National Parks Family Road Trip: Part 2 – Highlights of Yosemite

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According to National Geographic, Yosemite is one of the top 5 most visited US National Parks, with ~4 million visitors each year.  And for good reason!

Whether you want relax and take in the stunning scenery, or be adventurous and head out horseback riding, hiking, or rock climbing, there are endless things to see and do in the park.

Million Mile Secrets team member Meghan recently returned from a 2,500+ mile road trip through some of the top National Parks in the US.  I’ll let her tell you about it!

Meghan:  My husband and I love adventure, and with a new(ish!) baby in tow, we decided it would be a great idea to take a road trip to fantastic National Parks like Yosemite, Death ValleyRed Rock Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon.  Especially because our daughter is still light enough to carry in a backpack. 😉

Yosemite Lodging

A Drive to Glacier Point for a View of Half Dome Was a Great Way to Spend a Rest Day From Hiking

I’ll share the highlights of our trip to Yosemite National Park.  And tips for planning your own trip to this fantastic spot!

Visiting Yosemite National Park

Link:   Yosemite National Park

Visiting Yosemite was the main reason for our family road trip, because my husband lived and worked in the park as a maintenance tech (read: climbing junkie ;)) for a few years, and always spoke of how amazing it was.

So I was extremely excited to get my own personal guided tour of the park!

Getting There

There are 4 entrances to Yosemite National Park: the Arch Rock Entrance (West), Tioga Pass Entrance (East), Big Oak Flat Entrance (Northwest), and South Entrance (South).  And the Tiago Pass Entrance is closed during the winter months.

You can check this page for driving directions from nearby cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas.  That will help you plan your trip if you’re flying in from other parts of the US.

Yosemite Lodging

Em Posing In Front of El Capitan, One of the Most Recognizable Granite Rock Faces In Yosemite Valley

We drove in from the East side of the park, through Lee Vining and the Tioga Pass Entrance.  If you pass through this entrance, be sure to stop at the notorious Tioga Gas Mart to stock up on snacks and Yosemite schwag.  Or to eat a hearty meal from the Whoa Nellie Deli.  Their french fries will hit the spot after a long hike!

Yosemite Lodging

1.   Hotels

If you want a hotel room in Yosemite Valley, you only have 2 options:  The Majestic Yosemite Valley Hotel and the Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Rooms at The Majestic Yosemite Valley Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel)  normally cost ~$407+ per night.  And rooms at the Yosemite Valley Lodge run ~$267+ per night.

Yosemite Lodging

The Interior of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Is Incredibly Warm and Cozy

Because we planned our trip only ~2 months in advance, the only room left was a suite at The Majestic Yosemite Valley Hotel for ~$940 per night!

If you’re willing to rough it a bit, you could stay at Half Dome Village or Housekeeping Camp.  Both spots offer canvas tents.  Just note, not all of them are heated year around!  There are even a few small cabins for rent in Half Dome Village.

Yosemite Lodging

If You Want to Save Money but Don’t Want to Haul a Bunch of Camping Gear, the Canvas Tents at Half Dome Village Would Be a Good Option

Rates for the canvas tents are ~$80 to ~$170, depending on the time of year.

There’s also the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Big Trees Lodge, and White Wolf Lodge.  But all of these are outside the Valley in different corners of the park.  So depending on what you plan to do, they may or may not be a convenient home base.  And these lodges are NOT open year-round.

2.   Camping

There are a number of camping and RV sites, but they book up fast, so it’s important to make reservations online before you arrive.  Otherwise you’ll have to wait in line VERY early in the morning to snag one of the limited first-come, first-served spots.

We were lucky to find 4 available nights at the Upper Pines campground in the Valley.  We were happy to have a place to stay.  But if I did it over again, I’d much prefer to camp somewhere outside of the Valley to avoid the crowds.

That said, if you decide to camp in the Valley, I’d suggest looking at a map and choosing a spot on the outer edge of the campground, so you aren’t surrounded by people (or RVs!).

Yosemite Lodging

Check the Campsite Map and Get a Spot On the Outer Edge of the Campground If You Can!

Plus, not all of the campgrounds are open year-round, so check this site when you’re making plans.

Yosemite Hiking

Link:   Yosemite National Park Map

Link:   Yosemite Valley Map

I’ve included information on trails we hiked, that are some of the most popular in the park.  And this site is a great resource for more information on day hikes around Yosemite!

1.   Tuolumne Meadows

Cathedral Lakes

The Cathedral Lakes hike is one of the best hikes in the park because it takes you through alpine meadows and lakes, and offers great views of the 10,000-foot Cathedral Peak.

It’s an out-and-back hike that runs along a portion of the John Muir Trail.

We hiked to both Lower and Upper Cathedral Lake, and even adventured off-trail to the base of Cathedral Peak.

Yosemite Lodging

The Views Around Cathedral Peak Are Outstanding

The trail is well marked, but remember, you’re hiking at ~8,500 feet, so you might not move as fast as you normally do. 😉

I can’t wait to go back and do the High Sierra Loop!  The loop connects all the High Sierra Camps, so you don’t have to carry any camping gear or food.

Yosemite Lodging

A Map of the Trails That Start From Tuolumne Meadows, Including Mono Pass and Cathedral Lakes

Mono Pass

The Mono Pass hike is another fantastic option in Tuolumne Meadows.

It’s a nearly 8-mile out-and-back, where you’ll see beautiful streams, meadows, and endless views of the Sierra Mountains!

