How to Explore Yosemite National Park

When to go, how to get there, and things not to miss.

Posted on: April 4, 2019
By: Robyn Smith
How to Explore Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is one of the most remarkable wild spaces in the world.  Designated a Unesco World Heritage site, Yosemite is a must see for all nature lovers in North America. With so much to see and do, you’ll want to answers to the most frequently asked questions about Yosemite before you get there. Get inspired and plan your adventure with this complete guide to visiting Yosemite National Park.

History of Yosemite

Discovering and learning about the history of Yosemite is part of the visitor experience and many museums, guided tours, and visitor attractions are dedicating to preserving and passing on this history. Reading up on the history of Yosemite before you visit is a great way to get the most out of your trip. We’ll breeze over the broad strokes of Yosemite’s history to whet the palette.

How to pronounce "Yosemite"

Yoh-SEM-i-tee.  Yosemite means “killers”.  The Miwok tribe used the word to describe the Ahwahneechee who inhabited the valley and fiercely defended it against unwanted invaders.  L. H. Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion ‘named’ the valley Yosemite, mistakenly believing the word meant “Grizzly Bear”; one of several translation mistakes that were adopted into the historical record and popular culture.

The native Ahwahneechee called the valley Ahwahnee, which roughly translates to ‘big mouth’. When standing in the valley and gazing up at the massive sheer rock walls, it does feel like you're being swallowed up.

Who discovered Yosemite?

People inhabited Yosemite for at least 3,000 years. Evidence suggests humans may have first set foot in the valley as many as 10,000 years ago, although these discoverers are not credited as they predated the western written record.  

The California Gold Rush put invading European-Americans in competition with the native Ahwahneechee.  The US Army’s Mariposa Battalion, under the command of Major Jim Savage, went to war to suppress, and eventually drive out, the Ahwahneechee lead by Chief Tanaya. Reports of the Yosemite’s natural wonders by members of the Mariposa Battalion sparked an interest in the valley as a tourism destination. 

Over the years, many entrepreneurs built out hotels and attractions for visiting tourists, many named after their founders or capitalized on Native American names and settlement.  You can’t fully appreciate many of the major attractions at Yosemite without understanding the history behind them.  The influx of commercial interest and tourism in Yosemite led to the development of the National Park System.

Although Yosemite was not the first National Park, it was the first time the US Government intervened to protect a natural wonder.  Lincoln declared the valley a public trust of California in 1864.  The legendary John Muir successfully convinced congress to protect and designate Yosemite as a National Park in 1890, after Yellowstone and Sequoia.

camping yosemite national park

Photo courtesy of Christel De Maeyer

Best Man-Made Sites in Yosemite:

Due to a profoundly unfortunate legal dispute many of the classic Yosemite sites are going by new names.  Long story short: Delaware North was the previous concessionaire hired by the US Government to manage many of the parks food services, accommodations, and attractions.  The government awarded the concessionaire job to a new company: Aramark.  Aramark is required to buy all of the assets from Delaware North to take over their job.  Delaware North is demanding an outrageous price for the “property” including the 100+ year old names of attractions they trademarked.  While the legal battle holding the names hostage plays out you’ll need to translate the old names to the new names to make your way around.  Sad.

  • The Ahwahnee Hotel renamed The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
  • Curry Village renamed  Half Dome Village
  • Yosemite Lodge at the Falls renamed  Yosemite Valley Lodge
  • Badger Pass Ski Area renamed Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area
  • The Wawona Hotel renamed Big Trees Lodge

The Tunnel Tree (aka Wawona Tree):  This giant sequoia in Mariposa grove named after the Wawona Native American encampment.  A giant hole was cut through the tree and became a favorite for tourists to drive carriages and automobiles through, and pose for pictures. The 2,300 year old tree fell over in 1969; likely due to the giant hole cut through it and heavy traffic through and around it.

The Ahwahnee Hotel: Named for the Native American name for the valley, the massive luxury resort opened in 1987.  Almost everyone that visits Yosemite passes by the Ahwahnee or stops for a visit.  Today the hotel continues to thrive but the name has been changed to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, because lawsuits.

Where is Yosemite National Park Located and how do I get there?

Yosemite is a massive 1,200 square miles located in West Central California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You’ll want to drive to the park so rent a car if you're flying in. 

What is the Best Airport to Fly into to visit Yosemite?

San Francisco (SFO) is the most popular airport for visiting Yosemite, but Sacramento (SMF) is the better choice if you're not interested in visiting San Francisco as well.  Rental cars and hotel rooms are cheaper in Sacramento (SMF) and you can get in and out of the tiny regional airport in 10-15 minutes. Sacramento (SMF) also has fewer delays than the heavily trafficked and fog affected San Francisco International.

What is the best entrance to Yosemite National Park?

There are 5 entrances and two strategies: Distance and traffic.  Four entrances are on the western side, one is on the eastern side.  

