Trip Report: Yosemite National Park
Updated: Aug 5
May 17 – 26, 2017
What do you get when you cross three hours of frustrating phone calls with five hours of tedious internet searches?
Nine days at Yosemite.
When creating our itinerary, I set aside 10 days to explore Yosemite. Although I really wanted to stay in the park, I couldn’t find any sites with availability for more than two days even though I’d begun my online search six months in advance. I kept checking back routinely but the recreation.gov site was swimming in a sea of Rs. Literally every single site was reserved. So we settled for boondocking in the woods outside the park for the first four nights, and I was able to snag reservations at a campground just outside the park (Summerdale) for the last six. But a few days before we were set to leave for Yosemite, our Summerdale reservation fell through. That’s all I’ll say since I already talked about it in the last post. But what I didn’t mention last time is how much time Wendy and I spent trying to find somewhere to camp.
While still in Sequoia, we managed to book the first couple of nights at Yosemite while perched atop a turnout on Generals Highway where a cell signal suddenly appeared. The next day, we drove about 10 miles (20 minutes) from our campsite to the library so we could use wifi to check the recreation.gov site. But the library was closed. I spent the next two hours—mostly on hold—with various customer service representatives, explaining we’d take anything in the park, even if it meant we had to move campgrounds every night.
“Due to high call volume,” it took about 20 minutes for someone to answer the phone. The representative listened to what I needed, asked me to hold for a minute, and then…
“Thank you for calling recreation.gov.” I had been kicked back to the beginning of the line, where I waited for another 20 minutes before the next representative answered. Her name was Hope, and when I explained what had just happened, she said I had probably scared the other person off. So I re-explained our situation and Hope felt pretty certain she could work it out. But then, “Everything is reserved. There’s not a single A [available]. But I’ll tell you what. You’re so nice and accommodating—there’s got to be something we can do. I’m gonna call the host over at Upper Pines—they’re nice there—and see if anyone is on the ‘pending cancellation’ list.”
Great! I thought. And then I heard it—the dreaded dead space and then a dial tone.
I called back again. “Thank you for calling recreation.gov. Due to high call volume.…” Thirty minutes passed before someone answered—Serena. I explained that I had just gotten cut off accidentally and asked if I could speak with Hope.
“Umm, I’m not sure who you think you called but this is the recreation.gov sales line.”
“Yes,” I explained. “I’m aware who I called.” I re-explained, using slightly different phrasing, that I had already been through this with Hope and would like to speak with her.
“Well, I’m on the line now,” she said, “and I can help you.”
“Are you telling me that this is a big call center and you don’t know the people who work here, so you can’t connect me with Hope?”
“Yes,” she answered. After a deep, internal sigh, I explained our situation for the third time. “Can I put you on hold for a minute?” she asked.
This time I didn’t get kicked back to the beginning of the queue. Instead, Serena came on the line again and said “I’ve confirmed that you were speaking with Hope in Customer Service. I’ll transfer you now.”
“Thank you for calling recreation.gov. Due to high call volume….”
I let the timer reach 30 minutes before I finally hung up, seething, the antithesis of a happy camper.
The next day, I drove to the library when it was open, laptop in hand, determined to do my own damn internet searches. I had a bad association with that building now, but the friendly librarian turned it all around. Without my even having to ask, she gave me their wifi password and showed me where to find a comfy chair and an outlet. I settled in, went to the recreation.gov website, set up a search for any campground in Yosemite, and just kept hitting the refresh button. For four hours.
As a result, we snagged a few more reservations. One night here, a couple of nights there. After we left Sequoia—on our way to Yosemite, Wendy used the mobile site while in the car when we had a cell signal.
Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. “Oh! You’ll never believe what I just got!” It was like playing the slots.
In the end, we managed to finagle a pretty nice itinerary—two nights at Hogdon Meadow, one night at Upper Pines, two nights at North Pines, then back to Hogdon Meadow for four nights. Although we had to keep switching campgrounds, we never had to move to a different campsite while in a campground.
Hogdon Meadow May 17 – 18 Site #6
We arrived a little before noon to our very pretty but very uneven site. Fortunately we had stopped by Camping World on the way and picked up a pack of 10 leveling blocks, just in case we needed them. We used all 10 and got to see, for the first time, just how high our stabilizing jacks will go.
When purchasing items for the trailer, I stayed away from leveling blocks because I didn’t think I’d be able to back the trailer onto them. I figured just trying to get the thing into a space would be hard enough. But as it turns out, these are really easy to use! If we’d had them at Joshua Tree, food wouldn’t have been falling out of the refrigerator. And had we had them at Sequoia, where we were tilted the other way, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the glass stove cover crashing down.
Here, for the first time, in our by-the-seat-of-our-pants site, we successfully made ourselves level. Then Wendy filled up our six-gallon water jug because the nearest dump station is more than 20 miles away in Yosemite Valley, which is about a two-hour mountainous drive with the trailer.
