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Home Location Guide Yosemite National Park: The Ultimate Visitor’s Guide

Yosemite National Park: The Ultimate Visitor’s Guide [With Tips from Local Expert Graham]

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Yosemite National Park is a world-class bucket list destination for hiking enthusiasts and lovers of the outdoors for obvious reasons. For those interested in exploring Yosemite on foot, there are literally hundreds of miles of hiking trails where you can experience the same solitude that draws people from all over the world. The glacially carved valleys, soaring granite walls and meandering rivers provide scenery that is truly out of this world and simply has to be experienced in person.

As Yosemite Valley gains in popularity, it can be challenging to navigate the crowds and taking the time to plan your trip will pay off during your visit. We’ve created a handy guide with essential park information as well as tips on what to do, where to eat, and where to stay on your next visit to Yosemite National Park.

This article was written with the help of our local expert, Graham. When you are in town, check out Graham’s Airbnb experience in Yosemite Valley and his company Southern Yosemite Travel Guides. They run incredible day trip and even a five-day Yosemite camping trips through one of California’s most beautiful wilderness areas. Trips include meals, snacks and equipment.

-> BONUS: For some amazing Airbnb Properties to stay at in Yosemite, check out our list of the best Airbnb in Yosemite here! <-

 

Costs at Yosemite National Park

Entrance fees:

  • 7-day pass: $35 per car, $30 per motorcycle
  • Annual pass: $70

After your entrance fee, which allows you the ability to re-enter the park for seven days, there really aren’t any mandatory charges you have to pay while visiting Yosemite National Park. The only exceptions are your transport into the park, accommodation, and meals.

 

“Yosemite” by raygunb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Getting to Yosemite National Park

1. By Plane

The closest Yosemite airport, the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport (FAT) is located approximately 65 miles south of the park (about an hour and a half’s drive from Yosemite). Other flights come into San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK) and San Jose International Airport (SJC) which are also within driving distance of the park.

If you are flying into San Francisco or Los Angeles, it is possible to take a train to Fresno or Merced and then pick up a YARTS bus (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) to take you the remaining distance into the park. Once inside the park, you can use the complimentary shuttles throughout the Yosemite Valley.

2. By Car

Yosemite National Park essentially has three main access points along the three highways that intersect with it – Highway 41, 140, and 120. Along these highways, there are “gateway towns” that are located just outside of the park boundaries and are a great spot to find lodging, dining but also experiences to enjoy in the national park itself. Some of the more popular getaway towns include Oakhurst, Mariposa, and Lee Vining.

If you’re planning on driving to Yosemite National Park, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee to enter the park. However, you also have the option to park your car inside the park and hop onto the free park shuttles instead of driving around yourself.

3. By Train

  • Amtrak

Amtrak provides a combination of train and bus service to the Yosemite Valley from San Francisco or Sacramento on the San Joaquin line (taking approx. six hours in total). They also provide limited service to White Wolf and Tuolumne Meadows daily during July and August (weekends only from June to September). For the last part of the journey into Yosemite, you’ll board the YARTS bus line. One ticket includes the Amtrak Thruway bus from downtown San Fran to Emeryville train station, the train and YARTS bus all the way to Yosemite. Benefits include free Wi-Fi onboard and skipping the park pass fees.

4. By Bus

With traffic into and out of Yosemite increasing everywhere, it can be helpful to plan your trip without the use of a vehicle. Luckily, there are various other modes of transport for getting to Yosemite National Park, including travelling by train, bus, or shuttle.

  • YARTS Buses

YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) shuttle buses run along four major routes to Yosemite and stop at a designated park and ride lots, campgrounds and RV parks along the way:

Departure Points:

      • Highway 120/395 starting in Mammoth Lakes on the eastern side of the park
      • Highway 120 starting in Sonora  on the western side of the park
      • Highway  41 starting in Fresno
      • Highway  140 starting in Merced

YARTS buses are fully air-conditioned bus and have a restroom onboard. YARTS buses use the “bus only” lane which means skipping the traffic.

