Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous parks in the U.S., but when I went looking for travel advice about it from some of my go-to RV blogs, I found very few articles. Of course, I can’t say for sure why so many of these folks decided to skip Yosemite, but my guess is it might have something to do with how difficult it can be to find nearby accommodations. While we, too, found it to be a challenge, and might do things differently next time, we found the effort to be completely worthwhile. Yosemite is incredible!
The Basics & The Challenges
Yosemite occupies a large chunk of real estate in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Entrances on the western and southern sides of the park are open most of the year, while the entrance on the eastern side (Tioga Road), is only open for a couple months during the Summer. Most of the famous landmarks are located in Yosemite Valley, a large central area on the western side of the park. This is where you’ll find things like visitor centers, hotels, campgrounds, and vendors.
One of the big challenges for RVers is there are very few easily accessible campgrounds near Yosemite. If you’re under 35 feet, and have ninja level reservation-making skills, you may be able to score a coveted site in one of the park’s campgrounds, but if that doesn’t work, or you’re over 35 feet, there just aren’t many RV parks to choose from. One of the only good options, and the one we chose, was the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds were fine, but they were over an hour away. I looked at a couple other commercial options and they, too, were far and/or would have required driving the motorhome on really windy mountain roads.
Complicating matters this year was Covid.
In normal times, there’s a shuttle system that runs buses around a large portion of the valley, taking visitors from one highlight to another (and, importantly, reducing the number of cars on the park’s roads).
However, because of Covid, the buses aren’t running this year. This summer (after our visit), the park returned to a timed entry system, requiring people to have tickets to get into the park, but even with that system, the roads will likely still be jammed with cars.
The bottom line is, for RVers who are unable to snag a campsite inside Yosemite, they’re not only looking at a very long commute to get to the front gate of the park, but then lots of traffic on interior roads. Making matters even worse, construction crews were ripping up large sections of the road while we were there. The end result was we spent considerably more time in our car than anywhere else.
What to do about all this? My suggestion is if you’re going to visit Yosemite (and you want time to hike or kayak or whatever), find a way to stay inside the park – even if it’s not inside your RV.
If you’re staying inside the park, you can get to a lot of places on foot or bike (which you can rent there), and assuming things go back to normal next year, the shuttles will take you just about anywhere you want to go.
Additionally, Yosemite is one of the more dog friendly national parks we’ve been to. Dogs are permitted on many of the paved trails in the valley (not all, so you do need to check), at several of the big overlooks, and on some secondary paths. Even better, there’s a dog boarding company that operates seasonally inside the park, so if you’re staying in a tent or a cabin and you want to go hiking, there’s a safe place where you can leave your dog for a couple hours.
Knowing what we now know, if we were to return, we would leave the RV at Mariposa Fairgrounds and try to get a tent site for a night inside the park. That would negate all the time in the car and allow us to take on some of Yosemite’s phenomenal trails.
If you’re not up for tent camping, there are plenty of other options – from hotels to cabins to Air BnB’s, but they book up quickly, so planning way ahead is essential. Either way, the important thing is to find a way to spend more time doing the things you want to do and less time staring out your windshield.
With all that being said, let’s go to the tape.
Day 1 Fails
Day 1 didn’t quite go as expected.
Our plan had been to go into the park during the afternoon in order to grab maps, get the lay of the land, and visit some of the big overlooks. We drove the hour plus to get into the park and promptly got stuck in one of the construction stops I mentioned above. The signs on the road indicated traffic would stop for 30 minutes before reversing directions. Being the good environmental steward I am, I turned off the car and we sat listening to music and chatting. 30 minutes later, when I turned the key, we heard the stomach-dropping clicking sound that comes with having a dead battery.
Fortunately, we were conveniently parked on a windy mountain road in the middle of a forest with no shoulder, no cell service, and at least 100 cars full of pissed off tourists waiting behind us.
I hit the hazards and we started waving people around us. Fortunately, not 10 cars behind us, a young couple rolled by and asked if we were ok. I said we needed a jump and they said “no problem.” They pulled in front of us and walked over with a tiny handheld jump starter. When we couldn’t thank them enough for coming to our rescue, they explained that the exact same thing had happened to them while sitting in line waiting for a ferry one time, so they knew how we felt (which, to be clear, could best be described as “like gigantic assholes.”) It took them no time at all to get us on our way again and we simply could not be more thankful to those good Samaritans.
Given that this was the second time we had to jump the battery, and we could only assume it was the original battery installed on the car in 2014, we knew we had to go get it replaced asap. So, we took a scenic drive through the southern end of the park and headed straight to an Auto Zone for a replacement.
