10 Ways to See Yosemite Without the Crowds

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. Photo courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. Photo by DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
By Eric Peterson

Home to a half-mile-high waterfall and the world's biggest slab of exposed granite (El Capitan), Yosemite Valley is the centerpiece of Yosemite National Park (www.nps.gov/yose). With all of the superlatives come the crowds; some 3 million people visit the valley each year. That amounts to 95% of all Yosemite visitors, whereas the valley occupies only 1% of the park's 1,169 square miles.

But the wilderness does not end at valley's edge -- in many ways, that's where it starts. The alpine paradise of Tuolumne Meadows, the pine forests dotted with stands of giant sequoias, crystalline lakes and precipitous waterfalls -- these are all sights you can have all to yourself, if you're willing to lace up a pair of hiking boots and break a sweat.

Photo Caption: Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. Courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
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The South Lawn at Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park. Kenny Karst/DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. Photo by Kenny Karst/DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
Of the park's lodging options, the Ahwahnee Hotel is the most storied, the most luxurious, and the most expensive (rooms from $450).

On the other end of the spectrum are complexes of spartan canvas tent-cabins scattered around the park (tent-cabins from about $90); in between, you'll find the very Victorian Wawona Hotel (rooms from $148) and the more modern Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (rooms from $192).

Be aware that the in-park accommodations book up early in peak season; it's best to make reservations as far in advance as possible.

Photo Caption: The South Lawn at Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park. Courtesy Kenny Karst/DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
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The plaza of the Evergreen Lodge at dusk. Courtesy Jae Feinberg Photo by Jae Feinberg
The least trafficked park entrance has one of the best lodging options outside park boundaries, the Evergreen Lodge. Featuring renovated historic cabins, slick new cabins, and "Custom Camping" campsites (they supply the gear), the Evergreen Lodge is a good pick for couples and families alike. Beyond the lodge, the road enters the park before it ends at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a crowd-free choice for a day hike or a backpacking trip.

Long reviled by environmentalists, the reservoir is a source of drinking water for San Francisco and the site of one of the few dams in any U.S. national park. But it's difficult to vilify Hetch Hetchy's waterfalls and sublime surroundings. Another recommended lodging in the vicinity: the perfectly off-the-beaten-track cabins at the Sunset Inn, located just outside the Big Oak Flat Entrance on the park's west side.

More Info: www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hetchhetchy.htm

Photo Caption: The plaza of the Evergreen Lodge at dusk. Courtesy Jae Feinberg
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The six-person Barn Studio at Yosemite Bug. Courtesy Douglas Shaw Photo by Douglas Shaw
Known simply as "The Bug," this is one of the best Yosemite-gateway outposts for travelers on any budget. Evolving from a bare-bones hostel, the place now has modern motel-style rooms, tent-cabins, a spa, an excellent (and affordable) restaurant, plus a swimming hole.

Located 22 miles outside the Arch Rock Entrance to the park on the road to Mariposa, the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort & Spa is convenient to those who want to park their car for the duration of their trip: Get on a bus on the Yosemite Area Regional Transit System (www.yarts.com) stop out front and you can get to your trailhead sans car, allowing you to focus on the views instead of the traffic.

More Info: www.yosemitebug.com

Photo Caption: The six-person Barn Studio at Yosemite Bug. Courtesy Douglas Shaw
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Vernal Falls from near the Nevada Falls cutoff in Yosemite National Park. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/72213316@N00/4690253856/" target="_blank">Alaskan Dude/Flickr.com</a>. Photo by Alaskan Dude
The aptly named Mist Trail to Vernal Fall is one of the most popular hikes in the park, and deservedly so: The first leg nets you a nice view of the waterfall without much effort, or you can continue up 500 steps through the mist to the mouth of the falls and the idyllic pools and beaches above. But only a fraction of hikers tack on the extra three miles (six miles round-trip) to Nevada Fall, where you'll pretty much have the view to yourself.

