Yosemite National Park Guide: How To Avoid Crowds

Secrets of Yosemite: 3 Ways To Leave the Crowds Behind in America’s Granite Wonderland

The tallest waterfalls in North America. Miles and miles of glacier-polished granite. The world’s most massive trees. More than 400 animal species, including the park’s famously curious bears. 

It's no wonder more than 4 million people visit Yosemite each year. But that doesn’t mean you have to join the tourist conga line. One surefire strategy is to avoid the busiest summer months, but even then there are workarounds. That’s because most visitors flock to iconic sights like Vernal and Nevada Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, and Tuolumne Meadows. But Yosemite is also one of the biggest national parks in the Lower 48, which means there are plenty of ways to see the best scenery without jostling for a view. Here are three Yosemite surprises.

Check the park website for updates and info on making reservations, which may be required to enter Yosemite National Park depending on current restrictions related to curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Climb to the Summit of Clouds Rest 

photo: Austin Trigg/TandemStock; (top) Daniel Kuras/TandemStock

The journey up Clouds Rest is not only less crowded than the Half Dome route up the historic cables, but you also don't need a permit (like you do with Half Dome). At nearly 10,000 feet, the summit affords a bird's eye view of Yosemite Valley. And while the granite ridgeline leading to the top isn’t technical, it’s narrow with heart-stopping exposure, making the Clouds Rest climb plenty exciting. 

The 12-mile out-and-back hike starts at the Sunrise Trailhead at Tenaya Lake, on Tioga Road (CA 120). The route quickly gains elevation, climbing through the forest. Above treeline, you’ll ascend smooth granite slabs along the edge of Tenaya Canyon to the summit, where you'll have unobstructed views of the glacier-sculpted valley below. 

Return the way you came, or, for a spectacular 15-mile, one-way route, continue past the summit and descend to Yosemite Valley on the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail is one of the busiest in the park, but it passes Nevada and Vernal Falls up close, and most of this route will not be crowded. Finish at Happy Isles. (Arrange transportation if doing this one-way hike; park shuttles are not running in 2021.) 

Walk Through a Grove of Ancient Giant Sequoias

Photo: Robb Hirsch/TandemStock

Giant sequoias are to trees what the Grand Canyon is to geology: They reset your expectations of what’s possible. They’re the world’s most massive trees by volume, which can only be understood by standing in a grove of them. They’re also the third oldest living tree species.

Merced Grove, on the park’s west side, is the least crowded of the three spots to see the trees. Here, you can hike through two dozen ancient giant sequoias, and though the trail is only 3 miles round-trip, you’ll want to allow plenty of time. It’s hard to walk fast when you’re looking up.

Ride a Bike Around the Valley

Photo: Daniel Kuras/TandemStock

Heard the horror stories about crowds in Yosemite Valley? They’re true. In summer, traffic can be horrendous, parking lots are often full, and shuttle busses can have long waits (shuttles are not operating in 2021 because of Covid). But even here, in the busy heart of the park, it’s possible to find pockets of surprising quiet. The best way to do it is on a bike. More than 12 miles of paved bike paths provide access to all the iconic sights without having to fight the crowds. 

First, pedal the paved path to Mirror Lake, where the calm water offers stunning reflections of granite cliffs. Next, you'll want to ride to the Yosemite Falls trailhead and walk one mile to Columbia Rock to see the park's highest waterfall, which drops 2,425 feet. Then ride to the historic Yosemite Chapel, which was built in 1878 and is the oldest structure in the park. Continue your two-wheeled tour with a picnic along the Merced River. Bring your own bicycle, rent one in the valley, or utilize the Yosemite Conservancy's new free bike-sharing program.   

Park info: nps.gov (entrance fee required)

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.