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 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 as near as one day prior to your arrival. 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!