So You Didn’t Get a Yosemite Reservation? Here’s What To Do Instead
There is a wealth of nearby sights, festivities, and accommodations worth exploring.
Reservations for day entry to Yosemite National Park between May 20 and Sept. 30 are officially on sale.
The temporary system, one that mirrors those already in use by numerous other parks due to historic overcrowding, is being implemented to “manage congestion and provide a quality visitor experience while numerous key visitor attractions are closed for critical infrastructure repairs,” Park Service officials wrote.
But why are reservations on sale when they can’t be used until May 20? According to the Park Service, 70% of reservations are being made available months in advance for the planners among us. For the rest, the remaining 30% will be made available a week out from the planned arrival date—e.g., a Sept. 7 reservation would be good for a Sept. 14 visit.
Each reservation, meanwhile, is good for entry between the hours of 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., and remains valid for a three-day period. If a visitor made a reservation for a Friday, for instance, that confirmation would be good for Saturday and Sunday as well.
Bookings can be made via Recreation.gov, but if you miss out, or if you simply can’t predict a travel schedule (at least for us spur-of-the-moment adventurers who feel like that may as well be 17 years in advance), don’t fret. There are numerous sights, festivities, and accommodations in the immediate vicinity worth exploring.
With the warm weather of spring and summer ahead, we mapped out a few of our favorites.
What to Do
Sugar Pine Railroad: Just a few miles from the park’s South entrance in Fish Camp, visitors can hitch a ride aboard one of two old fashioned steam engine locomotives—built between 1913 and 1928—operated by the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Covered and open cars usher guests into an era gone by, as passengers can embark on the one-hour “Logger” or three-hour “Moonlight Special” tours to admire sights and sounds from car benches carved from trees on a 4-mile jaunt through Sierra National Forest. Historical storytelling, wildlife viewing, gold-panning, and a BBQ dinner are all part of the amenities that make this a great excursion for families (or genuine railroad nerds). Four-legged friends are welcome, too. Book your tour here.
Lewis Creek Recreational Trail: At 4 miles long, the trail isn’t super strenuous, but it is an awe-inspiring alpine walk that leads to Red Rock and Corlieu waterfalls. Start at the trailhead in the small community of Sugar Pine and pack in (and pack out) lunch in your backpack. You’ll want to eat it while you perch on one of the many boulders above Lewis Creek, a historic flume used by the Sugar Pine Lumber Company in the early 20th century.
Bass Lake. Nearby Bass Lake offers plenty of water sport opportunities for those so inclined, from pontoons to kayaks and everything in between. It’s just a half-hour from Yosemite’s South entrance but feels like it’s worlds away. The 5-mile lake is also a hot spot for fishing; think rainbow trout and Kokanee salmon. It’s also the starting point for numerous hiking trails, plus a bustling marina where you’re in for a good time; just head in the direction of whichever patio is jamming to live music.
Mono Lake: Keeping things lake-oriented, the otherworldly desert body known as Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in the Western Hemisphere at a youthful 1 million years old (give or take a few dozen millennia), is just over 10 miles from the park’s eastern boundaries. Plenty of bird watching, photography, hiking, swimming, and boating opportunities await. Or, for lounge enthusiasts, simply plop yourself into the water and float like a cork, thanks to a salt water consistency 2.5 times that of the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps most spectacular, however, are Mono Lake’s tufa towers, created by the interaction of fresh water rising through alkaline lake water. “Tufa me, one for you,” excited dads everywhere are thinking. Learn more about Mono Lake.
Visit the Bennett Juniper: Along Yosemite’s northern edges in Stanislaus National Forest is the largest documented juniper tree in North America. Estimated to be between 2,000 and 6,000 years old, she—it’s a female who has produced a couple offspring that stand nearby—is 82 feet tall and boasts a radius of over 7 feet. The famed juniper also has a caretaker, who assumed the role in recent years from Ken Brunges, a member of Save the Redwoods League who spent nearly a quarter-century camping near the tree as its caretaker. Plan your visit here.
Be a 49er: For the history buffs, Highway 49, also called the Gold Rush Trail, connects Sierra Nevada gold rush towns frozen in time along a 300-plus-mile route through scenic forests blanketed by redwoods and pines. Stop by places like Sonora, Oakhurst, Mariposa, or Coulterville, among numerous other checkpoints, to see museums and exhibits of gold, fossils, pioneer life, blacksmithing, Native American artifacts, and more. Map out your route here.
Rainbow Falls and Pool: Warm weather is here, so let’s load up on the aquatics with this all-natural, family-friendly beauty. Near Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance, the site offers a swimming hole complemented by a 20-foot waterfall where a number of daring visitors may even plunge to the pool below. Plan your adventure here.
South Entrance Camping: For those approaching Yosemite from the South, a number of first-come, first-served campgrounds are up for grabs, but one of our favorites, a reservable option, is the Summerdale Campground. Located just 1.5 miles from the park, Summerdale is nestled in a wildflower meadow and encompassed by cottonwood, fir, and cedar. The immediate area offers abundant hiking and offroading, and for the angler, rainbow trout in Big Creek are waiting. Each campsite has paved parking, a picnic table, grill, and campfire ring. Water is provided, and vault toilets are available. Book your stay here.
Big Oak Flat Entrance Camping: Most visitors coming from the Bay Area will make their way via this route, where, in Stanislaus National Forest, the Dimond O campground is ready to play host under a ceiling of cedar and Ponderosa pine. Near the banks of the Middle Fork Toulumne River, the site offers excellent access to hiking, such as the highly-rated Carlon Falls Trail, as well as canoeing, swimming, and fly fishing. Picnic tables and campfire rings are provided, with free firewood, and vault toilets and drinking water are both readily available. Book your stay here.
Wondernut Farm: This off-grid destination has a little bit of everything. Want to mingle with goats and sheep? Pick vegetables from a massive farmstead garden? Stroll through a 90-tree orchard? You can do all that here while having excellent access to hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting. Multiple rustic accommodations offer a semi-primitive—composting toilet, shared showers—yet charming base camp for any and all adventures. Book your stay here.
Ouzel Creek Cabin: If camping isn’t your speed, stay in the historic logging town of Sugar Pine at Ouzel Creek Cabin; we can personally vouch for this Airbnb, which boasts an expansive patio overlooking a nearby bubbling creek. The cabin is “the upstairs portion of a historic Sugar Pine cabin once owned by the foreman of the Sugar Pine Lumber Company,” the owners write on Airbnb. Book your stay here.
Rush Creek Lodge: You can’t go wrong with the lodge’s guided hiking and camping tours—or get planning advice from the onsite recreation team to explore on your own. At the new indoor-outdoor spa, manager Gigi Richardson designed the Warm Waterfall Coves to emulate an experience at the nearby Carlon Falls. You’ll sit on a bench as warm water washes over you. You can then take a cool mist shower, relax on a warm river rock bed, or head into the Himalayan salt block sauna. Book your stay here.