5. Greyhound

Greyhound provides bus service to Merced, where you can continue onwards to Yosemite on a YARTS bus. YARTS also provides limited service to Crane Flat, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows daily during July and August (weekends only from June to September).

 

“Yosemite National Park”by Jasperdo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Getting around and Transportation in Yosemite National Park

1. Free Park Shuttle

Once you’re in the Yosemite Valley, you can get around by taking the FREE park shuttle that travels along designated routes, including the valley, El Capitan, Tuolumne Meadows (in the summer) and the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, previously known as Badger Pass (in the winter).

The complimentary Yosemite shuttle is run by the National Park Service which connects all the main attractions and hotels in the main part of Yosemite Valley, such as Curry Village, the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge and other nearby campsites and natural wonders. The shuttles run every ten minutes from 07h00 to 22h00.

2. Free El Capitan Shuttle

This free bus stops at El Capitan, Four Mile trailhead, and the Valley Visitor Center. This shuttle operates from mid-June through early September from 09h00 to 18h00.

 

“Yosemite”by raygunb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Where to Eat in Yosemite National Park

There is a variety of dining options and places to eat in Yosemite National Park. We recommend the following places to replenish after a long day sightseeing in Yosemite.

1. The Majestic Yosemite Lodge Dining Room

Besides being the park’s oldest and most historic lodge in the park, The Majestic Yosemite Lodge offers a fine dining room with high ceilings and glittering chandeliers. There is also outdoor seating overlooking Yosemite National Park and a lovely bar area. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available daily as well as their famous Sunday brunch. A ‘Resort Casual’ Dress code is required. Open 07h00 – 21h00.

2. The Mountain Room Restaurant

On the western end of Yosemite Valley, The Mountain Room offers a similar dining experience to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Open all year round, guests can enjoy astonishing views of the 2,424 foot high Yosemite Falls, and a diverse menu of steaks, seafood and pasta. Open 17h00 – 21h00.

3. Curry Village Pizza Deck

After a long day of hiking the Curry Village, pizza hits the spot! If you’re coming down from the John Muir Trail it is the closest option and recommended for “hangry” hikers. Watch your food closely, as the outdoor dining area is enjoyed by travellers as well as the wildlife that will pinch your food if you aren’t paying attention. Open 11h00 – 22h00.

4. Degnan’s Kitchen

For something a bit more low-key, Degnan’s Kitchen offers laid-back counter service with breakfast options, deli sandwiches, signature salads, and artisan pizza. The outdoor patio is a great spot for a leisurely breakfast or coffee with a stunning view of the park. Open 07h00 – 18h00.

5. Big Trees Lodge Dining Room

Big Trees Lodge offers a dining experience with a difference for breakfast, lunch, dinner or cocktails. The dining room has a Victorian feel with a fireplace and hand-painted lanterns and a pretty patio and lawn for alfresco dining in the summer. Don’t miss the summer barbecues on select Saturdays in summer and over the Memorial Day Weekend, Father’s Day and the Fourth of July. Open 07h00 – 21h00.

 

“The campsite Saturday morning”by travis.vachon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Yosemite Nightlife, Entertainment and Bars

1. Inside the Park

Yosemite isn’t really a place people come for a party but there are places that you can visit to enjoy a few relaxing drinks at the end of a big day hiking. Inside the park itself, most of the entertainment can be found at Yosemite hotel bars where you can enjoy the company of fellow travellers from around the world while discussing the days’ wildlife encounters.

2. Majestic Yosemite Bar

The Majestic Yosemite hotel bar is a great place to relax and have a nightcap after a long day exploring the park. Renovated in 2016, this cozy bar has a menu offering appetizers and light meals to keep you going. Open 11h30 – 22h00/23h00.

3. Mountain Room Bar

Here’s a great spot to sit down with a chilled drink and catch up on the latest sports news. This bar is particularly busy during the winter months. There is a small food menu at this Yosemite hotel bar providing nachos for sustenance, or you can order a S’mores kit to cook over the open fireplace. Open 17h00 – 23h00. Kids are welcome but only until 22h00.

