COVID-19 offers a chance to see California’s most famous park in its summer grandeur with a fraction of the crowds.
By Dylan Phillips
How empty is Yosemite is this summer? It is so empty that when my family and I were walking to the Mirror Lake Trail, we saw a rattlesnake attack a squirrel – right next to the path! There are so few human visitors this year that the wildlife is taking over what is usually one of Yosemite’s most crowded paths. We had the classic view of Half Dome to ourselves.
The last time we visited Yosemite National Park during summer it was awesome – and it was packed. The traffic was crazy with bumper-to-bumper cars all through the park. And there was traffic on the trails too. Tourists on foot jammed all the paths leading from the valley floor. We often had to wait to walk up narrow parts of a trail to let other people pass by. This year, the Mist Trail steps were just about empty.
2020 is definitely different. The National Park Service has lowered the number of visitors that can come to Yosemite Valley this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the Ahwahnee Hotel and a fraction of the normal number of campsites are open in the valley and you need to reserve a day pass just to drive into the park. (See more info below or click here to get all the info about the ways you can visit during COVID-19.)
Since fewer visitors can come to Yosemite, the park is wide open and totally uncrowded. Going from one viewpoint to another only takes 10 minutes instead of a half-hour. This emptiness makes for a different experience than you might have experienced if you have visited in a past summer.
This is good news for families wanting to travel during the COVID-19 outbreak. If you get started early, it is possible to visit one of California’s most famous spots and easily keep six-feet away from other people. Check out the walk to Yosemite Falls – no one in sight!
2020 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see summertime in Yosemite Valley without the tour buses, motorhomes, shuttles, bikers, and hikers of a normal year. Yes, it will be tough to get reservations and no, it will not be cheap. But you will be able to see Half Dome, El Capitan, waterfalls, rivers, wildlife, and all of the rest of Yosemite’s incredible sights without elbowing through throngs of people to do it.
And if you’re lucky, you might see a snake-squirrel fight.
The Good Stuff
Epic Hikes Our family did a different hike every day. We thought it was best to get up early so it is not hot and not as crowded. Pack your lunch and lots of water for the trails. Also, because of COVID-19, many of the paths are one-way walking, which keeps crowds down.
- Mirror Lake This easy hike has a very cool reflection of Half Dome in the meadow. It can be accessed by walking and biking. It is a good hike for when you first arrive because of how easy it is, not to mention you get to some classic Yosemite views.
- Vernal & Nevada Falls The famous “Mist Trail” hike is tougher with mostly hills and barely any flat, but it’ll take you to see two waterfalls and there are beautiful views from the top of both. There are a few dangerous, wet spots where you will want to watch your step and hang onto little ones. Plan to eat your lunch at the top. There are also ways to shorten this hike if you’re not up for the 8-mile roundtrip.
- Lower Yosemite Falls The first walk to Lower Yosemite Falls is an easy one over flat ground to see the bottom of the falls. It is one of the more crowded spots this summer because of how easy it is to reach and the fact that it small place for kids to play in the river. The views are very good. Next time, we plan to do Upper Yosemite Falls because we ran out of time this year.
Fun Fishing Bring along your gear for fishing in the park – it is a fun family activity that provides a break from hiking if you need it. We fished in two spots: The first spot was near the west exit of the park but the fishing was not so good. The water was not cold enough and was moving too fast. We did get to see a lot of great views from the car on the way, like Tunnel View and Bridal Veil Falls.
The second spot we fished was in the El Cap Gully. The fishing here was pretty good. We caught one fish and got many bites. Another great reason for fishing in the El Cap Gully is you can see lots of people climbing El Cap. Don’t forget a California fishing license is needed for any one 16 or older.
Bike and/or Float It’s a great year to rent bikes and circle the valley floor or rent a raft and float the Merced River through the valley (if the water level is high enough). Rentals are available in Curry Village.
The Not So Good
Few Vacancies Because there are so few places to stay, getting a reservation is tough. And if you can get one, it isn’t cheap. The good news is that for the money, Yosemite is worth it – especially when it is this un-crowded.
