How to get wild in Yosemite without the crowds

Yosemite is one of the most beautiful places in America, if not the planet. I’d long dreamed of visiting North America’s tallest waterfall and the towering 3,000-foot El Capitan, breathtaking scenery immortalized by Ansel Adams photography. Unfortunately, Yosemite’s huge summer crowds often took my breath away as well. At times it felt more like an amusement park than a national park.

Here are my tips on how to enjoy the wild beauty of Yosemite without throngs of people.

Tip #1: Arrive early in the day

By 9:30 a.m. the parking lots in Yosemite Valley are already full. Make sure to arrive before 9 a.m., park your car for the day and ride the free visitor shuttle buses to avoid re-parking. To enjoy a peaceful hike, hit the most popular trails early. I recommend parking at Half Dome Village, walking to the kid-friendly nature center, then taking the Mist Trail up to Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. If you visit in the spring, when waterfalls are at their peak, you likely won’t make it all the way to the end of the trail, as steps become wet and too slippery even for adults, and definitely not appropriate for small children. But the rest of the hike is perfect for the whole family and not to be missed.

Tip #2: Go off the beaten path

Ninety percent of visitors never see anything beyond Yosemite Valley. To beat the crowds, take some of the roads, or trails, less traveled. The easy Valley Loop trail, starting from shuttle bus stop 6, is one good option. Merced Grove and Inspiration Point trails are two other good choices. Talk to park rangers for more suggestions.

Tip #3: Stay outside the park

If you’re planning to spend your vacation sleeping under the stars, you won’t be alone. Many of the 5 million people who visited in 2016 had the same idea. As a result, Yosemite’s campgrounds can feel downright crowded. That goes for lodges within the park as well. Both campsites and lodging reservations need to be booked months in advance.

A good alternative is to stay just outside the park. Rush Creek Lodge, just 1/2 mile from the Highway 120 west entrance, and Tenaya Lodge, near Yosemite’s south gate, both have large landscaped pool areas and a long list of kid-friendly activities. Rush Creek has board games, ping pong and free nightly s’mores around a campfire. Surrounded by the Sierra National Forest, Tenaya Lodge offers free outdoor movies, Western-themed dinners with live music, archery and horseback riding.

Tip #4: Go in the off-season

To avoid warm weather crowds, consider visiting in spring, fall and even winter. Places like Tenaya Lodge offer a postcard-perfect setting for Christmas or New Year’s family vacations and the snow-covered mountains can look absolutely magical.

Tip #5: Visit the wilderness outside Yosemite

Nearby Sierra National Forest is less popular, but no less spectacular. Bordering Yosemite to the west, Sierra’s Nelder Grove has giant sequoias and small crowds. Want to camp with your kids? Book a campsite here, where you likely won’t have other people or tents nearby. You’ll also find trees that dwarf anything imaginable. Try wrapping your arms around the Bull Buck Tree, 100 feet in circumference and 246 feet tall. Watching my teenage son play king of the mountain on the massive stump left behind from a logged sequoia filled me with awe as well as a bit of sorrow.

Like much of our trip, seeing the visible stumps of sequoias thousands of years old provided the kind of teachable moment parents all hope for on a family vacation. No need to get on my bully pulpit about conservation. This was a lesson in old growth forests and environmentalism far better than what you’d find in a classroom.

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