Last month, my boyfriend and I spent a week in California. We split the trip up into three very different types of vacations: hiking and camping in Yosemite National Park, wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma, and sightseeing in San Francisco. I like to stay active on vacations so this was the perfect mix of activities. While I’ve traveled extensively abroad, this was my first time to California. It was also my first trip to a national park! Our itinerary included a day hike from Yosemite Valley and two nights sleeping out in the “wilderness”. Having been to Yosemite a few times before, my boyfriend largely planned this portion of our trip. I was under the impression that you could just show up and camp where you’d like, but there’s a lot more planning that goes into it.
Getting to Yosemite National Park
While no airports are in the immediate vicinity, there are several choices in the area. Your best option will be determined by where you are flying from, what airline you prefer to fly on, and how much time you have to drive to Yosemite. Since we have a Southwest Companion Pass, our cheapest option coming from the East Coast was to fly into Oakland ($205 for both tickets). We rented a car and drove 2.5 hours to a hotel near the park. We chose the Best Western Plus Yosemite Way Station. The staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating, and I was pleasantly surprised by the breakfast selection.
The next day we drove about 45 minutes to the park entrance. The entrance fee is a reasonable $30 per car for 7 days. If you’re camping off the trail like we did, this is the cheapest “hotel” deal you’ll come across!
Due to road improvements in Yosemite Valley, we experienced a few detours. This wasn’t an issue early on in the day, but the Valley fills up with tourists by noon making it harder to get around.
Camping Out? Get a Wilderness Permit!
Since we were camping out for two nights, we needed to apply for a wilderness permit. Only a limited number of permits are allowed per trailhead, so it’s best to reserve your permit early. You can apply up to 24 weeks in advance. Check the trailhead report before applying to make sure your dates are available. The cost is $5 for the reservation plus $5 per person. The best way to make your reservation is to send your form via fax. It sounds old school but we heard back the same day we faxed our form in.
You can pick up your permit at a wilderness center the day before the start of your hike or until 10 am the day of the hike. You are also required to rent a bear canister for another $5. After picking up our permit and canister at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center, we drove a few miles down the road to start our day hike – Yosemite Falls.
Note: Wilderness permits are not just a formality; we were stopped by a ranger and asked to present our wilderness permit. He also checked to make sure we had a bear canister. I’m not sure what would have happened if we didn’t have a permit, but I’m glad we didn’t have to find out!
Yosemite Falls Day Hike
Yosemite Falls is a waterfall rising 2,425 feet above the Valley floor. In the spring and early summer, Yosemite Falls is a big part of Yosemite Valley’s landscape. The waterfall was completely dried up by September, but the hike still offers great views of the Valley, Half Dome, and other peaks in the Sierra mountains.
This hike is 7.2 miles round trip. It took us less than six hours hiking at a moderate pace. September in Yosemite Valley is HOT, and this hike offers little shade once you are close to the top. Bring lots and lots of water. More water than you think you’ll need. We killed half a Nalgene in the first 20 minutes!
After a quick lunch at the top, we hurried back down to get to the Glen Aulin trailhead to start hiking and set up camp!
Backpacking in Yosemite
We decided to start and end our hike at the Glen Aulin trailhead. We parked at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center and started down the Pacific Crest Trail to the trailhead. After crossing Tioga Road, we noticed there were a bunch of overnight parallel parking spots right at the start of the trail. Save yourself some energy and park here! We planned to camp near Glen Aulin which is 5.5 miles in. With the sun setting, we stopped early and set up camp.
The next day we hiked a little past Glen Aulin and the High Sierra Camps to spend the day along the Tuolumne River. It was freezing but felt nice to dip your feet in. The hike there was mostly flat or downhill. Since we needed to head out early the next morning to continue our trip in Sonoma, we hiked 5 miles back (i.e., uphill) that afternoon and stayed at our original campsite.
I highly recommend getting a wilderness permit and camping off the trail. Setting up camp, making dinner, and gazing at the stars is a rewarding end to a full day of hiking. My boyfriend and I are winos (hence the trip to Napa and Sonoma). We brought a bottle of red wine with us which was easy on the hike in. After we drank half the first night, I had to hike the second day with the corked bottle in the water bottle holder of my pack! Totally worth it.
If you like to travel for free like I do, Yosemite National Park is a great choice. We spent about $45 in two days on entrance fees, our permit, and bear canister rental. This helped bring down the total cost of our trip. Besides the savings, nothing beats the fresh air and views at Yosemite. I know I will definitely be back. Check out Part 2 of our California vacation: Wine Tasting!