On June 12, I saw a post in one of my hiking groups that Yosemite National Park is basically empty. This was just one day after Yosemite reopened its “doors” to the public. I knew how special this was. The next day, I was the bearer of an entry ticket for late July.
The mere mention of Yosemite (or Yose-might or Yose-mi-night) conjures up images of towering granite, roaring waterfalls, and the legendary Half Dome. It’s the 5th most visited national park in the US. If, like me, you’ve been waiting to experience the natural beauty without the crowd, I have one word for you – GO… at least, if you can drive here. I can’t tell you how good it was to be in the midst of Yosemite’s sheer beauty and have most of it to myself, including on the weekend. It’s probably one of the safest outdoor getaways you can have during the pandemic without getting off the grid.
(sorry for some blurry photos – my camera suffered water damage)
How To Get In
You’ll need a entry ticket/reservation to enter the park, which is available on the 1st of each month for the following month (example: on July 1, tickets go online for Aug 1-31) and goes quickly. However, it’s the same system that is doing wonders in crowd-thinning, and the crowd-free nature experience was well worth the sacrifice of some flexibility to me. And, if you have a camping or lodging reservation inside the park, that gets you in and you don’t need the aforementioned entry ticket.
Here’s a crowd comparison at Lower Yosemite Falls. Left pic is from NPS (likely from spring, given the gushing waterfall), right is mine.
What To See
Many of the park’s biggest names, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and El Capitan, can be viewed from Yosemite Valley, which sits at ~4,000 feet altitude and is open year round (but they can also be viewed, some better, from other parts of the park). When I visited in late July, it was around 90F degrees during midday – not very comfortable for hiking. I enjoyed dipping in the Merced River with a view of Bridal Veil Falls. Glacier Point (short walk from its parking lot) and nearby Sentinel Dome and Taft Point (require modest hiking), about 50 minutes drive from The Valley, offer awe-inspiring panoramic views of Half Dome and The Valley.
My favorite part of the park was Tioga Road (Route 120) – only open during summer and early fall. From The Valley, it takes about an hour drive to reach Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake at ~8,000 feet altitude (much cooler here – about 75F). The former offers spectacular view of Half Dome and Clouds Rest. The latter is a clear glacial lake surrounded by mountains – beckoning for you to swim, kayak, paddle, hike, or just relax. I took the very short walk at Olmsted Point and after ~15 minutes had the whole place to myself (and a few ants). At Tenaya Lake, I easily found a secluded spot for some reading; it was gorgeous and again almost devoid of humans. Head east on Tioga Road a little further and find the lush Tuolumne Meadows in the midst of the mountains. There are some many scenic hikes here, as is the case earlier on Tioga. I made it as far as Lambert Dome, which has good views at the top. Keep going and I would have found Tioga Pass and Saddlebag Lake. One hike I wanted to do but didn’t was North Dome with its dead-on view of Half Dome. I had limited time in the park (more on that) and I was enjoying Tenaya and Dog Lake too much!
How Many Days?
If just seeing The Valley, 2 full days does justice. If adding Tioga or Hetchy Hetch (a dam’ed Yosemite-like valley), I’d say at least 3 days.
Where To Stay?
Here’s where I recommend not doing what I did, although it’s possible. First, let me say what I do recommend: stay near the park to maximize your time. Either in the park (camping or one of the lodges) or within 30 minutes of Yosemite Valley. El Portal and Yosemite West are 2 towns/communities that are each about 30 minutes from The Valley. Basic accommodation in El Portal will set you back about $200 a night. Of course, it also depends on where you want to be in the park. If you know you’ll spend most time on the eastern portion of Tioga Road, which is an hour from The Valley, then staying in the High Sierra Camp or other options there would be closer.
So what did a points junkie like me do? Naturally, I followed the old trick and used my hotel points to cover the lodging cost. Now, the closest points hotel is over an hour drive from The Valley, in either Oakhurst (IHG; soon to have Hilton and Marriott) or Mariposa (Best Western). I don’t have any Best Western points and there’s no easy way to get it, so my only option was IHG. But after booking a number of speculative IHG hotels thanks to their award sale, I was short on IHG points too. So I ended up booking the Holiday Inn Express in Chowchilla for 12.5k a night, a rate I felt comfortable with. The lack of things to do in town didn’t bother me – I was just there to sleep and eat to survive. It is, however, 2hr drive from The Valley. But since I spent 2 of my 3 days on Tioga Road, that made it a 3hr drive to my destination, or 6hr round trip daily. That was a little too much and ate into my time into the park. Had I stayed within 30 minutes of the park like I am recommending now, I would have done everything in 2 days instead of 3, or do more in 3 days – not to mention enjoying even more solitude in the early and late hours after most of the people have gone home (and when chances of bear sighting should be higher!). Your wallet will take a small hit, but you’ll have more treasured memories.
CAUTION – If for some reason you end up in HIE Chowchilla (or Merced) and you have to drive back to the hotel in the dark, DO NOT take the Oakhurst route which involves frighteningly remote, pitch black county roads. These roads are probably fine during daylight but at night, you’d be on your own if anything happens. The route back from Mariposa (Route 140 and a few quick turns) was more trafficked and felt safer.
As usual, I sanitized the hotel room upon arrival.
When Should You Visit?
Entry ticket is required thru Oct 31. If you can get a camping or lodge reservation in the park, you don’t need a ticket to enter. Otherwise, there are a few dates in September that still have tickets. A ticket is good for 7 days, so if your visit starts Thursday Sep 27, you only need to get a ticket for that day (which still has 194 tickets available online). Oct tickets become available on Sep 1 – I’d set your calendar for those if interested.
Generally, spring is when the waterfalls roar into action. Summer is very hot in The Valley but still comfortable on the high elevation areas and you get more blue sky. Winter sees fewer people, but the high elevation areas are closed. I’m not sure the capacity control will still be in place come spring, and that’s the magic sauce, so I’d go by Oct 31 if possible.
Should You Fly To See Yosemite?
I personally wouldn’t, but I’m also pretty cautious due to having an elder staying with me. I haven’t flown since January and don’t plan to until we have an effective vaccine. However, what I have heard about the state of air travel is mostly positive – with good mask adherence on the flight (less so in the airport) and airlines taking it seriously. Still, it leaves a lot more beyond my control, so I’m personally not keen on it for leisure travel. But others have done it. Of course, you’d need to rent a car or take a bus, which adds to the risk.
Yosemite Hikes is a great resource for planning. I’ve only used it for hikes, but it also has info on lodging, weather etc.
Be sure to download offline maps well before entering the park, because for the most part there’s little to NO cell phone signal within an hour of the park (great for disconnecting for a few days).
In a Nutshell
Yosemite is big and breathtaking. I’ve only covered a small slice as 3 days barely scratched the surface. Right now is truly a rare chance to see a crowd-free Yosemite in high season (normally you’d have to visit in the winter for that). In fact, I saw the least people on Saturday, both at the entrance and in the park! I did see lots of cars at backpacker trailheads (for example Sunrise which goes to Clouds Rest), but if you’re not backpacking should be fine. Obviously, the lack of crowd is also good for social distancing in the era of Covid-19. Let me know if you have any questions.