Yosemite National Park reopened to the public on June 11, 2020, after a three month closure due to COVID-19. My family made reservations for a mid-July 2020 trip way back in the summer of 2019, so we were thrilled that the timing worked out to be able to visit. Yosemite holds a very special place in our hearts, as my husband worked there when he was in college. My husband and I visited often together in our pre-kid years, but had strangely not yet taken our children to Yosemite despite our regular national parks travel!
To be sure, it was not without some serious thought and a bit of trepidation that we embarked on this Yosemite journey. We had been on fairly strict lockdown in our home in the San Francisco Bay Area for four straight months. Because Yosemite was limiting capacity and because the park is only 3.5 hours away from home, we thought it would be a fairly safe bet for our first attempt at pandemic travels.
If you are considering a visit to Yosemite National Park during this phased and partial reopening in 2020 and 2021 while coronavirus restrictions continue, here are the essentials you need to know and consider.
Editor’s Note February 14, 2022: At the end of 2021, Yosemite National Park lifted most COVID-19 restrictions. Shuttles have returned and park reservations are no longer required. See my complete guide to Yosemite National Parks with kids to get all the tips for normal operations of the parks.
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Tips for Visiting Yosemite in 2021 Under Limited Capacity Restrictions
Reservations are Required
In order to accommodate social distancing in what is normally one of the country’s busiest national parks, the National Park Service instituted a reservations-only system in Yosemite to limit capacity. While this policy was lifted a few points in time this past year, it is back for the summer of 2021 in order to control the usually pretty crushing summer crowds. Reservations will be required for all visits May 21, 2021 to September 30, 2021.
If you have a confirmed overnight reservation at in-park lodging or one of the open campgrounds, you won’t need an additional reservation to enter the parks. But pretty much all other guests must make day use reservations to enter. These day use reservations are just $2 per vehicle (in addition to the normal $35 park entry) and are good for up to 3 days. Note that you no longer must enter the park on the first day of your reservation period but entering late won’t extend the time the pass is valid.
As you might guess, reservations go quickly, especially for weekend start dates. As of early May 2021, reservations are already available through the end of August 2021. Much of June and July is fully booked. September reservations will be released May 12, 2021 at 8 am Pacific time. Another batch of remaining reservations will be released starting on May 14, 2021, available on a 7 day in advance rolling basis. So last minute planners may be able to snag a reservation with a bit of luck too.
My family had a reservation at the Ahwahnee Hotel, the park’s iconic historic lodge, so we didn’t have to play fastest finger to snag a reservation this trip. The Ahwahnee, however, is prohibitively expensive for most travelers, at over $500 a night for standard rooms.
If you don’t want to stay outside of the park and fight for a day use reservation, consider staying at Yosemite Valley Lodge for more moderately priced hotel accommodations ($278/night for standard rooms). The tent cabins at Curry Village are an even cheaper option, but with shared bathrooms, those might not be the choice of cautious travelers at the moment. There is additional lodging in the Wawona area of the park, although that is farther from the sites most tourists want to see in the Yosemite Valley.
Crowds Have Never Been Lighter
With reservations required and most international visitors unable to even come to the United States for the park’s peak summer season, Yosemite is quite a bit emptier than usual. Officially, the NPS stated that it capped park capacity at 50% of normal when we visited in summer of 2020. We thought that crowds felt far below that number, even on the weekend days of our visit. While crowds in 2021 will likely be higher, there was plenty of room for more people.
With the reduced crowds, we had no problem finding a parking spot anywhere we decided to drive in the Yosemite Valley. We were also able to drive up to Glacier Point at mid-morning on Sunday and find the normally impossibly packed parking lot there half empty. (Tip: While Glacier Point was supposed to be closed in 2021 for road repairs, those were delayed another year. So this is the year to do the drive when capacity is less!)
In short, there is is plenty of room for social distancing with the current park operating capacity. We hiked two of the more crowded trails, the Mist Trail and Lower Yosemite Falls, and didn’t feel crowded at all. We truly felt like we had a chance to see Yosemite like it will never be seen again.
Mask Compliance is High
I live in the bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area, where we locked down and required masks before nearly anywhere else in the country. To be honest, I have feared leaving that bubble a bit, wondering how to handle traveling to new places where mask-wearing might not be universal.
