Camping in Yosemite is wildly popular and entire campsites sell out on the same day spots go on sale for that period. Yosemite is expensive and by camping you no only significantly reduce costs but also have the privilege of staying inside this beautiful national park, but you are also walking distance to some of Yosemite’s most iconic hiking trails.
It evokes images of being among the mountains, the campfires at night, the huge trees and being a million miles away from civilisation. However unless you’re backcountry camping it isn’t quite like that! Nonetheless we will never forget our experience camping in the park, especially the incredible amount of stars you could see at night and the sounds of snuffling racoons (or bears?!) around the tent at night!
Here are a few things to consider before booking as well as tips we have to prepare for your #Yosemite camping experience.
If you want to stay at a campsite (especially in the valley), booking ahead is essential. We’ve heard stories of peak season spots selling out within the hour they go on sale, so you really need to understand how the booking system works ahead of time.
The sites go on sale up to five months in advance and are released on the 15th of the month at 7am Pacific time. You can find out the exact dates and times for when the bookings become available by checking on the National Park’s website. So for our chosen dates in September we needed to book in May.
There are a lot of campsites
You aren’t short on options for camping in Yosemite from a simple patch of dirt and a bear box to “glamping” (don’t expect anything luxurious though!).
There are 13 campsites in total in Yosemite (not including backcountry sites) and we were told there are over 2,000 camping spots in the park, which may seem like a lot until your realise there are over 8 million visitors per year! We booked four nights and tried to extend, even planning to come back almost two weeks later (in October) and couldn’t get a single night more. It really is that popular.
Upper, Lower and North Pines Campgrounds are the favourites
There are four campsites in Yosemite Valley: The Lower, Upper and North Pines, and Camp 4. Lower, Upper and North Pines have 370 camping spots in total. Upper Pines is the largest of the three with 238 spots. These sites are available by reservation only, so you cannot turn up without a booking.
The three campsites are by Happy Isles and the start of the Mist Trail, making them the best place to stay if you are a hiker, especially if you plan on doing the Half Dome hike where an early start is really beneficial.
You can bring an RV or trailer to these camp grounds and all sites have a toilet block and tap water, and each spot has a bear box, parking space and fire pit with picnic bench.
Of these three campsites, only Upper Pines is open all year. The other two close between October and April (these dates change every year, so always check with the NPS). You are only allowed to stay in these campsites for a maximum of seven days between May and September.
Camp 4 is no longer a walk in site
Camp 4 by the foot of the Upper Yosemite is the only campsite in the valley which operates on a lottery system. It used to be a walk in site but as of 2019 the lottery system is being piloted. It’s the most famous campsite in the whole park where it’s known as base camp for most rock climbers. Like the other sites in the valley, each camping spot has a fire pit and bear box, and the campsite has toilets and tap water. You cannot park by your spot though and the parking lot is just outside the campsite.
It is the only campsite which allocates its 36 camping spots by a lottery system. You must arrive the day before you want to stay (the lottery is open between midnight and 4pm), pay a non-refundable $10 entry and hope you get lucky! If you secure a spot, then you pay the daily camping fee ($6 per person).
In the winter, Camp 4 operates on a first come, first served basis. If you see a spot, you can grab it and pay for the amount of days you want up to a maximum of 30.
Camp 4 has a bit of a history and is traditionally the campsite of choice for the rock climbers of Yosemite. There were stories of people pretty much living in Camp 4, but that has now been brought down to 30 days in a calendar year and only 7 days between May and September.
You cannot bring an RV or trailer to Camp 4, but you can bring your car with your Rooftop Tent on, way much better than camping on grount!
Housekeeping Camp - is best avoided
The only other “camping” option in Yosemite Valley is the Housekeeping Camp near Curry Village. On the face of it, Housekeeping Camp sounds nice: hot showers, laundry service, electricity and fixed tents with beds. However, the reality is nothing like the pictures on their website and it’s genuinely one of the worst places we’ve ever stayed in value for money wise. It’s infinitely better to stay in your own tent.
