We spent three nights just outside Yosemite in early October 2022 as part of Big Trip #4.
From Reno, it was a long (and expensive! gas prices in California!) 4.5-hour drive to our next campground near Yosemite National Park. Our route took us up Tioga Pass, the highest elevation highway pass in CA, and a spectacularly beautiful climb. It was a little bit of a hairy drive up to the top with the Airstream; bad luck for me that I was the driver at the time and couldn’t gawk at the scenery. At the top of the pass is the Tioga Pass Entrance to Yosemite, and from there the road winds through the Tuolomne Meadows section of the park.
We should have planned better: the visitor center was closed for the season and we had no cell service, so we couldn’t look for hikes around Tuolomne (pronounced “too-OL-um-mee”) Meadows. The extent of our exploration was stopping at overlooks (when we could fit the Airstream into a parking lot) along the scenic drive. Here’s a fun tidbit from the official Yosemite site: “…this roadway marks the northern end of the largest contiguous roadless wilderness in the continental United States.”
After lunch at Olmsted Overlook, we drove out of the park and to our campground.
There are ten campgrounds in Yosemite that can handle RVs, and those campsites are in HIGH demand. None has any hookups, and there are size restrictions: if your trailer is over 24’/RV is over 35′, there are only eight campsites in Yosemite Valley that can fit you. If you’re bigger than 35′ (trailer)/40′ (RV), there’s nothing in the park. We were unable to reserve anything (typically campsites are snatched up within seconds or minutes of being released online) and unwilling to risk driving the Airstream around in circles trying to find a suitable campsite.
So, we booked a campsite at Yosemite Lakes RV Resort. It’s a big, amenity-filled campground, and after a questionable first impression (the roads are dotted with potholes, our site had trash from the previous guest, there’s no cell service, the only wi-fi is at the campground office, the extended wi-fi you can pay for doesn’t actually work) we came to really enjoy it.
The campsites at Yosemite Lakes are first come, first served, and the campground was already pretty crowded. Thinking we wanted a riverfront spot, we were dismayed to see how narrow they were, and finally landed in a spacious, private-ish site at the back of the campground adjacent to a nice grassy area. The biggest campsites in the park are the pull-throughs in the middle, in full sun–which may be good or bad.
We were happy to be in an RV resort with amenities, because we needed to do laundry and fill up our propane bottles. The campground is loaded with outdoor and indoor activities, and just outside the resort there’s a gas station with a well-stocked (including firewood) convenience store.
The worst thing about Yosemite Lakes: we were warned at check-in that there’s a mountain lion who frequents the campground and has attacked small dogs at night! When walking Bugsy in the dark pre-dawn, we carried bear spray, and one morning my headlamp caught the reflection of BIG eyes watching us from the woods at the edge of the campground!
The best thing about Yosemite Lakes: after leaving Bugsy behind when we hiked in the national park, we were thankful for the dog-friendly natural areas in the campground. Bugsy swam in the river, alongside a gaggle of children, and she enjoyed walking through the big cabin/tent area across the river from the RV section. There are also some trails along the river that we didn’t explore.
Yosemite Lakes is the closest (at least, that we could find) commercial RV campground to Yosemite, but it’s still a 50-minute drive to Yosemite Valley, a 40-minute drive to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and an hour and 15 minutes to the Tuolumne Meadows visitor center. Oof. Due to our limited time, we focused our exploring in Yosemite Valley, with a quick trip to Hetch Hetchy, and left Tuolumne Meadows for next time.
Hiking in Yosemite
We had three nights in Yosemite, and strategizing our hiking was tricky, since our home base was so far from the trailheads and we didn’t want to leave poor Bugsy alone for extended amounts of time. We decided to do a short hike close to home our first afternoon, big hikes in Yosemite Vallety on mornings #2 and #3, and take Bugsy for a walk in Hetch Hetchy the last morning. This ended up being a good schedule for all three of us.
Hikes we’d considered but skipped after seeing the crowds include some of the most popular trails in Yosemite: Lower Yosemite Falls and Columbia Rock, and we skipped Half Dome because a) the cables were down for the season, and b) we didn’t have time for an all-day adventure with Bugsy back in the Airstream.
Easy hike: Tuolumne Grove
Tuolumne Grove is home to two dozen giant sequoias, and it was our intro to sequoia country (we later visited Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park, home to way more sequoias than Yosemite). When we visited Yosemite, it was the only of the three sequoia grove open to the public.
We clocked just over three miles total hiking down to the grove, through it, and back up, and it was busy but not overwhelming on a Friday afternoon. The trees were AMAZING and the highlight for us was crawling through a fallen tree’s trunk. Incredible. We’ll write more about Sequoias in the next two posts, Kings Canyon and Sequoia NP.
Strenuous hike: Four Mile Trail
Glacier Point Road was closed in 2022, and we absolutely wanted to see the view from Glacier Point, so hiking Four Mile Trail was our #1 priority. In a normal year you can just drive up to Glacier Point, but we were happy for the closed road, because it meant waaaay fewer people at the top.
The parking lot is tiny–we arrived at 6:50am and only two parking spots remained. From there you hike up, up, up 4.8 miles to Glacier Point. It’s a steady climb, never horribly steep, but it’s a grind. Holy cow the views though! As you climb higher and higher above Yosemite Valley your vista stretches from El Capitan to Half Dome and beyond. We had breakfast at the top and then headed back down, passing a zillion people on their way up.