We found, however, that guests and staff at Yosemite National Park are doing quite well on the mask-wearing front. Mask use indoors was close to 100%. And I was surprised to find a fair number of guests wearing masks outdoors when hiking, which was most certainly a challenge with the summer heat, high elevation, and steepness of some of the trails. I gave a giant thumbs up to the mom and dad I saw climbing Sentinel Dome in masks, each with a toddler on their backs in hiking backpacks. That’s commitment! (Editor’s Note for 2021: With the CDC’s recent recommendation that vaccinated people need not wear masks outdoors, expect outdoor masking this summer to be substantially less.)
Ultimately, we didn’t feel like we needed to wear masks much of the time outdoors, because the less crowded trails were so empty that we weren’t anywhere near other human beings. So it was a nice physical and mental break from our practices back home.
I should mention though that I did see a very few unmasked guests a couple of places indoors. I did not see park employees stopping them, other than at the Village Store where a park employee manned the only entry line we saw anywhere in the park. So if you are expecting Disney World level mask compliance, Yosemite isn’t quite there yet. But it was pretty darn close.
Valley Shuttles are Not Running
The main way to get around the Yosemite Valley in regular years is the park’s shuttle system. When crowds are high as they are all summer long in Yosemite, parking is simply in too short of a supply at the major stops to be able to reliably drive your own vehicle. So guests take the shuttles to hop from spot to spot.
Those shuttles are all now closed for the 2020 season, and again in 2021. That means that the only ways to get around are either in your own vehicle, by bike (more on that later), or on your own two feet! We did not have trouble finding parking anywhere we wanted to travel by car, although a few pullouts were still fairly full, specifically the ones near Yosemite Falls.
Since you might be doing more driving than in usual years, be sure to fill up your vehicle before you enter the park. There is no gas available in the valley – the closest stations, depending on which park entrance you use are in: Wawona (Highway 41), El Portal (Highway 140), and Crane Flat (Highway 120).
Consider Bringing or Renting Bikes
Speaking of transportation, we found that bikes were a tremendous way to see the Valley this year during COVID. The Yosemite Valley has over 12 miles of biking paths that go by all the major sights. Our 6 year old has now been riding longer distances back home for over a year, so we thought he had the experience and stamina to keep up with us.
We brought our bikes from home after investing in a fancy bike rack for our car (we purchased the Kuat NV 2.0 after an insane amount of research, as we will be bringing bikes with us on a number of other outdoor adventures this year, including to Lake Tahoe). But if you aren’t interested in bringing your own or don’t have the equipment to do that, there are plenty of bike rentals in Yosemite, including trailer rentals for younger kids. We spotted rental locations at the Ahwahnee, Yosemite Valley Lodge, and Curry Village. More details on bike rentals are available on the official concessionaire website.
So where to bike? We spent our entire Saturday on two wheels, starting at the Ahwahnee Hotel. We traveled onward to Yosemite Village Store for a few supplies and picked up breakfast next door at Degnan’s Kitchen. Then we biked to the Yosemite Falls trailhead where we completed the 1 mile easy hiking loop to the lower falls. Next we traveled on to Swinging Bridge where we set up on the beach for a picnic lunch and a few hours by the water.
On another evening, we took our bikes out from the Ahwahnee to pedal in the shadow of Half Dome to Mirror Lake. After completing the short nature trail loop there on foot, we biked to dinner at Curry Village and then back to the Ahwahnee before sunset.
Dining is Mostly Outdoors or Takeout Only
When Yosemite reopened in June 2020, a few indoor restaurants reopened with it, including the Ahwahnee Dining Room. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom closed all indoor dining in the state on July 13, and that changed the dining situation at Yosemite. All restaurants are became either takeout or outdoor dining only.
At the Ahwahnee, most guests ordered at the hotel’s famed dining room and took their takeout boxes to the outdoor tables that line the lawn there. We did this for dinner one evening and breakfast on our final day and it worked well. The food was high quality and portions were generous.
We also sat outdoors at Degnan’s Kitchen in Yosemite Village and at Meadow Grill in Curry Village for other meals. Tables aren’t necessarily cleaned between guests due to park staffing levels, so this is definitely the time to pull a few Clorox wipes out of your bag to sanitize table tops.
