How to Car Camp in Yosemite National Park

Want to know how to snag a campground at one of the most popular national parks? Read on to see how a little bit of advance planning (or, no planning whatsoever) can help you score a coveted campground.

The Campgrounds

  • Yosemite Valley: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines ($26/night), Camp 4 ($6/person/night)
  • North of Yosemite Valley: Hodgdon Meadow, Crane Flat, Tuolumne Meadows ($26/night), White Wolf ($18/night), Tamarack Flat, Porcupine Flat, Yosemite Creek ($12/night)
  • South of Yosemite Valley: Wawona ($26/night), Bridalveil Creek ($18/night)

Note: Campground prices may vary during the year, depending on the season. For accurate nightly costs, visit this page and click on the campground you are interested in for detailed camp info.

 Wawona Campground, Loop A

Wawona Campground, Loop A

Tips & Tricks

Avoid The High Season & Holidays

I know, I know, this is limiting. And while it is true that only 4 of 11 campgrounds are open, less people are coming to the park. For reference, I consider November - April to be the "off-season" (based on NPS Visitation Statistics), though campground opening and closing dates vary drastically according to park conditions.

So, what are my options during the off-season? 

  1. Upper Pines (Yosemite Valley)
  2. Camp 4 (Yosemite Valley)
  3. Hodgdon Meadow (Hwy 120 Entrance)
  4. Wawona (Hwy 41 Entrance/ Wawona)

All of the above, except for Camp 4, are drive-in campsites and allow RVs, so you can have a classic car camping experience. Camp 4 is walk-in only, which means you cannot drive your car up to your campsite. There is a gravel parking area near the Camp 4 reservation booth, so you can still have access to your car, but you have to carry all of your gear to your campsite. I consider Camp 4 as more "front-country backpacking". It's best if you bring smaller tents, and more portable camp stoves.

Camp 4, Hodgdon Meadow, and Wawona are all first-come, first-served during this time (Camp 4 is always first-come, first-served). At Hodgdon Meadow and Wawona, you'll obtain a spot by driving to the campground, finding an open spot, and then by filling out a self-registration envelope (bring exact change). You can fill one envelope out for your whole stay. There's no need to fill one out every day. Camp 4 in the winter time is also self-registration based (unclear on the NPS "winter" dates but probably around November-February), however the campground operates on a per person quota. You may have to share a campsite with 5 other strangers, and group members can be split up among campsites. When Camp 4 isn't self-registration based, there is a kiosk you must line up at to get a campsite.

What about Upper Pines? Upper Pines is a little different than the rest. You can reserve parts of Upper Pines (specifically, sites 1-94) during the off-season up to 6 months in advance, while campground sites 95-124 operate on a first-come, first-served basis. This is only applicable during the off-season, which is usually December 1st-March 31st. To get a first-come, first-served campsite, you should go to the Campground Reservation kiosk that is near Curry Village/ Half Dome Village (at the very back of a large gravel parking area).

No matter which campground you choose, showing up early will always work better for you, especially in the shoulder months (October/ November, March/April). Even though it's the off-season, and campground check-out time is noon, Yosemite is still very popular, and you will have to put in a little effort to get a campsite. And getting up early is that effort.

Be A Planner

Ok, so you don't want to visit during the off-season (you should, though, by the way - so many less people!). If you want to camp in Yosemite during the months of May - September, your absolute best bet in getting a campsite is to reserve one in advance.  Good news though! There are 13 campgrounds in the entirety of Yosemite National Park that are open at some point during the high season (aka, all of the campsites listed at the top of this post!). Of those, 7 have an online reservation system that you can use up to 5 months in advance, and at 6 of those, advance registration is effectively required (aka, so popular that you basically have zero chance of getting one if you just show up in the park).

Which ones can I reserve?

  • Hodgdon Meadow (Hwy 120 Entrance)
  • Crane Flat (Hwy 120)
  • Tuolumne Meadows (Hwy 120)

 

  • Upper Pines (Yosemite Valley)
  • Lower Pines (Yosemite Valley)
  • North Pines (Yosemite Valley)
  • Wawona (Hwy 41 Entrance/ Wawona)

How do I reserve a campsite?

Easy. Go to www.recreation.gov and search "Yosemite National Park". The search results will yield all of the reservable campgrounds in Yosemite. During the high season, it will be difficult to get a campground on any day of the week. If you want a campground, especially on the weekend, you're going to have to pretend you're trying to get some hot concert tickets, and get online at 7 AM (Pacific Time) in the morning, 4-5 months prior to when you want to camp.

For example, if you want to camp any time between July 15 - August 14, you should make a reservation on March 15. And here's a fun fact: If your first night camping is August 14 (or the last day of any reservation window), you can still reserve the nights after the 14th (like the 15th and 16th) on March 15th, even though those nights are technically in the next month's registration. You need to keep it in the same reservation though.

