Pronounced “Yo-SE-mi-tEE”, this paradise quickly becomes the highlight of many Escapee adventures. And while Yosemite is an incredible destination, it’s important not to forget about the journey – especially when making it in one of our deluxe campervans! We’ll start our San Francisco to Yosemite National Park itinerary at our San Francisco Campervan Rental Depot and point out our favorite stops along the way.
Distance: 160+ miles (97+ km)
Time: 3.5+ hours (without stops)
San Francisco, CA
San Francisco, CA
California Windmill Farm
East of Livermore, you’ll start heading into the Diablo Range. Here, you’ll find approximately 4,800 wind turbines that churn out over one-million terawatt-hours of energy per year. It’s difficult to get close to the windmills, but the Altamont Pass exit slowly winds up to the crest of the range where the full extent of the project reveals itself.
Bass Pro Shop
Bass Pro Shop in Manteca is basically a Wal-Mart solely devoted to hunting, fishing, and all things outdoorsy in America. This retail establishment might sound like a strange roadside attraction, but it’s a definite don’t-miss if you’re interested in seeing what a $50,000 bass boat looks like, or if you’re curious about the depth and breadth of gun offerings in the USA. On 580 East, take exit 5 then circle back around to the right. You’ll see the place from the highway.
Iron Door Saloon
As one of California’s oldest operating bars, the Iron Door in Groveland is not to be missed. The walls are adorned with 1840’s gold rush memorabilia, the bar is well-stocked with artisan whiskeys, and the ceiling is plastered with thousands of one-dollar bills left there by decades of inebriated patrons. Join their ranks by landing a buck on the ceiling, then fill out your invitation to their annual “Dollar Party” celebration.
Old Highway 120 (also known as Old Priest Road)
East of Don Pedro Lake, you’ll begin the dramatic incline up the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas. As you start to head up the hill, you’ll see a sign off to the right pointing toward Old Highway 120. Go up this road (do NOT go down it as you will likely burn out the brakes). It’s quite possibly the steepest utilized highway in California and a definite nail-biter for people with a fear of heights. This short side road will save you 10 minutes by taking you straight up the mountain instead of the main route which, meanders up and around the canyon.
California Road Trip Tips
Buy Produce Directly from the Source
Once you’ve driven east of a little town called Manteca, you’re in the famous Central Valley of California. This area, combined with the San Joaquin Valley just south of here, is where a large portion of the fruits and vegetables that grace North American dinner tables every day come from. This area is jam-packed with farms sporting almond trees, apple trees, strawberry fields, orange groves, and just about any other fruit, vegetable, or nut you can think of. Stop off at one of the local produce stands and ask what’s in season. If the pluots are in season, you’re definitely in luck!
Best Roadside Market
Denise’s Farmer’s Market, between the towns of Manteca and Escalon on Highway 120.
Get Your Firewood Before You Hit the Sierra Nevadas
While you’re browsing the produce stands taste testing local strawberries and almonds, don’t forget to buy a couple bundles of firewood. It can get pretty expensive in National Parks – especially during tourist season – so it’s better to purchase the initial fuel while you can on the cheap. A typical bundle costs somewhere in the range of $6-$10 USD.
We buy our wood at an unnamed farm east of the small town of Oakdale. Look for the hand-painted sign that says “firewood.”
Fuel Up Before you Get into the Park
Due to National Park regulations, there is no gasoline (petrol) for sale within Yosemite, Kings Canyon, or Sequoia, so you’ll need to fill up before you head into the park. There are gas stations located just outside the park boundary, although their prices are exorbitant. When driving to Yosemite on Highway 120, fill up in either Oakdale or Groveland.
During the winter of 1847, a wagon train known as the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism after becoming helplessly trapped in a Sierra Nevada snowstorm. Lesson: Gearing up is important!
A visit to Yosemite National Park can be the trip of a lifetime. But with over 4 million tourists a year, this place is most definitely not off-the-beaten-track and a lack of planning might lessen the awesomeness of your experience. We’ll leave it to the travel blogs to provide the full rundown on how to make the most of a Yosemite trip and stick with several of our tried and tested ways to beat the crowds.
Read our blog on finding camping in Yosemite here.
Park the campervan and rent a bike. They’re pretty cheap and it’s the best (some say only) way to get around the crowds during high season.
If you didn’t book a campsite in Yosemite Valley in advance (Upper, Middle or Lower Pines Campgrounds), stick with the first-come-first-serve campgrounds along Highway 120, also known as Tioga Pass Road. Escape favorites include White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, and Tamarack Flat. Up on Glacier Point Road is another truly epic first-come campground named Bridalveil Creek. You can’t go wrong with any of these and, by staying here, you’ll avoid the madness that is Yosemite Valley. Read more camping tips here.
Skip the tourist crowds as they head up the Nevada/Vernal Falls Trail and come DOWN it instead. Here’s the game plan: Leave your vehicle in Curry Village, take the free public transit bus to Glacier Point, jump out and hike back to your campervan via the Panorama Trail. Get an early start as this is a full-day commitment. Bring lots of water, snacks and some sturdy shoes.
Best Side Trip
While there is a multitude of things to do in Yosemite Valley, driving about an hour south to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias provides a different–and equally rewarding–experience.
Yosemite Park Pass vs. National Park Pass
Once you pull up to the Yosemite National Park entrance, you have a few options to get into the park:
For $35, you can purchase a single vehicle pass (any number of occupants can be in a vehicle) which will enable you to enter and exit the park for 7 days.
At $70, you can purchase an annual pass for Yosemite
For $80, you can purchase an annual National Parks Pass that covers all future National Park admission fees for the next 12 months. If you’re planning on visiting more than 3-4 National Parks, this is the best deal.
Remember, US military personnel and kids in 4th grade get in FREE!