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Sequoia trees, Mariposa Grove

How to make the most of your time in Yosemite National Park & Mariposa County

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This summer in Yosemite National Park, for the first time since 2019, you won’t need to reserve a spot to visit Yosemite National Park. That means more freedom and flexibility to explore its vast network of hiking trails, take in views of the striking sheer-sided rock formations, and gaze up at waterfalls gushing gracefully into the valley. However, it also means the roads, parking areas, and key sights are likely to get busier.

To help plan your visit, USA specialist Alex shares his tips for making the most of your time in Yosemite and the wider Mariposa County which the park sits within, from the activities you can try to the best ways to avoid the crowds.

Visit Yosemite Mariposa County outside the busiest months

Vernal Falls
Vernal Falls

It goes without saying that the majority of your time in Yosemite is spent outdoors, soaking in the enormous granite cliffs, roaring waterfalls, and dense sequoia trees clinging to the valley side. So, of course, you want the weather to play ball — warm, sunny summer days when you can picnic among wildflower meadows and hike in just a t-shirt and shorts.

The thing is, everyone else has the same idea, and from late-June to August the park is a hive of activity. For a more serene experience, I suggest visiting in early June. Waterfalls are at full throttle following snowmelt, wildlife becomes more active, and everything feels fresh. Or, consider a September or even October stay — the weather is still mild enough for hiking and you might catch the foliage switching to its autumn wardrobe, with rust, yellow, and orange leaves speckling the valleys.

It's also a good idea to plan your visit during the week rather than on a weekend, when locals seeking outdoor time add to the visitor numbers.

Arrive into Yosemite Mariposa County early

El Capitan
El Capitan

Because the national park is firmly on people’s radars, it’s no surprise that it gets busy — at peak times, roads become congested, finding a parking space is like a competitive sport, and groups gather at the well-known sights like Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.

For the best chance of having a smoother, quieter experience, I recommend arriving early (certainly before 10am, and ideally by 8am) when there’ll be plenty of parking spaces and you won’t get stuck in long lines of traffic at the park’s entry gate. It’s a good idea to purchase your park pass online, too, so you save time at the gate.

And, if you’re fully embracing the early wake-up, you could even arrive in time for sunrise, watching as the golden light gradually floods the valley floor and illuminates El Capitan’s vertical rock face.

Choose a stay inside Yosemite National Park

Giant Sequoia trees
Giant Sequoia trees

As with most national parks, accommodation options are fairly limited within Yosemite’s park boundaries. But, if you can, I recommend staying inside the park so you don’t need to deal with traffic at the entrance gate every day. It also means you can get out and about before the majority of visitors arrive and won’t need to drive far to start your day of exploring.

I like The Redwoods in Yosemite, located in the peaceful area of Wawona in the south of the park, about half an hour’s drive from Yosemite Valley. It has a collection of spacious cabins and houses ranging from studios to six-bedroom log-built homes, set among pine trees. All have facilities for self-catering, including barbecues (there’s a small convenience store on site, but I recommend stocking up on food before you arrive, too), which is handy if you don’t want to dine out every day.

Follow lesser-trodden paths around Yosemite Valley (and beyond)

Glacier Point
Glacier Point

If it’s your first time visiting Yosemite, I’m sure you’ll want to see the big-name sights. There’s nothing quite like standing on the tip of Glacier Point and gazing out across the whole valley, Half Dome’s mammoth outline directly opposite at eye level, with the white plumes of Yosemite Falls spilling over the cliffs reminding you that this isn’t a photograph you’re looking at.

The easiest way to see these highlights is by taking the shuttle bus that follows a loop around the park, stopping off at the key landmarks. It’s also useful to know where the bus stops if you’re trying to avoid crowds, so you know to stay clear of these places at peak times.

Once you’ve checked these must-see landmarks off your list, I suggest venturing beyond the well-known routes with a private mountain guide who knows the park intimately. They’ll be able to plan your day around you, choosing a hiking trail suited to your fitness level, interests, and any time limits you might have. Often, these are trails the vast majority of visitors won’t know about, and which show you the real Yosemite beyond the tourist hubs.

As you walk, your guide will share anecdotes from their many explorations of the park, explain the geology and history of the area, and help identify any plants or animals you come across — listen out for mule deer foraging in the forest, look up to spot eagles and condors circling above, and stay alert for the rare sighting of a black bear.

Explore quieter areas of Yosemite Mariposa County

Chilnualna Falls
Chilnualna Falls

Yosemite National Park is vast, but the majority of visitors are concentrated in and around the main valley. I’d urge you to spend at least one of your days exploring further afield to get to know less-obvious areas.

If you’re staying at The Redwoods in Yosemite, you’re just a 15-minute drive from Mariposa Grove, where you can follow trails among 500 giant sequoias — the largest number of the trees in the park. Among them is the California Tunnel Tree, whose trunk was carved out to form an archway you can walk through. You could also visit the grove’s oldest tree, the Grizzly Giant, which is estimated to be around 3,000 years old.

To find an even quieter spot, though, I suggest visiting one of the area’s smaller sequoia groves, such as the Merced Grove. Here, you can follow a 4.8-km (3-mile) loop trail which includes part of the historic Old Coulterville Road — the first road into Yosemite Valley.

Mariposa County’s Wawona area is also a good alternative to the always-popular Yosemite Valley. You can hike to Chilnualna Falls, a 73-m (240-ft) tiered cascade, right from your cabin. It’s a 13.5-km (8.4-mile) round-trip, and does become fairly strenuous as you hike up to the upper-most falls, the thunderous sound of water-on-rocks reverberating in the air.

As you walk, you’ll have views across the valley to Wawona Dome, a large granite peak that’s popular with rock climbers, and might see the rose-like white blossoms of the unfairly named mountain misery (or bear clover) flowers — traditionally used by the Indigenous Miwok people as a herbal remedy for colds, coughs, and other illnesses.

Another pleasant trail in this area is the 5.6-km (3.5-mile) Wawona Meadow Loop, which circles one of the High Sierra’s largest mountain meadows. It’s particularly beautiful in spring, when wildflowers bring bursts of colour, attracting bees and butterflies.

As a break from the countryside, you could also pay a visit to the preserved 19th-century gold-rush town of Mariposa, around an hour’s drive from Wawona. Here, you can drop into museums that tell you about the area’s gold-mining heritage or rock-climbing scene, stroll along the historic main street, which has retained its original 1850 layout and character, or take a tour of the Mariposa County Courthouse — the oldest west of the Rockies still in continuous operation, having been established in 1854.

Try rock climbing in Yosemite Mariposa County

Rock climbing in Yosemite National Park
Rock climbing in Yosemite National Park

As well as being a hiker’s paradise, Yosemite Mariposa County is a hub for rock climbers. People travel from all corners of the world to challenge themselves against the park’s vertical cliffs and scale various rock formations — if you look carefully, you might see them clinging to the side of Half Dome, ant-like against the sheer enormity of the valley.

You might not feel up to that level of climbing, but we can arrange for you to learn basic rock-climbing skills and techniques from professional guides who’ve tackled many of the climbing routes in this region themselves. You’ll head just south of the park in the high country, where there are more than 1,000 climbs to keep people busy. Your guide will choose a route based on your ability and preferred climbing style, providing all the equipment you need.

Get me there: You can experience all that Yosemite has to offer as part of a road trip exploring California shaped around your interests. For more inspiration, read our Yosemite highlights guide

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