I have a lot of mixed feelings about Yosemite National Park. There are a lot of hikes and sights that I love about the park and then there are other things – like camping, crowds, and permits – that make it a complicated destination. Kenon absolutely loves it and consistently lists it in his top five favorite parks. This post is meant to serve you in making the best decisions as you put together your Yosemite itinerary.
The first time we went to Yosemite National Park the park was experiencing some major smoke issues from a massive nearby wildfire. We planned on staying for four days but only stayed for two because the smoke and ash became so thick it was unbearable. This is the risk involved with planning a trip to popular National Parks. Reservations and plans have to be made so far in advance but weather or natural disasters cannot be planned. The awesome thing was we used our extra days to explore a little known area around the town of Bridgeport and it actually ended up being a lot of fun!
Our second trip to Yosemite National Park went much better. We were able to reserve camping AND Half Dome hiking permits! We had perfect hiking and camping weather. The only love/hate hiccup we hit was the really high water levels, due to a high amount of snowmelt. The downer was that we were not able to take our paddle board out on the Merced River or Tenaya Lake, something we were really looking forward to. The positive was that we were able to see waterfalls at record high flows and see some waterfalls that had not flowed for over a decade!
Outdoor experiences can be so finicky and sometimes you just have to take what you can get. We did, however, do a lot of planning ahead of time to ensure we would make the most out of the time we had.
Here is the planning we did, how it worked out, and what we would have done differently. I start out with A LOT of detail about our Half Dome Hike – if you are not planning on hiking Half Dome, feel free to skip this section and move on to “camping”.
Half Dome Hike
Half Dome permits are extremely difficult to get. Read all about obtaining permits on the very thorough NPS site here. Kenon and I both applied for June permits when they opened in March. We applied for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to try and boost our chances but even this was not a guarantee. If you do not get permits, there are 50 daily permits available, which are also given on a lottery. Check out the details here.
We started hiking Half Dome at 5:30 in the morning. Check out this site for a thorough trail description. We had a group of three adults and it took us almost exactly 12 hours. We mosied a lot, taking our time, seeing the sights, and keeping the pace extremely enjoyable. We took the Mist Trail both up and back down (the John Muir Trail is the other option for descent). Tip for the Mist Trail: bring a poncho, especially early in the season. We went in the middle of June when the waterfall was flowing at its strongest. Walking through the mist was more like walking through a windy rainstorm! We wore ponchos, rain jackets, and Chaco sandals. When we were passed the mist, we changed out of our Chacos into nice, dry socks and hiking boots and packed away our ponchos- definitely worth carrying the extra weight!
That is not fog or poor photography skills, that is the massive amount of mist assaulting the trail.
Next time I would still take the Mist Trail up but I would take the John Muir Trail down. Even though it is a couple of extra miles, those stairs on the Mist Trail just killed my knees and I was hurting pretty bad by the time I got to the bottom.
The cables come up at the end of the trail. There is a ranger stationed just before the final ascent, checking permits and IDs. Make sure to carry a copy of your permit (a screenshot of the online confirmation works just fine) and some kind of photo ID for the permit holder. I forgot my ID but the ranger was generous enough to allow us to pass anyway.
The cables themselves are not as bad as I thought they would be. When I first came up to the base I saw how steep they looked and thought, “What in the world did I get myself into?!” I could see some of the people sliding perilously down the rock as they tried to maneuver back down the cables. My heart was pumping pretty hard. Kenon, though, was not at all worried since heights do not scare him whatsoever. The confidence and encouragement of Kenon and our other companion, Adam, was enough to keep me motivated.
Also – Thanks Adam for this awesome photo!
As we started climbing, I realized we had a few advantages that helped keep us safe and confident. We had the advantage of getting to the cables early so they were not that busy. We were able to take our time, moving from one wooden slat to the next when we were ready. All of us had significant upper body strength – you will be using more upper body strength than you might think! Make sure to bring some kind of protective glove, otherwise you will rip up your hands on the cables. We also all had rock climbing/rappelling experience so we knew how to grip the cable in an efficient manner. Rock climbing experience is not necessary but I was definitely thankful for it. Finally, I was wearing Salomon hiking boots with an insane grip on the bottom. Everyone talks about how slick the rock is from overuse but I was sticking like Spider-Man. Waaaay too many people on those cables were wearing shoes that were not made for hiking.
Once I was up, I looked behind me and, again thought, “What in the world did I get myself into?!” Going down looked so difficult! It was also busier by the time we started going down. Once I started though, I found it actually easier than going up. We tackled it like a ladder instead of a staircase, going down backward. We again just took it one wooden slat at a time, communicating and working with the people coming up so everyone could keep moving in a safe manner. I was the only one in our group nervous about it, and the other two made sure to keep checking on me and talked me through getting down. It ended up being a ton of fun and not at all scary!
