When Abraham Lincoln created the Yosemite Grant in 1864, it marked the first time the federal government ever set aside a piece of land for preservation. Now, 150 years later, Yosemite National Park, about a four-hour drive from San Francisco, is one of the most beloved places on the planet, with its epic rock formations like Half Dome and El Capitan, plush meadows, rushing waterfalls, and boundless ways to enjoy nature. In addition, to mark its 150th anniversary, visitors can enjoy dozens of commemorative events taking place year-round. Whether you make it for a visit in 2014 or beyond, here are some insider tips on how to make the most of your trip.
Plan as much as possible in advance
While spontaneous travelers may bristle at the idea of making reservations up to six months in advance, experiencing all that Yosemite has to offer depends on it, especially if you plan to stay in Yosemite Valley during peak months. The most popular accommodations, such as the Lodge at the Falls and Curry Village, fill up months in advance; snagging a spot can sometimes feel like blood sport. Reservations are required March 15 through November for Yosemite Valley’s car campgrounds, and summer through fall for Hodgdon Meadow, Crane Flat, Wawona, and half of Tuolumne Meadows. Reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 a.m. PST, and they often fill up minutes after. Be sure to have dates and accommodations researched and ready to go ahead of time so you can switch gears if your first choice isn’t available. In addition, read up on Yosemite’s hiking trails and pick out which ones you want to try before you arrive. Finally, the park’s excellent seasonal newspaper (a free, downloadable PDF) is chock-full of helpful tips and activities that will be happening during your visit and can be a handy tool in helping shape your days.
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Consider a visit in the late fall or winter
Yosemite is blissfully serene in cold-weather months, especially under a blanket of snow and without the crowds of the high season, which runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Fall brings a gorgeous canvas of changing leaves as a backdrop to hiking, while the winter means cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and even downhill skiing. The on-site ski area, Badger Pass, is affordable, unpretentious, and a great place for families. (Keep in mind that Tioga Road, the main access to the eastern parts of the park, is closed during the winter.)
Don’t drive if you can help it
You can explore many areas of Yosemite without a vehicle, saving you headaches over parking and traffic. Free shuttles circulate the valley year-round and along Tioga Road during summer. In addition, YARTS public buses travel highways 120 and 140, linking the valley and high country with the Eastern Sierra and the western Sierra foothills. Another underappreciated way of exploring the valley (and avoiding traffic) is bicycling (rentals available, or bring your own wheels). Take advantage of 12 miles of paved trails in the Valley, which offer excellent views of Yosemite Falls and access to popular sites like Mirror Lake.
If you must get behind the wheel
Be sure to fill up long before you get into the park. Gas prices creep up the closer you get to the entrances, and skyrocket by nearly $1/gallon once you’re in the park. If you have a car, it pays to get an early start so you can snag a parking spot. Also keep in mind that the roads around Yosemite Valley are one-way. It’s much easier to pull into a site and then keep driving if you decide not to explore it on foot, rather than looping back around.
Get off the beaten path
Yes, the crowds on some of Yosemite’s most popular hikes can be maddening. But the masses generally start to disperse the farther (or higher) you go from the trailhead, especially on routes like Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls, and the John Muir Trail. At Mirror Lake, which magnificently reflects Half Dome in the spring, you can avoid some of the crowds by hiking from the Ahwahnee Hotel down to the Mirror Lake shuttle stop, a 2.8-mile route that’s ideal for families and less experienced hikers. And, if you’ve got your sights set on Half Dome, consider hiking downhill from Tuolumne Meadows via Cloud’s Rest or the John Muir Trail on an overnight backpacking trip, instead of tackling it from the valley (a 10- to 12-hour trek) as the majority of hikers do.
Get a late start
Yes, you read that right. Dragging yourself out of your sleeping bag at the crack of dawn can actually put you in the morning rush of early risers and shutterbugs getting early-morning shots throughout the park. Plus, you’ll have better luck trying to snag a no-reservations campsite, as other campers tend to check out around mid-morning. Some of the most relaxing, serene moments you can spend in Yosemite are when the sun is setting and the day trippers have left. One highly recommended way to enjoy that gorgeous time of day: grab an adult beverage and a pair of binoculars, and head to the meadow in front of El Capitan. Try to spot the climbers as the sun paints a beautiful canvas of light on the soaring monolith.
Don’t rely on your cell phone
While Yosemite has some modern-day conveniences—a well-stocked grocery store, luxury lodges—you likely won’t be able to Instagram that epic shot of Half Dome right away. Cell phone signals are spotty, at best, and at most points in the park, nonexistent. More significantly, you won’t be able to pull up a map with GPS, so make sure to keep a paper map on you, especially when driving or hiking on remote roads.