Planning a Camping Trip to Yosemite National Park

Jenn Martin
View of Yosemite Nationall Park

Yosemite National Park is a spectacular 1,200-square-foot California park famous for its thunderous waterfalls and imposing granite peaks. Due to the park's popularity, booking campsites can be quite competitive, especially in high season. With a little knowledge of the park and its specific reservations system, you can enjoy the year-round beauty and power of its singular scenery.

Camping at Yosemite

Yosemite National Park has 13 campsites. Half can be reserved and half cannot. Yosemite Valley is the most popular place to camp because many of the park's sites and amenities are centralized in this area, particularly around the park hub of Curry Village.

  • Most campsites are priced between $12 and $26 per day, but group camping sites cost more. Camp 4 is priced at $6 per person, per day.
  • There is a $10 change or cancellation fee.
  • Check in/out time is noon. If you arrive and no one is there to check you in, proceed to your reserved campsite and check back as soon as possible in the morning.

Each developed campground in Yosemite National Park has a fire pit, picnic table and food locker as well as access to flush toilets and drinking water. Fires are permitted year round, but times are restricted from 5pm to 10pm from May to September. Sites accommodate six people, but there is no limit on the number of tents.

Note that opening and closing dates for campgrounds will vary each year depending on a variety of factors.

Campsites in Yosemite Valley

There are four campsites located in the valley, and reservations fill up quickly. Group campsites are available at Upper Pines, North Pines and Lower Pines. Leashed pets are permitted at all sites except Camp 4.

  • Upper Pines: Like all the Pines campsites, Upper Pines is located in Curry Village. There are spaces for tents as well as RVs and trailers although size restrictions apply for the latter two. This developed campsite is available year round, and you can make reservations February - November.
  • North Pines: This is another developed camping area with sites for tents, RVs and trailers, although some restrictions apply. It's available April - November, and you can make a reservation.
  • Lower Pines: The smallest of the of the three Pines campsites, Lower Pines also accommodates tents, RVs and trailers. It's available March - November, and you can reserve your site ahead of time.
  • Camp 4: Located near Yosemite Lodge, this camping area is available year round on a first come, first served basis. It's only for tent camping, and it has a bathroom with flush toilets and drinking water.

Campsites Outside of Yosemite Valley

There are several campsites located outside of the Valley that are still inside the park. They are typically easier to book than the coveted Valley spots, but keep in mind you may have to travel up to 60 minutes by car to access the trails and other amenities in the Valley.

  • Wawona: Available year round, this camping area is located south of Yosemite Valley and has designated sites for tents, RVs and trailers. There's a modern bathroom, and drinking water is available. Reservations are accepted April - October.
  • Bridalveil Creek: Located south of Yosemite Valley and usually available July - September, this camping area mainly operates on a first come, first-served basis, although reservations are required for group or horse sites. Tent sites are available; RVs and trailers are only welcome in designated areas, and size restrictions apply.
  • Hodgdon Meadow: Located north of Yosemite Valley, this camping area is available year round, and you can make reservations April - October. RVs and trailers are not allowed in group sites.
  • Crane Flat: This camping area is also located north of Yosemite Valley, and it's available July - October by reservation. Camp in a tent, RV or trailer; note that size limits for RVs and trailers vary by individual site, so inquire before you book your spot.
  • Tamarak Flat: Located north of Yosemite Valley, this area is for tent camping only. It's fairly primitive since it only has a vault toilet, and potable water is not readily available. Stream water must be boiled before using it. Tamarack Flat is available July - October on a first come, first served basis.
  • White Wolf: This camping area is north of Yosemite Valley and is available July - October on a first come, first served basis. There are spots available for tents, RVs and trailers, and size restrictions apply.
  • Yosemite Creek: Located north of Yosemite Valley, this is another fairly primitive tent-camping site that only has a vault toilet and potable water is not readily available. This camping area is available July - September on a first come, first served basis.
  • Porcupine Flat: Available June - October on a first come, first served basis, this camping area is also located north of Yosemite Valley. There are sites for tents and limited availability for RVs and trailers.
  • Tuolumne Meadows: Available July - September and located north of Yosemite Valley, half of the campsites can be reserved and the other half are available on a first come, first served basis. All group sites and horse sites require reservations. You can always tent camp, but be aware that size restrictions for RVs and trailers vary by individual site.

