10 Yosemite Valley Alternatives
If you tried (and failed) to get the gold—a campsite in the Yosemite Valley or a permit to climb the Cables on Half Dome—then you know the demand far exceeds the supply. Thousands of prospectors stampede each summer to stake claims on about 500 campsites, while as many as 500 applicants per day compete for just 50 Cables on Half Dome permits.
Luckily, you have options beyond a trampling by stampeders. This time turn your disappointment into an opportunity to stake a claim at one of these alternative California gems, and who knows—one of them may become a new favorite!
Crane Flat Campground
Giant Sequoias (NPS)
Wawona Campground is the closest campground to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias where trees with names like the Grizzly Giant, Faithful Couple and California Tunnel Tree grow. If you’re looking for waterfalls, the Chilnualna Falls trailhead is just a short drive (or free shuttle ride) away. Nearby, you’ll also find the historic Wawona Hotel and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center’s (PDF) delightful collection of historic buildings. This developed campground is 45 minutes by car from the Valley and offers advance reservations. NOTE: the Mariposa Grove restoration project may require road closures to the grove during 2015-2016.
Yosemite Camping Without a Reservation
Camping without a reservation (gasp!) may not be for everyone, but Yosemite offers several rustic first-come, first-served campgrounds where, even in the peak-season, you can typically get a campsite if you arrive by early afternoon Sunday through Thursday. Before you go, be sure and check the Tioga and Glacier Point Roads opening and closing dates as well as the campground opening dates. Tioga Road campgrounds include Yosemite Creek and Tamarack Flat (within 60 minutes of the Valley), and Porcupine Flat and White Wolf (a bit further from the Valley, but closer to Tuolumne Meadows and other high-country destinations). With the exception of White Wolf, these rustic campgrounds do not provide flush toilets or potable water, and may not accommodate RVs.
Glacier Point is a “must-see” in Yosemite, making nearby Bridalveil Creek a great location to camp. Bridalveil Creek offers flush toilets and running water but offers reservations only for the group and horse camping sites. Check the park’s Bridalveil Creek page for RV and trailer length limits.
National Forests Adjacent to Yosemite National Park
Reece/Share the Experience)
Ask Yosemite park rangers where they spend their time off and they’ll tell you they escape to the Inyo, Sierra or Stanislaus National Forests. What these forests lack in international name recognition (and crowds) they make up with dramatic scenery, geology and recreation. Visit one of the small, rural towns of California’s High Sierra—like Bass Lake, Bishop, Bridgeport, Groveland, Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes, Mariposa or Oakhurst—and take advantage of visitor centers that can help you discover your own campgrounds, trails and adventures. There are dozens of campgrounds in the national forests, some offer advance reservations (the three that follow are close to Yosemite entrances) while others are first-come, first-served.
Summerdale Campgound sits in a scenic wildflower-filled meadow surrounded by fir, cottonwood and cedar trees in the Sierra National Forest. Its proximity to Yosemite (1.5 miles (2.41km) from Yosemite’s Wawona entrance) and excellent trout fishing at Big Creek make it a popular destination. The town of Fish Camp makes it easy to re-supply or to take the family for a train ride on the historic Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.
Dirt Flat and Dry Gulch
Merced River (Michael Carl/
Share the Experience)
Despite the arid ring to their names, Dirt Flat and Dry Gulch campgrounds offer the shade of oak and pine trees along the north side of the Merced River, an area known for spectacular displays of redbuds, poppies, columbines, buttercups, lupines and other wildflowers. Both offer quiet and peaceful camping experiences not far from Yosemite’s west entrance in the Sierra National Forest.
Dimond O is nestled near the scenic Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River, a popular spot for wading, swimming and fishing with several campsites that overlook the river. Dimond O is in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park, like Yosemite, offers advance camping reservations and many things to do. Even the hike to Lassen Peak compares to Yosemite’s Half Dome—if you don’t mind that Lassen Peak is higher, lacks the cables and is easier to summit. Plus, Lassen Peak is one of only two volcanoes in the lower 48 states to erupt during the 20th century (the other is Mount St. Helens). Explore Lassen’s waterfalls, wildflowers, clear mountain lakes, miles of trails and superlative geology or climb rugged Brokeoff Mountain for a rewarding 360° view that includes Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak. Lassen Volcanic even serves up a little bit of “Yellowstone” with its “Yosemite”—you’ll find fascinating volcanic and geothermal features along the Bumpass Hell Trail or the popular Cinder Cone Trail. Please check current conditions for the latest road, trail and weather information before you go.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Sheltzer/Share the Experience)
Offering rock climbing on geologic formations similar to Yosemite’s and even bigger sequoia trees, but without the crowds, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are true hidden treasures. Outstanding climbing routes include the Obelisk, Grand Sentinel and Chimney Rock, and almost anyone can climb Moro Rock’s historic staircase for an adrenaline rush akin to what you’d get climbing the Cables on Half Dome. Lodgepole Campground is not far from the trail and just one of several reservable campgrounds in the park. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are south of Yosemite (and about an hour closer if you are driving from Los Angeles) or about 90 minutes from Fresno, California.
Stanislaus River Parks
One more surprising alternative (especially for boaters or groups) is Stanislaus River Parks and the neighboring town of Knight’s Ferry, a great combination of history and recreation about halfway between Yosemite and either San Francisco or Sacramento. Stanislaus River Parks will satisfy hikers, boaters and anglers, while kayakers can experience the thrill of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and other whitewater rapids. Everyone can enjoy the walk across the picturesque and historic Knight’s Ferry Bridge, the longest (330 feet/100.5 m) covered bridge west of the Mississippi River. Stanislaus River Parks limits camping to boat-in campers or groups of non-boating tent campers by reservation only. Call the park office directly at (209) 881-3517 at least two weeks in advance. Private camping and lodging is available in the town of Knight's Ferry. Read more about the Stanislaus River Parks in our Spotlight article.
When only Yosemite Valley will do...
. . .even after reading our alternatives, then be sure to read the “Five Rules of Prospecting” for a rare campsite or permit at a prime destination in our article California Gold: Stake Your Claim at Yosemite and Other Popular California Places.