The day after we arrived, we got our passbooks stamped at the Visitor’s Center across the road and asked whether there was anywhere to fish nearby. Hogdon Meadow is less than a mile inside the Big Flat Oak entrance to the park, and the ranger explained there’s decent fishing a couple of miles outside the park on the way to Hetch Hetchy. So we drove there and I broke out my fishing rod for the first time. The Merced River has quite a current and is very clear. I could literally see there were no fish, but since I’ve never actually caught a fish, that wasn’t much of a deterrent. I spent about 20 minutes poking around before we returned to the campground.
Hogdon Meadow, though very pretty, is far from the main tourist attractions in Yosemite Valley. So we hung out in camp for the rest of the day. This presented Darwin with an opportunity to meet her first fuzzy caterpillar. She immediately claimed it as a pet, letting it crawl on her hand and arm, and she needed some comforting when we released it back into the forest.
Upper Pines May 19 Site #174
Ahh, Upper Pines. In the heart of Yosemite Valley and where we may have been able to stay longer had Hope been more adept at putting people on hold.
In addition to being close to everything, this campground has a dump/fill station. And it’s beautiful—set against a backdrop of mountains and pine trees, with the Merced River rushing by. I’ll venture to say you’d have a hard time finding a prettier place to dump your poo.
So, three cheers for Upper Pines… right?
As soon as we entered the campground we were struck by how cramped and crowded it was. Our site was level though, and we were able to remain hitched to the car for a quick exit since the space was long enough and our planned activities were within walking distance. We also had a creek running through the back of our site and the mountain views were amazing.
Everyone thought so—the kids who played right behind us in the creek as we ate dinner at the picnic table, the adults who kept traipsing by as I played with the kids. No privacy, no respect for campsite boundaries. There seem to be a lot of rules in camping and I’ve never seen a sign posted directing people to stay out of other people’s sites. So maybe I’m being too possessive of the little patch I rented. But to me it seems like common decency to respect other people’s boundaries.
So those were my big frustrations with Upper Pines: Loud. Busy. Impolite.
The pluses? Prettiest dump/fill station award. Non-people-related scenery. Cool creek to play in. And walking distance to Half Dome Village, Yosemite Village, the Vernal Falls Trail, and the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail.
After settling into our space, we popped the kids in their stroller and explored Half Dome Village—a bustling activity center that felt more like a college campus than a national park. There was a mountaineering school, mini mart/gift shop, Peet’s Coffee, pizzeria, and bar. The village itself had more than 1,000 housing units, most of which looked like white MASH tents. We spent as little time as possible here and didn’t like the vibe, but did appreciate the opportunity to stock up on a few groceries.
We got up early on our first and only morning at Upper Pines, loaded the kids in their backpacks, and hiked up to Vernal Falls. If you ever read that it’s an easy hike, don’t believe it. I—and the hundred-or-so other people huffing and puffing, hiking poles in hand—will attest to its difficulty. The substrate is easy (pavement) but the steep, consistent incline makes it a real workout.
When we returned to camp, I let the kids get filthy playing in a creek for the first time in their lives, and we all took showers and put on clean clothes. We returned to the dump/fill station on our way out then drove less than a mile to our next campground.
North Pines May 20 – 21 Site #503
We overestimated how long it would take us to get to our site, so for the first time we arrived before the previous tenant had left. Wendy approached the camper to see if he was planning to leave, because it was half an hour until check-out time and his stuff was still strewn about; we wanted to make sure there wasn’t a mix-up. He took offense, feeling as though we were trying to rush him out before his time had expired. And we suspected that he may now feel required to eke out every last minute due to the nerve of those people.
We pulled past his site but didn’t have anywhere to park our car/trailer combo, so just waited, blocking the one-way campground road and hoping no one would come by. We sat there for about 20 minutes before he finally left—still before he was required to do so, so I can’t knock him for it.
Oh, site #503.
I tried to back into this site for an hour, foiled by the acute angle around a tree without the ability to pull forward due to concrete curbs lining the one-way road. To envision the difficulty of this space, hold your left hand up like an L, palm facing outward. Then move your pointer finger to the right to close the gap halfway. Then imagine trying to back a trailer around your pointer finger into the space between your finger and thumb. It was ri-dic-u-lous.
“I can’t do this one,” I huffed to Wendy. “I think we have to leave.”
“Where will we go?” she asked. “The campground is full.”
“I know,” I said. “But I can’t get in here.” I pictured us reverting to our original plan—driving for two hours to boondock in the woods outside the Big Oak Flat entrance for a couple of nights.
By this time, my failed attempts had garnered quite a bit of attention. Empathetic folks had been offering advice for the past half hour. A fellow camper, trying to return to his site, had been stuck behind us for quite some time. When Wendy went to apologize to him, he said it was no biggie and took our problem on as his own.
And he was a genius.
“Have you considered trying to pull through?” he asked. The space at the back of our site between a big tree and curb appeared to be juuuuuust about the width of our trailer. “You might have to jump the curb a bit, but I think you could do it with those big tires.”
