Giant rock formations, waterfalls and deep valleys, pristine lakes and rushing rivers, gorgeous meadows, giant sequoias, and vast wilderness areas make Yosemite National Park one of the most loved and most visited national parks in the U.S.
But this popularity comes with a price; in recent years, the famous park has become congested, making it hard to enjoy for those who don’t have backcountry permits. This, alongside the COVID pandemic the nation is still battling, prompted the park to make some changes meant to make all visitors’ stay enjoyable. Limiting crowds and implementing social distancing protocols are only a couple of them.
Since my family just returned from a visit, I can attest to the fact that they work — though it helps if you know what to expect before you go. With that in mind, here are some tips for visiting Yosemite National Park this summer.
1. Make A Reservation Before Driving To The Entrance Gate
To limit the crowds and keep us all safe, this year, the park implemented a reservation system. Everyone who enters the park needs a reservation. Before driving up to the gate, make sure you have it. Standing in line at the gate to enter during our visit, I noticed a few cars were turning around and leaving, the car ahead of us being one. They didn’t have reservations to enter.
“Can I just buy one here?” the driver asked the ranger. No, he could not.
“You might get lucky and get one, if someone cancels, but you can’t check here,” I heard the ranger say. “We have no signal. Drive back to the nearest town and try to get a reservation online. Good luck.”
The reservation requirement runs from May 21 to the end of September (for now) to reduce the crowds. As we are still battling COVID, they are trying to keep visitors and park employees safe.
If you are staying in Yosemite overnight or have wilderness permits to backpack through the park, these reservations count as passes, just show them at the gate. Otherwise, you need to show a reservation for a day-use pass. They’re issued for three consecutive days and only cost $2. They are available at the Recreation.gov site. You need them in addition to the park entrance fee.
2. You Also Need A Reservation To Camp In Yosemite National Park This Summer
Lodging in any of the hotels in Yosemite National Park always requires advance planning and reservations. However, this year, the same is true for camping in the park, since only some campgrounds are operating with limited capacity.
To stay safe during the pandemic, while still being able to enjoy camping in the gorgeous setting, the park changed its first come first serve policy for this summer and now requires advance reservations.
Your camping, just like your lodging reservation, serves as an entry pass for the length of your stay in the park.
3. Don’t Count On The Shuttle Service This Season
To reduce the spread of coronavirus, and due to lack of staffing, the shuttle service is not operating in Yosemite National Park this season. However, since the crowds are limited and certain areas are closed, I didn’t feel the need for them. You can get around all the areas by car or through hikes.
4. Drive Into Yosemite Valley Early Or Late In The Day
Though the reservation system limits the number of visitors, Yosemite Valley, the most popular area of the park, may still get congested. To avoid it, make the Valley your earliest — or latest — destination in the park.
Not only does this ensure you can park and stop at any of the spots you want, but you’ll also enjoy more pleasant hikes when temperatures are lower. Summer days may get hot in the lower elevations in Yosemite, so spending time there early or late in the day is more pleasant.
Visiting the park during some of the hottest days of early June (and we had to stick to our reserved dates — couldn’t change them), we spent most of our time in the upper elevations, near Tioga Pass Road.
We drove to Yosemite Valley first thing in the morning, but even then, we found it too hot for longer hikes. But we avoided congestion and had no trouble parking anywhere we wanted to stop.
5. Be Aware Of Road Changes In Yosemite Valley This Season
To further avoid congestion in the most popular area of the Yosemite Valley, the park implemented some road accessibility changes this summer. Drive slowly and watch the signs closely when you drive in the Valley.
We ended up driving around in a large circle when we missed a new turn. Still, it wasn’t difficult to get back to where we wanted to be. The system seems to work, and it is easy to follow — if you pay attention.
6. Don’t Expect To Enter The Visitor Center
Though the visitor center itself is closed, you’ll find a visitor information desk just outside the building.
The gift shop is open, though, with coronavirus protocols in place. The protocols include separate entrance and exit doors, social distancing rules, and a mask mandate.
You’ll find several bathrooms open in the buildings. Just remember to wear a mask inside. They are cleaned and disinfected several times a day, so you might find some temporarily closed. In those cases, you’ll always find another one close by.
7. Always Follow COVID Protocols
Though many people are fully vaccinated by now, it is still important to follow these rules, even for those of us who are. Closed locations have no way to check every visitor’s vaccination status, and everyone will feel safer wearing masks and following social distancing protocols.
8. On the Hottest Days, Spend Most Of Your Time On The Highest Elevations
During the hot summer days, the higher elevations in the park offer the best experiences. Instead of spending most of your time in the famous Yosemite Valley, enjoy the cooler weather along Tioga Pass road.
You’ll find alpine lakes, shaded pine forests, and hiking trails for all abilities here. Visit Yosemite Valley early or late in the day, and spend midday on the beaches of Tenaya Lake, picnicking along the Yosemite River, or hiking one of the shaded trails in the higher elevations.
9. Stay Safe In The Park
Though we only encountered deer and small animals during our visit, the park is home to a large population of bears. Follow protocols in parking lots and trailheads, always lock the bear-safe garbage bins, and when necessary, lock your food in the designated boxes provided in the most bear-prone areas.
Drive slowly, and enjoy the views, keeping an eye out for wildlife. You want to be the person who sees them, not the one who hits them.
Be aware of the elevation in the park. Remember that the higher areas of the park are over 9,000 feet in elevation.
Yosemite Valley can get very hot in the summer, especially mid-day. During those times, stay at the higher elevations, or sit by the river in a shaded spot. Hike early or late in the day, wear a hat, and use sunscreen.
10. Find A Few Hiking Trails You Enjoy
Yosemite has plenty of hiking trails with gorgeous views, ranging from easy strolls in the forest to strenuous, multi-day treks that require a backcountry reservation to complete. Yosemite’s best-known trails are long and strenuous, so they should only be attempted by extremely fit hikers prepared for the challenge. But don’t worry — you’ll find plenty of easy and moderate trails anyone can enjoy.
11. Before Leaving, Drive Up To Glacier Point For The Best Views
No matter where you go within the park, you’ll find gorgeous views of waterfalls, gorgeous meadows, and stunning rock formations. But nothing beats the views of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point. No matter how long you stay in the park, make time to drive up to Glacier Point to take in these famous views.
When we visited, we didn’t have trouble finding a parking spot to park there, and the trails to the viewpoints were not too congested. I suspect it is thanks to the new reservation system; in past years, it was more difficult to enjoy this area because of its popularity.
You’ll find several short, paved trails to the viewpoints. Looking down into Yosemite Valley, you’ll see the most famous Ansel Adams images live in front of you. You’ll enjoy views of Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and groves of giant sequoias all in one.
Summer In Yosemite Pro Tips
Overall, I found Yosemite National Park less congested and more pleasant to visit than I expected. Yosemite has been so congested in the past years, we stayed away from it, especially in the summer. Now, our experience was pleasant and more relaxed.
Still, the park’s website warns that Yosemite Valley and the main entrances into the park get congested, especially during the weekends. To avoid this, visit during the middle of the week, and get to the gates early. We also found that the Tioga Pass entrance was less congested than we expected.