Camping in Yosemite Without Advance Reservations

Top of Yosemite Point

Yosemite National Park is famous for granite peaks, huge waterfalls and scenic open meadows. It’s a place that inspired John Muir, the famous naturalist and author, to muse, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” For decades, the park has dropped jaws with its stunning vistas.

Chelsea had never experienced the magic of Yosemite Valley, so it featured high on the destination list for this road trip. However, the park’s popularity makes finding a campsite quite difficult, especially before summer-only Tuolumne Meadows opens up at higher elevations in the park. For instance, not a single site was available in the Valley when we checked a couple weeks before our visit, even with hundreds of campsites in the park. And then, through the process of trial and error, we figured a few things out.

Yosemite Falls looking good with a view across the valley at Half Dome.

Yosemite Falls looking good with a view across the valley at Half Dome.

In case you didn’t know, many state and national parks have first-come, first-served campsites, a nice feature for those of us who prefer leaving things open and serendipitous (*cough* don’t like to plan ahead). If you get in early enough (usually 9 a.m.), almost any campground has space for last-minute visitors. Once you snag a spot, it’s yours as long as you want it. Even busy parks like Zion utilize this system, which makes it easy enough to slip in an impromptu visit.

Not Yosemite. The main campgrounds – Upper, Lower and North Pines – are reserved months in advance within minutes of the reservation system opening for specific dates. Millions of people per year stream through the park, most of them with specific vacation dates in mind. For people like us with Gumby-flexible schedules, it is hard to plan that far in advance. When we’ve tried, being tied to a schedule often generates more headaches and missed opportunities than it creates.

Clouds form around Half Dome at sunset.

Clouds form around Half Dome at sunset.

Fear not, weary traveler. Even without advance reservations, you can camp in the Yosemite Valley. Without any prior reservations, we strung together almost two weeks of camping, no problemo. Luckily, our time intersected with three sets of friends, including new friends Michael and Kristin (he’s an amazing pro photographer), plus finally meeting (in-person!) our buddies from Nomadly In Love, who just finished four years driving around South America. The cycle tourists riding from Key West to Alaska, Keys to Freeze, also caught up with us again after biking through Death Valley (mad props, team).

Our buddy Stevie from SprinterLife.com at the foot of Vernal Falls.

Our buddy Stevie from Nomadly In Love and her friend Ariana at the base of Vernal Falls.

Without further ado, here’s what you can do to snag last-minute reservations in Yosemite:

Reserve a site through Reservations.gov as near as one day prior to your arrival.

Recreation.gov processes cancellations all the time for travelers who decide not to go, or who choose to leave the park prior to their reservation ending. Before we drove west over Tioga Pass into Yosemite (check to see if it’s open!), we stopped at a pullout, fired up the wifi hotspot and scored six nights. It won’t get you a same-day site, however (see below).

Arriving without a reservation?

There is a walk-in, tent-only campground at Camp 4 that rock climbers in the park tend to frequent. This campground doesn’t fill up the way car camping/RV slots do. The day we arrived, there was tons of room, even at 4 p.m. At $6/person, it’s a bargain relative to the $26/night for car camping. So long as you’re fine with communal camping with lots of tents around, this is a great option.

Snagged a night already, but want to stay longer?

Go to the park reservation desk in Curry Village (toward the rear of the park near the campgrounds) and put your name on the waiting list at 8 a.m. to get a site. During the day, the park processes cancellations and holds them for people on the waiting list. Go take a hike, then return at 3 p.m. that day when park rangers allocate the sites based on the order you signed up for the list.

According to the ranger I spoke with, typically there are 10-15 sites that cancel. While the waiting list area seemed like a tank full of hungry piranhas circling a morsel of food, everyone was in high spirits. P.S. Curry Village has great free showers – don’t pay $5 each at Housekeeping Camp!

Nevada Falls in the foreground of Liberty Cap and Half Dome.Nevada Falls in the foreground of Liberty Cap and Half Dome.

No luck with any of that?

While often we camp in the middle of nowhere, my favorite move in any busy area is to simply call on the kindness of other travelers. Since we’re rolling in a self-contained van, I simply pull up to a site with a single car and a tent and ask the occupants if they mind if I park out of the way. This has (surprisingly) always worked! I offer money for splitting the site, but of the half dozen times I’ve used this last-ditch move, nobody has ever accepted. One guy did jokingly talk me up from $10 to $15 before refusing any payment at all.

Still no luck?!

Get a hard-sided tent or hotel room in the valley. These also book up in advance, and are (in my opinion) expensive at over $100/night, all the way up to the bargain price of $460/night at the Awahnee Hotel (lowest price). However, I should note that the huge fireplaces at the Awahnee are the best place to hang on a cold day in the park.

Ok camping outside the park?

If you don’t mind driving 30-60 minutes each way, you can head to Wawona and Hodgon Meadows campgrounds outside of Yosemite Valley. These have much more availability relative to the three (Upper, Lower and North Pines) that are in the valley proper and had availability every day we were in Yosemite.

So there you have it! The next time you are craving an impromptu trip to Yosemite, give it a shot. No guarantees, but I think the odds are in your favor that you’ll snag a spot. While you’re there, I highly recommend one of John Muir’s favorite day hikes in the park, which scurries up to Glacier Point, meanders down Panorama Trail, up to Nevada Falls, and then down to the valley. Good luck, and enjoy!