(Editor’s Note for 2021: Limited capacity indoor dining is now permitted under current state regulations. Some restaurants are now also offering indoor seating. The Ahwahnee Dining Room does not have waited table service yet, although guests can eat their takeout meals indoors at the tables there now.)
Expect Other Closures & Special Restrictions
While most of the top sights within the park are open, there are closures and special rules in place that are important for visitors to be aware of. For example, if you choose to hike the Mist Trail beyond the footbridge, you can’t go back down the way you came between the hours of 9am-4pm. Instead, hikers must hike up even farther to be able to descend the John Muir Trail.
Other special closures and restrictions of note:
- The trail to Bridalveil Fall is closed for construction.
- The Wawona Hotel and visitor center are closed. The Wawona Hotel is projected to reopen June 10, 2021.
- Mariposa Grove is open, but the shuttle to it is not. So that means what is normally a kid-friendly stop is now a 4 mile roundtrip hike.
- No tours anywhere in the park are offered.
- The main Yosemite Valley visitor center building is not open – instead rangers are giving out information under outdoor tents.
- Almost everything along Tioga Road (other than the road itself) and in Tuolumne Meadows was closed in 2020, but more will be reopening in an outdoor distanced capacity in 2021.
Pack Your Day Pack Wisely
It’s always so important to be prepared when out hiking in the wilderness. But it’s essential to be even more prepared this year due to the unique challenges of an ongoing global pandemic.
To that end, think carefully when loading up your day pack for the day to make sure you have any extra supplies to keep your family safe. We were happy to see hand sanitizer at a lot of trailheads and at entries for every hotel and store, but you’ll need more than that.
I have created a complete COVID-19 packing list, but for your day pack specifically, we found the following items essential at Yosemite:
- Water, water, water
- Small hand sanitizer (for remote locations where it isn’t available)
- Disinfectant wipes (to sanitize picnic tables or outdoor seating)
- Hand wipes (to clean dirt off hands/skin)
- First Aid Kit
- Non-perishable snacks
- Phone & backup charger with cord
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Sun protection (sunscreen, hats, rash guards, etc.)
- Towel (if you plan outings along the Merced River)
Plan for Bathroom Breaks
Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk bathrooms. My biggest concern in traveling anywhere right now is having to use public restrooms, and I know the topic is on every traveler’s mind too.
Having traveled to a lot of national parks and used a lot of super-sketchy national park bathrooms, this part of the trip was truly what worried me most. For the most part, our experience at Yosemite turned out to be quite positive and feel pretty safe.
Our family was vigilant about using the bathroom right before we left our hotel rooms each morning to minimize our use of public bathrooms, so definitely plan on that. Since we had to work hard to keep minimally hydrated with the heat and all the exercise we did, we didn’t have to stop for bathroom breaks as much as we usually would. Bonus!
But we did have to visit public bathrooms on a few occasions, and it wasn’t as bad as I feared. Guests wore masks to enter bathrooms almost universally. Most of the bathrooms we visited were not crowded at all. There was a very large public bathroom at the trailhead for Lower Yosemite Falls that was sparkling clean and totally empty mid-day, so this is a safe choice for anyone driving and biking around the valley.
The bathroom at the footbridge before Vernal Falls on the Mist Trail was smaller but equally sparkling clean, with plenty of open windows bringing in lots of ventilation.
The only place we saw a line and a crowd for the public bathrooms was at the top of Glacier Point so consider skipping that one if you can. We instead used the more rustic but much less trafficked single bathroom at the trail head for Sentinel Dome (about one mile down the road from Glacier Point).
We didn’t scope out the bathrooms at Yosemite Village or at Curry Village, but since these are the most crowded spots in the Valley, expect them to be busier. The Ahwahnee’s lobby bathrooms were also just fine – since check-in isn’t until 5:00 pm to give housekeeping extra time for cleaning, a lot of arriving hotel visitors may need to visit these facilities before their room is ready.
The Final Word
Yosemite National Park is certainly a much-changed experience during COVID-19, but we found that the pros far outweighed the cons for our family. Even though some attractions were closed, we were able to see and do plenty of amazing outdoor activities without the crowds – enough to fill 3 full days. Ultimately we felt that fellow guests and park staff were interacting as safely as can be expected during a global pandemic taking all the precautions possible. For our family who has been strictly isolating, it was a much-needed getaway that rejuvenated us for the weeks and months ahead.