5 Tips for Visiting Yosemite from San Francisco

Summer 2020 COVID-19 Updates
Posted on August 13, 2020

It’s official!!!

Yosemite National Park is open to the public! Reopening our Parks was an exciting step all of us (especially in California) who love them.

However, we are all adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions and whats commonly referred to as “our new normal.” The NPS, their hospitality concessionaire Aramark, and the front-line staff are in the same boat of “figuring it out” as we go.

I’ve led many DOZENS of tours from San Francisco to Yosemite over the past several years and am in love with this park. That said, with everything going on, I haven’t yet decided if I’ll be planning a trip there with my own family, or will wait it out. According to my Facebook spies, the wildlife sightings have been spectacular this year! -But brave independent travelers will undoubtedly have some new challenges to contend with. If you want to see Yosemite in summer without the masses, THIS may just be your year!

To help you have the most successful “Yosemite from San Francisco” getaway possible this summer, here are my top 5 insider tips.

  1. Plan WAY Ahead
  2.  Stay Overnight and Get Up Early
  3. Bring your Bike
  4. Look Beyond the Valley
  5. Go with the Flow

1. Plan WAY Ahead!

I can’t emphasize this enough. In 2019, Yosemite had 4.42 MILLION visitors. This 2nd highest record impressed me, ESPECIALLY considering the impact of the California wildfires these past few years (2016 was #1 at +5million). Keep in mind that while the Yosemite as a whole is roughly the size of Rhode Island (just shy of 750,000 acres), but most of the visitors crowd into Yosemite Valley, which is only 7 square miles!

Now with COVID adding its special spin, things are going to be a little different. To encourage physical distancing and not overstress the parks resources, the NPS is transitioning to a reservation system, and capping the daily visitors at ½ the June average. Get park entrance reservations online at Recreation.gov exactly 6 months in advance and often burn the midnight oil repeatedly hitting “refresh” to land one. Or they take a guided group tour with Tauck or another operator that has guaranteed contracted rooms (more on that later).

Now, the reservation window is going to be on a rolling basis, one month in advance, at 7am PT on the first of each month Example: 7am Pacific time on July 1, reservations open for travel dates in August.

We don’t yet know how high demand will be in the park, but I bet its going to be pretty competitive. Travel industry forecasts that many Americans are expected to drive their family on vacation this year rather than fly, and the great outdoors are perceived to be a “safer” option for visitors of all ages.

Now- if you can’t get a room or campsite in the park, and you can’t get a reservation for your car entry on your target date, there’s one more option. Take a YARTS bus. These regional transit buses are used by employees AND visitors, and run from several cities outside outside the park (Merced, Fresno, Mariposa, etc) into the Valley several times each day. A certain number of those seats are reserved for essential personnel, but each bus will also have a limited number of seats available for online reservation and walk up (as available). If you are a nervous driver, this could also be a particularly good option for you, as it means you leave the steep mountain roads to an experienced professional, and can enjoy looking out the window instead of white-knuckling the steering wheel for 90 minutes.

BOTTOM LINE: PLAN AHEAD! OF COURSE TRY TO GO ON WEEKDAYS, IF POSSIBLE. If you must go on a weekend, try to be there by Thursday. Decide on your date options, do your best to get those in-park camping and lodging reservations ASAP. If you can’t get lodging in the park, attempt to make a park-entry reservation. Then figure out where the heck you are going to stay! In that order… and be flexible.

Up to date info from the Travel Yosemite COVID-19 page

2. Stay Overnight and Get up Early

Which brings us to our next critical piece of advice. STAY OVERNIGHT! If you are going to visit Yosemite, for goodness sakes, do it right. Please don’t try to drive there and back from San Francisco in one day. It breaks my heart when I see people do this, as it REALLY TRULY doesn’t do the park justice and is an all-around crummy experience. So please take my advice, stay overnight.

