Yosemite During Covid-19: Your Own Private Half Dome

We hadn’t been inside the park 10 minutes when Yosemite gave us a sign of how magical our Covid-19 visit was going to be. We are used to traffic jams on the way into the Valley, but this time cars were stopped so that drivers could stand on the bank of the Merced River, cameras in hand. When we joined them, we saw a black bear casually snuffling around the other bank.

Even though between 300 and 500 bears live in the park, according to the National Park Service web site, the creatures themselves had previously been elusive to us, probably because of the thousands of humans that usually surrounded us. But this August, we were enjoying one small bright spot to a raging global pandemic: When we reserved one of the limited entries to Yosemite, we felt like we were enjoying our own personal park.

Yosemite

Sighting a bear just minutes after rolling into the gate was just one example. When we rolled up to the Western entrance, there was only one car ahead of us. Normally, the park warns, summer visitors should be prepared to wait an hour at the gate. But we barely had time to pull up our masks before we were chatting with a ranger in the booth.

As the weekend went on, we discovered more delights. The shuttle system is not running, but that’s no problem since we could drive right up to any trailhead or sight within the park and find easy parking, from the beaches along the Merced to Glacier Point to a roadside spot just steps from the beach at Tenaya Lake in Tuolumne Meadows. 

Yosemite

We never worried about social distancing, as it was a breeze to stay more than six feet away from other tourists even at the most popular viewpoints. We were finally able to capture family photos with Half Dome and El Capitan without having to crop strangers out of the frame. On a three-hour hike from Glacier Point down to Yosemite Valley, I encountered just six individuals or groups on the trail. I spent more than an hour of that hike in the heart of the park without another human in earshot. Gazing at Half Dome during those periods, I realized that no one in the world was sharing my precise view of the California treasure at that moment.

While we enjoyed all this easy access, we didn’t feel at a loss for amenities. While larger bathroom buildings were closed, we were always able to find single-stall accommodations when needed. We were able to buy a meal in Curry Village on Friday evening and easily snagged a couple of outdoor tables to enjoy it. Rangers at outdoor booths stood ready to share advice.

Wide open trails.

Our family’s only tiny regret is that we didn’t jump on the reservation system as soon as it started in June, so that we could have enjoyed up-close views of the park’s waterfalls in full flow. Having been wowed by the awesome power of Yosemite Falls the previous June, my kids were anxious to make a beeline for the landmark as soon as we entered the Valley. Instead of a massive outdoor shower, what they found at the end of the short trail was a field of dry rocks and a trickle hidden behind them. 

However, even this momentary disappointment turned into a special occasion. A year ago, we’d waited our turn to get close enough for the spray to wet our faces, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people. Now, with only two or three other groups at the dry waterfall, our kids felt free to clamor on the rocks for an hour, while we adults sprawled out on benches and watched the sunset illuminate Half Dome. Tomorrow would be another day in our own private Yosemite.

Family pictures without the crowd.

How to get an advance Yosemite entrance reservation

On the first day of every month, the national park is releasing 80 percent of its car entry reservations for the following month. That means that on Sept. 1, you can book reservations for October 1-31. Tickets become available at 7 a.m., so be ready; it’s recommended to create an account at Recreation.gov in advance.

If you cant get a reservation on the first of the month

Don’t give up. There are other ways to get through those gates. 

  • Try for a last-minute reservation: Every day at 7 a.m., you can check on Recreation.gov for reservations for two days later. For instance, on Sept. 5, you can make a reservation for Sept. 7. There also may be advance reservations that didn’t get snapped up on the first day of the month as well as cancellations; when I checked on August 13, there were hundreds of entries available on various September weekdays.
  • Sleep in the park: Residents of the campgrounds, hotels and vacation rentals within Yosemite don’t need separate reservations to drive in. OK, beds within Yosemite sell out well in advance, but if something happens to open up, grab it. You also don’t need a reservation if you have a backcountry or Half Dome permit.
  • Get on the bus: Did you know there is a public transit system that serves Yosemite? You can park at one of the YARTS bus stops outside the park and cruise right into the valley. For instance, you could stay at the pleasant Yosemite Lakes campground five miles outside the western gate and pay $10 for a round trip ride to the valley and back, including park entrance fee.
  • Take a tour: Trips guided by commercial operators include entry reservation. And you’re not limited to bus tours. For instance, Yosemite Rush Creek Lodge offers hikes, bike rides and even whitewater rafting through the park on the Tuolumne River.

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Carrie KirbyCarrie Kirby spends a lot of time asking people about something they think about but rarely talk about: money. Her work on personal finance, business and technology has appeared in San Francisco Magazine, Consumers Digest, Wise Bread and more publications. Carrie’s most recent work about her other love, travel, appears in The Best Women’s Travel Writing: Volume 10. She lives on an island (Alameda) with her husband and three kids, and blogs about getting them all where they need to go without owning a car at carfreemom.com.