If we were going to do it again, we would backpack. Wilderness (backpacking) permits are still on a lottery but are slightly less competitive since fewer people try for them, increasing your chances of obtaining one. The campground is actually very nice. It is situated in Little Yosemite Valley, near the river, and has solar composting toilets available. It would make the hike so much more enjoyable to be able to split it up into two or three days. Whichever way you do it, though, it is well worth the effort!
Also, if we did it again we would do a sunrise summit. Backpacking would make a sunrise summit so much easier, but a sunrise summit is also possible as a day hike if you don’t mind hiking in the dark. We met a group that started hiking at 11 pm and summited around 4:30 am to catch the sunrise – obviously, these times need to be adjusted based on what time sunrise is. Their eyes were just shining from the experience and we immediately decided this is something we have to do at some point.
Camping in Yosemite is my biggest pain in the butt. All of the campground reservations in Yosemite fill up VERY quickly on recreation.gov. Reservations open in rotating blocks of time that are listed on the website, so check how early you have to reserve for your particular trip. Most of the campgrounds are 30 minutes up to an hour away from Yosemite Valley, which makes for a very long drive to get to any sights or to get back to camp at the end of a long day. To me, it is a lot of time wasted to get to a campsite. Just about all of the campgrounds are extremely overcrowded which is not my ideal camping situation. This makes them noisy from all of the families and smoky from all of the cooking fires.
Tip: Check the map well before reservations open up for your time frame. Have a list of which campgrounds you prefer before trying to beat out the competition the morning reservations open. Have a plan A, B, and C just in case your first choice fills up before you get to it.
There are four campgrounds located down in the valley, close to all the action. We have never been able to get these very competitive sights but this is my first choice of places to stay. These campgrounds are right in the middle of everything, making the commute at the beginning or end of the day much more pleasant. They are still crowded but it is worth it to be so close to all of the activities.
If you do not get a reservation on recreation.gov, you do still have a few options. Some campsites are held for “first-come, first-serve” visitors. Find more about that here. We have also stumbled upon a few free camping options, but these are more than an hour’s drive from Yosemite Valley. However, if you are interested in free camping opportunities, DM us at our Instagram page @handmedownexperience and we’d love to help you out!
There are so many good things to see in Yosemite National Park! Here are our top 5 easy sights to see.
- El Capitan: There are easy trails that will take you right up to the base of El Cap but the best way to see it is to sit in the meadow across from El Cap. Bring a picnic blanket and a picnic and stay awhile. Remember some binoculars and try and spot some climbers on the big wall!
- Lower Yosemite Falls: Hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls is a big, half-day commitment, matched with a lot of elevation gain. However, the bottom of Yosemite Falls is a lovely, easy hike that gets right up to the base of the beauty.
- Mist Trail: This trail takes you to the top of Vernal Falls. There are a lot of stairs and you must be prepared to get wet from the mist. It is so much fun, especially on a hot day! At the top of the falls, there is a sloped rocky area that is perfect for taking a break and taking in views of the river that feeds the falls.
- Tunnel View: This is the iconic site where the Merced River, El Cap, and Half Dome all come together. It is a very popular spot for photographing the sunrise.
- Glacier Point: This is a super easy walk on a paved path. It is not in the valley though; the drive is about 45 minutes from the valley floor. Overlook the valley, getting the best views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and, well, everything. Visit at sunset to see Half Dome light up or visit at sunrise to watch the sun come up behind Half Dome.
Yosemite National Park has a great shuttle bus system that runs on a convenient schedule. The easiest way to make the most of the valley floor is to get up early, find a parking spot (parking can get very crowded), obtain a shuttle bus map from one of the information stands, and hop on a bus.
At some point, I would really like to try out a bike rental or bring our own bikes. Yosemite Valley is bike-friendly and it is a great way to escape the crowds in parking lots and at shuttle bus stops. A lot of the main destinations are close together, but just far enough apart to make walking undesirable. Biking is the perfect solution to navigating the crowds of Yosemite.
This was our big “We want to!!” that got canceled by conditions. We really wanted to get on the Merced River and Tenaya Lake but were unable to due to the late snowmelt. It would make for a very fun day, though, and we definitely plan on doing this in the future! The Merced River is usually open for people who want to float the river on tubes, and this is essentially what we wanted to do on our paddle board. The Merced offers incredible views of the valley’s most iconic spots such as Half Dome, El Cap, and Yosemite Falls. Tenaya Lake is located on the way toward Tuolumne Meadow and offers sparkling waters and a beach.