If you want a small inn or inexpensive motel for your visit to Yosemite, consider staying outside the park proper and driving in each day. A wealth of inns, lodges, and B&Bs cluster near both the west and south entrances to the park. If you prefer a standard chain motel, Oakhurst (south of Fish Camp on Hwy. 41) and Mariposa (to the west on Hwy. 140) have most of the usual suspects.
The archway welcoming visitors to the city of Modesto (I St. near 9th St.) reads, “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.” The motto celebrates Modesto’s history as an agricultural center with an abundance of natural resources. Located along Highway 99 in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, Modesto still produces large quantities of dairy products, nuts, and wine grapes. Modesto functions as a stopping place on the way to Yosemite. Travelers pull off the road here to get a cup of coffee or a meal or to stretch as they make the pilgrimage to the park.
The hometown of film director George Lucas, Modesto was immortalized in his 1973 film American Graffiti, about 1950s-era juvenile delinquents, teen angst, and cruising. These days, Modesto is pretty quiet; you’d never guess the city has 210,000 residents. The town is making an effort to attract visitors, and much of the downtown area has gone through some renewal. Attractive restaurants and coffee shops intermingle with storefronts that have gone out of business. In the heart of downtown, a section of 10th Street has been blocked to traffic, creating a pleasant, brickinlaid pedestrian mall. E&J Gallo Winery is the largest employer in Modesto, but the company does not offer tours or tastings. Modesto is where they age, blend, and bottle their wines, and make bottles (2.4 million per day!) to ship for tasting and sales in Napa and Central California.
Information and Services
The Modesto Convention & Visitors Bureau (1150 9th St., Suite C, 209/526-5588 or 888/640-8467, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) operates a friendly visitors center downtown.
Accommodations in Modesto
A large and modern Doubletree Hotel (1150 9th St., 209/526-6000, Sun.–Thurs. $124–149, Fri.–Sat. usually $99) towers over the downtown area, making Modesto a welcoming place for conventions and business meetings. With a gym, pool, and valet parking, this place has all the amenities you expect in an upscale hotel. Since it is primarily a business hotel, the weekend rate is lower than weekdays. Internet access costs extra, but ask about their Executive Package, which bundles use of the Internet with parking privileges and a full breakfast for a bargain price. The hotel is within easy walking distance of Gallo Center for the Arts as well as the restaurants, shops, and the visitors center downtown.
Along Highway 120
The little town of Groveland, 26 miles outside the north entrance to Yosemite National Park on Highway 120, is the perfect place to stop for a last fill-up of gas, food, coffee, and anything else you may need before you immerse yourself in the wonders of nature (and the limitations of campground stores and captive-audience prices). Groveland is a mix of the down-home ordinariness of small-town America (with its Friday night bingo games at the Lion’s Club, mediocre pizza parlors, and bulletin boards advertising handyman services and used washers and dryers for sale) and savvy marketers catering to urban travelers (yes, cappuccino and latte are available some 140 miles beyond the Bay Area).
If you’re trying to avoid rush hour traffic or getting a jump on your weekend trip to Yosemite by driving up late the night before, it can be a great idea to sleep in Groveland and enter the park the next morning, rested and ready to go.
Accommodations in Groveland
The most elegant option is Groveland is the historic Groveland Hotel (18767 Main St., 800/273-3314, $145–339), built in 1849, the year before California became a state, which is located right in the center of town. The proprietor, Peggy A. Mosley, a former Silicon Valley executive, oversees a seamless blend of historical intrigue that includes gold miners, gambling, and ghosts along with the modern comfort of the hotel’s 17 guest rooms, each furnished with down comforters, feather beds, and charming touches like flocked floral wallpaper, handsewn quilts, and china chamber pots—and large flat-screen HD TVs, discreetly mounted on the wall.
Nods to the foodie and pet-loving Bay Area clientele include fresh coffee beans, ready for the grinders on the in-room coffeemakers; private-label chocolate chip cookies waiting on the beds; and an open-door policy for dogs and cats in all guest rooms. Free wireless Internet service throughout the facility also helps workaholics ease gradually toward their wilderness vacation.
Those itching to get outside will love the Groveland Hotel’s elegant front porch, cool and shady with an upper level from which you can watch all the goings-on in the village. There is also a quiet patio courtyard in back, where breakfast (included with the room) and dinner are served by the hotel’s upscale restaurant.
Camp in Big Oak Flat along Highway 120 at the Thousand Trails Campground at Yosemite Lakes (31191 Harden Flat Rd., 800/533-1001, ranger station 209/962-0103, RVs $49, tents $59). Yes, as odd as it sounds, it costs more to pitch a tent here than to rent an RV site. This sprawling wooded campground beside the water has more than 250 RV sites with full hookups, 130 tent sites, a few dozen cabins, tent cabins, yurts, and a 12-bed hostel. It’s only five miles from the park entrance, and it has a full slate of recreational amenities, laundry facilities, and Internet service. It is right on the Tuolumne River, has great access to the boating opportunities on Lake Don Pedro, and Moaning Cavern is only a few miles away.
