Yosemite National Park

The crown jewel of John Muir's Sierra Nevada

Aug 24, 2016Words By Charles PostPhotos By Alex Souza

"Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space."

John Muir

An Insider's Guide to

Yosemite National Park

Map illustration by Nicole Varvitsiotes

Part One:
The Frontcountry and Yosemite Valley

By Charles Post

In August, Yosemite valley is the perfect temperature for a quick dip in the Merced River or a hike up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. With enjoyably hot days and cool nights, the only thing to really prepare for are the crowds, which tend to peak during June, July, and August. If your Yosemite window falls within the summer months, make an effort to secure campground reservations well ahead of time – months ahead of time! Otherwise you'll be making the trek into the valley hoping to try your luck with first-come, first-served spots, which don't always work out quite as seamlessly as you'd like them to. 

Summer is an amazing time for the flora, fauna, falls, and peaks of Yosemite. With spring fading into the rear view, the valley’s next generation of animals are growing quickly and learning the ropes of life on the valley floor. If you spend most of your time hiking through the oak, sequoia, and ponderosa forests of the valley, you’ll likely bump into a family of coyotes, deer, ravens, red-breasted sapsuckers, mountain chickadees, or Stellar’s jays, and you may just so happen to cross paths with one of the valley’s black bear families. Just remember to give them their space and don't feed them.

Know Before You Go

In a perfect world, you would arrive in Yosemite with a campground reservation, all the food and gear you'll need, and a solid understanding of the weather forecast to expect during your stay. But for most of us, planning out every detail of an adventure is unlikely, so here are some tips for the less organized:

• Get to Yosemite as early as possible – 3 or 4 am – in an attempt to get a cancellation campsite at Lower Pines Campground or a walk-in site at Camp 4. This time of year, there can be lines by 6 am and they'll fill up immediately.

• You can buy extra food or gear at Yosemite Village. 

• Take food out of your car and keep it in the bear lockers provided throughout the valley. Bears can and do break into cars in search of food. By keeping food away from bears, you’ll not only save your car but you’ll also save the life of a bear; once bears get a taste for human food, they often get addicted and forfeit their life in the wild for one of scouring campgrounds and parking lots for scraps.

• Yosemite can be a dangerous place if you let your guard down. Every summer visitors neglect the spattering of signs warning would-be swimmers of the perils that may come from an innocent dip in the streams that feed Vernal and Nevada Falls. All it takes is one slip or misguided step and you’ll find yourself with a one-way ticket down a deadly waterfall. This happens more than once each summer. Even though you're in the frontcountry, nature is a powerful force. Be cautious and respectful.

What should I pack for my trip to Yosemite Valley?

Bring bug repellant, sunscreen, polarized sunglasses, a camp towel for drying off after quick dips in the river, a fishing rod (you can find all the information you need about fishing in the valley here), and binoculars – they'll turn a great day into an epic day.

Climbing in Yosemite Valley

By Alex Souza, Huckberry Head of Photography
(Climbing Season: Fall & Spring)

Yosemite Valley has long been dubbed the center of the universe in the climbing community. With 3,000-foot rock walls, pristine Sierra granite, and incredible climbing, it's a mecca for climbers looking to test themselves against the most inspiring big walls in the world.

For the first-time Yosemite climber, the climbing will feel very different than your local gym or crag. Instead of juggy hand holds and knobby feet, the smooth, glacier-polished rock requires you to jam your hands in cracks and smear your feet on small nuances in the rock. The climbing demands more balance and subtlety rather than powerful strength. However, the more time you spend on the rock building your technique, the sooner you’ll be floating up the most classic lines.

Almost all of the climbing in the valley is traditional climbing, or trad. This means your placing your own protection using camming devices, nuts, and hexes as you ascend the route. It’s best to have your anchor building, rope management, and gear placements dialed before leading trad here, as there are very few beginner climbs in the valley.

The valley also boasts a plethora of bouldering, technical and physically demanding climbing on boulders using a crash pad instead of ropes to protect the climber in case of a fall. The climbing style varies across the board so there’s really something for everyone. Check out the old school Camp 4 circuit established by the legends that made many of the first ascents on the big walls of the valley.

