As the fifth most-visited national park in the country (4.5 millions visitors in 2019), Yosemite might not seem like the best place to escape to during a pandemic. But some changes at the park that went into effect in summer 2020 have made it not only a safer place to travel, but a more pleasant spot to visit in general. After closing in March, Yosemite reopened in June with a reservation system that limits the number of visitors entering the park by car. Keeping the number of cars down is having the dual effect of making it easier for visitors to maintain a safe distance from each other and greatly reducing traffic, which has been a scourge at the park for years.
The park is having a magical moment with less crowding and more wildlife sightings, says longtime park ranger Scott Gediman. "We might never get the chance to see Yosemite this way again in our lifetimes,” he says. After a recent visit to the park, my third, I can confirm that Gediman is right. I found the park transformed. There were no traffic jams or clogged parking lots, and it felt like my kids and I had miles of popular trails all to ourselves.
As we go into the fall, there’s a good chance Yosemite’s current state of wilderness bliss will hit an even higher note when the usual decline in summer visitors and excellent hiking weather combine with the reservation system’s crowd control, making it a great time to visit.
Before you go, consider these tips to make your experience even better and be sure to check out the park’s latest COVID-19 alerts and restrictions.
Book reservations at least a month in advance
Ticketed reservations for the month of October go online September 1, with 1,700 passes available per day. The total cost is $35 per car ($33 for the typical entrance fee, $2 for the new reservation fee) and each one is good for unlimited entry for seven consecutive days. Here’s most important thing to know ahead of time: The park releases 80 percent of its October reservations on September 1 and they sell out very quickly, particularly for weekend dates. All is not lost if your preferred date appears sold out on the website. The remaining 20 percent—340 tickets for each day—become available two days in advance of the reservation date at 7 a.m. PT. Those planning a November visit can snag the main batch of tickets on October 1.
Hike the High Sierra Country
While Yosemite Valley is accessible by car all year round, the park’s High Sierra region is only open through November. The Valley is spectacular in its own right with iconic cliff faces like Half Dome and El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. But exploring the high country with its giant sequoia groves, breathtaking Tioga Road—which climbs to nearly 10,000 feet—and the subalpine Tuolumne Meadows are a dream. In fall, temperatures generally stay in the 50s and 60s, ideal for hiking. Make it a priority to get to Dog Lake and Lembert Dome for views over Tuolumne, to Pothole Dome for a playful boulder scramble, and to the Mist Trail for a challenging hike to the top of 9,931-foot Cloud’s Rest. On the way down, stop in Merced and Tuolumne Groves to see the sunset among ancient giant sequoias, some of which are close to 3,000 years old.