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Yosemite's best (and worst) in every season

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Yosemite National Park, California (Photo: Robert Holmes/CalTour)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 27, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: activity, adventure travel, backpacking, Christine Sarkis, destination, national park, vacation package, Yosemite Natl Pk.

Yosemite National Park is open to visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but the experience can differ dramatically from season to season. Figuring out what you want (or want to avoid) from a visit can help you choose the best time to go.

Each season offers its own benefits and compromises. The elements that can make or break a vacation—crowds, availability, price, accessibility, and activities—change significantly throughout the year. Here's what to expect from the four seasons of Yosemite.

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Yosemite in summer

  • Good for: Bicycling, swimming, rafting, total park access, wildflower blooms, camping
  • Bad for: Easy booking, traffic-free driving, waterfall watching

Summer offers the best and worst of Yosemite. The whole park is accessible during the warm months, the wildflowers are in bloom, stargazing is at its most dazzling, and warm-weather activities are in full swing. It's also by far the most crowded time to visit, and it's easy to be disappointed or frustrated by the crowded hiking trails, packed vantage points, sold-out campgrounds, and car-choked valley roads.

There are ways to avoid the massive summer crowds, though. The easiest way is to explore the park in the early morning. Park ranger Adrienne Freeman says, "Even on the most crowded holiday weekend, those who get up early to walk and hike will have the valley to themselves." Early morning is also one of the best times of day to spot wildlife.

Another trick to managing the summer throng is to stick to the less crowded east end of the valley, and then walk or take the shuttle to avoid getting stuck in daytime valley traffic. Exploring outlying areas of the park is another way to enjoy a more peaceful summer in Yosemite.

Finding a place to stay is the most challenging aspect of a summer trip. Accommodations reservations can be made 366 days in advance, and campsite reservations open up five months ahead of time.

Campsite reservations between May and September are booked within a few hours of becoming available. Some sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but even those often fill up by noon during the busy months. Summer is also the only time Tuolumne Meadows, White Wolf Lodge, and High Sierra facilities are open.

Next>> Yosemite in fall: Mild weather, but...

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