Located in the stunning and serene Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Yosemite National Park is the image of a lush American Valhalla. Waterfalls feed the crystal clear Merced River as it meanders through Yosemite Valley. The pines smell like butterscotch and provide a soft carpet of needles to cushion your walk. The towering cliffs are hard to look away from; proudly exhibiting the largest sheer faces of granite you will ever see. Yosemite Park has enchanted wilderness lovers since its discovery, including the famous preservationist John Muir, President Teddy Roosevelt, photographer Ansel Adams, rock climbing wonders like Alex Honnold, and generations of travelers who come to the Sierra to experience the stunning granite landscape.
There is much to see and much to do in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley is the part of the park that most visitors see. This is where you will find most of the Yosemite Park hotels and the most accessible of Yosemite’s trails. In the Valley, visitors can spy rock climbers ascending iconic walls like El Capitan and Half Dome, or take a refreshing dip in the Merced. If you look at a Yosemite National Park map, you’ll see that there is a lot to see outside Yosemite Valley as well.
Many people have heard of Yosemite but you may not know exactly where Yosemite is in California. The park is located in central California, east of the San Francisco bay area. There are a few different options for airports you can fly into. The one you choose may depend on what else you want to see during your trip to California. Timelines are approximate and focus on the driving time to reach Yosemite Valley.
There are a number of options for accommodations in Yosemite National Park. If you are planning a backpacking trip, you may enjoy spending a day in Yosemite Valley before or after heading into the backcountry. You can camp in one of the campgrounds, stay in a cabin, or at one of the Yosemite National Park hotels like the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (previously known as the Ahwahnee).
Yosemite has 1,100 square miles of designated wilderness (about 94% of the park), making it the perfect destination for your next backpacking trip. To avoid the crowds in the Valley, try going to the High Country in Tuolumne or to Wawona. Don’t forget to drive slow for bears!
Of course, the most coveted backpacking permit is the Half Dome Permit. The quota is now only 75 permit are available every day for backpackers, 50 are reserved by lottery and 25 are offered first-come first-served, one day in advance. Some People hike to the top of Half Dome and back in one extremely long day. Instead, we find that a Half Dome summit is much more rewarding when backpacking. Learn about our Half Dome Backpacking trip.
Don’t let the permitting system scare you out of your Yosemite backpacking trip. Half Dome permits are hard to get, but there are many more backcountry options as well. You can send in a wilderness permit reservation request here, as far in advance as 24 weeks before your trip. All permits are awarded by lottery. Yosemite backpacking permits are limited by the trailhead you begin your trip at, not the backcountry campsite you stay in. If your lottery request is denied for one trailhead, try a different one nearby.
Here are some of our favorite Yosemite backcountry places to camp:
Be advised that bear spray is illegal in Yosemite National Park, and bear canisters for food and all “smellable items” are required for everyone in your party when backpacking. You can rent them at one of the wilderness offices for $5 per week when you pick up your permit. The bears may open up your vehicle like a tin can if you leave smellables inside, so be sure to use the brown lockers in the parking lots and at the trailheads to lock away things like hand sanitizer, food wrappers, chapstick, or anything else with a scent that you might be tempted to leave in your car.
If the wildflowers are calling and you must go, aim your visit between late May and early July. Go to elevations between 10,000-13,000 ft where the snow has recently melted and soak in the colorful display. Soda Springs, Lyell Canyon, Elizabeth Lake and Chilnualna Falls are all fantastic places to enjoy the wildflowers. Bring the John Muir Laws Field Guide! It is undoubtedly the best book for in-field identification in the area and, best of all, it’s light.
Yosemite has a snowy winter season, and Tioga road (which leads to the High Country) is closed due to snowpack, so planning for the weather is especially important here for backpackers. It varies depending on amount of snowpack, but Tioga road is typically closed from about mid November to mid May. The National Park Services lists the current status of Tioga road and Glacier Point listed here.
When your date to travel Yosemite gets nearer, take a look at the forecast at NPS’ useful weather map here. Remember that you are headed to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, so take a rain jacket regardless of what the forecast says.
In addition, with the changing weather comes the mosquitoes. Usually, mosquitoes are most active from late May through late June, but their season changes to when the air is most moist which may be affected by that year’s snowpack and temperature.
On your Yosemite National Park camping trip, help keep our treasured wilderness areas healthy and beautiful by practicing Leave No Trace principles.