Getting into Yosemite is easy; you can choose one of four entrances to see the wonders that nature displays. But once you’re inside, trying to find a vacant campground could make the Dalai Lama pull out his hair in frustration (and obviously I’m not talking about head hair). There are few campgrounds within Yosemite that don’t require reservations (at least for some spaces), but most of these are wide spread, and checking them all can take all day.
It might be a good idea to reserve a space
However, some of the prettiest places to stay—like Bridalveil Creek and White Wolf campgrounds—do not allow reservations. When you get there and find that your favorite campground has no vacancies, and all the others are full, too, you need to have options. Here are a few to consider.
Camping Near the North Entrance—State Hwy 120 (Tioga Pass Road, West)
Dimond O Campground Dropping into Yosemite in the northwest corner, Hwy 120 is called Big Oak Rd until it makes the turn for Tuolumne Meadows. Nearly within sight of the park’s entrance on the north side, a dirt road (Evergreen Road) leads to Dimond O Campground (whoever named it misspelled it, not me), nestled beside the Central Fork of the Tuolumne River. At 4,600 feet—an elevation that exceeds most of the campgrounds in Yosemite—the terrain is much like Yosemite Valley, featuring oaks and incense cedars mixed with Ponderosa pines.
Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir The same dirt road leads to the “town” of Mather (all two or three buildings) and eventually to Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, called by many the “other Yosemite Valley.” Upon exiting the dirt road onto Hwy 120 after setting up camp, a left turn and about 30 seconds will get you to the park entrance. From there, Crane Flat isn’t far, where you can buy groceries and gas. If you have more sense, however, head into Groveland for shopping and filling the car; you’ll save money and avoid crowds.
Firewood is available via the campground hosts in Dimond O; or you can just wander into the woods and collect your own. This is national forest land (Stanislaus) and does not have the same tight regulations you’ll find in national parks. In fact, the campground and surrounding area is so pretty and peaceful that you may want to skip Yosemite entirely… provided it’s old hat to you. For those who have never seen Yosemite in person, you sure don’t want to miss any opportunity to do so.
Camping Near the West Entrance--State Hwy 140
Lower Merced River
Entering the park from the city of Merced, Hwy 140 (or El Portal Road) leads directly into Yosemite Valley, following the Merced River. The three campgrounds nearest the park are Indian Flat, Dry Gulch and Dirt Flat—and if you’re tent camping, you don’t want to stay at Indian Flat because they cater to RVs, and the last thing you need while circled around the campfire singing camping songs is to compete with the nearly enteral chugging, gurgling and grumbling of one of those behemoths. The other two campgrounds have a lot in common.
One convenient thing in regards to both of these campgrounds is that they are near the town of El Portal, which, though quite tiny, provides many of the basic services all campers need. In addition, it's a beautiful little berg.
Dry Gulch Campground Dry Gulch Campground lies in the foothills at an elevation of only 1,600 feet. Fed by the nearby Merced River, oaks, pines, liquid amber and a number of other trees provide shady campsites. This is an excellent launching point for trips into Yosemite Valley (less than 15 miles away) or for river rafting adventures on the mighty Merced. This lightly-used campground is rather small, with fewer than half a dozen campsites.
Like its neighbor, Dirt Flat Campground is also shaded and beside the river, which is good because at this low altitude it gets mighty hot in summertime. Poison oak—and plenty of it—is another hazard, and more likely to get you than the areas many rattlesnakes. Both locations offer fire pits with grills, picnic tables, vault toilets and potable water. Dirt Flat has a campground host (look for an old couple in a rundown trailer) that provides firewood for both campgrounds if you’re too lazy to collect your own. You’ll find groceries and gas just up the road in the town of El Portal.
Camping Near the South Entrance--State Hwy 41
You never can tell what you'll pull out of Big Creek
Both nearly spitting distance from Fish Camp (which itself is only about a mile from Yosemite’s south entrance), Summerdale and Big Sandy are small campgrounds located right on Big Creek and therefore nice, quiet places to stay. The terrain is very much like Yosemite (plenty of trees, including redwoods) and—as opposed to Yosemite and nearby Bass Lake—the campgrounds rarely fill completely, especially Big Sandy.
