Visiting Yosemite National Park: When and Where to Go

A brown bear stands on a fallen log with the sun filtering through its back fur.

A brown bear near Sentinel Dome. Photo © Celso Diniz.

Where to Go in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley

The majority of park visitors spend their time in Yosemite Valley. This is where most of the park’s lodgings and restaurants are located, where most guided tours take place, and where a wealth of organized activities happen daily: ranger walks, biking, art classes, photography seminars, and more. The Valley is also a geologic marvel: Yosemite’s worldfamous waterfalls drop from the valley rim. El Capitan, the largest single piece of granite rock on earth, and Half Dome, one of the most photographed landmarks in the West, are both located here.

Wawona and Glacier Point

In southern Yosemite, near the hamlet of Wawona, are two of Yosemite’s premier attractions: the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and Glacier Point. The Mariposa Grove boasts several hundred giant trees. Glacier Point is a drive-to overlook that offers one of the best views in the West, encompassing all the major granite landmarks of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding high country. History lovers will enjoy Wawona, with its historic buildings at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center and 19th-century Wawona Hotel.

Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows

The Tuolumne Meadows region is ideal for hikers and backpackers. At an elevation of 8,600 feet, Tuolumne Meadows is one of the park’s most photographed regions. Its wide, grassy expanse is bound by high granite domes and peaks. Trails lead to alpine lakes set below the spires of Cathedral Peak and Unicorn Peak, to roaring waterfalls on the Tuolumne River, and to the summits of lofty granite domes with commanding vistas of the high country. Visitor services are few and far between here, but hikers, campers, and nature lovers will be in their element.

Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy, a granite-walled valley similar in appearance to Yosemite Valley, was flooded in 1923 to create a water supply for San Francisco. Today it is the least-visited region of the park and offers no visitor services. In the spring, Hetch Hetchy’s waterfalls spill over its massive cliffs. Wildf lowers bloom April-June. Visitors make day trips here to admire the enormous O’Shaughnessy Dam or hike along the edges of its reservoir. Backpackers come to Hetch Hetchy for its access to Yosemite’s backcountry and its solitude.

The Eastern Sierra

The Eastern Sierra is an outdoors lover’s playground: skiers and snowboarders swoosh down mountain slopes, hikers and mountain bikers explore miles of trails, anglers cast into crystal-clear streams and rivers, scenery enthusiasts and photographers enjoy alpine lakes backed by granite cliffs. The region hosts two good-sized mountain towns, Mammoth Lakes and June Lake, and worthwhile destinations such as Bodie State Historic Park, a historic gold rush ghost town, and Mono Lake, a 700,000-year-old saline lake.


When to Go to Yosemite National Park

Optimize your experience in Yosemite by planning your visit for the low season, or at least be prepared for crowds if you visit in the high season (May-Sept.). Summer weekends are the busiest days and best avoided, especially in Yosemite Valley.

Spring is a wonderful time for visiting Yosemite Valley, when its famous waterfalls are at their peak flow. First-time visitors would do well to time their initial Yosemite trip for April or May, when the Valley is at its most photogenic and the waterfalls are shimmering whitewater cascades.

Summer (June-Oct.) is when Yosemite’s high country (Glacier Point, Tuolumne Meadows, and Tioga Pass) is open and accessible, so you have the most options for hiking and sightseeing. In most years all park roads are open by early June. Glacier Point Road, Tioga Pass Road, and the Mariposa Grove Road may close as early as November 1.

Autumn is also a fine time to visit Yosemite, even though most of the Valley’s famous waterfalls will have run dry. The show of fall colors on the valley floor and the chance for solitude in this well-loved park are worthy reasons to visit.

Winter is the quietest season in Yosemite. Lowest visitation levels are recorded November-March, except for the holidays. Many Yosemite fans think it’s the best time of the year. Visitors can see Yosemite Valley or the giant sequoias crowned in snow, ice skate on an outdoor rink with Half Dome as a backdrop, and ski and snowboard at Badger Pass.


Additional Area Information

Before You Go
No matter when you go, it’s unwise to travel to Yosemite at any time of year without checking on current conditions. Weather, rockfalls, fire, and other natural occurrences in this constantly changing landscape can affect driving routes and lodging options. To get the most current information, phone 209/372-0200.

Several other websites and phone numbers can help you plan your trip. For park accommodations, tours, events, and organized activities, contact DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite (801/559-4884 or 801/559-5000). For campground reservations within the park, contact the reservations office (877/444-6777).

Park Fees and Passes
The entrance fee to Yosemite National Park is $20 per vehicle (car, RV, truck, etc.) and it’s good for a seven-day stay. You are given a receipt, which you must show any time you pass through one of the park’s five entrance stations. But before you fork over 20 bucks, consider Yosemite’s other fee options:

    • Yosemite Pass: For $40, you are given a plastic card that provides entrance to Yosemite for one year.
    • Interagency Annual Pass: For $80, this plastic card provides entrance to all national parks and federal recreation sites in the United States for one year. Also called the “America the Beautiful” pass.
    • Senior Pass: For $10, seniors 62 and older can buy a lifetime version of the America the Beautiful Pass.
What to Take
Far and away the most important item you can bring on your Yosemite vacation is a reservation for lodging or a campsite. Show up without a reservation during the busy season (May-Sept.) or the winter holidays, and you could face an ordeal. Also, if you have your heart set on climbing Half Dome, you’ll need to secure a Half Dome day-hike permit far in advance.

A few personal items to pack are hiking boots or sturdy shoes for walking, and a small day pack or fanny pack. It’s also wise to bring a variety of clothing for layering. Weather changes constantly in Yosemite, even in summer; it’s smart to pack rain gear, jackets, and clothes for both warm and cool weather, even though you may spend your entire vacation in shorts and a T-shirt.

In winter, always carry chains for your car tires, even if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Chains can be required on any park road at any time, and that’s federal law.


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Yosemite.


Maps of Yosemite

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