More Info: www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/valleyhikes.htm

Photo Caption: Vernal Falls from near the Nevada Falls cutoff in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Alaskan Dude/Flickr.com
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Cathedral Peak from the start of the trail in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/72213316@N00/3030330125/" target="_blank">Alaskan Dude/Flickr.com</a>. Photo by Alaskan Dude
Of the hikes in Yosemite's high country from Tuolumne Meadows, the hikes to the Cathedral Lakes are near the top of the list. With the profile of Cathedral Peak as a backdrop, Lower Cathedral Lake is a perfectly serene place for a picnic before tackling the last leg of the hike to Upper Cathedral Lake. The hike (seven miles round-trip) is moderately difficult.

More Info: www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/trailheads.htm

Photo Caption: Cathedral Peak from the start of the trail in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park. Photo by Alaskan Dude/Flickr.com
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Mono Lake, California. Photo by <a href="http://www.frommers.com/community/user_gallery_detail.html?plckPhotoID=ba6730db-9719-4d35-8e48-85d5bc491fe8&plckGalleryID=c0482941-0d2d-4cca-b8c4-809ee9e20c72" target="_blank">DickandJane/Frommers.com Community</a>. Photo by Frommers.com Community
After Tioga Road opens (likely mid-June after a whopper of a winter in 2011), the dinky town of Lee Vining is a worthy base for budget travelers (check out the El Mono Motel). Lee Vining is also a highly recommended stopover for two world-class attractions: Mono Lake, with its unforgettable tufa formations jutting through its blue surface, and the Whoa Nellie Deli (www.whoanelliedeli.com) at the Toga Gas Mart, undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in a gas station -- lobster taquitos, anyone?

More Info:
www.leevining.com

Photo Caption: Mono Lake, California. Photo by DickandJane/Frommers.com Community
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Polly Dome Lake, Yosemite National Park. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/72213316@N00/3022964465/" target="_blank">Alaskan Dude/Flickr.com</a>. Photo by Alaskan Dude
An easy day hike, the 13-mile round-trip to Polly Dome Lake is a trek less taken. From the trailhead near Tenaya Lake off Tioga Road, you meander through rocky terrain past a series of lakes to the beacon of Polly Dome. The lakes are perfect spots for picnics or -- for the more adventurous -- backcountry camping.

More Info: tel. 209/372-0200

Photo Caption: Polly Dome Lake, Yosemite National Park. Photo by Alaskan Dude/Flickr.com
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Saddle Tip on the John Muir Trail. Photo courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. Photo by DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
The John Muir Trail starts in Yosemite Valley and ends 211 miles later at the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. You can spend a mile or a month on it -- the latter is in the ballpark of how long it takes to hike the entire length. But if you don't have several weeks to spare, think about taking the loop up Lyell Canyon out of the park into the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, then cutting off the trail and over strenuous Koip Pass before reentering Yosemite at Parker Pass, a good three-day backpacking trip.

More Info: www.johnmuirtrail.org

Photo Caption: Saddle Tip on the John Muir Trail. Photo courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Photo courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. Photo by DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
Near the park's south entrance and Wawona, 500 giant sequoia trees make up Mariposa Grove. Among the largest singular organisms on the planet, sequoias can top 300 feet in height and live to be more than 3,000 years old. At Mariposa Grove, you can see some of the big trees from the parking lot, but take more time to hike the 0.8 miles up to the Grizzly Giant. Not up for the hike? You can buy a ticket and take the tram tour up the 500 feet of elevation gain and listen to an audio tour on the way.

More Info:
www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit

Photo Caption: Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
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Hiking Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. Photo by DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
Taking in the splendor of Yosemite Valley from within is overwhelming; gazing at from afar is an equally rewarding experience. There is no better overlook than Glacier Point, where you're eye-to-eye with Half Dome and the other features that tower above the valley floor. Here, you can take in the view as a singular panorama rather than one that spans several snapshots. Glacier Point is a 45-minute drive from Yosemite Valley; you can also take a guided bus tour.

More Info: www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/glacierpoint.htm

Photo Caption: Hiking Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park. Courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
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