We were jealous of the people who hiked up to Glacier Point and then continued another 8.5 miles along the Panorama Trail back down to the valley floor at Happy Isles, catching the Valley Shuttle (or hiking another 3 miles) back to the Four Mile trailhead. That loop is going on our to-do list.
Moderate hike: Mist Trail to Muir Trail
The next morning we were back in Yosemite Valley early to hike an almost 8-mile loop on the Mist Trail and Muir Trail past Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. The hike up is tough and it’s steep both on the way up and the way down, but the views of the falls and the valley are tremendous. The parking lot was almost full at 7am on a Sunday, and as this hike is a lollipop shape, be prepared to pass a lot of people on the “stick” part of the lollipop who maybe don’t appreciate the nature experience like you do: we shared the stick of the lollipop with crowds of people heading up to the falls who yelled a lot and blared music. If you’re not into that, go early!
We thought we’d hike Columbia Rock afterward, but bailed because of the crowds and headed home. The views down the valley would have been the same as from Glacier Point, but from across the valley, so we felt ok about missing the hike to preserve our sanity.
Easy hike: Hetch Hetchy
This wasn’t really a hike, it was a stroll along the road. Hetch Hetchy is a fascinating and less-visited section of Yosemite. It’s like a mini-Yosemite Valley, or rather it WAS like a mini-Yosemite Valley, until the early 1920s when it was flooded to create an 8-mile, 300ft-deep reservoir for San Francisco, 167 miles away. In addition to providing needed fresh water, the power generated by the moving water can meet 20% of San Francisco’s power needs. It’s controversial, yes.
Now the Hetch Hetchy valley is dominated by a gorgeous reservoir nestled in the granite peaks; there are some hikes in the area, but no dogs are allowed on the trails, so we stuck to the roads and admired the surroundings.
Eating and drinking in Groveland
Tiny Groveland is twenty minutes west of Yosemite Lakes RV, and surprise, there’s an awesome brewery there! Here’s J with lots of thoughts:
In our research, I had noted that there was no place worth eating anywhere near the campground, but there was a brewery 27 minutes drive in the wrong direction from the park with only some basic sandwich options for pescatarian L. The beer list at Around the Horn Brewing Company was actually pretty compelling, but after driving 50+ minutes each way to hike everyday, I didn’t figure it worth the drive.
Alas, on our last night after tiring of our campground a bit and wanting some actual internet, we called the brewery to confirm they were dog friendly (very) and that they had internet for guests and then were on our way; it was a good decision.
The tasting room at Around the Horn is just on the wrong side of cute little Groveland, CA, right on Route 120. It’s a mid-sized space with two garage doors (we sat beneath one) open to a small concrete patio looking onto Route 120. In the back is a larger, greener patio that we will check out when we come back someday.
More importantly, the beer is good. Really good. They had 14 beers on draft, including 5 hazy IPAs (one coconut lactose) or Pales, 3 sours (although two had soft serve ice cream(!)), a couple stouts, a saison and a blonde. J couldn’t believe his luck with the quality of the beer in this tiny town and left with 3 crowlers of the 5% hazy pale ales and 2 crowlers of their 6% hazy IPA. L was likewise enthusiastic enough about her Fluffy Tutu (sour with passionfruit, strawberry, kiwi, lemon, raspberry, vanilla and lactose) to grab a four pack on the way out. (L here: how did we fit all that in our tiny Airstream fridge??)
Two other items of interest: (1) We noticed a collaboration IPA with Southern Grist, a brewery in East Nashville, TN we’ve visited, which seemed odd; it turns out the owner and head brewer used to work for them; (2) The name Around the Horn has nothing to do with baseball, but rather refers to the route many prospectors used to have to take (sail around Cape Horn) en route to potential gold mining riches in the area.
Around the Horn Brewing was one of the great, pleasant surprises of our trip and we hope to get back there someday.
Hi, it’s L again. Groveland has a handful of restaurants and a grocery; the only business in Groveland other than Around the Horn that we patronized was Mountain Sage Coffee. What a cute cafe: the coffeeshop is tucked into a plant nursery, serving espresso drinks, teas (but no matcha for J), and pastries, with some gifts for sale from local artisans.
Since we started Airstreaming to national parks in 2016, we’d been scared of the crowds at Yosemite and had been loath to include it on an itinerary. Now we know better: yes, it’s crazy crowded, but that’s because it’s crazy beautiful, and like any other crazy crowded national park (Zion, Bryce, Arches, Grand Canyon South Rim, I’m looking at you) it’s manageable if you go EARLY (we left Yosemite Valley around 12:30 our two longer hiking days, and the park was a zoo with looooong lines at the entrance station–note that we were past the period when reservations are required to enter the park) and outside high season. I’d return to Yosemite because there’s more to explore:
- Hike the full Four Mile – Panorama route
- Explore the Tuolumne Meadows area of the park
- Should we do Half Dome? I’m not convinced it’s worth the hassle
- See if we can fit into Upper Pines/Lower Pines/North Pines campgrounds at the end of Yosemite Valley
- Consider hiking in Hetch Hetchy–Wapama Falls is a 5-miler, and Lookout Point is two miles