Classic Trad Routes
Royal Arches 5.7 A0 (15 pitches)
Nutcracker 5.8 (6 pitches)
The Nose 5.14a or 5.9 C2 (31 pitches)

Classic Boulder Problems
Initial Friction V1
Bachar Cracker V4
Midnight Lightning V8

Beat the Crowds

It really depends on where you’re coming from, but typically entering the park from the Merced and El Portal (CA Highway 140) entrance is the best route for folks coming from southern California, while the Big Oak Flat entrance (CA Highway 120) is typically best for those traveling from the San Francisco Bay Area. And if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who times your trip so that you can enter Yosemite from the east, you’ll experience Tioga Pass, a mountain pass road that connects the Mono Lake Basin to Tuolumne Meadows and the valley below.

If you’re flying, here’s a list of airports and their distances to Yosemite National Park:

Oakland International Airport (148 miles)
San Francisco International Airport (167 miles)
Sacramento International Airport (153 miles)
Fresno Yosemite International Airport (65 miles)
Los Angeles International Airport (280 miles)

Where should I stay in Yosemite Valley?

If you’re the sort who plans your trip way out in advance, I would suggest making a reservation at Upper or Lower Pines Campground if you’re keen on camping in the valley. Otherwise, your best bet is to cross your fingers for a spot at Camp 4, a walk-in only campsite steeped in climbing lore and history, one widely recognized as the Mecca for climbing.

If you’re keen on spending way too much money you can stay in one of the park’s fancy hotels or lodges, but frankly you’re better off camping and enjoying the epic fireplace, which is stoked all fall and winter, and grand lobby of the Ahwahnee Hotel – now known as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel – for free.

On the way into Yosemite, we stayed at a private-land Hipcamp called Wondernut Farm an hour outside the valley. It was the perfect spot to stop, steal a few hours of sleep under the stars, and get up early to head on into the valley to try our luck at snagging a spot at Camp 4.

What’s the one shot I have to get in Yosemite Valley?

Go for Tunnel View, which is one of the first and grandest views of the valley you’ll have as you’re driving in along CA 120. From El Cap to Bridalveil Falls to Half Dome, this is the kind of sight that makes you fall in love with Yosemite from the second you lay eyes on it. 

What’s the secret shot I have to get in Yosemite Valley?

Drive up Glacier Point Road from the valley floor well before sunset and park in the small lot for Sentinel Dome. From here, an easy half-hour hike will take you to the top of the dome, which looks out over the expanse of Yosemite valley, from El Cap to Half Dome and the Sierra beyond it. With such incredible views, you're certainly not the only one up there for sunset, but you'd be surprised at how few people there actually are. Bring up your camp stoves and cook dinner as the sun sets and turns the granite peaks pink.

What’s the best way to get off the beaten path in Yosemite Valley?

Generally, head away from Half Dome and you’ll have some luck. Remember that there's much more to the Valley than just the main tourist attractions! There are acres and acres of meadows and forests to explore. We headed to El Capitan Meadow on a hot afternoon and felt like we had the entire valley to ourselves as we spent the afternoon lazing in the cool water of the Merced River. Another good idea is to head back out on the trails just before sunset – you'll get an amazing light show and miss most of the mid-day rush.

What’s the best day hike in Yosemite Valley?

My favorite day hike is the Yosemite Falls Trail, which affords some epic views of the valley from the rim and an abundance of amazing views peppered on the way up. Another favorite is Four Mile Trail, a strenuous hike that follows a nineteenth-century toll road path up to Glacier Point with views of Yosemite Falls, the valley, and Half Dome.

What should I eat in Yosemite Valley?

I always pack my own food, but if you find yourself in a jam there’s a great market in Yosemite Village. And if you’re willing to take a bit of a drive, you can head out of the park through the El Portal (CA Highway 140) exit, drive for 15 or 20 minutes, and grab a bite at the Yosemite Bug. It’s a hostel, lodge, campground, spa, yoga center, and dirtbag hideout that’s well worth the drive.

Part Two:
The Backcountry and Tuolumne Meadows

By Liv Combe

It was Conrad Wirth, a national park service director, who 60 years ago warned that the parks were in danger of being “loved to death.” When the roads were built, that was it – Yosemite was done for. Some people most likely feel that his warning has already come to fruition; visitors continue to flock to California’s first national park in record numbers, and in August, it can be hard – scratch that, impossible – to find a campsite in Yosemite Valley without months of planning ahead. What’s the point of even going anymore?

And to that, I say two things: 1) Read the first portion of this guide. It will show you that there are still a few tips and tricks hiding up the valley’s sleeve. And 2) I implore you to take to the backcountry. If you want to experience Yosemite the way it should be experienced, the way so many people before us experienced it, you need to head to Tuolumne Meadows.

