From towering waterfalls to sequoia-lined meadows – Yosemite National Park is truly one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world. Apart from the incredible views, we really appreciated that the bears there won’t kill you. The park was first protected in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant. This was the first time land was set aside by the US Government, specifically for public use and preservation.
In this article, we’ll talk about planning an overnight camping trip in Yosemite – and then share our experience hiking the most famous peak in the park: Half Dome.
Park Location and Geology
Yosemite sits in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Central California, and covers nearly 1,200 square miles.
The striking cliff faces and domed mountain tops of Yosemite are formed of granite: an igneous rock that is formed when magma cools underground. Yosemite granite is about 65 million years old! Over time, the granite was exposed as overlying rocks were weathered away. Rivers are responsible for the formation of the steep, narrow canyons in the park: water in rivers carves through its bedrock, and this can happen rapidly (geologically speaking) during periods of “uplift” – such as 10 million years ago, when the Sierra Nevada was uplifted. More recently, during an ice age, glaciers formed within the park – and these glaciers (which were up to 4,000 feet thick!) moved through the river valleys.
The dome-shape of many mountain tops within Yosemite is the result of a characteristic type of weathering of granite rocks, known as exfoliation. The famous Half Dome peak has a sharp vertical edge due to vertical joins running through the rock, and glaciers scraping off material as they moved through the valley.
Reservations for Backcountry Permits
In 2019, Yosemite was the 5th most visited national park in the United States. With over 4 million visitors every year, it can be difficult to secure permits for backcountry hiking and camping – because the park rangers limit the number of people traveling to and from each trailhead every day. Specifically, to camp outside of a campground in Yosemite (in the “backcountry”), your group will need to apply for a wilderness permit.
These wilderness permits are not required for day hikes (except for hiking half dome, discussed below), and are available by advance reservation (60% of total available permits) and day-of (40% of available permits). Unless your travel plans are flexible, we recommend attempting to reserve permits in advance for peace-of-mind. The cost is $5 per confirmed reservation, plus $5 for each individual in your group.
The most important information you need to keep in mind when planning your trip is the date of the start of your proposed backcountry hike. The earliest date you can submit an application for a wilderness permit is exactly 169 days before your proposed start date. You can submit your application at any time during that day, and they will be processed via a random lottery the following day, exactly 168 days (24 weeks) before the start date. While you can also submit applications after this date (and they will continue to be processed the following day), due to the popularity of the park most itineraries fill up entirely on that first deadline date – so put it in your calendar! You can use this page to help calculate the date for submitting your application.
If your application is successful, you will receive an email from (YOSE_Wilderness_Permits@nps.gov) with the details of your reservation, and a link to submit payment online. This email is not your permit! You will need to stop at a wilderness permit station at the park to grab your permit before starting your hike.
Before beginning the application, be sure to collect the following information:
- Hike start date (see above)
- Starting Trailhead
- 1st Night’s Camp Location
- Group Size
- Trip Leader Contact Information
- Hike End Date
- Ending Trailhead
The application has space for up to three proposed itineraries. It is important to provide alternatives to your first choice itinerary because of the popularity of some trailheads. To provide the starting/ending trailheads for your route, reference the park trailhead map. The “1st Night’s Camp Location” is to verify that your route matches your start/end trailhead selections. The description of this location does not need to be exact – just clear. For most of the park, you can camp wherever you like – provided you follow common-sense regulations. There a few exceptions – for itineraries near the five High Sierra Camps and in the Little Yosemite Valley area, hikers must camp at the designated campgrounds. See our itinerary below for an example.
If you have a wilderness permit, you can also spend one night before and after your hike in the backpackers campground.
Half Dome Permits
A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed to summit Half Dome each day – and all must have specific permits (don’t try to sneak by – there’s only one trail, and it’s monitored by a park ranger). About 225 of these Half Dome permits are allocated to day hikers (we won’t cover that process here – if interested, refer here). This leaves only 75 permits available for hikers on overnight trips! To apply for a Half Dome permit as part of your overnight/wilderness permit, you simply need to check a box on your application (see above) indicating that you’d like to hike Half Dome. Your proposed itinerary (starting and ending trailheads, etc.) needs to plausibly include a Half Dome summit attempt.
For general packing guidelines, see our post here where we outline our entire national parks road trip. Beyond these essentials for any overnight camping trip, there are a few items we’d like to highlight, specific to Yosemite.
- Alcohol: You are allowed to bring booze to your campsite! You just need to make sure it will fit into your bear can (see below).
- Bear spray: You are NOT allowed to bring bear spray into the park. This is because the Yosemite black bears are not dangerous, and encounters can be avoided by storing food in bear cans. According to the website, you are also not allowed to bring “implements designed to discharge missiles.”