4. Cocktails at Half Dome Village Bar

Sip microbrews or exotic signature cocktails after a long day of hiking at the Half Dome Village Bar. It’s not much to look at – just your typical hole in the wall – but it’s an affordable spot for a sociable sun dower. Don’t miss the Chuck Wagon BBQ evening on Saturday evenings from mid-June to Labor Day weekend at the Pavilion. Open 11h00 – 22h00.

5. Ranger Programs

While it may not count as the nightlife or entertainment you’re used to, the ranger programs are still a fantastic way to spend an evening. There are guided night hikes, stargazing programs, full moon snowshoe hikes, film nights, and campfire storytelling evenings.

6. Ice Skating

Take the free shuttle to Half Dome Village and enjoy ice skating with a view of Half Dome. The ice rink hours are subject to weather conditions but are typically open until 21h30.

7. Outside the Park

Outside the borders of Yosemite National Park, there are great breweries and establishments in the gateway towns of Yosemite Valley, particularly Mariposa and Oakhurst.  

8. Hideout Saloon

Enjoy some great beers and wine at this historic basement bar in downtown Mariposa. Built in 1890, it was used as a storage area before being turned into a bar. It now offers some great décor, a friendly atmosphere and live music on Friday nights. Don’t forget to leave your mark by pinning a one dollar bill to the dollar-bill wall. Open 10h00 – 02h00 on weekends (opens later the rest of the week).

9. The Alley

This cozy little lounge bar and beer garden in Mariposa offers great pizza and microbrewery beers as well as a sociable atmosphere. There are trivia nights every second Wednesday. Open 16h00 – 22h00 (midnight on weekends)

10. Grove House

The Grove House Mariposa is the perfect hotspot after a day in the park. You can expect craft beers and great music as well as free popcorn and plenty of board games. Check out the event schedule for live music and movie nights. Open 15h00 – 22h00.

11. The Oakroom Bar

The Oakroom Bar in Oakhurst is a great little bar offering a jukebox pool tables, and karaoke. It’s a fantastic spot to have a cold beer and mix with the locals. Live music, DJ nights and themed party nights are scheduled for weekends in season. Open 10h00 – 02h00.

12. The Pines Bar

If you’re looking for a late night bar with live music, the Pines Bar in Bass Lake is a great choice. Head here in time to see the sunset over the lake and party into the night with live music on Saturdays. Open 16h00 – late.

 

“The Merced and Half Dome”by jfdervin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Best Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

1. Hike the John Muir Trail

One of the best things to do in the Yosemite Valley is hiking to see the spectacular views of granite cliffs and waterfalls that are accessed by intersecting trails throughout the park. Most notably, the John Muir Trail climbs up from Happy Isles and then travels to Tuolumne Meadows before tracing south out of the park and along the Sierra Crest eventually leading to Mt. Whitney.

2. Hike the Mist Trail and Yosemite Falls Trail

For those who are new to Yosemite, finding the Mist Trail that leads to Vernal, Nevada Falls and Half Dome (if you were lucky enough to nab a permit) is a must. The Yosemite Falls Trail also offers some excellent hiking. Both of these trails climb up from the Valley floor to the rim of the Valley so make sure you are feeling ready for a “Stairmaster” type of hike!

3. See the Giant Sequoias

Yosemite also features three impressive groves of Giant Sequoias. Staring up from the base of the Grizzly Giant offers visitors a similar feeling of amazement as they get when standing at the base of El Capitan! The Mariposa Grove of Sequoias was recently restored and is the largest grove in Yosemite.

4. Join a Ranger Program

The ranger programs at Yosemite National Park offer a wealth of nature activities, from photography walks and guided hikes to junior ranger courses, live theatre and fireside storytelling. Check the event program out for the latest schedule for the Yosemite Valley.

