I've visited Yosemite National Park more times than I can count, always trying to avoid the biggest crowds. It's a cinch to find solitude in a giant sequoia grove blanketed by snow in winter. But what about exploring the park during peak travel times, when waterfalls peak in late spring and during the busy summer season from Memorial Day to Labor Day?
Here's what I've learned after years of getting stuck in Yosemite Valley traffic jams, being turned away from full campgrounds and jostling with marching armies of vacationing families on the park's most popular trails. (It also helps to have worked for two seasons as a national park ranger in the Sierra Nevada, I admit, so get ready for some insider tips.)
1. Don't Drive Anywhere, If You Can Help It
You can visit many areas of the park without ever needing a car, which saves you parking headaches and wasted time in traffic jams. Free shuttles circulate around the valley year-round, and along Tioga Road during summer. YARTS public buses travel Hwy 120 and Hwy 140, linking the valley and high country with the Eastern Sierra and the western Sierra foothills. Amtrak offers train service to Merced, with connecting buses to Yosemite Valley.
To reach Glacier Point, take the fee-based tour bus from Yosemite Valley in summer. Most people don't know about the free summer shuttle between Yosemite Valley and Wawona, although it only runs once daily in each direction and on-board space is very limited. From Wawona, free and frequent seasonal shuttles take you to the Mariposa Grove.
2. Hike In Reverse, or Just Hike Further Away
If you want to hike the Mist Trail up from the valley or traipse around Tuolumne Meadows, there's no escaping the crowds during summer unless you get a crack-of-dawn start. But Yosemite has 750 miles of trails to explore, so why limit yourself to just the easiest, most accessible hikes that everyone else is taking? By going even slightly off the beaten track, or at least by hiking in the opposite direction, you'll get a much more peaceful walk in the woods.
Hike even a mile down the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point and the crowds of shutterbugs just melt away (and you won't encounter nearly as many people as on the famous Four Mile Trail either). Off Tioga Road in the high country, the trail to Gaylor Lakes is only lightly trod, even at the height of summer. Looking to bag Half Dome? Instead of hiking up from the valley in just one day, hike downhill from Tuolumne Meadows via Cloud's Rest or the John Muir Trail on an overnight backpacking trip.
3. If You're Not an Early Bird, Get a Late Start
I love a lot about being outdoors: camping, hiking, backpacking, canoeing, skiing etc. What I don't love is getting up early in the morning. But instead of that being a drawback, it can actually be an advantage when visiting a busy national park like Yosemite. If you start your day at 10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., you'll be two hours behind the worst crowds all day. While that might prevent you from getting a parking spot right by the trailhead, it can be perfect for finding a no-reservations campsite (as other campers are checking out) or taking a hike with fewer people on your tail. Some of the most relaxed days I've spent outdoors in Yosemite have ended around sunset, after which I've walked into the Mountain Room Restaurant and gotten a table with no waiting.
4. Last-Minute Camping: Be Ready to Rough It
For Yosemite National Park campgrounds that require reservations, you'd better get organized five months in advance. Personally, I'm not all that keen on booking my trip that far out, or camping at noisy, jam-packed campgrounds in the valley. I'd rather take a chance on turning up mid-morning at a first-come, first-served campground and seeing if any sites are available. True, you might have to sacrifice some amenities at these campgrounds or possibly travel on a dirt road to get there, but unless you're visiting on a summer weekend, your chances of finding a spot are pretty good. Otherwise, there's always free, DIY dispersed camping (read: no toilets, drinking water, bear lockers or campfires) on national forest land adjacent to the park.
5. Plan as Much as You Can in Advance
I'm more of a spontaneous traveler myself. But if you're going to visit Yosemite during the summer, even a little bit of advance planning will go a long way toward making your trip easier and more fun. Book lodging, campsites and Half Dome day-hiking and all wilderness permits several months in advance (or check for last-minute cancellations just before your trip starts). Download a free PDF of the park's seasonal newspaper ahead of time so you can better plan your days around what's going on during your visit. Read up on Yosemite's hiking trails and pick out which ones you want to try before you arrive.
And here's another way to make sure you don't waste a minute of your next Yosemite trip (shameless self-promotion alert!): buy this Lonely Planet guidebook I co-wrote, called Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, available in print and as an e-book.
Have you got another tip for avoiding crowds in national parks? Share it by posting a comment.
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Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park
Photo credits: Yosemite National Park (Sara J. Benson & Michael Connolly Jr.)