Merced is a small, lively city of just under 80,000. It has the beautiful Merced River, for which the city was named, flowing nearby, and since 2005 it also has the newest branch of the University of California. Merced has a strong agricultural sector producing dairy products, nuts, and fruit, and there is visible evidence of an elegant past in the well-preserved Victorian homes and 19th-century courthouse building. But Merced knows what it’s really all about, as its motto proudly proclaims: It’s the “Gateway to Yosemite.”
Information and Services
Merced has a large and welcoming California Welcome Center (710 W. 16th St., 209/724- 8104 or 800/446-5353, 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.– Thurs., 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun.). In this exceptionally well-stocked showroom you can pick up brochures and maps for attractions all over California, not just the local area. Nearly everything is free, and you’re welcome to take as much literature as you need. Mention you’re headed to Yosemite, and the staff will pull out a special packet with helpful items like a map of the park and a copy of the Yosemite Guide (hold onto it; you’re going to appreciate it when you get there). They no longer sell tickets for the buses here, but they can tell you anything you need to know about schedules, prices, and logistics.
Accommodations in Merced
Merced is a modest small American city without a lot of expensive hotels or resorts. It has all the usual low to moderately priced chain hotels and motels, many of which are situated right on Highways 140 and 99 so you don’t have to go a minute out of your way if you’re just stopping off for the night on your way to Yosemite.
For something a little more special, try the Hooper House Bear Creek Inn (575 W. North Bear Creek Dr., 209/723-3991, $139–169). This colonialstyle bed-and-breakfast has three suites in a preserved mansion that was handed down from the owners’ gentleman-farmer ancestors. There is also one private cottage on the grounds nearby. All guest rooms have private baths and down comforters as well as full breakfast in the dining room.
Along Highway 140
Mariposa is a little over one hour (44 miles) from Yosemite Valley via the Arch Rock entrance.
Accommodations in Mariposa
You can’t miss the River Rock Inn and Deli Garden Café (4993 7th St., 209/966-5793, $65–159) with its vivid orange-and-purple exterior in the heart of Mariposa. What was once a rundown 1940s motor lodge is now a quirky, whimsical motel with unusually decorated guest rooms that make the most of modern Pottery Barn–esque wrought-iron and wood styling in the spaces the decorators had to work with. Never fear: The colors become softer inside the reasonably priced guest rooms. Two suites provide enough space for families, while the other five guest rooms sleep couples in comfort. The River Rock is a 45-minute drive from the west entrance to Yosemite, at the southern end of the long chain of Gold Country towns, making it a great base of operations for an outdoorsy, Western-style California vacation.
If you prefer cozy seclusion to large lodgestyle hotels, stay at the Highland House (3125 Wild Dove Lane, 209/966-3737, $115–150), outside Mariposa and west of Yosemite. The house is set deep in the forest far from town, providing endless peace and quiet away from civilization. This tiny B&B has only three guest rooms, each decorated in soft colors and warm, inviting styles. All guest rooms have down comforters, sparkling clean bathtubs and showers, free wireless Internet access, and TVs with DVD players.
Another lovely small B&B, Poppy Hill Bed and Breakfast (5218 Crystal Aire Dr., 209/742- 6273 or 800/587-6779, $135–150) is 27 miles from the west entrance to the park. The four airy guest rooms are done in bright white linens, white walls, lacy curtains, and antique furniture. No TVs mar the sounds of birds from the expansive gardens surrounding the old farmhouse, but you can take a dip in the totally modern hot tub any time. A full gourmet breakfast served on your schedule gives the right start to a day spent exploring Yosemite or the Mariposa County area. This inn can be hard to find, especially at night. Double-check the directions on the website, and consider using a GPS device if you have one.
Several campgrounds surround the Arch Rock entrance near Mariposa. The Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort (6979 Hwy. 140, 209/966-6666 or 866/826-7108, dorm $22–25, tent cabin $45–75 for 2–4 people, private cabin $75–155 for 2–4 people) is part hostel, part rustic cabin lodge. This facility includes five hostel dormitories, a number of attractively appointed tent cabins with real beds (but bring your own sleeping bag), and a few cabins with private guest rooms, some with private baths. Solo travelers and families on tight budgets favor Yosemite Bug for its comfortable and cheap accommodations. It’s not the Ritz, but the baths are clean and the linens fresh when you arrive, and the location is great for Yosemite visitors who want to exit the park each night.
El Portal lies only 14 miles from Yosemite Valley via the Arch Rock entrance, about a 30-minute drive.