Hetch Hetchy: Northern most and least trafficked of the western side entrances.  This part of the park is also much less travelled than the others so it’s worth the trip if you're looking to avoid bumper to bumper traffic in high season and your primary directive is to hike.  The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir supplies water for most of the salad ingredients and tech companies in the country.

Big Oak Flat: One of the most direct routes from the Bay Area makes Big Oak Flat one of the busiest entrances.  There are a ton of restaurants and quaint towns to stop off at along the way.  The best route to take to hit Tuolumne and Merced Groves and marvel at the massive redwoods.

 Arch Rock (aka El Portal): The busiest entrance and the main vein feeding into the iconic valley full of the main attractions.  If you're short on time this is probably the quickest way to access the most popular (and busiest) parts of the park.

South Entrance: If you're coming from L.A. or San Diego this is the closest entrance and delivers you right to Mariposa Grove, the largest of the redwood groves Yosemite has to offer.  

Tioga Pass: The only East side entrance and a great option if you're coming from Reno or Death Valley.  Words can’t describe the drive in from this side of the park. 

How to visit and explore Yosemite National Park?

Hiking and camping in Yosemite are the best ways to take in the natrual wonder.  Finding a camping spot can be challenging so make reservations or if you do find a camp spot use that spot in the non-reserved areas as a base camp or launching pad to hit up the big name attractions you can get to by car or shuttle.

Where to Camp in Yosemite?

The options are theoretically endless but camping sites in Yosemite are in high demand so finding one is hard.  The best site to look up all the Campsites in Yosemite is the National Parks Campground Page.

Car Camping: Sleeping in your car, van, or RV is not allowed in Yosemite unless you’re parked in a designated campsite.  If you do have a campsite pitch a tent!  You’ve probably spent a lot of time in your car already to get this far!


RV Camping: Yes there are RV spots in Yosemite but they are even harder to secure than regular campsites.  Most sites are simply too small for RV’s and pull outs around the park are often far too busy to accesses with an RV so you will miss out on a lot of cool stop offs simply because your vehicle is too big to even bother.  

Reserved Camping in Yosemite: Make a reservation.  Seriously. You’ll want to start applying the minute reservations become available and you’ll have to be quick about it.  The National Forest Service recommends starting the reservation process before 7am PST on the first day reservations are available so you're ready to click the button at just the right time.

If you get one of these spots, get one of these tents and make the most of your campsite!

First-Come First-Serve Camping in Yosemite: You’ll be lucky to grab one of these but the best strategy is to show up early in the morning and respectfully figure out who’s leaving so you can take their spot at these walk up campgrounds:

The spot stalking strategy won’t work for the spots below.  You need to register with at the kiosk at Camp 4 or reservation office off Tioga road for Tuolumne Meadows to snag one of these.

Back Country Camping: Camping on an overnight hike is called backcountry camping or backpacking.  You will need a wilderness permit for Yosemite, more information and experience than we can pack into this blog.  Follow CanvasCamp on social media to be the first to read our Complete Guide to Backcountry Camping.

Which Yosemite valley campground is the best?

The best campground at Yosemite is the one you can camp at either because you have a reservation for it or because you got super lucky at a walk up.  Keep in mind there are no bad campsites at Yosemite.  Every single campsite has something special to offer and will make a great experience. 

In the Yosemite Valley, North Pines and Upper Pines offer the best views.  Yosemite Creek in the northern part of the park is key for being the first up to Yosemite Falls in the morning.  Porcupine Flat right next door is usually the last non-reserved campground to fill up in the summer so head there early if you’re headed in without a reservation.

When is the best time to visit Yosemite National Park?

Every time is a great time to visit Yosemite.  May-September weather is ideal, rivers are running, waterfalls are rushing, flowers are blooming, and bears are wandering. The best weather also garners the biggest crowds.  There’s plenty of space for everyone but the easy to access main attractions are packed, campgrounds are full, and traffic is rough.

April and October are ‘shoulder seasons’ where it’s cold but still pleasant if you're prepared and the crowds are slightly less overwhelming.

Winter in Yosemite is magical if you have the right gear.  Few people make the trek out and many roads are closed but it’s still worth the trip!  You can even ski at Badger Pass!

What are the Must Do activities and sights in Yosemite National Park?

See the Redwoods: Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove, Merced Grove

Hike the Half Dome: Most reasonably fit people can make this trek.  The heights and exposure are worth the expansive views.

Climb El Capitan: Or if you're not an expert rock climber just watch other people do it.

Camp: Just being out there under the stars anywhere in the park is worh the trip even if that is all you do.

Bridalveil Falls:  There are lots of waterfalls in Yosemite but this is the main attraction.