Again, you’ll end up at over 10,000 feet on this hike, so be careful if you have issues with altitude.

This was one of my favorite hikes in the park because we didn’t see anyone else along the trail!

2.   Yosemite Falls Trail

If you’re visiting Yosemite in spring or early summer, you can get up close to Yosemite Falls at different points along the Yosemite Falls trail.

Because we visited the park in mid-October, there wasn’t much water running down the falls.  But the hike was still beautiful!

Yosemite Lodging

A Map of Yosemite Valley Showing the Trails That Start From the Valley Floor

3.   Half Dome via The Mist Trail

Half Dome is one of the most iconic granite rock formations in Yosemite (the other being El Capitan), and the good news is, you can get to the top even if you’re not into rock climbing!

The trip to the peak is ~14 miles via the Mist Trail and parts of the trail include climbing with the help of cables, so it definitely isn’t the easiest hike in the park.  But it’s one of the most rewarding!

Take note, you need a permit to hike Half Dome, so you’ll have to plan your trek in advance.

4.   Panorama Trail

Most people arrange transportation to Glacier Point then hike the Panorama Trail downhill and end in the Valley.

Yosemite Lodging

Don’t Step Too Close to the Edge at Panorama Point!

It’s ~8.5 miles one-way, and you’ll get great views of lots of Yosemite Valley.  Including Half Dome, North & Basket Domes, and the Royal Arches.  So it’s a great hike for geology lovers!

And don’t forget, there are plenty of other activities in the park if hiking isn’t your thing.  Like biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and more.

Yosemite Dining

If you’re camping, be sure to stock up on supplies before you enter the park, because groceries inside the park are much more expensive.

Otherwise, you can check out the restaurants in each of the lodges.

Yosemite Lodging

The Dining Room at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel Serves Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. Reservations are Strongly Recommended!

We frequented the Pizza Deck in Half Dome Village because…PIZZA!  But if you want a fancier experience, make reservations for dinner in The Majestic Yosemite Hotel’s dining room.

You Can Do It, Too!

Camping, Hotels, & Airbnb Stays

If you decide to camp during your vacation, be sure to bring enough cash.  Because you can NOT pay with a credit card at a lot of camp sites, unless you’re booking your site in advance.

And if you want to use points for a hotel stay, you can use tools like Hotel Hustle and AwardMapper to help search for award nights along your route.

Just remember, it can be hard to find chain hotels inside most parks.  So you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth staying outside the park and driving in each morning.

Or you could even find a great Airbnb nearby!

I like spending as much time exploring as I can during a vacation, so I’d prefer to pay cash for a hotel inside the park to save time, and save my points for another trip.

Gas

One of the biggest expenses on a road trip is gas.  So use a credit card that earns miles, points, or cash back at gas stations.

I used my Chase Ink Plus (no longer available), that earns 2X Chase Ultimate Rewards on gas.  But you could also use a card like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, that earns 2 AMEX Membership Rewards points per $1 you spend at US gas stations.  Or the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express that earns 3% cash back at US gas stations.

Check out this post about how to decide which is the best card to save on gasoline.

Flights & Rental Cars

Depending on where you live and which parks you plan to visit, you might need to fly closer to your destination and rent a car.

Using the Southwest Companion Pass can save you LOTS of money on airfare, because you can fly nearly 2-for-1 on domestic paid and award tickets.

Pay with a credit card that earns bonus miles and points on airlines.  Or a card that earns a bonus on travel, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.

And if you need to rent a car, read this series on cheap car rentals, for tips & tricks on saving money on rental cars.

More Ways to Save Money

All of the National Parks charge a vehicle entrance fee, so depending on how many parks you plan to visit, it could be worth buying an Annual Pass that costs $80.

I did the math, and if you plan on visiting 2+ parks over the year, an annual pass is likely worth it.  Because the major parks, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Park, charge $30 for a week-long permit.  And the pass grants you access to other National Park Service monuments, like Devils Postpile, that can easily cost $10+ per visit.

Tip:  This Wikipedia page lists the areas in the US National Park System.  So it’s a good resource for planning your trip.

Plus, if you need to buy gear for your trip, you can go through shopping portals that earn cash back, miles, or points at certain retailers.  I like using sites like CashbackMonitor.com that show you what bonuses various portals are offering.

And don’t forget to check out this post on how to plan a terrific road trip!

Bottom Line

Yosemite National Park should be on everyone’s “must see” list.  There’s so much to see and do there!  And the scenery is truly breathtaking.

In the next part of the series, I’ll share the highlights of our time in Death Valley & Red Rock Canyon!

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2 responses to “National Parks Family Road Trip: Part 2 – Highlights of Yosemite

  1. For a dedicated Yosemite trip, flying into Fresno or Reno is much closer than the “close” cities you mentioned. Personally I always recommend Reno with an east entrance because it has dramatically less traffic than the more common west entrance and it is a great drive.

  2. We have traveled and hiked in many countries around the world and Yosemite is still our favorite place! We live in SoCal so we try to go there every other year or so. We used to tent camp, then we stayed once in Yosemite Valley Lodge (ridiculously expensive for an old 1970ish hotel room), once we rented an RV (about the same price as staying at the lodge) but now we stay at Housekeeping Camp. It’s not a tent. A Housekeeping camp site has 3 concrete block sides with a heavy tarp roof and a tarp curtain in the front. It has a full-size bed and bunk beds; electricity; a covered picnic table and a fire ring. You can rent bedding for a small charge so you don’t even need any camping supplies to stay there.