The eastern half of the park is a crossroads of dirtbags, through-hikers, backpackers, and a few daytrippers, but the latter are far outnumbered. The Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, two of the best-known through hikes in the Sierra Nevada – not to mention the entire western United States – cut straight through Tuolumne, which means that the Post Office and General Store in Tuolumne are thriving hub of lean, unshowered men and women packed around picnic tables, picking up food allocations and comparing pack weights and how many miles they’ve done every day.

It’s glorious. It feels like going back in time, to before smartphones and online reservations and selfie sticks. And you need to experience it for yourself.

Know Before You Go

Summer is a beautiful time of year to visit Tuolumne. A few wildflowers still dot the meadows, the trees are green, and the waterfalls and rivers are full and flowing. It gets hot during the day and cool at night – perfect weather for putting miles behind you in the backcountry.

One thing to be wary of: bugs. Mosquitos and flies are out in full force for six weeks or so during the summer, and it's possible that they might be out while you're there. Bring bug spray – try as best you can to stick with natural products, since DEET is a pretty terrifying chemical – and be prepared to wear long sleeves and pants, even if it’s warm out. Sweat is a small price to pay for your sanity.

What should I pack for my trip to Tuolumne Meadows?

Here are the top five items we recommend stashing in your backcountry pack:

Steripen Adventurer Opti. Weighing in at just 3.8 ounces, this UV water purification system is lightweight, reliable, and, well, pretty damn cool. The long-lasting UV lamp can purify up to 8,000 liters of water – make sure to bring a few extra CR123 batteries with you just in case – and is the perfect tool for enjoying Yosemite's cool glacial waters with peace of mind.

BearVault Bear Proof Food Container. If you're heading into the Yosemite backcountry, you need a bear vault. And in lieu of renting a bulky one from REI, we brought along our trusty BearVault, which stores the perfect amount of food for four nights on the trail, and whose super rugged polycarbonate exterior is resistant to both black bear and Grizzlies – although you certainly won't be running into the latter in Yosemite.

Nemo Cosmo Air 20R Sleeping Pad. The built-in foot pump and raised portion at the head to supplement a pillow makes this sleeping pad one of the easiest and most comfortable we've laid our heads on.

Myles Everyday Short. The perfect shorts for wearing to hike to Glen Aulin and dipping into the cool water. The four-way stretch fabric and mesh pockets make these ideal for long days of putting miles behind you and lounging around afterward at camp. 

Good To-Go meals. Tired of oversalted yet somehow still flavorless dehydrated backpacking meals? Yeah, us too, which is why we hit up the folks at Good To-Go before we headed to Yosemite. Delicious dinners like Thai Curry, Marinara with Penne, and Herbed Mushroom Risotto are made in Maine with real ingredients you can actually pronounce.

• Bonus Round: Helinox Chair One. If you're the type who counts every ounce in the backcountry, take this Helinox chair car camping and leave it at that. If you've got some room to spare in your pack, however, we highly suggest bringing this along – it packs down to the size of a dopp kit and is the most comfortable camp chair we've found yet.

What activities should I plan ahead of time in Tuolumne Meadows?

The best thing you can get locked down before your trip is your wilderness permit, which is essentially your ticket into the backcountry. Although the system might initially seem intimidating, it’s fairly simple to work within once you have a basic understanding of it. The Yosemite wilderness permits page is the perfect place to get going. Start by checking out the trailhead map and availability and choosing where you'd like to start you hike. From there, you can apply for permits up to 24 weeks in advance.

Even if you don't get the exact permit for the day and trail you want ahead of time, remember that first-come, first-served is an excellent backup option. To ensure the most solitude possible in the backcountry, each trail has a quota for how many people can be on it on any given day, and 40 percent of that daily quota is reserved for first-come, first-served backpackers. Go to the wilderness permit station closest to the trailhead where you wish to begin (these take precedence over ones that are farther away in the park) before 11 am the day before you want to begin your hike, or before 8 am the day of, to claim your permits. And when we say 'before,' we mean way, way before. We arrived before 6 am to claim our permits the day of. 

Regardless of how you get your permits, here's the bottom line: if you are willing to a) be flexible with which trail you take, and b) to get up early, the rangers will make sure you have an incredible time out in the backcountry. With 800 miles of trails in Yosemite, there's no shortage of solitude and prime tent views. 