The tents in Housekeeping Camp feel more like a prison, with filth and damp on the walls and a general derelict feeling. We can only assume the tents here haven’t been cleaned or upgrading since the day they were built. We stayed here for two nights with a broken light which was never fixed. The zips on the tent didn’t work, so we never felt we had privacy or could leave any belongings inside. It was a depressing place and we wished we’d been able to secure another spot for our tent instead (and that’s saying something because our tent is Walmart’s cheapest!). Booking it is one of our big mistakes. So be sure bring your own spacious rooftop tent, so you could have your own clean cozy space for sleeping, very important.
If you miss out on the Valley campsites you can try Tuolumne Meadows
Or if you are interested in seeing a totally different part of the park and taking on hikes outside of the Valley, such as Clouds Rest and Lembert Dome. The meadows are roughly a 1 hour and 15 minute drive from the valley and half of the camping spots are saved for walk in reservations. As it isn’t on the valley floor they are easier to score too.
It is a seasonal campsite open roughly from July to late September, weather permitting. There are 304 sites which have the same facilities as those on the valley floor and also cost $26. They also have ‘luxury’ tent options similar to Housekeeping camp (based on the photos on their website as we didn’t actually personally use them to verify). The closest showers are still in the Valley.
Some spaces are better than others
Before you book any of the spots at Upper, Lower or North Pines, we strongly recommend checking out this map. Try to avoid the spots which are next to the recycling and garbage areas. These places are incredibly noisy as all campers have to dispose of their trash regularly because of the bears, so you will hear really loud banging from the early morning until late at night.
The same applies being near the entrance to the campsite as cars drive in and out throughout the night (we heard people arriving at 3am one morning in a big RV, sleep wasn’t happening)!
The campsites can get noisy
As we eluded to above, the campsites at Yosemite are surprisingly noisy, and isn’t the place to go if you are a light sleeper. People come and go regularly in RVs that make a lot of noise, bear boxes slam shut throughout the day and night (because even toiletries need to be stored in there, not just food).
The noise is made worse because the spots are pretty close together. Unlike some other park campsites we’ve stayed in, there are no divides between spots, so whilst each camping spot is reasonably big, there is nothing to stop the noise going straight into your Hard Shell Tent!
And it can get very cold
Yosemite can get cold throughout the year and we experienced temperatures of 30F in Aug 12! Make sure you bring thermals and warm camping gear such as tent insulation care as even the valley can see temperatures drop in the night. Curious about visiting Yosemite in the fall? be fully prepared!
You don’t need to worry about parking if you camp
A huge benefit of camping in Yosemite is the parking. In peak season, parking in Yosemite can be incredibly difficult and camping removes that problem as each reservation has its own parking space. This means you can simply walk out of your site each day to a trail or hop on the shuttle to wherever you want to go.
You can use the showers at Housekeeping Camp or Curry Village for $5
This is a life saver, especially if you plan on spending several days hiking in Yosemite. We were taking on most of the big hikes in Yosemite so the odd shower was a real luxury after some long, hot days. Make sure you bring your own soap and shampoo and then they provide the towel. Showers are open daily between 7am and 10 pm and will close for an hour or so each day for cleaning.
Housekeeping Camp and Curry Village offer showers for non-guests to use at any time. You can also get your laundry done at Housekeeping Camp.
You need to abide by bear safety rules
Yosemite takes its bear safety very seriously and impose hefty fines for people who violate them. In essence: all food and strong smelling products (toiletries) need to be kept in a bear box apart from when in use. Keeping these items in a car is not acceptable as bears have been known to try to break into cars if they know there is food inside.
If you don’t want to cook, Degnen’s is the best place for food, but you can also eat at Curry Village
Whilst neither option is bad, we preferred Degnen’s by the Visitor Centre for food options. Both options are a short drive from the valley campsites, and can get incredibly busy on weekends or during the peak season. Curry Village has a decent takeaway pizza restaurant, coffee shop and buffet restaurant, but we preferred the cafe and restaurant in Degnen’s.
Only the Visitor Centre gets reliable cell signal
Cell signal in Yosemite is hard to come by and you will find yourself without it on the majority of trails. However, the Visitor Centre has the best signal in the whole of the valley if you need to make a call or check something online. We wouldn’t recommend the wifi at Curry Village or Degnens as they virtually never work.
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