Had this suggestion arisen 20 minutes before, I probably would’ve brushed it off as too risky. But at this point, it sounded like the only way we’d be able to do this. So I drove around the whole campground for the fifth time, determined to finally solve this problem. As I approached our site, I did my best to angle the trailer to clear both obstacles. But I could see as I progressed that we were about six inches wider than the available space. The left trailer tire scraped the base of the tree as the right approached the curb, and I knew there was no choice—up we go! So I went as slowly as I could, while still going fast enough to ensure we’d clear it.
Up, bounce, down, done.
Mission accomplished, we ate cheese sandwiches then headed out to explore Yosemite Village and the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. This trip was only supposed to be a few miles total, but ended up doubling due to road construction. Yes, here in Yosemite, even pedestrians are significantly impacted by road work!
Wendy summed it up pretty well: Yosemite is the Disneyland of national parks. This is by far the most naturally beautiful park we’ve visited so far: waterfalls everywhere, unique rock formations, abundant forests, stunning valleys, a bright blue sky. But it’s the least peaceful because there are just so – many – people.
We’re trying not to let that get to us, though. We really enjoyed our walk, along with at least a hundred other people, to Lower Yosemite Falls. Hearing the kids laugh as the crashing water sprayed them was priceless; Emerson even developed a “waterfall wiggle” he broke into each time we passed the spray.
The following day, we set off with the kids in the stroller again to our last destination while here at North Pines—Mirror Lake. This was an easy, paved, two-mile there-and-back visit. As we approached the lake, we were both struck by how green and stagnant it appeared. Mirror Swamp, I thought. And so many mosquitoes. But we stayed a while and kept looking, and it was worth it. Sure, it isn’t a lake I’d like to dip my toe in. But its stillness is what makes it so cool. It really did clearly reflect the mountains and trees surrounding it. Wendy and I took a bunch of pictures, unable to tell if they were any good at the time on account of the glare. But back at home, in the low light of the trailer, we were reminded what a cool lake it really is and how lucky we are to have seen it.
The next morning, we realized we’d had one more occupant in our trailer overnight—a mosquito. Darwin is apparently the most tasty tot, as she had seven bites on her face. Her right cheek looked like Orion’s Belt. Wendy, the next-tastiest prey, had a few bites, and Emerson and I each walked away virtually unscathed, with just one bite each.
That wasn’t all nature had in store for us, though. When Wendy returned from walking the dogs around the campground (as she does each morning, at each campground), she reported several path closures due to flooding. The Merced River had risen overnight and it turns out that even if our reservation hadn’t ended, we would’ve had to leave anyway. The rangers were clearing our loop and many other sites near the river due to the threat of flooding. We immediately felt bad for anyone whose reservations had just been canceled at the last minute, leaving them nowhere to camp, struggling against a current of Rs, at the mercy of recreation.gov customer service.
Hogdon Meadow May 22 – 26 Site #89
We’re ending our trip where it began: in Hogdon Meadow. This place doesn’t feel like Yosemite to me—it just feels like we’re in a forest. It could be any forest. So in a way I feel like our Yosemite trip ended when we fled North Pines. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad we were able to book here. We may be at least 90 minutes from anything we want to see, but that’s closer than we would’ve been if we’d stayed outside the park.
Our site is also nicer this time—still super uneven, but big enough to erect the R-Dome and it’s right by the bathroom. Normally I wouldn’t like that, but since there’s no dump station and nowhere to wash dishes, it’s actually pretty handy to have the bathroom so close.
There’s also a really good stump surrounded by sawdust that the kids love to play with. Darwin, fascinated by her first encounter with the soft, flaky substance, routinely carries a handful to the picnic table, drops it on the bench, then wipes it off. Return to the stump and repeat. Once she decided to drop it directly on top of her head, where the sawdust quickly nestled into its new home.
We spent our last couple of days doing that kind of stuff—just hanging out, getting dirty and staying that way. But we did venture to Glacier Point, which was stunning. I’m sure the 300 other people who were there would agree! It was completely worth the two-hour drive along winding roads, a fair portion of which was really, really crappy with deep potholes. This is the first attraction where we experienced a parking shortage so severe it forced a line of cars to idle along the mountain for a good half hour, pointing downward, overlooking the parking lot we all aspired to enter.
We dealt with it though and tried to look at it as an opportunity to charge our devices. When dry camping, driving isn’t just a way to get somewhere—it’s an opportunity. Traffic? That’s alright. My phone/clock/camera is only at 80%.
That pretty much sums up our whole trip to Yosemite: kind of a pain but worth it. I’m not interested in coming here again—not because of the park but because of all the people. I realize we’re part of the problem; we crammed ourselves into recently-vacated campsites and stayed in the park for nine days. For me to consider this a nice place to stay, I’d want to cut the number of people by at least two-thirds. But if those limits were in place, we wouldn’t have been able to come here at all. So the question becomes Would I rather this be a peaceful place I’d never seen?
No. I’m glad we had an opportunity to experience Yosemite, crowds and all.
Read the next trip report: San Andreas and Folsom Lake