GUIDE: Our scramble through Yosemite camping options
**Disclaimer: You may be thinking, I’m not planning to go to Yosemite so I don’t need to read this post. Wrong. Even if you’re mind isn’t planning a trip there, your soul is. It’s just one of those places. If you need convincing of that, just watch/read our last two Yosemite posts: video/feature.**
When we started our trip in August we had the itineraries, activities and camping arrangements laid out to the letter for our first 10 parks. This was partly because we had plenty of time to plan and ample anticipation-fueled enthusiasm, but it was mostly because Elizabeth was in charge of Leg 1 planning. As I took over the planning for Leg 2… let’s just say there was a more laissez-faire attitude. Really though, we found out that making a ton of reservations and concrete plans was like setting up a bunch of mouse traps in our tent. It had more potential for harm than good. Our frequently changing plans and shifting dates favored walk-in permits and first-come-first-serve camping over advance reservations.
Even so, we try to be diligent about planning our visits to bigger parks. So, right before Christmas I called Yosemite’s Visitor Center to see what type of preparations we would need to make for our end-of-March visit. To my surprise, the ranger said there would be plenty of first-come-first-serve sites available and that reservations weren’t necessary. Sounds great, I thought! Now I can go back to taste testing the cookie trays and suffering through Hallmark movies.
But it wasn’t so great.
Three months later, remembering our camping assurances from the ranger, in the weeks right before our Yosemite visit we focused all our planning on the awesome activities and trails we’d be doing in the park. We figured we’d get into Yosemite around noon Friday (hopefully before the weekend rush) and get a campsite at the first-come-first-serve Camp 4 campground. If you’ve ever been to Yosemite, you probably remember every day feels like a weekend rush. Camp 4 was full. We drove over to the other three reservations campgrounds in the Yosemite Valley (Lower Pines, Upper Pines and North Pines). Closed. Booked. Booked. The next closest campgrounds were outside the valley 40 minutes, away from the hub of our activities and probably would be full by the time we got there. And that’s how – already frazzled by more people than we’d seen in the last four parks combined – our first day in Yosemite turned into a frustrating goose chase for a patch of ground to pitch our 4×6 foot tent.
To relieve you from the edge of your seats… it all worked out. We talked to a ranger in person at the Visitors Center (great place to go when you’re in a bind) and he was incredibly helpful (in fact all rangers, workers and volunteers at the park were very friendly). He helped us figure out a plan that would allow us to skip the weekend crowds and still manage plenty of time in the valley.
In the process, we learned that whether you plan to reserve or not, you can find a way to make it work… as long as you know your options and know the system. So we wanted to share the Yosemite camping options and tips we gathered to help you avoid a stress fest of your own.
Even during the spring off-season, Yosemite is unbelievably crowded. It’s important to have a camping plan. There are four types of camping in Yosemite: reservations, first-come-first-serve, backcountry and outside park. The “Plan B” we created let us experience them all.
DAY 1: Friday outside the park in dispersed roadside camping of Stanislaus National Forest
DAY 2: Backcountry in Hetch-Hetchy, four miles from the dam
DAY 3, 4: Reserved campsite for two nights in Upper Pines
DAY 5: First-come-first-serve at communal sites of Camp 4
DAY 6: Back outside the park in dispersed roadside camping of Stanislaus National Forest
- Reservations: Lower Pines, Upper Pines or North Pines campgrounds
- PROS- Safest because it’s guaranteed. Drive-up with picnic table. Good access to the can’t-miss Mist Trail with Vernal/Nevada Falls.
- CONS- Most expensive at $26 per night. Spots crowded together. No shelter from raucous neighbors. Only option for RVs, besides certain outside RV parks.
- TIP: If you didn’t score reservation months in advance and want one, don’t give up. Go immediately to the Campground Reservations office and get on the waitlist. When people cancel and spots are open for that same night, they go to people on the waitlist. The waitlist opens with the Reservations office at 8am and you have to return at 3pm for the allocation of the canceled spots. You actually have a good chance of getting a waitlist spot. When we joined the waitlist mid-Friday and came back at 3, there were 22 canceled campsite reservations given back out. Unfortunately we were number 23 on the list. However, we did tell the reservations ranger we were in the park and looking for campsites for the next 6 nights. He found a newly canceled site that we could for Sunday and Monday at Upper Pines. So that’s another reason to check with reservations if you have a multi-night stay. Also, bad weather causes lots of cancelations. The rainy Monday we were there, so many people canceled their reservations that the campground had the “Spots Available” sign up all day.
- First-come-first-serve: Camp 4 (Yosemite Valley), Wawona, Hodgedon Meadows.
- PROS- Cheap at $6/person. Friendly, relaxed atmosphere that’s good for meeting people. No RVs (or accompanying generators). On the National Register of Historic Places as the birthplace and current incubator of modern rock climbing. Easy access to the strenuous, but worthwhile Upper Yosemite Fall hike (we climbed even farther to Yosemite Point and its panoramas of the valley were even better, especially with Glacier Point still closed in Spring). Once you have a spot you can stay up to 7 days.
- CONS- Less privacy or established areas- there are large group sites where they allow up to five tents and have shared picnic tables. Can’t drive to your site, so you have to carry in your gear 100 yards or so (we got a spot near the access road pull-in and off-loaded the 20 feet from there instead of the parking lot).
- TIP: On weekends the campground fills really early, but on weekdays openings linger. I recommend getting there as soon as possible in the morning if you have time to spare (or maybe after putting your name on the waitlist as a safety valve. Then, since the process is pretty informal, you can just snag a spot from anyone you see packing up.
- Backcountry: 4 miles from any maintained structure (including roads and stuff in the valley)
- PROS- Solitude. There are obvious places where people could camp in sight of other near Rancheria, but we found a spot completely alone. Permits are free. Beautiful views. No capacity limits that we heard of.
- CONS- Requires a bear canister for food and scented stuffs (available for $5 to rent). Requires hiking 4 miles. No amenities.
- TIP: A free drive-up campground for backpackers about to go in or just coming out of the backcountry is available at the Hetch Hetchy dam area. A great option to get an early start or be at ease when returning late from the trail.
- Outside Park: National Forest dispersed camping
- PROS- Free. Drive-up. No permits required. Solitude.
- CONS- Pretty far from the valley. No amenities.
- TIP- Dispersed camping means you set up off the road wherever you find a spot. Lately we have used this option a lot. We usually just find a pull-off and set up a dozen yards from the road. This option is a bit intimidating because it seems weird and sketchy without any signs or whatnot, but we’ve been given the stamp of approval from many different rangers. It’s great for right before you enter or leave a park. For example, we spent our whole last day exploring what we had left of Yosemite Valley and then headed out to the National Forest to set up in the dark, avoid a camping fee and have a jumpstart on the next days drive.
In the end, we were really glad we had the flexibility of not having a reservation. We were even glad we missed out on the waitlist campsite for that weekend night because later at the Visitor Center we learned about an uncrowded trail at Hetch Hetchy with an awesome backcountry spots we could do instead. Plus, we managed our patchwork 6 nights of camping in and around Yosemite Valley for just $64. But no matter what camping situation you find yourself in, remember words of the sign at the Reservation Office, “Smile, you’re on vacation!” And you’re in Yosemite!
If you are looking for more than the options above, check out the helpful post on 10 Little Known Free Campsites In And Near Yosemite from our friends at Serac Hammocks.