Know Before You Go: Yosemite National Park

I spent a long weekend in Yosemite and it quickly became one of my favorite National Parks! Everywhere you look there are the most breathtaking views and dramatic landscapes. It’s a wonderful little corner of the earth. For anyone who is a first-time visitor, there are a few things to be aware of. Here is what you need to know before you go: Yosemite National Park edition.

1. This is the land of the Ahwahnechee people.

It’s so important to acknowledge and honor the native people who once called our National Park areas home. In the cases of many of treasured icons, indigenous people were forcibly relocated from their sacred lands in order to establish National Parks. Yosemite was originally the home of the Ahwahneechee people. For them, the story of Yosemite’s development since the mid-1800s is tragedy and tears, yet a number of resilient Ahwahnechee people have survived and still live here. I encourage y’all to research, acknowledge, and honor the Native history of the places you visit. As allies, it’s so important for us to do this.

I love our National Parks, and I love how they connect us with the most beautiful landscapes our country has to offer. But I think we need to be more honest about aware of the history behind our lands.

2. Yosemite is the third American national park.

I mention this because it the history of the park is very closely tied to John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. You’ll see their fingerprints on so many aspects of the region. It was cool to know to know that, at times, I’d be standing on the spot where these trailblazing conservationists had once stood.

3. Try to stay as close to the valley as possible.

We stayed at a lodge in Fish Camp, which was a 30-minute drive from the visitor gate and an hour drive from the valley. So we did a lot of driving…

We booked our accommodations less than a month out from our trip because the trip was as spur of the moment as it gets for us. I would have preferred to stay in the valley, which is essentially the heart of the park. By staying in that area we would have been better able to maximize our time. There’s plenty of camping space, but we didn’t really want to travel with all of our gear. And the lodges and hotels closer in to the valley book up at least 6 months in advance, so the earlier you can reserve, do it!

4. The roads can be steep, make sure you are engine braking.

If you’re driving, don’t rely on riding your brakes all the way down those mountain switchbacks. Downshifting allows “engine braking” to control the vehicle’s top speed,  and it is the best way to drive on steep terrain. Engine braking uses the engine’s compression to apply resistance to the drivetrain to slow the car. So when going downhill, shift the car into a lower gear instead of just having it in drive, and then supplement with regular braking.

5. Tunnel view is the best view in the park!

Stop here for sure. This is the best photo opp in the park because you get such a great view of some of the most iconic features!

6. Yosemite is one of the most “commercialized” parks.

It was interesting going from my most recent National Park experience, in Big Bend, to Yosemite. There were so many different restaurants and stores in Yosemite. There’s not really much you can’t get in the valley. It’s its own little city. And I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just different from what some of us may be used to.

7. Traffic and parking may an issue.

During peak months (June-August) the monthly visitation of the park can range from 500,000-600,000 people. And in its least busy month (January) it still averages a little over 100,000 people. So you can imagine how crowded it gets in the park. Lines to enter the park get backed up quite commonly, there are traffic jams on the few roads around the valley, and the parking spots fill up fast! Be aware of this. Make plans to arrive early, take the shuttle around, or rent and ride bikes.

8. Don’t miss the hotel and interpretive nature walk tours.

These tours are led from the Majestic Yosemite Hotel once a day. The interpretive nature walk starts shortly after the hotel tour finishes, so it’s convenient to do them both when you’re in that neck of the woods. I highly recommend doing both since they give you some valuable knowledge of the park, its history, and the biodiversity of nature.

9. Half Dome requires a permit.

The world-famous Half Dome is a 14-17 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of nearly 5,000 feet/1500 meters. The final leg of 400 feet/120 meters to the summit is done using cables. A permit is needed only for the cable portion at the very end. A daily lottery drawing is held 48 hours in advance for these permits, you can find more info on that here.

10. Don’t expect peace and quiet.

Because this is one of the most famous parks in the United States it is very heavily visited. There were tons of people everywhere we looked when we visited. It’s hard to find a spot all to yourself to get that “alone in nature” feeling. But that brings me to my next point…

11. Get off the beaten trail and into the backcountry.

The valley takes up barely 7 square miles out of Yosemite’s 1,200 square mile area. And while it is the location of some of the park’s most iconic sights, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, and El Capitan, there is much more to be seen beyond this small area. The Sequoia groves, Hetch Hetchy, Mirror Lake, Merced Lake, Glacier Point, and much more. 95% of visitors stay in the valley, so take the opportunity to venture out! Especially if you crave that “path less traveled” vibe.

12. Gas up before entering the park.

As you come into the park, take the opportunity to fill up in the towns before entering the park. Gas in the park is very expensive! And you will be doing lots of driving into, out of, and around the park!

13. Stay. On. The. Trails.

Trails serve a purpose. And that’s for you to walk. on. them. Surprise, right? Nothing angers me more than seeing people knowingly venturing off the marked trail to take a shortcut or to go find a photo opp. When you venture off a marked trail you could be trampling plants, delicate root systems, and wildlife habitats.

I saw so many people taking reckless shortcuts on hikes in Yosemite. And Glacier Point was infuriating to me because I saw so many people climbing the short divider fence and walking straight past the DANGER DO NOT ENTER sign, chuckling as they said “I’m a rulebreaker!” All for the prefect ‘gram, right?

Don’t do it. Don’t endanger yourself. Don’t disrespect the nature. Stay on the trails. Obey the rules. When a sign says “Do Not Enter” then do not enter!

Don’t be like these people.

14. There is extremely sparse phone signal and wifi in the park.

Expect to have no service for most of your Yosemite adventures. Enjoy it! Being free of technological distractions and out in the gorgeous scenery of this National Park is amazing!

15. Check for any closures before your visit.

If you visit during the summer this will be less of an issue. Many roads are closed seasonally due to winter conditions, so if you’re visiting around the end of spring or fall, you may have to be more mindful here. Certain areas may be closed as well. For example, the Mariposa grove of giant seqouias has been closed for years to undergo restoration efforts and will reopen in the summer of 2018.

16. The majority of the most famous sights are easily accessible.

And what I mean by this is you can access them by car and/or a short paved “hike.” It’s nice to be able to easily experience the best of the best and most beautiful.

17. Don’t forget your reusable water bottle! 

Yosemite is pretty serious about their sustainability (which I love!) and they have plenty of water bottle refilling stations around the park. Some of the hikes can be exhausting, and the weather can get hot, so it’s always a good idea to make sure you have water with you. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Good luck with your planning! Happy wanderlusting, friends!

1 Comment

  • Lori

    Great post Katy, especially the reminders that I wish you didn’t need to remind people of. Wish the staff were larger to keep visitors in check. I’m wondering how possible it is to get off the beaten path in Yosemite these days, but it’s still something everyone should see.

    July 28, 2018 at 10:49 pm Reply
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