Accommodations and Camping in El Portal
RVers aiming for the Arch Rock entrance flock to the Indian Flat RV Park (9988 Hwy. 140, 209/379-2339, tents $20–25, RVs $32–42, tent cabins $30– 59, cottages $65–109, pet fee $5). This park is a full-service low-end resort, with everything from RV sites (with water and electricity; some with sewer hookups) to tent cabins and fullfledged cottages. Showers are available ($3), and you can stop in for a shower even if you’re not spending the night. The lodge next door has extended an invitation to all Indian Flat campers to make use of their outdoor pool. Because Indian Flat is relatively small (25 RV sites and 25 tent sites), reservations are strongly recommended for May–September. You can book up to a year in advance; this kind of planning is a good idea for summertime Yosemite visitors.
Along Highway 41
Fish Camp is 40 miles from Yosemite Valley via the South entrance, a little over an hour’s drive. At Bass Lake Water Sports and Boat Rentals (North Shores Pine Village, Bass Lake, 559/642-3200 or 800/585-9283, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily year-round), you can rent all sorts of watercraft, such as a six-passenger patio boat ($118 for 2 hours, $249 per day) or a Jet Ski ($99 per hour, $389 per day), or make a reservation for a three-hour guided fishing trip ($195 for up to 4 people). If you bring your own boat, you can dock it here too ($35 per night).
Accommodations and Food in Fish Camp
Near the South entrance, the Narrow Gauge Inn (48571 Hwy. 41, 559/683-7720 or 888/644-9050, $79–195) recalls the large lodges inside the park, only in miniature. This charming 26- room mountain inn offers one- and two-bed nonsmoking guest rooms done in wood paneling, light colors, white linens, and vintage- style quilts. Each guest room has its own outdoor table and chairs to encourage relaxing outside with a drink on gorgeous summer days and evenings. The restaurant and common rooms feature antique oil lamps, stonework, and crackling fireplaces. Step outside your door and you’re in the magnificent High Sierra pine forest. A few more steps take you to the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad— the narrow-gauge steam train from which the inn takes its name.
For inexpensive lodge-style accommodations east of Fish Camp, check in to the White Chief Mountain Lodge (7776 White Chief Mountain Rd., 559/683-5444, $120–160). The basic guest rooms feature light wood paneling and tribal-design textiles. Small TVs offer in-room entertainment, but the woods outside your door invite you outside to enjoy all that the rich Sierra range has to offer. The lodge offers packages that show off the best of the Wild West heritage of the area. Guest rooms in the main lodge have wireless Internet access, but the cottages do not.
The Tenaya Lodge (1122 Hwy. 41, 559/683- 6555 or 888/514-2167, $245–400) sits just outside the South entrance of Yosemite, offering plush lodge-style accommodations at a more reasonable price than comparable rooms inside the park. Prices vary considerably by season (or, as one front-desk worker explains it, “The higher the temperature, the higher the rates.”). Guest rooms in the lodge are styled with rich fabrics in bright oranges and other bold, eye-catching colors; the three dozen cottages have a Native American– themed decor. The modern wall art evokes the woods and vistas of Yosemite. The beds are comfortable, the baths attractive, and the views forest-filled. Tenaya Lodge focuses on guest care, offering five dining venues on-site, from pizza to deli to fine dining, with three meals daily; a full-service spa that specializes in facials; and daily (and nightly) nature walks complete with costumed guides. Check at the desk for events during your stay.
If you plan to do some fishing during your trip to the Yosemite area, the Pines Resort (54432 Rd. 432, Bass Lake, 559/642-3121 or 800/350-7463, June– Aug., $159–299) is perfectly located for your angling convenience right on the shores of Bass Lake; bring your boat! You can choose a suite (a split-level king room with dark floors, light walls, fireplaces, some with spa tubs) or rent a chalet (a two-story cabin in rustic mountain style that sleeps up to 6, with a full kitchen, a deck, and an outdoor mini barbecue). The Pines is a full-service resort, with a lake-view restaurant, Ducey’s on the Lake (7–11 a.m. and 4–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–noon and 4–9 p.m. Sat.–Sun., $18– 37), a grocery store (8 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.– Fri., 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Sat.–Sun. June–Aug., shorter hours Sept.–May), all-weather tennis courts, a swimming pool (in summer), hot tubs (year-round), massage services, a fitness room overlooking the lake, shaded lakefront chaise longues, parking for trailers, and wedding and meeting facilities.
A mile and a half south of the South entrance, in the Sierra National Forest down by the spread-out forest town of Fish Camp, you can book a site at the small, attractive Summerdale Campground (Hwy. 41, northeast of Fish Camp, 877/444-6777, $20). This lovely spot has a two-night minimum on weekends and a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, only 29 campsites, and a strict limit on RV size (24 feet), making it a bit quieter and less city-like than the megacampgrounds. You’ll have a fire ring and a grill at your site, plenty of room under mature shade trees, and maybe even a water spigot (although boiling the water before drinking it is recommended).
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon California Road Trip.