Backcountry Campsites

There are also numerous backcountry camping options at Little Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra camps. However, wilderness permits are required for camping in those locations.

RV and Trailer Camping

RVs up to 40-feet long and trailers up to 35-feet long are permitted in 10 out of the 13 campsites in Yosemite, but the accepted length varies by campground and by particular sites. There are only 12 sites available that will accommodate the largest sizes.

Just as with campsites, reservable sites fill up quickly and can be booked up to five months in advance. There are no electrical, water or sewer hookups available at the sites in Yosemite. However, there are dump stations with fresh water, and generator use is permitted during certain hours.

Other Lodgings

In addition to the 13 campsites, there are several other accommodations available inside the park which range from simple tent cabins and motel rooms to the family friendly Yosemite Lodge or a luxury Four-Diamond hotel with fine dining.

Accommodations Outside of the Park

Guests who want to visit the park can also stay outside of its borders and still enjoy proximity to its amenities. Over 3,000 different accommodations are available from campsites to bed-and-breakfast inns.

Making a Reservation

Campsite reservations open to the public up to five months in advance, and sites within the Valley typically fill up within 24 hours, so make sure you book as soon as your desired dates become available.

  • Campsites will be available at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on the 15th of each month through recreation.gov, and a full list of on-sale dates is available through the park's website.
  • Phone reservations are available as well, but it is quicker and more advisable to book online given the popularity of prime Yosemite sites.
  • Make sure you already have an account with recreation.gov and know which campsites suit the needs of your party in advance to expedite the booking process.

Experience the Seasons

Yosemite is a beautiful place worth visiting any time of the year. Each season offers different rewards.

Spring (April and May)

Upper and lower Yosemite falls

If you long to experience the glory of Yosemite's waterfalls, spring is definitely the time to visit. The snow has begun to melt, and the runoff will ensure a boisterous display at Yosemite Falls, which is North America's highest waterfall. However, be prepared for road closures; Yosemite Valley will be accessible, but the Tioga Pass and Glacier Point Road often remain closed until late May due to snow.

Summer (June Through September)

Summer is a popular time to visit. In fact, the park receives over half of its yearly visitors during these months since all areas of the park are typically accessible by car and all hikes should be available. You can also access the full breadth of the park's beautiful backcountry, and you are less likely to run into closures and other hiccups that will sidetrack your plans.

This is a prime time to see the flowers bloom; dogwoods, lilies and lupins begin blooming in June, and little elephant's heads, gentian and penstemon begin blooming in July.

Fall (October and November)

Fall is a wonderful time to visit because the park is less crowded, and you can still access most of the trails. Although the park is not known for its changing leaves since most of its trees are evergreen, you can still expect typical autumnal beauty from its Pacific dogwoods and maple trees. Just be prepared for unexpected temporary closures due to snow.

Winter (December to March)

There's no denying the beauty of imposing granite peaks laden with snow. During winter, the park can provide a peaceful getaway for nature lovers who can still access a few of the trails, and it offers an exciting jaunt for skiers as well. The Valley remains open in winter, and the Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is plowed to the Badger Pass Ski Area. However, tire chains will most likely be required on all vehicles.

Traveling to Yosemite

Yosemite Wawona Road Route 41 in California

If you plan on driving to Yosemite, make sure you check for road closures and have a printed map because GPS systems might not always offer accurate instructions in this vast park. Consult the maps before you leave and crosscheck Google Maps instructions with a printed California road map in case you need to alter your route. You can download maps on the park's website.

  • Highway 120 is the main artery into the park from the west, and the park is approximately a four-hour drive from the Bay Area.
  • If you are coming from the south, you will take Highway 99 north to Highway 41 north.
  • The Tioga Pass is used to access the park from the east, but it is not available year round. Consult the park's winter road closures when planning your route.
  • If you drive to Yosemite, make sure you fill up before entering the Valley because gas is not available there. Fortunately, the park has a free shuttle system.

You can also reach Yosemite by train via Amtrak or by bus via Greyhound/YARTS.

Sights and Activities

The park offers many activities, including swimming, bird watching, and fishing. In fact, there's a variety of ways to indulge your love of the great outdoors. Some of them are quite physical while others may suit your creative side.

Hiking

Hiker in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite offers 1,200-square miles of natural beauty, so make sure you explore some of the 750 miles worth of hiking trails available in Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, Wawona, and other areas. It is important to stay on the marked trails, carry plenty of water, and carry out whatever you carry in to make sure you're doing your part to support the park's conservation efforts. You'll find a full list of hikes on the park's website.