If you are unable to get a reservation for the dates you want, you can either check recreation.gov every day and try to get a reservation, or you can attempt to get a spot at a non-reservable campground.

A note on campground reservations: Please cancel your reservation if you decide not to show up. If you're a no-show, you get no money back. If you cancel appropriately, you can get some money back. No-shows are another way last-minute campers can get a spot in a reservable campground. Go to the Campground Reservation kiosk near Curry Village to check for any openings at Yosemite Valley campgrounds.

What about the non-reservable campgrounds?

During the high season, the following campgrounds are available on a first-come, first served basis:

  • Yosemite Creek (Hwy 120)
  • Porcupine Flat (Hwy 120)
  • Tuolumne Meadows (Hwy 120)
  • Camp 4 (Yosemite Valley)
  • Bridalveil Creek (Glacier Point Rd)
  • Tamarack Flat (Hwy 120)
  • White Wolf (Hwy 120)

Wait a second, you said Tuolumne Meadows was reservable!

Yes, I did. 50% of the campsites are reservable, and 50% are first-come, first-served. If you want to get a day-of campsite at Tuolumne Meadows, you need to go to the reservation kiosk along Highway 120 that's right in front of the campground. The rangers will start assigning campgrounds around 8 or 9 am, though there may be a line of people earlier.

So, how do I get a non-reservable campground and when do they open (except Camp 4)?

Just like getting a campground at Hodgdon Meadow or Wawona in the off-season, to get a campsite at Bridalveil Creek, Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, or Porcupine Flat, all you have to do is go to the campground and look for an open site. Of course, you are not guaranteed a campsite (especially on the weekend), but there is a good chance that someone will be leaving the morning you arrive. Since campground check-out time is noon, you'll want to arrive before then to scope out a site. You may be scared about coming off as stalker-ish, but honestly, as long as you're friendly, people aren't going to mind you asking them if they're leaving. Then you can just hang out in your car near the site, and get a self-registration envelope ready, and when the previous occupants leave, its all yours! Or, you may have your pick of empty campsites to choose from. Who knows (but it will probably be really busy during the summer, no matter what)!

Opening and closing dates vary drastically for the seasonal campsites. The best place to check online for the opening/ closing dates for the season is here. The best place online for current campground status is here. Or call this number: (209) 372-0266. Generally, the pines campgrounds (except for upper) are open from early April - early November, and all the rest greatly depend on snowmelt. Bridalveil Creek will open when the facilities have been deemed safe (aka potable water and safe plumbing) after Glacier Point Road opens, and the likewise for the rest, after Highway 120 opens for the season. Tuolumne Meadows generally closes in late-September, and Porcupine and Tamarack Flat always close by October 15th. Generally speaking, the Tioga Road campgrounds have a short operating period, especially if it is a heavy snowfall year.

So what about Camp 4?

Camp 4 is an interesting bird, and super historical. It is the birthplace of modern rock climbing and many search & rescue protocols. And it is incredibly popular, especially during the high season. There are reports of people getting in line at 2 AM to get a spot for the next day! I think most people would agree that as long as you are in line at the kiosk by 6 AM, you'll probably get a spot. Though, to be safe, I may get there at 5 AM if I really, really wanted a spot, especially during peak rock climbing season. A nice thing about Camp 4 is that they will post how many spots they have for the next day, so if you're there the day before, you have a good idea of how early you should arrive the next morning to get a spot. The ranger will start giving out sites around 8 AM, though they may arrive earlier. Also, once you get in line, you are in line. No getting out to go to the bathroom, or to go take a nap, or get a bite to eat. Since Camp 4 gives out spaces by person, not by site, there are no saves in line, even for children.

Try To Arrive Mid-Week

No matter which campground you want or when you want it, you're going to have a much better chance of actually getting a campground if you show up Sunday - Wednesday than if you arrive Thursday - Saturday. So plan those vacation days accordingly!

Be Flexible

If you're trying to get a first-come, first-served campground, be prepared to change plans if you can't get one that you desire. And be prepared to change them enough that you would be willing to camp outside of the park. Here's a map document of Forest Service campgrounds that are North/ Northwest of Yosemite. And options for camping east of Yosemite. You also may want to look into dispersed camping on BLM or National Forest land, though this is more suited for backpackers. If you will try dispersed camping, remember to Leave No Trace.

So much information! I think I have been pretty comprehensive, but comment below if you have questions, and I'll try to help you out.

 Tenaya Lake, a 15 minute drive from Tuolumne Meadows Campground

Tenaya Lake, a 15 minute drive from Tuolumne Meadows Campground