Now, I can hear you now, “but Heather we can’t get a reservation to stay in the park.” Yes, you’re probably right, but it can’t hurt to try. This year its probably going to be harder than ever to get those campsites and rooms, especially due to COVID. There are 3 main park-owned lodgesinside the park- Wawona, The Lodge, and The Ahwahnee Hotel.

My advice for guests wanting to stay at a hotel inside the park has always been—- book an organized tour! Group tour operators contract rooms blocks years ahead, so by going this route you are guaranteed a room. Most companies stay at the Lodge, which frankly is probably more aptly described as an overpriced “motel,” and ONLY has double queen rooms (no Kings, and no A/C), but the location is fantastically convenient. I personally stay with Tauck at the Ahwahnee Hotel, which is one of the crown jewels of the National Park. It also offers suites, cottages, king beds and the all-important air conditioning. It’s a registered historic landmark, so its decisively not modern (and they are limited in the amenities they can add), but its oozing with charm and character. I’m unabashedly in love with this place, as are 99% of my guests. If you want to guarantee yourself a room, there are VERY few companies that are able to partner with the Ahwahnee. I’m only aware of 2 at this time- Tauck World Discoveries and BackRoads. You’ll pay a premium to book with either of these, but IMHO, if you can afford it, its absolutely WORTH IT.

The Lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel are opening mid June 2020, with restrictions. Due to COVID rules, they must keep rooms empty for one night between guests, so that’s fewer opportunities for us. Sadly, my second favorite, the Wawona Hotel is closed for repairs through at least Spring 2021.

If you just can’t get a site or room in the park, don’t despair. There are quite a few options in the gateway communities. The small providers there are really hurting economically and will be grateful for your business!

My top suggestion is to look first in El Portal and Mariposa. El Portal is just barely outside the park gate on Hwy 140 and the easiest drive in/out of the Valley. The motor lodges there have rooms that are more than adequate, some have a lovely view of the Merced River, and there’s a solid pizza place. What more can you want?

Mariposa has some small inns and AirBnB options, and there’s even retro Airstream glamping between the two (its pricey, but a fun concept and great location).

Try my secret spot too—- Inside the park near Wawona there is a community called Yosemite West with an enclave of privately-owned vacation cottages and condos. I expect they’ll be expensive but its INSIDE the park!

Tenaya Lodge is also along that same route, Hwy 41. This is my top pick for families with kids and folks who want a very comfortable upscale hotel experience but can’t get a room at the Ahwahnee. A couple years back the fires came practically up to their doorstep, but the resort itself was saved and still lovely.

The fires came very close to the fairly new and modern Rush Creek Lodge (near Hetch Hetchy on Hwy 140). There’s still a bit of burn in the area, but the resort survived and is an excellent option. This one I haven’t personally stayed at yet, but so far I’ve heard nothing but good things (if you stay there- please let me know what you think!). This is one of the most direct driving routes from SF, too, so if you have an electric car, there are more chargers on this road.

If you must, stay further afield in more distant communities of Jamestown (cute western themed village), Oakhurst, Merced, etc and plan to GET UP EARLY. Even with the cap on the number of visitors, I’m slightly terrified of what the parking lots are going to look like in Yosemite Valley. Traffic in summer is usually a nightmare, so it’ll be interesting to see how it does this year. ESPECIALLY if you aren’t staying inside the Valley, you’ll want to be at the gate bright and early to get in the park, and stay until at least sunset when they are gone so you aren’t sitting in traffic on the way out. Bring layers for the crisp cool dawn and dusk.

I recommend packing lots of snacks for your day (maybe even bring a brown-bag lunch from your hotel if you plan to do a big hike). Importantly, keep these things with you, on your person in your backpack. DO NOT LEAVE ANYTHING THAT SMELLS YUMMY in your car. No scenting hand cream, no Snickers bars!!! Those things satisfy, but a bear who eats a Snickers will STILL be a bear— not Betty White. And Bears can smell for MILES and peel open your car like a sardine can. Just don’t do it. Pack your goodies in and out.