So-so Food Like most national parks, no one comes to Yosemite for the food. This year is even a bit worse than usual because so many spots are closed for the pandemic. I would compare the food to the food you might get at a ski lodge. My family and I only ate out for dinner because we packed breakfasts and lunches when we went on hikes. That said, the best dinner we had was at our hotel, the Ahwahnee. It was buffet-style and was very good.
No Connectivity Cell service is very limited in the park. The wifi isn’t great either, even at the Ahwahnee. We had to walk from the cabins to the lobby to get service.
Low Water Yosemite’s water levels in falls and rivers normally slow down by late summer. 2020 is an especially dry year so don’t be disappointed if there are trickles/streams rather than falls/rivers in August and autumn. (This is also why they often call the “Mirror Lake” trail “Mirror Meadow” at this time of year.)
Good to Know
Pack In Your Food Bring a cooler with breakfast, lunch, snacks, and drinks from home to avoid having to pay a lot for so-so food.
Reserve Dinner If you want to dine at the Ahwahnee’s buffet, you need to book a table in advance. You also have to follow the dress code – collar shirt and pants for guys and nicer clothes for girls – no shorts, flip flops, or hiking clothes are allowed.
Limited Lodging The NPS has limited the number of people who can stay in the park this summer. The historic Ahwahnee Hotel is the only valley option that is open. We were lucky to get a cabin which was really nice. It was in the trees just across the grass area from the main hotel. There was a king bed, a sofa bed, and a refrigerator to keep the food you need for breakfast and lunch. It had air conditioning but was still a little bit hot, even with it on.
Camp & Backpack Few valley campgrounds are open this summer. Upper Pines Campground and Curry Village are accepting reservations but it is very hard to get one for summer 2020. It is still possible to get backcountry backpacking reservations, though. Click this link for more info on backcountry permits.
Stay Outside the Valley but Inside the Park It is possible to stay outside the valley but still inside Yosemite National Park by booking a cabin in Wawona or Yosemite West. These properties will still provide the car pass needed to drive into the valley (see below). Check Yosemite Scenic Wonders, an agency that offers cabin rentals in these two towns. (Note that cabins offered on their site outside the park boundaries near Oakhurst/Bass Lake do not come with a parking pass.) It takes about 45-60 minutes without traffic to drive to the valley from either of these places so it is always better to try to stay in the valley – but reservations are hard to come by this year.
Day Pass Reservations Required for Cars if you are not staying in any of the above accommodations in the park and just want to visit the park for the day, you need advance reservations for your car this year, too. You can buy a seven-day pass for $35, but they always sell out so keep checking back. This link takes you directly to the purchase site. About 80 percent of passes for the entire month of August 2020 will go on sale on Aug. 1 and the remaining 20 percent of passes will be made available a few days in advance. Importantly, you have to show the driver’s license of the pass holder to be able to use the pass. Click here to get more information.
Stay Outside the Park If you’ve got a car pass but no room, try the fun and family-friendly Rush Creek Lodge or Evergreen Lodge, both just outside the west entrance to the park in Groveland. They’ve got ways to try to get you into the park if you don’t have a reservation, including offering private tours and access to public buses. You can easily visit Hetch Hetchy from this area, as well.
Download Before Departing The lack of cell service and wifi means you can’t reliably access phone-based guides for more info when you’re sightseeing or while you’re up on a hike. Download, print or get an offline map app like MAPS.ME to keep you in-the-know as you go.
One-Way Trails Lots of hikes were only “one way” because of COVID-19. This made the trail safer and less crowded – just be sure you know where the official starting point is, if there is more than one on your hike.
Don’t Forget You absolutely need hiking boots, sturdy trail running shoes, or legit hiking sandals for the hiking in the park. We saw a lot of people struggling to hike in Crocs, sandals and flip flops. You should also pack binoculars to check out the climbers on El Cap and watch wildlife. And if you want to fish, be sure to buy a fishing license online for the day or the year.
Beware of Wildlife Because crowds are so low, there are a lot more animals out and about in the valley. Keep an eye out on the edge of the paths and trails for snakes, bears, and other concerning critters.
Dylan Phillips – July 2020
This part-time adventure traveler and full-time student plays high school football and Fortnite with equal passion.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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