Yosemite National Park is one of the most awe-inspiring, special places in the United States, maybe the world. Don’t believe me? Perhaps you were as clueless as I was before visiting, and hopefully this post will put Yosemite National Park on your travel list.
I was making plans to attend a music festival in San Francisco with a group of friends when one suggested adding on a week in the park, which is about a four-hour drive east of the city. After several months of minimal travel, due mostly to the self-inflicted poverty (I kid) of my 2021 home purchase, and a busy summer and early fall, I did not bring my usual planning energy to this particular trip, other than a whole bunch of googling to determine which AirBnB cabins were optimally situated for the trip.
With almost no understanding of the place I was going to visit, I had no idea when the park was in peak season, let alone the sheer mass of humanity that visits the park in late spring, summer and early fall. About a week before the trip, I did some basic research and learned about the GyPSy Guide app, which provides narrated driving tours of various parks. When we got there, I downloaded the app and paid $9.99 for the Yosemite Tour, which was very much worth it and included roughly a bajillion points of interest, which are activated by the location of your phone along the roads in the park. If you have downloaded a particular tour to your phone, it won’t matter if you lose cell service. The GyPSy Guide was a little comical because the man’s voice kept warning us about the massive amounts of people and traffic around the Yosemite Valley, which were mercifully absent due to the timing of our trip.
In addition to fall being a fantastic time to avoid crowds in Yosemite, we had glorious weather – sunny with temps ranging in the 40s through 60s – ideal in my opinion for hiking and generally doing things outside that don’t include a beach. And, the pièce de résistance, the park was full of stunning fall foliage color.
There are some tradeoffs for traveling to Yosemite the week we did – the first week of November. Some of the park’s roads are closed and you are required to have snow chains for your tires in your car, or you can get ticketed. We bought a set at an auto supply store for our rental SUV and returned them on the way back to SFO. Also, at that time of year you can’t climb up to the top of Half Dome because the hiking chains have been removed for the season. So, if that’s important to you, go when they are up. However, the GyPSy Guide narrator said climbing Half Dome is mostly just looking at the butt of the person in front of you the whole time, and that doesn’t sound particularly appealing. We also got incredibly lucky because when we visited, the park’s waterfalls are typically dry, but there had been rainstorms the week before we visited, so we got flowing waterfalls, clear skies, beautiful leaves and no snow.
As I mentioned, most of my research was related to trying to figure out where we could stay that met our criteria: a rental cabin with a hot tub that sleeps four people not too far of a drive from Yosemite Valley, the part of the park with a concentration of iconic natural wonders. Friends found AirBnB listings, and I plugged them into Google maps to check distances and ensure the cabins had the amenities we wanted. This may seem very basic but it’s incredibly helpful to do when planning a trip. We ultimately determined that the location best suited to our needs is an area called Yosemite West, a small vacation rental community that is within the boundaries of the park (but not considered part of the park), about a 40-minute drive to the Yosemite Valley. Given the massiveness of Yosemite, it was the most convenient location that wasn’t technically the National Park. The park itself has a variety of places to stay, ranging from tent or RV campsites to cabins and even a historic 1920s lodge, the Ahwahnee Hotel. If you have less time or don’t want to drive a lot, or do not require a private hot tub as we did (it was pretty great, but yeah, bougie), staying in the park’s on-site accommodations seems like a good way to go. Whatever you do, give yourself at least two or more days to explore the park. There’s so much to see; a day trip doesn’t do it justice.
Other than average normal everyday things like seeing incredible waterfalls, giant sequoias and mind-blowingly large rock formations, hot tubbing at the cabin and driving around chasing sunsets for my photo collection, one of the coolest things we did was a stargazing outing with the Yosemite Conservancy, “a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Yosemite’s resources and providing enriching visitor experiences in the park.” The tour was very affordable and our guide was informative and entertaining. Another great point of interest inside the park is the Ansel Adams Gallery. I’m not big on “stuff,” but I typically enjoy shopping the carefully curated treasures that can be found in a good museum store, and that place didn’t disappoint.
I was in no way prepared for the incredible beauty and grand scale of Yosemite, but I’m so glad I somewhat randomly ended up there in 2021. Which National Parks are on your travel bucket list?