Get your non-hiking friends, family, and small children outside.  Many of the big Yosemite valley attractions are so accessible even the least physically fit humans can enjoy them. Nature walks, paved walkways, and impeccably maintained trails less than a mile long are right off the trail.

How should I prepare for camping in Yosemite National Park?

We’ll spare you the “it depends” response because what you need is obviously dependant on what you want to accomplish.

Let’s reframe this question to hit on 80% of visitors to Yosemite.  How should I prepare for camping in Yosemite for maximum fun for all ages, abilities, and interests?  

Bear proof your stuff:

  • Put all of your food in 2 big containers:  Cooler/perishables and Dry/non-perishables.  These should both fit in a bear box.  All food items go in these containers when they are not actively being eaten so you can easily store them in the bear boxes.  Being lazy or forgetful with food storage is usually why people end up with bears in their tents or cars.  If you make it easy for everyone at camp to comply, compliance is more likely to occur. Empty your packs and pockets of all food items as soon as you return to camp. Bears will tear apart your tents and car to get to your granola bar stash.

Bring the Right Tent:

  • Once you’ve got a coveted campsite hang on to it and make yourself at home.  Look for a big comfy tent that’s big enough for everyone to hang out inside and still enjoy themselves.  California has been experiencing increasingly severe weather that ranges from torrential rain to extreme drought.  Work with the weather. If it rains you’ll want your friends and all your stuff inside and accessible.  If there is a fire ban, you’ll want to hang out inside and out of the cold.  You’ll also want a tent that you can pitch in 15 minutes or less.   We recommend the Sibley 400 Pro.  It’s small enough to fit in almost any camp site, but big enough to sleep a family of 5 and hold ALL of your gear (expect the food!).

Bring the right Clothes:

  • Prepare to layer.  Weather can change quickly and drastically in Yosemite.  You’ll want to start with a light base layer when it’s warm and sunny.  Have a warm mid-layer and socks handy for when the temperature drops.  Always have a waterproof rain layer that fits over all of your other clothes if needed.

  • Comfy closed toe footwear.  Bring your sandals for walking around camp.  Bring sneakers or even hiking boots for longer trips and inclement weather.  Your feet are your primary means of exploring Yosemite so take good care of them.  See our festival accessories blog to read up on hippy foot if you're considering going sandal only.

Plan Ahead

  • Make reservations for Campgrounds at Yosemite whenever possible.  This may mean booking in April for your trip in August.  If you didn’t get a reservation have a plan B, C, and D for where you can camp and how to get there.

  • Visit the main attractions and heavily trafficed sites in the early morning or late afternoon.  Fill your day with deeper exploration of less accessible areas to avoid the crowds

Of course any time you venture into the wilderness you’ll need the essentials:  Water, Shelter, Food, First-aid kit, fire source, sunscreen, and navigation.

What are rules for visiting Yosemite?

Being good stewards and respectful tourists is a must for anywhere you go. The National Park Service posts valuable information on their website.  Here’s what you need to know to avoid being ‘that guy’ when visiting Yosemite:

  • Be Patient.  Millions of people visit Yosemite during high season.  The easier the access the more people you’ll encounter.  You’re on vacation so chill out if you're stuck in traffic, can’t find a place to park, and have to wait in line to snap the perfect selfie.  It’s worth it.

  • Avoid Peak travel times. Just like commuting to your job, avoid rush hour.  Holidays, weekends, 9am - 5pm...if you can plan your trip to avoid driving around the park at these times you’ll still be in traffic, but less traffic than peak times.  If you can’t avoid rush hour re-read rule one above.

  • Make a reservation:  You can enter the park without a reservation, but finding a camping spot can be next to impossible without a reservation. Plan if you can.

  • Don’t approach the wildlife:  Getting a glimpse of wildlife is one of the main reasons to visit Yosemite.  Keep in mind these are wild animals.  Stay a safe distance away.  Do not draw attention to youself.  Do not feed the animals. Do not turn your back on a wild animal to snap a selfie.

  • Drive like you're in a school zone. Take it slow.  Keep your eyes on the road.  Stop often at designated pull out spots to marvel at your surroundings.  You will see many animals slamming on their breaks, throwing it in park, jumping out of their cars, and running towards bears with cameras in hand. These creatures pose more risk to you than bears. Remain vigilant.

  • Store your food safely. Read about How to Camp Safely with Bears.  Use Bear Boxes at all times.  Use Bear Cannisters when boxes are not avialable.  Never keep food in your car or tent. Don’t forget that toothpaste, deoderant, sunscreen, lotion, and perfumes smell like food to a bear as well.

  • Download Google Maps to your phone and keep it charged or buy a good topographical map and a compass.  Mobile phone service is limited so be prepared to navigate the old fashioned way.  Know where you are and tell someone where you're headed and when you’ll be back.  Getting lost can happen even 20 yards off a well trafficked trail.  Don’t believe me?  Ask a ranger.


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