you’d like to go depends on what you want to do. My favourite time to visit is during spring, after the snowmelt, when the waterfalls are at their fullest. If you time it right, you can also see when the dogwoods are in bloom, which is a pretty spectacular sight! Of course, during the spring, you might catch some rain, making camping slightly uncomfortable. It is also the case that some upper trails are closed due to snow.

Summer is probably the most crowded time to go, and crowds of international travellers and Americans alike flock to the national park. Autumn holds a particularly romantic feel to it. Given the higher altitude, mornings and nights can be particularly crisp. Seeing the autumn foliage, however, is a nice sight. Of course, don’t except the types of colours that can be seen on the East Coast of the United States, in California it is a lot more subtle, though still beautiful.

How do I get to Yosemite?

The cheapest way to visit is to fly into San Francisco (SFO) and rent a car. From San Francisco, it is about a 3-hour drive. If you are already in the US, you could also fly to Fresno, California, the most convenient airport to access Yosemite National Park. Fresno is around two hours from Yosemite via bus or train.

If you're staying outside the park, you can take the YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) which connects the national park to surrounding towns and areas. Your ticket also includes entry into the park and return prices range from $9 to $39 depending on your route.

Places to stay inside Yosemite National Park

If you can, we recommend booking a place inside the park. This will save you at least an hour every day of driving, if not more. Just be aware that campsites in Yosemite Valley are extremely popular and can sell out in minutes. They are often booked out for years in advance, so if you see an available date, we highly recommend not waiting to book it.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: If you're already in California and flexible on time, I suggest to look for last-minute cancellations. This is exactly what we did and were able to find more than one option in the park a few weeks in advance.

Housekeeping Camp

This is my personal favourite. We lucked out and were able to catch a cancellation inside the park at Housekeeping Camp. This saved us a full hour of driving each day, and we could easily walk from our campsite to various trails and sites around the valley. Two nights cost $238 for the four of us, which worked out to about $60 per person, per day. Staying in the Valley also helped us save a lot of money on gas, as well.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: If you want to make sure to score a good tent site, you can pay a little more for a spot next to the river.

North Pines Campground

Accommodation within the park is scarce, but this particular camp ground is particularly popular! Just like housekeeping camp, North Pines Campground is also located in the middle of Yosemite Valley and features a magnificent view of the granite mountain Half Dome. Unlike Housekeeping Camp, this is a real campsite where you'll have to bring your own tent to pitch.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: Campsites are available up to five months in advance on the 15th of each month at 7:00 a.m. (PT) or 10:00 a.m. (ET). We suggest setting an alarm and booking a campsite immediately, as they can sell out in a matter of minutes!

Curry Village

Curry Village is the largest lodging facility in Yosemite Valley, offering various types of accommodation including motel rooms, cabins and canvas tents. Being the largest in the park, you'll also find a lot more to do here than the other campsites. The village boasts an outdoor pool (which is open in summer), an ice skating rink (open in winter), an entertainment amphitheatre and a dining hall with multiple options including a bar with an outdoor terrace and a grill. Accommodation options at Curry Village range from $155 to $270 per night.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: Like the others, Curry Village also sells out quickly. It is recommended to book at least 10-12 months in advance. Reservations are open one year and one day in advance. Even if you don't stay here, it's a fun place to have a walk around or grab a bite to eat.

The Awahnee

If you aren’t a camping person, there is the possibility to stay at a 4-star hotel in the Valley, but it will cost you. Rooms at The Awahnee start from $518 a night. Built in 1927, the hotel is steeped in history, and is one of the most distinctive resort hotels in North America. Throughout the years, many notable guests have stayed, including many emperors, kings and queens, though most famously, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Even if you don’t stay the night here, we highly recommend visiting the hotel. The restaurant is only open to guests, however there is an upscale bar that is open to the public.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate Tip: Skip the bar (which usually has an hour wait time) and instead grab a beer or bottle of wine from the hotel shop which is located across from the bar to save some serious cash. You can drink it on the hotel’s patio, which is completely acceptable.

Places to stay outside of Yosemite Valley

If you're super keen to visit Yosemite National Park, but there is no availability in the Valley, you'll have to look elsewhere. Not sure where to start? It's super important to note that from the entrance of the park to the Valley is about a 30-minute drive, so it's best to keep that in mind when looking for places to book. Of course, the further away you are from the entrances, the cheaper the accommodation will be.

Since there are two park entrances,I recommend focusing on towns and villages that are close by either entrance.

For those who would like to spend most of their time in the Valley, you should enter the North Entrance. Try booking accommodation in El Portal, which is about an 1-hour drive to the Valley.

The South Entrance is perfect for those looking to explore Mariposa Grove – the largest of the three groves of mature giant sequoias within the park, visiting the historic Wawona Hotel or go horse back riding.

If you are planning to enter via the South Entrance, then look at staying in or around Bass Lake. There are some good deals you can find on Airbnb and you can even spend a full day at the lake as well.

🏴‍☠️ Pirate tip: If you’d like to visit the giant sequoias – the world's largest trees – and aren’t able to get a reservation for Yosemite, I highly recommend visiting Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Dorrington, California. In my opinion, the trees at Big Tress are way more impressive than Yosemite’s redwoods. If you do go for a visit, stay a night in Murphys – a former gold rush town that still holds some of its historic charm but is now full of wine tasting rooms, restaurants and cute shops. Alternately, you can stay the night in Arnold, which is a 10-minute drive from the park. Stop into the Lube Room Saloon in Dorrington for a burger, it’s a local favourite.

The 5 most-important things I learned on my trip to Yosemite National Park

Last, but not least, I leave you with some things that I learned on my trip to Yosemite.

1. Talk to a park ranger

If you didn’t already know, Americans are super friendly folk and park rangers are more than happy to help answer any questions you have about the park or the flora and fauna that can be found there.

2. Follow the rules

This one might seem a bit lame, I know, but in all honesty, nature is something you don’t want to mess with. Bears live in the park and will come visit if you leave food out. Make sure that you have anything with a smell (yes, that includes toothpaste and other toiletries) locked up in a bear canister. Even if you’re even there for the day. My brother and I made sure that we cleaned the car from top to bottom before setting off, removing any old gum wrappers, lotions or chapsticks that were hiding in different compartments.

3. Don’t feed the animals

I feel like this goes without saying, but since I’ve seen it happen, it's something that needs iteration. No matter how cute they might look, please don’t feed the animals. The animals in the park are wild and shouldn’t rely on humans for food. If you are travelling with smaller children, please also remind them of this. If you’re caught feeding animals, you could have to pay up to $5,000 in fines.

4. Take as many selfies as you want, just don’t cross the barriers

You might be surprised to learn that a number of deaths happen each year in Yosemite from tourists taking selfies. The barriers are there for a reason, so please keep that in mind. It only takes one misstep to fall off the top of one of the sheer granite cliffs or to be swept away by an overflowing river.

5. If you build a fire, make sure it is completely out when you leave

California is in a drought and water is very precious. Because of this, forest fires have become a huge issue in the past decade. If you have a fire at your campsite, please make sure that you put it out completely before you leave or go to bed. The best way to do this is by making sure there are no hot coals or embers left in the pit.

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