- Gloves: If you are able to hike Half Dome, gloves are essential to protect your hands when climbing up and down the cables (see below). Some people will leave gloves at the base of the dome for others to use, but the park rangers will take them away (presumably to eliminate potential litter).
- Bug spray: This is a pretty common item – we just wanted to point out that the mosquitoes were terrible at our campsite (mid-June).
If you are camping in the wilderness (i.e., not at a designated campsite) you will need a “bear can” to store all of your food at night. These can be picked up at any of the ranger stations (we got ours at the station in Yosemite Valley). At the station, the rangers will make sure you know how to open and close the bear can – to make sure you’re “smarter than a bear” – so hopefully you’re sober enough to pass that test. A quick note on waste: everything needs to be packed out of the park … including toilet paper! Your “human waste” can be buried 6 inches deep, but be sure to bring a ziplock bag (or similar) to pack out your TP.
Entering and Parking
We entered Yosemite through the Wawona Tunnel. We won’t bother giving driving directions … everyone has a GPS or cell phone, right? Still – make sure you do drive through this tunnel, because one of the best views in the park is accessible at its east entrance: the Tunnel View (this is the cover image to our website!). Unfortunately, no matter the time of year, the little parking area next to the viewpoint is absolutely packed. Several buses will attempt to pull in, slowing down traffic. Do your best to stop! It’s entirely worth it, even if you’re elbow-to-elbow with several other tourists. You’ll have opportunities for solitude later while backpacking.
We intended to stop at a restaurant in the Yosemite Valley to grab a beer before starting our hike, but there were literally no parking spots available anywhere in the Village. The Valley only comprises 1% of the park’s total area, but the vast majority of visitors congregate here – for views of Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls.
Instead, we parked at the “Trailhead Parking” area – which does not service any trailheads directly, but is a large parking area with a shuttle stop. The free shuttle circles around the Yosemite Valley area and stops at the most popular trailheads. See the parking and shuttle route maps here. It is best to arrive at any parking area before 9am (especially on the weekend) because they fill up quickly. Overnight parking is allowed outside the village, while the visitor center only has 30-minute parking.
Hiking Day 1
We submitted a wilderness permit application on December 27, 2018 for our overnight hike beginning on June 13, 2019. Unfortunately, none of our three itineraries were successful in the lottery! However, we received a call from a park ranger the next day – who proposed a slight variation on one of our proposals. We recommend including this itinerary as one of your choices:
- Starting Trailhead: Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lake Pass Thru (1A on the trailhead map)
- 1st Night’s Camp Location: Beyond Little Yosemite Valley and Moraine Dome
- Ending Trailhead: Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley (1B on the trailhead map)
The other details (group size etc.) will depend on your group. We were successfully able to include a Half Dome permit as part of this itinerary. So, after parking at the Trailhead Parking lot, we took the shuttle one stop to #16 – the Nature Center at Happy Isles. From there, just a short walk required to find the trailhead of the Mist Trail. We reached the trailhead at about 4pm to start our hike.
The trail is extremely busy until you reach the first major waterfall (Vernal), as the trek is one of the most popular day hikes in the entire park. It is mostly paved – the most difficult part is avoiding small children running around. The path leading up to Vernal Fall becomes a long series of stone steps, and in most places, there is no guardrail between the trail and the river canyon. Peak flow for the Merced River is April-June (sometimes into July if there was a snowy winter), and while the water is rushing … you will get absolutely soaked on the trail. “Mist” is a bit of an understatement. Seriously, consider putting a rainfly over your backpack if you have one. It feels like you’re drowning while walking.
The Mist Trail is actually the most dangerous trail in the park, but this is because people attempt the ascent next to Vernal Fall in the winter, and slip into the canyon.
About 2 miles after Vernal Fall, you’ll meet the John Muir Trail. The junction has a small outhouse (if you’re desperate) and is just above Nevada Fall. We didn’t venture over to Nevada here, because we knew we’d be taking the John Muir Trail on the way down the next day. Instead – we continued uphill (on the John Muir Trail) towards the Little Yosemite Valley Campground. The crowds will thin out quite a bit, since only overnight campers continue past this point.
The trail forks just before the campground – make sure you stick to the left. The campground itself is quite large – this is where most people stay when summiting Half Dome on an overnight trip. There is another outhouse here and a manned ranger station (you wont pass either of them directly, but you can venture into the campground if you need to). We continued up the John Muir trail until we met the Half Dome Trail on the left, and then further until we reached the Sunrise Lakes Trail – again on the left.
If you follow our itinerary, this is the intersection that you need to reach before you can scout around for a dispersed campsite (“beyond Little Yosemite Valley and Moraine Dome”). We reached the intersection at 7:30pm – about 3.5 hours after beginning the hike, and about 30 minutes after being passed by a group of 55+ year old hikers … not a good morale boost.
