Even in a park system filled with 63 staggeringly beautiful locations, Yosemite National Park still stands out as one of the most coveted destinations for travelers from around the world. The sprawling sanctuary of natural wonder covers 1,169 square miles of California wilderness in the Sierra Nevada mountains, attracting 3.3 million visitors in 2021, according to the National Park Service. But if you’re looking to get a leg up on your visit to see Bridalveil Falls, Tunnel View, or El Capitan, it can help to have some insider knowledge before you pack your hiking boots and head out onto the trail. Read on to see some of the best expert hacks for planning a perfect trip to Yosemite National Park.
Spontaneity may make some types of travel more exciting, but when it comes to getting into California’s most coveted national park, a little planning ahead is highly advised. “This may not seem lesser-known, but we are surprised at how often people don’t realize you need to book a trip to Yosemite far ahead of your visit. Campsites within the park are available to reserve about four to five months in advance and they sell out in seconds,” warns Ashleigh Rudolph, founder and owner of Pine Road Travel Co.
“It’s also extremely difficult to get a campsite within the park, and there are tricks that give you a leg up—for example, knowing how to use the reservation system in advance of booking, utilizing many people to attempt to book just one campsite, knowing the right time to click ‘book now’ to try to squeeze in before the others, and also how to monitor for cancellations in case you weren’t able to get a site the first time around,” she explains.
Fortunately, all it takes is an alarm clock to help you secure a spot. “After booking out 70 percent of all reservation slots on March 23, the remaining 30 percent are available on a rolling basis seven days out,” Brooke Bergen, a travel blogger and founder of Brooke In Boots, tells Best Life. “Be logged in to www.recreation.gov and ready to purchase at exactly 8 a.m. Pacific Time, as Yosemite Reservations sell out within seconds.”
However, Rudolph says there may still be a backup option for accommodations if all else fails. “It’s also a good idea to have lodging reserved outside of the park before this time in case you don’t get a campsite within the park!”
Yosemite can take a little longer to truly appreciate as a vast, sprawling wilderness with specific sites that reward stepping off the major routes. Experts suggest planning for a few days in the park and getting comfortable with your surroundings instead of rushing through nature.
“I recommend booking a private or group tour the first day and going on your own the second day to further explore a spot that captured your heart or piqued your interest,” Keri-Jo Miles, the concierge at the Chateau du Sureau hotel, tells Best Life. “Another option is to plan your ‘big’ hike on the first day and then play ‘tourist’ on the second to visit ‘must-see’ highlights.”
Certain trips allow for lounging in bed and hitting the snooze button to your heart’s content. But if you’re planning on getting the most out of Yosemite, it can really help to be an early riser—especially if you’re worried about making it through the entrance quickly.
“Enter the park as early as possible! The gate is open even when park employees are not present,” Adam Marland, a travel photographer and writer for We Dream of Travel, tells Best Life. “There are days during peak season and special events where the park stops allowing entry after a certain point. Even when they don’t close the gates, you will be looking at literal hours of waiting in line during peak hours. Besides, sunrise is magical in the park and the best time to see wildlife!”
As an outdoor experience, it can be easy to assume that all you’ll need to enjoy Yosemite is a good pair of hiking boots, a sturdy backpack, and a trusty canteen. But many visitors can be sorely disappointed when they arrive and realize they won’t be able to access some of the park’s most coveted wonders because they didn’t make the proper arrangements ahead of time.
“Make sure to get permits for certain activities,” Tim White, the CEO and Founder of online travel resource MilePro, tells Best Life. “While the majority of the activities and hikes at Yosemite don’t require a permit, there are a few exceptions,” adding that the list includes some popular feats such as trekking up to Half Dome, overnight camping or backpacking in the Yosemite Wilderness, and John Muir Trail hikes that exit Yosemite via Donohue Pass.
“Make sure to get these well in advance of your trip, especially if you’re traveling during the busy season,” he adds.
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Your vehicle can be an absolute necessity for taking in the beauty of Yosemite in any reasonable amount of time. However, it can also seriously slow down your experience if you arrive along with crowds of other visitors during the busy season. That’s why experts say it can be best to ditch your car for a quick and easy option for getting around.
“The easiest and lesser-known way to avoid the day reservation is to book via YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transport System),” Cassie Yoshikawa, a Fresno, California-based travel blogger, tells Best Life. “Taking this shuttle bus is cheaper than the park entry fee and allows you to skip the day reservation.”
On top of saving you the hassle of parking, experts say the shuttle provides a great way to get to some of the park’s most popular sites without spending a dime. “The shuttle runs every 12 to 22 minutes, with direct service to Yosemite Village, Yosemite Valley Lodge, El Capitan Meadow, Curry Village, Mirror Lake, and more,” Bryn Culbert, Communications Coordinator at Wanderu, tells Best Life.
Despite its sprawling size, many visitors tend to gravitate to the park’s valley when they visit, thanks in part to the ease of access and popularity of certain sites. But according to experts, heading up to Yosemite’s High Country can provide breathtaking mountain views, isolated lakes, expansive meadows, and cascading waterfalls.
“These include areas like Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, Pothole Dome, and Tuolumne Meadows,” Miles tells Best Life. “They have less traffic than the ‘heart of the Park’ in Yosemite Valley, and they offer spectacular views.”
Any visitor to Yosemite knows that even when there are more than 1,100 square miles to see, certain times of the year can make the park feel awfully crowded. According to the National Park Service, almost 75 percent of annual visitors arrive during the “busy season” from May through October. Because of this, some experts say it can be worth bucking the trend and visiting during the slower months.
“There are fewer crowds, the local hotels are more affordable, and you can take your time to truly explore the park at a slower pace. Summers often have long lines, and the hikes are overly crowded,” travel blogger Erin Moreland tells Best Life.
“Keep in mind that if you’re traveling to Yosemite during the winter months, some of the roads and hikes are closed,” she cautions. “But seeing the park in the off-season with snow-capped mountains is absolutely breathtaking!”
While budgeting for a trip to Yosemite may not require the same planning as a trip to a cosmopolitan area, travelers looking to avoid spending much money can still save even more if they choose to visit on certain days of the year.
“One of the easiest ways to save money on your Yosemite trip is to avoid the entrance fee by making use of their ‘freebie days,'” Larry Snider, VP of Operations of Casago Vacation Rentals, tells Best Life. “Each year, the National Parks Service offers several days where you can visit national parks with no admission fee.”
According to the National Park Service, there are three remaining days in 2022 when all 63 national parks will grant free entry. They include the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, National Public Lands Day on September 24, and Veterans Day on November 11.
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