Art and Photography

Many artists and photographers, such as Ansel Adams, have been inspired by Yosemite and created important works which honor its beauty. As such, the park has a legacy in the arts community that is maintained with its artist-in-residence program as well as art classes offered at the Yosemite Art Centre during spring, summer and fall for about $10 a day.

You can also visit the Ansel Adams gallery for impressive photography displays, view the exhibits at the Yosemite Museum Gallery, or join one of the photography walks or workshops which run throughout the year.

Rock Climbing

Not surprising given Yosemite's bounty of granite peaks, the park is a natural haven for rock climbers. Popular pursuits include the crack climbs of the Merced River Canyon and the big walls of the Valley. Safety precautions are crucial for avoiding accidents, so make sure you're well prepared for an emergency and have the right gear and crew to help you in case you encounter any issues.

Dining Options

Groceries and restaurants are available year round at Yosemite. The Valley has several restaurants as well as seasonal restaurants in other areas of the park. Picnic areas are available for day hikers in addition to the fire pits and bear boxes that make cooking over a camp stove a convenient option.

Yosemite Village restaurants include:

  • Degnan's Deli: This is a year round restaurant which offers sandwiches, fresh salads and snacks.
  • Degnan's Loft: This family style restaurant is open May - September and offers pizza, salads, appetizers and alcoholic beverages.
  • Village Grill: This is a classic hamburger and milkshake joint which is open from April - October with a beautiful outdoor patio.

Curry Village restaurants include:

  • Pizza Deck: Within view of Glacier Point, this restaurant offers fresh-baked pizza as well as the full service Curry Bar. It is typically closed for the month of December.
  • Meadow Grill: This restaurant, open April - September, offers sustainable menu items like grass-fed beef and free-range chicken.
  • Curry Village Pavilion: This home-style restaurant serves up a wide variety of entrees and desserts from May - October.

Additional restaurants in the park include the award-winning Ahwahnee Room and the Victorian-theme Wawona Dining Room.

Traveling Around the Park

Yosemite open bus

The park has an extremely comprehensive and free shuttle system that makes it easy to avoid driving which can be a hassle in high season. Two different shuttle lines run in the Valley, and other lines provide access to campsites and attractions in more remote areas of the park like Hodgdon Meadow, Glacier Point, Marisposa Grove, and Tuolomne Meadows. Visitors are also encouraged to cycle around the park as an alternate form of transportation.

Valley shuttles include:

  • Yosemite Valley: This bus runs daily from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and makes frequent stops at main attractions, camping areas and trailheads
  • El Capitan: This bus runs 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and stops at Bridalveil Falls, the Valley Visitor Centre, the Four Mile trailhead and its namesake, El Capitan.

Trip Tips

Planning a trip to Yosemite can seem like a daunting task, but it will be well worth the effort. Keep these tips in mind.

  • Book early: As stated before, campsites fill up quickly. Check the website for exact booking dates and wake up early so you can be one of the first ones to reserve your desired site.
  • Plan your meals: Weigh all of your options when it comes to meal time while camping in the park. Decide how many meals you want to cook for yourself and how many you might like to have at a restaurant. This will minimize waste and (hopefully) overspending.
  • Consult the weather: Yosemite's weather is unpredictable, and the subsequent closures change from year to year. Consult the website's current conditions and weather updates right up until the day your trip begins.
  • Get the proper permits: If you plan on doing any backcountry camping or hiking, make sure you know which permits are required and how to obtain them.
  • Bring a map: Yosemite is vast and not all GPS systems will be able to orient themselves in every area of the park. Make sure you bring a printed map with you, especially if you plan on spending any time in the backcountry.
  • Pack for every temperature: Weather can change quickly, especially in the spring and fall. Make sure you pack ample layers if you are travelling during this time. Four Seasons Guides offers a full Yosemite packing list.
  • Be flexible: You never know when snow might impact your travel so be flexible with your plans in the park, especially if you are traveling in the spring and fall.

Your Adventure Awaits You

Camping in Yosemite is truly a privilege, but it's not a trip you want to take on a whim. Carefully research every aspect of the area you want to camp in, and you should be well prepared for a trip to this coveted California park which speaks to adventurers and poets alike.

Planning a Camping Trip to Yosemite National Park