Don’t Have Reservations? Here’s How to Find Camping in Yosemite
5 million people visited Yosemite in 2016. That means that you’re vying for camping spots with a lot of other people. Ideally, you’ll book your campsites months in advance at www.reserveamerica.com, and then you won’t have to worry about it. For those of us who like to live life on the edge, it is possible to find epic, legal camping in Yosemite National Park without booking a reservation early on–you just need to know where to look.
Here at Escape, we’re last-minute specialists and have figured out all the best ways to secure a site when planning ahead just isn’t an option. With as little as 24 hours of preparation, you can be roasting marshmallows and enjoying a cold one around the campfire.
Of course, we can’t guarantee that these methods will work, so try them at your own risk! Visit our blog on when to book national park campsites for the summer for tips on booking in advance.
For ease of use, we’ve included two maps in this overview: the one above is a listing of all campsites within Yosemite National Park. The sites along Highway 120—including White Wolf and Yosemite Creek—have plenty of first-come, first-served campsites. Yosemite Valley, on the other hand, only has reserved campgrounds that book up to 6 months in advance during the summer months.
Tips for camping in Yosemite Valley
If you must stay in Yosemite Valley – where 99% of all tourists want to stay – there is a slim chance you’ll be able to find a site. But it’ll be worth it if you do, as you’ll have a lot less driving during your visit, meaning more time for adventures.
Most people book their Yosemite campsite reservations months in advance of their travel date. This is great news for non-planners because some of these people don’t show up to claim their reservation.
Here’s how you get it:
- Stay outside the park in a Forest Service camping site near the entrance of Yosemite National Park.
- Get up at 5:30 am and drive to the Campground Reservations building in the heart of Yosemite Valley. (It’s a small, wooden structure with a bulletin board to the left of it.)
- Wait in line until they open and put your name on the waiting list for a campsite.
- Enjoy your day in Yosemite.
- Come back in the afternoon to (hopefully) hear your name called for a campsite.
You may have heard of this spot, as it’s where some of the best rock climbers in the world tend to camp out. Located in Yosemite Valley, this hike-in campground is solely for people prepared to sleep in tents or on the ground (do NOT sleep in the parking lot, as you will definitely get caught).
Camping Outside of Yosemite Valley (first-come, first served)
- Show up when people are leaving. This applies to all first-come first-served campgrounds within and just outside Yosemite National Park. Note: campgrounds in Yosemite Valley are NOT first-come, first-served.
- Get there between 9 and 10 am and scope out the campsites looking for likely candidates that are packing up. Ask if they’re taking off, and slide in like a champ if they are. It’d be nice to give them a beer or two as thanks for the insider information.
Campgrounds Inside Yosemite National Park
You won’t be right in Yosemite Valley, but this is your next best bet.
- White Wolf: Great campground located on Highway 120 west of Tioga Pass. Higher altitude makes for nice, cool evenings.
- Tamarack Flat: The tight, windy road weeds out the full-size RV crew. Closer to the valley than other non-valley sites. This is an Escape favorite.
- Yosemite Creek on Highway 120: One lane road that goes for several miles, meaning few to no RVs, which means awesome. Drive slow, take your time, and thank us later. (Remember, your insurance is void on roads that are not maintained, so this is at your own risk.)
- Bridalveil Creek: Located on Glacier Point Road, this is a truly spectacular non-valley campground. It has plenty of sites and makes a great jump off point for several epic hikes.
- Tuolumne Meadows: Most people think this is a reservation-only campground, but it also has some first-come sites. Get there early if you’re dead set on staying there.
Campgrounds Just Outside Of Yosemite National Park
Within an hour from each Yosemite National Park entrance, there are several campgrounds operated by the State Parks or private individuals. Here’s a list of some Escape-approved campgrounds outside of the park.
Highway 120 (West of Yosemite)
- Pine Mountain: Groveland, CA. (209)962-8615. 47 miles from Yosemite Village.
- Yosemite Lakes: Groveland, CA. (209)962-0103. 47 miles from Yosemite Village.
Highway 120 (East of Yosemite)
All campgrounds on this side of the Sierras near Yosemite are all first-come-first-serve. You should be fine getting a site by just showing up. If not, see Dispersed Camping Rules below.
- Big Bend Campground: 3 miles west of Lee Vining, the campground is on the right (9 miles east of Tioga Pass).
- Ellery Lake Campground: 10 miles west of Lee Vining (2 miles east of Tioga Pass in Yosemite). Nice spot.
- Tioga Lake Campground: 11 miles west of Lee Vining (1 mile east of Tioga Pass)
- June Lakes Region: 13 miles south of Lee Vining on Hwy 120/395. This is a great place to camp. Many campgrounds. Rarely crowded. Mosquitos mid-summer.
Highway 140 (Southwest of Yosemite)
- Yosemite West/Mariposa KOA. (209)966-2432. Not very aesthetically pleasing but it works in a bind. 37 miles to Yosemite Village.
- Yosemite Trail Camp. (209)966-6444. 37 miles from Yosemite Village.
Highway 41 (South of Yosemite)
Most of these campgrounds are first-come, first-serve. Look up Fishcamp Camping for State Park camping sites
- High Sierra RV Park: (559)683-7662
- Forks Campground: (559)642-3212
Dispersed Camping Rules
It is legal to car camp within any National Forest Land within the United States. As a general rule, most National Parks are surrounded by National Forests (Zion National Park is one exception). Any standard state map and road atlas will define National Forest Land in light green. Dark green typically highlights National Parks – make sure you can see the difference.
- No fires without a permit from the National Forest Ranger Station. They’re free.
- No ground tents can be deployed.
- You must be 200 meters off the main highway
- If it says Private Property, do not camp there.
Read our full guide to dispersed camping.
As you can imagine, our staff at the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas depots are very knowledgeable about this topic. Give them a ring at 877-270-8267, and pick their brains when you arrive to pick up your camper van rental.
Visiting Grand Canyon National Park? Visit our blog on how to find camping at the Grand Canyon without reservations. And while you’re making your camping reservations, don’t forget to book your campervan for the busy season.