Big Sandy Campground Big Sandy Campground is a 5-plus mile drive west off of Hwy 41 just south of Fish Camp. The steep, windy road—and the fact that you have to drive through a creek to get there—dissuades many campers. Add to that that there is no piped water in the campground and you have a place that may be all yours when you get there. Rainbow trout fishing in Big Creek is supposed to be excellent; as I have never fished there, you’ll have to tell me how you do. At an elevation of 5,800 feet, expect cool days and cold nights. Living up to its name, many of the campsites are located on sand or hard-pack, providing little shade but plenty of exposure for excellent star gazing in the evenings. Campsites cost $17/night, plus an additional $5 for each vehicle.
Summerdale Campground Summerdale Campground is right off Hwy 41 to the left, just after you get past Fish Camp on the way to Yosemite. This place is more popular as it is easier to get to, closer to utilities and services and has piped water as well as a campground host selling firewood. Fishing is a favorite pastime here, and if you go exploring don’t be surprised if you come upon a beaver dam or two. At only 5,000 feet, the days and nights may not be as cool as in Big Sandy (in fact, the days can get extremely hot, so be glad there’s the creek to cool down in), but still a fair sight nicer than down in the San Joaquin Valley. Located around a small meadow, the campsites are shady for the most part and—as with Big Sandy—there are vault toilets and every site has a fire ring, grill and picnic table. Campsites are $21 each and you may have to pay a fee for every car on top of that.
Regardless of which campground you choose, Fish Camp is handy to provide for your camping needs. Seeing that this is the way I usually drive to Yosemite, the site of the pond at Fish Camp always makes my heart race, for I know that Yosemite is right around the corner.
Camping Near the East Entrance--State Hwy 120 (Tioga Pass Road, East)
After passing through Tioga Pass at the eastern edge of Yosemite, the nature of the Sierras changes radically, and quickly, from lush, tree-shrouded hills and meadows to harsh red rocks, arid soil and a meager smattering of trees in many areas.
Ellery Lake Three miles from Yosemite’s east entrance you’ll find Ellery Lake in Inyo National Forest, just south of Hwy 41 and visible from the road. The turnoff for the campground is on the west side of the lake. This is right at the transition from lush to arid, so you’ll still find plenty of shade trees around the campground and lake. Rumor has it that the lake is full of trout; maybe I was using the wrong bait or just had bad luck, but I’m still counting that information as a rumor. A creek feeding the lake passes right by the campground; maybe you’ll have better luck there.
At 9,500 feet, you will find yourself winded by merely walking and the nights will be bitter cold, even in the height of summer. The days are cool to warm, but be sure you never go out for more than a brief walk without a jacket or you may freeze your patootie before making it back to camp.
There are only 12 campsites; most are rather exposed, so having so few spread out as they are affords you at least a little privacy. Some sites can accommodate motor homes, so be sure you find a site well away from any of those because the last thing you need is some camper rolling in at 10 pm filled with inconsiderate folk who insist on cranking up their noisy generator so they can watch reruns of The Simpsons. The campsites all have fire rings, grills and picnic tables and a campground host will sell you firewood.
The campsites cost $17. Reservations are not allowed, so get there early to stake out the best campsite. This small lake (about half the size of Tanaya Lake in Yosemite) has no boat ramps, discouraging boating other than small craft, such as canoes and kayaks; unless you happen to have a canoe, expect to fish from the shore. By following Tioga Pass Road (Hwy 41) to the east side of the lake, you can park near the dam (yes, I’m sorry to say that it is an artificial lake—at least partially—though it’s still lovely), and as everyone knows the area near a dam is often one of the deepest parts of any lake and an excellent location to fish the bottom for really big fish. This campground is approximately equidistant from both Tuolumne Meadows and Mono Lake (less than 10 miles to either), making it a good launch site for daytime excursions.