We visited Yosemite in mid-May, and once again, I found I had a lot of things to say about the place. Jump to basics on the park, camping, our stay in the valley, or our adventure backpacking in Hetch-Hetchy.
Yosemite was one of the original national parks. President Lincoln ceded it to the state of California in 1864, and it became a national park in 1890. It’s huge, with over 760,000 acres, and a ~30+ mile / ~1 hour drive from the eastern entrances. In 2014 there were just over 4 million visitors.
The park has four distinct climate areas. The most famous and popular area is the Yosemite Valley, with famous sites like Half Dome, El Capitan, and the Yosemite Falls. This valley is surrounded by towering gray granite cliffs. Most campsites are here, as well as the lodge, many popular trails, the visitors center, a shuttle, and most anything else you might want.
The other three areas are the high sierra, the Sequoia groves, and the granite cliffs. Since the park is so large, we didn’t have the time to experience the high-elevation High Sierra and the Sequoia Groves. As we visit more and more of the national parks, I am consistently impressed with how varied the terrain and ecosystems are between parks but also within individual parks in different areas.
Fees. $30 to enter the park as of Spring 2015. Most campsites are $26 a night plus online reservation fees. Backcountry permits were free since we were walk-ins. In advance, the reservation fee is $5 plus $5 per person.
Camping: Most campsites are on a reservation basis and typically fill up on the day that they become available. Specifically: Campground reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time. So, reservations from August 15th through September 15th become available on April 15th.
There is one first come first serve campsite, Camp 4, available for a bargain of $6 per person per night. The only hitch is that all camps are shared by 6 people, and the whole campsite is packed very tightly together. Sundays are the best day to get a campsite, and get there as early as you can. The morning we left, there was already a line forming at 7:30 am.
Our Trip: We arrived at Yosemite around lunchtime on Sunday, May 10th, which was Mother’s Day. We came in through one of the main entrances and sat in traffic for 20 minutes just to show our pass and get into the park. From there, we drove the scenic 30 miles to the valley in hopes that there would be spots at the one walk-in campsite, Camp 4.
Camping: Camp 4 is different from any other campsite we’ve visited. It’s a walk in, so you park outside the site and carry all your gear anywhere from 25 yards to 200 yards to the campsite. Unlike most places, you don’t get a campsite to yourself, instead, they put six people and up to four tents at each site, where you share picnic tables and a fire pit. The good things about the campsite are that it’s cheap ($6 per person per night), it’s right in the valley, it has running water and flushing toilets, and you will meet fun people and hear great stories. However, it’s really, really crowded. Adam and I decided to stay one night and then literally head for the hills.
Adventures in the Valley: After making camp, we toured around the valley on our bikes. There are miles of paved walking and bike paths, without any significant elevation gain. Here’s the page with an official map. There’s also a shuttle, and you can drive your car all around the valley, but we found the bikes were perfect for getting around.
We spent four hours cruising from Camp 4 to Yosemite Falls, Mirror Pond, and past a few other campsites, including Curry Village and Upper and Lower Pines.
You can see above our hiking route (the blue loop), as well as some key sites in the Yosemite Valley that we visited.
Backpacking: I felt like we really lucked out with this one. We stopped by the wilderness permit office where a very nice ranger gave us some great ideas for potential backpacking loops in the park. We had options starting in Yosemite Valley, the Hetch-Hetchy area, and the Tuolumne Meadows area. From there, it was easy. Adam was in a near panic over the volume of people in the valley, and Tuolumne Meadows still had snow. I am not sure if we would have been so lucky with availability had it not been a weeknight before the summer high season, but I am really happy it worked out.
Monday morning, we broke camp as quickly and quietly as we could to drive the 90 minutes from the valley out and around to Hetch-Hetchy. We looped from the parking lot past Lake Louise, Vernon Lake, and Rancheria Falls over three days. The total distance was about 30 miles, so we did 14 miles the first day, then 8 the second day, and 6 the final morning before driving on to San Francisco.
One fun and exciting element of the trip is that Yosemite requires you to have a bear canister. In many parks, you can just bag all your food and trash and hang it in a tree, but the bears here are too smart for that, so instead, you pack all your edibles into a canister that the bears can’t open and leave it a small distance from your campsite. It did require some planning to make sure we could fit all our food, snacks, and trash inside, but we made it work. We did make one key mistake and packed a ziplock full of ground coffee in the canister. By the third day, every remaining item of food also smelled strongly of coffee, which is not nearly as appealing as you might hope.
There was plenty of water along the trail so we didn’t have to carry much, we just took turns filling up our camelbaks and treating them with chlorine-dioxide tablets.
The trails we took were all pretty-well trod and very well marked. Unlike some places which put all the signs on one pole with confusing arrows, most crossroads had one sign for each path, clearly marking the way. We passed a couple of groups of hikers each day, too, but still felt like we had the place to ourselves.
The biggest “problem” we faced was that sometimes the trails became small creeks with all the spring snow melt. We also went through one meadow that was on it’s way to becoming a small lake. The water was only a foot deep, but that was enough to completely flood our boots and ensure a slightly damp walk to camp.
Fortunately, you can find any spot you like to camp, and once there you can burn any dead and down wood you find. We looked for a spot where other people had also camped, and easily found a few spots with great views and a dry, flat place to leave our tent.
A few more fun pictures. Can you guess which one Adam definitely took?