Climbing in Tuolumne Meadows and the High Country

By Alex Souza
(Climbing Season: Summer)

When the sizzling summer heat of the valley has you melting, head to the pristine alpine paradise of Tuolumne Meadows for crystal-clear lakes, glistening granite domes, lush green meadows, and some of the most scenic climbing in the world. Tuolumne Meadows sits almost a vertical mile higher in elevation then Yosemite Valley and therefore boasts much more enjoyable temperatures in the summer.

The climbing in Tuolumne is very different from the valley. Rather than blank faces and smooth, polished cracks, Tuolumne has rough angular cracks, seas of blocky knobs, incut edges, and bountiful friction slabs. All but the most popular routes will have very little traffic giving a very serene experience in comparison to the crowds of the valley.

When climbing the peaks and domes of Tuolumne and the high country, always be aware of the notorious Sierra summer afternoon thunderstorms. Many routes are high and exposed making you a prime target during an electrical storm. Keep a mindful eye on the weather report and get to a lower elevation as quickly as possible if dark clouds do arise.

A summer's day of bouldering in Tuolumne is hard to beat. The fantastically cool temperatures are perfectly complemented by the astounding amount of unique and varied climbing. Between sends, take a revitalizing dip in Tenaya Lake, or find a scenic lunch spot along the meandering Tuolumne River.

Classic Trad Routes
Cathedral Peak 5.6 (5 Pitches)
Matthes Crest 5.7 (8 Pitches)
Third Pillar of Dana 5.10b (5 Pitches)

Classic Boulder Problems
Olmsted Crack V1
Double Dyno V3
Cellulite Eliminator V7

Beat the Crowds

You know that summer has arrived in Yosemite when Tioga Road opens. This pass connects the valley to Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows, and goes unplowed in the winter, from mid-November through April or May. 

Once the road has opened up again, backpacking season has officially begun, and it's in full swing come July. It takes about an hour and a half to drive to Tuolumne Meadows from the valley, and the drive takes you up about 4,500 feet in elevation, which accounts for the lower average temperatures in Tuolumne.

Where should I stay in Tuolumne Meadows?

We wanted to do a two-night backcountry trip in Tuolumne, and had a few options in mind when we headed to the permit station: 

• Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lakes to Clouds Rest to Tuolumne Meadows

• Tuolumne Meadows to Young Lakes to Glen Aulin to Tuolumne Meadows 

We wound up going with the second option, and our time on the trail was incredibly well spent. If you can, start at the Dog Head Lake trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows – it will take you up through woods and across gorgeous, wide meadows to the three alpine lakes on the first night; we headed up to the third and highest lake to camp with gorgeous views (and fewer mosquitos) out over the glassy lakes. At Glen Aulin, be sure to take a cooling dip in the swimming hole as soon as you're done setting up camp. 

Pro tip: the day before you head out onto the trail and the night after you get off of it, you're allowed to stay at the first-come, first-served backpacker's camps located throughout the park. We stayed at the one in Tuolumne Meadows, which was conveniently located close to the Tuolumne River for afternoon dips and the general store for beer runs. It's a great option, especially for those who get their wilderness permits the day before heading out, and for those, like us, who want to spend a final night in Yosemite before making the long drive back to the Bay.

What’s the one shot I have to get in Tuolumne Meadows?

Once the sun starts to dip down low, head out into Tuolumne Meadows itself. The long, wide meadow is surround by granite peaks and domes that turn pink in the fading summer light, and the Tuolumne River meanders slowly through the grass. Walk just 15 minutes away from the post office and general store, and you'll feel like there's no one else around. As dusk sets in, snap a photo of the many deer that wander out of the woods.  

What’s the secret shot I have to get in Tuolumne Meadows?

If you're lucky enough to head out to Young Lakes, make sure you continue the extra mile or so up to the third lake, which takes some scrambling up a short waterfall to get to. I'll tell you this much – there's a pretty incredible granite ledge out there overlooking the glassy lakes, and you, too, can sleep on it. 

What’s the best way to get off the beaten path in Tuolumne Meadows?

The best part of Tuolumne Meadows is that every path is more or less off the beaten path, especially when compared to the valley. Even staying at Tuolumne Meadows Campground feels relaxed compared to the crowds of people you'll find at Upper or Lower Pines. If you want to get a pretty unique Sierra Nevada experience, try your hand at winning a few spots in the lottery to stay in a High Sierra Camp, five rustic backcountry lodges scattered throughout the mountains. If you're one of the lucky ones chosen, you'll stay in one of these canvas tent cabins with family-style meals provided, and be able to take day hikes out into backcountry that most people can only gain access to with a heavy pack and days of hiking.