We also bought our very own handheld remote starter to guarantee this will never happen again.
Day 1: Complete Fail.
High and Low Views
Our second attempt at visiting the park went much better. We tossed the pupster in the car and headed first for Glacier Point Road. This road gives a high altitude view over the valley.
On our way to Glacier Point, we stopped at Tunnel View, which provides THE iconic view of Yosemite.
That’s El Capitan on the left, Half Dome way in the back, and Bridalveil Falls on the right.
And here’s a fun graphic I found on the Google demonstrating just how big these formations are:
As you continue driving up Glacier Point Road, there are a couple pull-offs that offer gorgeous views of Half Dome and some of the waterfalls.
At Glacier Point, you can see the entire valley floor, way down below, and Yosemite Falls, directly across.
We then drove down to the valley floor, where we got to see these same things up close from a very different perspective.
and Yosemite Falls:
Speaking of Yosemite Falls, this is an absolutely spectacular series of waterfalls.
Visitors can easily walk to the base of the Lower Falls
or take on a challenging hike to see the Upper Falls. Had we had the time to hike, this is one we probably would have done.
Finally, here’s the view of the giant granite monolith, El Capitan, that greets visitors as they drive into the valley:
As you can see, it’s a rather large rock. Here’s another fun graphic:
Yosemite stood out not just for the incredible size of its various landmarks, but also for its diversity. It’s got everything: Rushing rivers, pristine lakes, imposing mountains, bucolic meadows, and thundering waterfalls…
It also stood out to me because it’s got emergency phones.
You remember my post about Death Valley National Park, population: zero, 130 degrees, “you’re totally gonna die out here if anything goes wrong cuz it ain’t called Death Valley for nothing.”
And what did NPS have to say? “Good luck to ya!”
But here at Yosemite National Park, population: everyone on the planet, 75 degrees and sunny, you’ll totally be fine, nothing bad is gonna happen to you while you’re standing at this very safe overlook taking selfies…
“Here’s a free phone…Call us anytime.”
Sometimes I think they’re just messing with me.
Sequoia National Park
Next up, we made the relatively short drive south to Three Rivers, California, where we met up once more with our friends Randi and Clare to go visit Sequoia National Park.
There is one very windy road that leads from the south through the park. It takes a good long while to get from point A to Point B (top speed is about 10 mph around these curves), but the views of the surroundings are beautiful.
Along the way, assuming you don’t have major issues with heights, Moro Rock is a must-do hike. It’s 350 steps up and it starts at over 6,000 feet of elevation, so there’s some huffing and puffing involved, but the views are spectacular and it’s fun to check things out from the top of this big ole rock.
We then continued our drive north through the park, driving through the tree tunnel
and then continuing on to the Giant Sequoia forest.
Of course, we visited General Sherman – the largest (by volume) tree in the world. And let me just say, it’s a big damned tree.
But all the giant sequoias are huge and there were plenty that rivaled the General.
(After all this time, Kevin just walks up to things, turns around, and smiles. He’s like the Vanna White of RV travel blogs.)
Had we had more time, we would have continued up to the Grant Tree which is the second largest tree in the world, but given the slow, slow road, we decided to head back before dark.
The following day, we went whitewater rafting on the Kaweah River which ran right behind our campground. Sadly, I have no photos from this event because if you bring your camera whitewater rafting, you will not have a camera anymore. So I have no personal photos to share, but I can’t recommend it enough and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The good news for us was our river guide was a total pro. He’d been guiding rafting tours for years and done all kinds of other crazy outdoor survival stuff. He was a legit Bear Grylls type who inspired a ton of confidence. His only weakness is he could not remember Kevin’s name to save his life. So, after the 5th time he asked Kevin to remind him of his name, Kevin told him his name was “Fantasia.” Problem solved.
Anyway, it was seriously impressive to listen as he read the river conditions and told each of us what to do, both in terms of paddling (direction and speed) and switching sides of the raft in order to redistribute weight. He was like a drill sergeant – no nonsense – which was good because Randi was the only one of us who’d ever been rafting before and this was not a starter course.
Here’s the route we took and the class of the rapids at various points:
Anyway, we had a blast. It was just non-stop thrills from the minute we started paddling and other than the one time we almost drowned (mistakes were made), it was a great time. 10 of 10, highly recommend!
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh my god, are these people ever gonna leave California?!” And the answer is yes.
…but not yet.
I have one more post about our visit to the eastern side of the Sierras and then I promise, we’ll get the hell out of California and I’ll talk about something else. ____________________________________________________________________
Where we stayed:
Mariposa County Fairgrounds, Mariposa, California
Three Rivers Resort, Three Rivers, California