Getting an Authentic Yosemite Experience Outside the Park Boundaries

No park pass? No problem.

April 27, 2024 10:38 pm
Going beyond Yosemite
Going beyond Yosemite
Robert Annis

Yosemite is one of my favorite national parks (and I have the tattoo to prove it), but during my visit last summer, I didn’t set foot in the famed valley.

One of the most popular national parks in America, Yosemite welcomes more than three million visitors per year, with the highest concentration in the summer months. The crowds can be overwhelming; it can be difficult to appreciate the wide-open views when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists.

For years, “the national park experience has been packaged, processed and bundled for consumption,” says Bill King, a part-time Yosemite guide and executive director of the Mariposa Trails nonprofit, as people are seemingly more concerned about scratching Half Dome off a bucket list than having an authentic experience in wild nature. To make parks like Yosemite more palatable to the general public, critics claim, the rough edges have been sanded down, making them more theme park than national park.

In order to combat over-crowding, Yosemite will once again institute a timed-entry system for much of 2024. For much of the summer, you must have a reservation to enter the park between 5 a.m. and 4 p.m. (From April to August, reservations must be had for visiting on the weekends and holidays.)

So what does that mean for potential visitors? You can still get into the park, but you’ll have to be past the entrance booth by 4:59 a.m. or after 4:01 p.m. 

I wanted to see if I could get an authentic Yosemite outside the park and without the crowds. So I headed toward the surrounding communities and national forests — Stanislaus, Toyabe and Sierra National Forests — that offer hundreds of miles of trails begging to be explored, with nary another hiker around. I also tried my hand at some of the other recreational activities that offer the great views that Yosemite is known for, but also give you a bit more breathing room.

The Merced River
The Merced River
Robert Annis

Rafting the Merced River 

Timing dictates the experience you’ll have on the river. During the spring snowmelt, the mighty Merced runs fast and wild, with multiple class IV rapids. As the year progresses, the Merced mellows. By mid-summer, it’s usually a pussycat of a paddle that even families in recreational kayaks can tackle. 

Multiple area outfitters offer guided rafting trips; I went with Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions. Even though it was June, the seemingly constant downpour of rain in the weeks and months prior meant the whitewater was raging. Couples and singles will be paired with larger groups; it’s always a little awkward at first, but the big rapids tend to be great icebreakers.

The rafting was a blast that got my adrenaline pumping. In between rapids, I took in the rock walls that envelope the river on both sides. It’s an absolutely stunning environment. 

There's no shortage of trails to explore outside the park
There’s no shortage of trails to explore outside the park
Robert Annis

Hiking the Surrounding National Forests

Because the national forests surrounding Yosemite lack the same name recognition of the official national park, most tourists don’t realize the hidden gems they drive past as they wait in line at the park entrance. 

I wished I could have explored the Lewis Creek Trail more, but a trail bridge leading to Red Rock Falls had been washed out because of the heavy rains earlier in the year. Instead, I hiked down to Corlieu Falls which was entirely too short, but very pretty. Not too far away, near Fish Camp, I did the Washburn Trail and a few other shorter trails. They were slices of pine forest heaven, and I saw only a few other hikers.

That said, there are caveats. While those forests are beautiful in their own ways, King says, they can lack the grandeur of the national park and you’re not going to get those iconic views. In the summertime, some lower elevation trails can get uncomfortably hot. Some trails are poorly maintained and the roads to get there can be a bit sketchy if you don’t know the area.

“Just because you see a line on a map doesn’t mean you’ll find the actual trail on the ground,” King says. 

Even the Merced River Trail, which I hiked on my final day in Sierra National Forest, seemed lost in the overgrown weeds the further you hike. (It’s an out-and-back trail, so there was never any chance of getting lost.) Cell reception in the area can be spotty, so download AllTrails maps beforehand. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll hike the trail, download the map anyway, just to be sure. There were a couple of trails that I wasn’t planning to hike, but I did because of timing or closures.

Don’t worry, you can find plenty of trails outside the park that won’t make you feel as if you’ll need a search and rescue team on call. Trails like the three-mile, family-friendly Stockton Creek Preserve are great because they’re well-maintained and marked, rolling through the Sierra Nevada foothills across a ridgeline, passing the eponymous creek, a small lake and a waterfall.

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An e-bike is a good way to navigate some of the more ambitious terrain
An e-bike is a good way to navigate some of the more ambitious terrain
Robert Annis

Biking the Sierra Foothills

Although I’m a former amateur bicycle racer, I haven’t done a ton of riding the last couple of years, so when I found out that I could rent an e-bike to pedal into the Sierra Foothills, I was thrilled. Guide Chris Van Leuven has an infectious enthusiasm and a love for the landscape. Van Leuven offers yoga and rock climbing options with the biking, but I opted just for the three-hour e-bike tour.

Our 20-mile ride from his home base took us mostly up backroads to a rutted gravel jeep track leading up into the hills. It was steep at times, but nothing the Aventon Aventure e-bike couldn’t handle. As we got higher, I was thrilled to be able to see the iconic Yosemite Valley mountains in the distance. The only sounds I heard was the whirling of the bike motor, my labored breathing and the crunch of gravel underneath my tires. The descent back down can be a bit sketchy in places, but if you take your time and judiciously use your brakes, you’ll be fine.

There is beauty beyond the park
There is beauty beyond the park
Robert Annis

So is it possible to get an authentic Yosemite experience without entering the national park? Yes, with a caveat or two.

Everyone should experience the majesty of El Capitan and Old Faithful, not to mention Horsetail and Bridalveil Fall at least once. Because I’ve had those experiences, missing out this time didn’t seem so bad. But if I were a first-time visitor who will likely never be back in my lifetime? I’d feel as if I were missing out. 

My advice for these visitors? Go in the off season. If you absolutely have to go in the summer, stick to the off hours on weekdays, even if you score a timed-entry reservation or don’t need one. Find a place that’s not overrun with photographers (good luck with that) and take it all in. After you burn those images into your brain, immediately head outside Yosemite Valley. If you travel further afield, it’s easy to find wilder, less crowded spaces inside the park, say High Sierras or Tuolumne Meadows, that still gives you access to the national park’s infrastructure and staff. 

If you’ve visited in the past or are visiting multiple days, then broaden your scope and head outside the park. As a general rule, for every day you spend inside the park, spend a day or two exploring the surrounding areas.


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