Where should I eat in Tuolumne Meadows?

Though the Tuolumne Meadows Grill will always hold a special place in our heart, you need to head east just out of Yosemite to the historic town of Lee Vining to experience some of the best grub Yosemite has to offer at Whoa Nellie Deli. Here, gourmet meals meet their gas station counterparts in this family-owned Mobil station, within which is the best to-go deli this side of the Sierra. Order the fish tacos (fried white fish with mango salsa and ginger coleslaw, served on flour tortillas with a side of black beans) or the grilled pork chops (apricot and wild berry glaze, with garlic mashed potatoes and veggies) and take your food outside to eat it overlooking the salty blue water of Mono Lake.

Discover Yosemite National Park on Social

Yosemite National ParkBy The Numbers

  • 2Hours of drivingFrom Fresno Yosemite International Airport, the closest to the park, to the valley floor
  • 1890Founding year of YosemiteCalifornia's first national park
  • 13,114Feet of elevation of Mount LyellThe highest peak in Yosemite National Park
  • 2World Famous Fish TacosDevoured at Whoa Nellie Deli outside the eastern entrance of Yosemite
  • 94.45%Of Yosemite is designated wildernessThat's 1,101 square miles of the park
  • 800Miles of trails in Yosemite National ParkIncluding portions of the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail
  • 4 amWakeup callTo drive to Tuolumne Meadows for first-come, first-served wilderness permits
  • 150Species of birdsRegularly occurring in Yosemite National Park. Right, Charles?
  • 459Campsites in Yosemite ValleyAccommodating 2,754 people
  • 2,425 Height in feet of Yosemite FallsTogether, the Upper Fall, Middle Cascade, and Lower Fall make up the tallest waterfall in North America
  • $30Per monthJohn Muir’s salary as a shepherd in Yosemite’s high country in the summer of 1869, the experience that inspired his book My First Summer in the Sierra
  • 1,190Square milesOf land in Yosemite National Park
  • 4,029,416Visitors to Yosemite National ParkIn 2014
  • 56-89Degrees FahrenheitAverage low and high temperatures in Yosemite National Park in August
  • 4,575Feet of elevation gainBetween Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows

Know Before You Go

  • Skip out on the crowds on the valley floor and drive up Glacier Point Road to Sentinel Dome for sunset. The alpenglow over El Cap, Half Dome, and the surrounding Sierras won’t disappoint. Bring a beer or two and cheers to 100 years of national parks.
  • The Helinox Chair One is lightweight, packs down to the size of a dopp kit, and is the most comfortable camp chair we’ve had the pleasure of sitting in.
  • If you’re lucky enough to get permits for Young Lakes, be sure to head up to the third alpine lake to set up camp with spectacular tent views down over the water below.
  • Made by a professional chef and passionate backpacker in Maine, Good To-Go’s tasty meals are hands-down the best dehydrated dinners we’ve ever had. Do yourself a favor and order a week’s worth of Thai Curry before you head out to Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Captivated by Yosemite and the high Sierra since he was 14 years old, Ansel Adams spent his life documenting the beauty and majesty of the park in black and white photos. Today, you can visit the Ansel Adams Gallery on the valley floor to see prints and replicas of Adams’ best-known images, some of which were developed from the photographer’s original negatives.
  • We rarely go anywhere without a Rumpl stashed in the trunk of our car, and Yosemite is no exception – especially when we teamed up with Rumpl to collaborate on a Huckberry-exclusive Yosemite topo patterned puffy down blanket.
  • Published in 1911 and based on his experience as a shepherd in the high country of Yosemite in 1869, My First Summer in the Sierra is one of John Muir’s best-known works, and an inspiring read for any naturalist with a love for Yosemite.
  • Follow along with @yosemitenps as they celebrate 100 years of national parks this August 25.
  • There’s plenty more of the Sierra Nevada to explore outside the official boundaries of Yosemite. Check out Hoover Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, or Ansel Adams Wilderness for a future backcountry expedition.
  • Rule number one: bring a bear canister into the Yosemite backcountry. We’re huge fans of BearVault for their sturdy construction, easy-open top, and perfect size for four nights on the trail.