5. Drive or Hike to Glacier Point

Taking a drive up to Glacier Point and staring down at Yosemite National Park is a very special experience, especially close to sunrise or sunset. If you have time to reach the summit of Sentinel Dome this offers a 360-degree panorama that is truly unforgettable.

6. Explore the Tuolumne Meadows

Another drive that is longer but just as incredible is the one up to Glacier Point is along Highway 120 which stretches across the entire park. Spending at least part of a day in Tuolumne Meadows offers a great escape from the main points of interest. Don’t forget to pack a picnic!

7. Visit Cathedral Lakes

If you have more time and the Yosemite weather plays along, a hike into Cathedral Lakes is phenomenal. Hikes can take three to five hours but are well worth it. The Lower Cathedral Lake is one of the most impressive of Yosemite’s granite-wrapped High Sierra lakes and the views along the hike are astonishing. The lake is surrounded by Cathedral Peak to the east and by Echo and Tresidder Peaks to the south, all of which stand over 10,000 tall.

Hiking tip: If you want to maximize your time in Yosemite, hiring a guide from a trusted source such as Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides is an excellent way to ensure you get the most out of your day.

 

“Making music by a cliff”by albedo20 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Free Things to Do in Yosemite

There are many great free things to do in Yosemite National Park.  Here are our suggestions:

    • Drive your personal vehicle to breath-taking Glacier Point and tackle the four-mile hike (round trip) to Sentinel Dome. If you’re travelling with young kids or you’d prefer not to hike, you can reach the viewpoint by car.
    • Take the free shuttle into the Mariposa Grove to see 500 thousand-year-old giant Sequoia trees. The Visitors Center in the heart of the Valley offers a great interpretive display.
    • Join a Park Ranger for a free interpretive walk through the park at no charge.
    • Pack a picnic lunch or dinner and walk out in El Cap Meadow for the most scenic dining experience in Yosemite (and maybe the world?), or take the free shuttle to picnic in the stunning Tuolumne Meadows.
    • Spot wildlife. There are over 400 different species of animals and multiple life zones for plant life in Yosemite National Park. Watch out for black bears!
    • Hike the Mist Trail, one of the park’s most popular hiking trails to see the gorgeous waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada Falls. As you have to climb a 600-step granite staircase, this hike is recommended for fit hikers.
    • Join one of the park’s organized programs, including art classes, photography walks, campfire programs, and free talks at the Curry Village amphitheatre. Check out the Yosemite website for the most recent events program.

 

“Surveying the valley”by albedo20 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park

There are many fantastic places to stay in and around Yosemite National Park, but Airbnbs in the gateway towns are recommended as they are more affordable, less crowded, yet still offer easy access into the park. Some Airbnb experiences will even offer Yosemite camping trips into the park for the more adventurous.

Here are our favourite areas to stay in an Airbnb near Yosemite National Park:

1. Oakhurst

Oakhurst is ideally located along Highway 41, around a 25-minute drive from Yosemite National Park’s southern entrance. The pretty mountain town offers a variety of lodging and dining options such as the South Gate Brewery as well as great guide services, such as Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides where you can book guided hiking trips and tours into the park.

2. Mariposa

Mariposa is another scenic mountain town found along Highway 140, around 50 minutes’ drive from Yosemite’s southern entrance.  The town has a great Main Street with fantastic restaurants, such as Savoury’s and 1850 Restaurant & Brewery. The Alley is a popular spot to stop off and enjoy a cold beverage as it offers a lovely back patio area.

3. Lee Vining

Lee Vining is located along Highway 120 (East), just 30 minutes from the park entrance if you go via the Tioga Pass. Lee Vining offers a different feel to the other mountain towns as it is located on the eastern side of the Sierra Crest. Enjoying a meal at the famous Whoa Nellie Deli looking over Mono Lake is an absolute must.

 

Kris Ryan Quirino
I'm a travel writer, researcher and engineer with two wonderful little kids. When I'm not taking care of my kids. I'm travelling and writing for various blogs online. My passion is renewable energy and I am currently completing a Masters part time in solar systems.

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