Yosemite National Park is known for its majestic waterfalls, towering granite cliffs, deep glacier-carved valleys, and giant Sequoia trees. Because of its unique beauty, more than three million people flock here every single year, which can be a real bummer. We’re going to teach you what we learned about how to beat the crowds at Yosemite National Park.
Our top 3 recommendations would be to:
- Visit in the off-season
- Arrive early in the morning
- Hike less popular trails
If you visit in the off-season, there are fewer crowds to compete with. You might miss some key viewpoints due to road closures, like Glacier Point, but it’s worth it if you can find some solitude inside the park. Arriving early in the morning will ensure that you can see popular attractions all by yourself. If you hike the off the beaten path trails, you’ll be able to enjoy nature while coming across only a handful of people.
We scheduled our trip to Yosemite National Park for the end of April, which also happened to fall over “Earth Day” weekend and the start of “National Park Week.” If you can avoid going to the park during this weekend, you’ll already be way better off than we were. Saturday was a free entrance day into the park and had tons of Earth Day festivities, so you can imagine the complete chaos that ensued.
Day 1 Itinerary:
We arrived around 9:30 AM and were able to get a parking spot at the Vernal Falls trailhead. Had we arrived a couple of hours earlier, the mayhem we encountered could have been avoided. At the top of the trail, near the waterfall, hikers have to traverse very steep, water-soaked stairs, and when you put 300 people onto the tiny trail, chaos breaks out. It’s a 1,000 foot incline, so people are tired, soaking wet from the mist, and may not be familiar with hiking etiquette. This put a very bad taste in our mouth and the frustration didn’t leave us for the rest of the day. Once we finished the hike to Vernal Falls, we attempted and failed to find parking anywhere in the park, and decided to leave.
Where to Stay:
We spent the night in an adorable micro-cabin 20 miles outside of the South Gate entrance to the park. Sierra Meadows has super affordable accommodations, and it’s location made it easy for us to get back into the park early the next morning.
Day 2 Itinerary:
Don’t stop at the viewpoint coming out of the tunnel from the south gate, the lighting isn’t good until later in the day, so stop on your way out of the park. Keep driving until you see the sign for Bridalveil Falls on your right.
We parked in the nearly empty lot and hiked the short half-mile trail to the bottom of the falls. We experienced, what we assume many do not, the falls all to ourselves! There was no one else around and we simply took in the beauty in complete solitude. Of course, it didn’t last long and someone came along and snapped a photo for us. There is a positive to seeing other people on your hike!
Our next stop was at the Visitor Center. Here we decided to park the car for the day and head out on foot. Note: this parking lot fills up quickly, so you might just be out of luck if you arrive much later than 9 am. From the visitor center parking lot, we headed to the trailhead for Yosemite Falls, a quick 10-minute walk.
We stopped first at the viewpoint for the falls and were all alone! From this vantage point, you can see both upper and lower Yosemite Falls and having the place all to yourself is the best way to take them in. We continued up to the base of the falls and that’s where we encountered our first large gathering of people. It was still early in the day, so luckily the crowds were still manageable.
From Yosemite Falls, we took the trail that follows the base of the mountains to Mirror Lake. The trail wasn’t difficult, but did have some steep inclines and was about 2.5 miles. On that trail, we only passed a handful of other hikers and kept marveling at how pretty everything was when it’s not inundated with people. Make sure to peek inside the Majestic Yosemite Hotel when you pass by it, it’s absolutely gorgeous inside!
When we arrived at Mirror Lake, there were a few people standing in “THE” spot needed to get the iconic shot. However, with a little patience, eventually people moved on and we got the view we were looking for.
From Mirror Lake we walked about a mile to the shuttle stop that took us back to the Visitor Center. We got back in the car and headed to the other end of the park to check out El Capitan. Because it’s located towards the end of the park, away from the main attractions, parking is a bit easier to find. After shooting a couple of photos, watching the tiny specks of climbers traversing the granite cliffs, and taking in the view one last time, we headed home.
As you head out of the park, if you can snag a parking spot in the tiny lot before entering the tunnel, it’s worth it for this breathtaking view.
In the end, we absolutely do not recommend going into the park on a “free” day, or for Earth Day weekend in general. However, if you take into account some of these tips about arriving early and which spots to hit first before the crowds arrive, you could have a truly fantastic time whenever you are able to visit, even if it is a busy weekend.