Panorama Trail in Yosemite

Panorama Trail in Yosemite with a cloud-covered Half Dome in the distance.

Flora and fauna

Keys to Freeze! Crazy that I met up with them April 16th in Durango and we have intersected paths a half dozen times since. Such a great crew - buen viaje, amigos!

Half of Keys to Freeze! Crazy that I met up with them April 16th in Durango and we have intersected paths a half dozen times since. Such a great crew – buen viaje, amigos!

24 replies
  1. Cheryl Ziering
    Cheryl Ziering says:

    This is very helpful, Dakota. Yosemite is so beautiful, but hard to plan so far ahead, as you said. I am glad you and Chelsea were able to explore it on a whim! I would love to go back! Sending love, Aunt Cheryl

    Reply
  2. Jeffrey Fritts
    Jeffrey Fritts says:

    Hi Dakota, I always enjoy your posts and look forward to the next adventure. Still in the planning phase for the Miss Abby Memorial Tour across the US in 2016. I wonder if you know anything about state/fed gov. campground policies about campers arriving by bicycle. I had heard that some will always offer a spot to pitch a tent even if they are full if you arrive by bike. Have you any experience with this?
    AKJeff riding his AWOL in WA

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Wut up AKJeff! I’m stoked for your trip in 2016.

      I’ve never personally used a hiker/biker spot, or thrown down a tent when there wasn’t an available site. BUT I’ve heard from my bike touring friends that it’s absolutely possible. In Yosemite, the rangers told our Keys to Freeze buddies that they could do that (although they camped with us). With just a tent, you’ll always have a place to sleep!

      Reply
  3. Stevie
    Stevie says:

    Damn…looks like we left too soon! There was more fun to be had! It was awesome meeting you two in person. I’m looking forward to more road-crossings as the days march on.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Lots more fun to be had…but we could spend a year there and still be laughing, hiking, climbing and loving life. See you guys on the road again soon, I hope!

      Reply
  4. Ralph
    Ralph says:

    Heading up to Yosemite for the first time tomorrow. Your reco for camp 4 was the sun ray shining down from a cloudy sky of unpreparedness! Thank you so much and I look forward to a fun weekend and exploring the rest of your site.

    Best,
    Ralph
    #TRLBLZRS

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Excellent! Have a fantastic time there. You’ll probably do Half Dome (if it isn’t snowed in?), which is definitely a great hike. For less crowds, check out the hike I reference in the post (John Muir’s favorite). More varied, consistent views, and 1/10th the traffic.

      Reply
  5. Aimee
    Aimee says:

    I have been scouring the internet for tips on how to snag a last minute camping spot in Yosemite as although we’re still almost 3 months out from our trip it seems every reserve-ahead campsite is full and there was no guarantee of a backcountry permit (we are also procrastinators and last-minute planners!) This is by far the absolute best guide I’ve found on how to get a spot without a reservation. Thanks so much! We’ll be utilizing these tips come July!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Glad to hear it! That’s exactly why I wrote the post – there wasn’t anything good out there detailing the options. Enjoy your trip up there and thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  6. Blais
    Blais says:

    Amazing to have found your blog while looking for suggestions about camping spots and come upon photos of college friends! I ran in college with two of the guys in Keys to Freeze. What an amazing trek they had, and a small world to see them here.
    Thanks for the info – it is great!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Yes! That’s awesome. I forwarded your comment to Reese and Brady (had to be them) and they say howdy. Hope you found a campsite and had a kickass time in Yosemite!

      Reply
  7. Jim
    Jim says:

    Just a quick comment, there *are* several first come first served campgrounds in Yosemite, for example, Porcupine Creek, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows all offer first come first served spots. They are hard to come by in summer though!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Good clarification! This post was written just for campgrounds inside the Yosemite park boundaries, not extending up into Tuolumne (which is the place to be when it’s busy and hot down low anyway, as I bet you know). I’ll add a note to the beginning of the post. Thanks man.

      Reply
      • Jim
        Jim says:

        Thanks for all the useful info.! I’m cruising through Yosemite via bicycle in June. As a bike camper, I never know exactly where I’ll be and planning ahead is hard.

        Reply
        • Dakota
          Dakota says:

          Awesome! Our buddies from keystofreeze.com came in from the east and their ride over the pass was one of their favorite days in 7,000 miles. Enjoy!

          Reply
    • Gene
      Gene says:

      whats a good time to arrive at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground to have a decent chance of getting a walk-up camp site on labor day weekend? 5am?
      thanks

      Reply
      • Dakota
        Dakota says:

        Ha, no idea, man! This post is just my experience; I can’t offer any help beyond what I shared. Tuolumne is certainly quieter, but every national park is insane on long holiday weekends.

        Reply
  8. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Hey Dakota,

    When did you end up going to Yosemite? Going this week and wondering if the time of year depends on the availability? A lot of the upper campgrounds or closed so just a little nervous about our spur of the moment adventure! 🙂 Great tips! Thanks for all the great info!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Time of year TOTALLY matters. We were there in mid-May, which is similarly busy to now in that all campgrounds will likely be booked. Lots of snow this year though, so maybe fewer are open? No idea…but you’ll figure it out and have a great time. Enjoy!

      Reply
  9. Kate Jackson
    Kate Jackson says:

    Just came across this post as I am on a road trip and want to do an impromptu Yosemite stopover in the next few days. Thanks for these helpful tips! Hopefully something works!

    Reply

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