At 7:30pm, we still had plenty of light to find a good campsite and make a fire. Beyond the intersection with Sunrise Lakes Trail, you can start to see fire pits (simple stone circles) to the left and right of the trail where previous groups have made their camps. We found a clearing between some trees, near an overlook – about 50 yards from the trail. A previous group had piled some stones against a larger boulder to make a fire pit with some shelter from the wind coming across the ridge.
We were lucky with the weather, in that there were plenty of dry sticks around the campsite for kindling, and dry logs we could stomp on for larger firewood. We recommend keeping the cardboard from your last 6-pack of beer cans to tear up for a fire starter. The fire serves four purposes:
1. Cooking dinner
2. Keeping warm when the sun goes down
3. Drying out stuff from your bag, after being drenched by the Mist Trail
4. Driving away the hordes, the apocalyptic swarms, the literally millions of mosquitoes
Dinner: boxed pasta and marinara sauce! In the end, we don’t recommend this meal – carrying enough water to boil pasta is not worth the weight while hiking. Sunrise Creek looks close on the map, but it is prohibitively far to source water, if you camp near our site.
Although approximately 20% lighter due to mosquito blood loss, we were able to enjoy the view and rest our feet for Half Dome the following morning.
Half Dome Summit
The next morning, we packed some day-bags with:
- Energy bars
- Light fleece layer
We packed up our tents, but left the rest of our gear (and large backpacks) at the campsite to shed some weight for the steep ascent. We had to backtrack for just a few minutes to reach the Half Dome Trail. Make sure you have your Half-Dome specific permit! The ranger on duty to check permits sets up about a third of the way up the trail.
One massive advantage of camping in our area is, due to proximity to the start of the Half Dome Trail, you can be one of the first to climb the cables on Half Dome! Aside from aesthetic advantages (not staring at someone else’s backside for the entire climb), this is a practical benefit: the ascent of Half Dome is incredibly steep. The cables are not only helpful – it is necessary to hold on with both hands while going up and down. The fewer people you have to navigate around, the better (and less frightening). These famous cables are only for the final 400 feet of the trail. It will feel a lot longer.
This is where the gloves are essential. Without them, you might tear up your hands a bit gripping onto the cables – especially on the way down, when you might find yourself sliding a bit. Good hiking shoes (not sneakers!) are also a must. The posts holding up the cables also hold up horizontal 2x4s, which are extremely helpful for resting while you wonder what total lunatic installed the posts in the first place.
Descending from Half Dome, we recommend taking the John Muir Trail, rather than the Mist Trail. This will allow you to pass by Nevada Fall and take in a few different views of the valley carved out by the Merced River. Also, the Mist Trail is a bit more treacherous (slippery) heading down, especially when you have to contend with mid-day crowds.
Exiting the Park
We left Yosemite via Rt. 140, which passes through Mariposa, CA after about an hour. Desperately hungry after our Half Dome summit, we were pleasantly surprised by the offerings in this small town and decided to stop for dinner and a few beers. Unfortunately, Eric got a bit flustered attempting to parallel park the car on the main street, with a line of park-goers waiting to pass. To this day, he blames the poor turning radius compared to his 2-door Jeep Wrangler. Regardless, the back right bumper of the car was torn to shreds.
Needless to say, we were immensely glad that we bought rental car insurance!
Our first stop was The Alley, which has an awesome tap list. We all ordered a beer and took a seat at the bar. However, before Eric could even open the gmail app on his phone to search for the rental car agreement (damage covered, hallelujah), Laj decided that:
- The Alley’s snack-heavy menu wasn’t suited for dinner
- The best way to speed up our departure was to down his beer as fast as humanly possible
Then, he had to sit doing nothing as Alex and Eric actually enjoyed their beers. Laj would like the reader to know that “In my defense, I was pretty hangry after hiking 6 miles, only eating one cliff bar all day, and I wanted a full meal.”
Nevertheless, this allowed a bit of time for google searching – and we drove down the street to the 1850 Restaurant and Brewery for dinner, which ended up being completely packed. Luckily, karma from the parking incident intervened, and 3 adjacent seats opened at the bar just as we arrived. We recommend the Hotshot Burger, if you can handle a bit of spice.
Yosemite was one of our favorite parks on our road trip. Although the crowds detracted from the experience, we were able to find seclusion (hiking outside of the valley) and some incredible views. Our stay was relatively short (we could have stayed at the backpackers campground the second night, but chose to continue on), but we believe you can experience the best of the park in 2 days.
- Plan your trip well in advance, because backcountry (“wilderness”) permits are reserved quickly
- Be mentally prepared for crowds and traffic until you reach more remote trails
- In addition to common backcountry camping items, bring gloves