Yosemite food service is ramping up soon. Again due to COVID physical distancing restrictions, indoor dining may be a bit wonkier than usual (and frankly the park is not known for its food these days anyway), so they are inviting a small fleet of food trucks to help out. Food trucks will likely be staged in the Curry Village parking, and perhaps also near the Village Store and Lodge parking lot, according to demand. Hotel restaurant dining is available ONLY to in-house guests. If it were my hungry family, I’d pack plenty of substantial snacks to get through the day and supplement with a purchased meal wherever/whenever I find one.

3. Bring your Bike

Yosemite Valley is a stellar place to bicycle. There are flat, protected bike paths that crisscross all over the 7 square miles, and this has ALWAYS been my preferred way to explore. It’s beautiful, safe, pleasant, and you can go at your own pace. Now it miiiiiiight be one of the only ways to get around…

When COVID hit, many non-essential personnel were furloughed or laid off. Among those were the transportation workers. This is a big deal. For years the shuttles ferried people around the Valley quickly, and reasonably efficiently (granted in summer they could be PACKED). It was DEFINITELY more efficient than driving and repeatedly searching for parking. I haven’t heard if the shuttles are coming back on-line, but I wouldn’t take the chance. Bring your bike. If you don’t have one, cruiser rentals are available at the Yosemite Valley Lodge Bike Stand. Of course they only have so many bikes, so you might want to get there early. They provide helmets, but I don’t like shared helmets or Lysol hair, so I bring my own.

Also worth noting- all the vehicle based tours, including my favorite “Green Dragon” Valley Floor Tour, river rafting, the swimming pool and the mountaineering school (rock climbing lessons, etc) are sadly closed for the season. This makes biking a really appealing activity for its own sake. Biking has always been a particularly good way to get to/from the trailheads. There are racks at pretty much all of them and bike theft is pretty rare.

Finally, the trailheads themselves may have new restrictions and signage asking people to walk in a certain loop to encourage physical distancing. Check online, ask Qs from your lodging Concierge and/or Ranger station, and pay attention to any signage along the way. Also carry lots of water as public fountains may stay closed for hygiene reasons. Stay safe!

4. Look Beyond the Valley!

If you remember, this National Park is the size of Rhode Island, and the Valley is a tiny little piece of the wonder that makes up Yosemite! While I absolutely adore Yosemite Valley and consider it a crown jewel of the NP System, there is so much more to see. I HIGHLY recommend all guests who come in their car to head east on Hwy 120 and get into the back country at least a little. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to do serious mountaineering or Wilderness Area Hiking (though please do if that’s your jam). Even if all you do is take a picnic and go for a drive, it is SO WORTH IT. The road to Tioga pass has some of the most stunning mountain vistas, including Olmstead point and Tenaya Lake. There’s also the hike down into the Giant Sequoias at Tuolumne Grove (just keep in mind if you walk down that, be prepared to walk back up!).

Also note that there aren’t a ton of services up there, most of which are seasonal-only even in a normal year, so come prepared. Make sure your car is serviced, full of gas and you have your layers, water, picnic, etc. I also let someone know whenever I’m headed into the backcountry, be it family or the Ranger Station. Cell service can be spotty up there, remember you are in the wilderness at high altitude (4,000 to +8,000’) after all…

FINALLY— My BEST tip to avoid the crowds but have a fantastic Sierra Nevada National Park experience every bit as exquisite as Yosemite,look into Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. They have the largest trees on earth (waaaay better than Mariposa Grove), meadows, caves and bears GALORE, with a tiny fraction of the people. Seriously!

5. Go with the Flow.

This is pretty much the Golden Rule for travel in general anyway… but even more so in these strange times. You may find you have to deal with unforeseen weather, unpleasant traffic or a very confused clerk learning a new procedure required to keep you safe.

Whatever is thrown at you- make a plan, do your best, and then go with the flow. See where it takes you. Be patient, be present, and remember we are all figuring this out.

WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, 6 FEET APART.

Enjoy your journey, and tell El Cap I send my love.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed planning and would like to book a guided Yosemite or Sequoia NP experience roundtrip from San Francisco, we can help. Contact us.