Recently, I was lucky to snag a coveted campsite reservation in North Pines Campground, one of the few campgrounds located within Yosemite Valley. Though I could only fit a quick 2 day, 1 night trip to Yosemite into my schedule, it was well worth the drive from San Francisco. With a record snow season this year, the waterfalls were in full force – many of which haven’t been seen for years due to the drought. Read on for tips about choosing a campsite and making the most out of an overnight trip to Yosemite.
7AM: Driving from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
I departed a bit later than planned, due to a *cough* late night *cought* the day before. Since I was driving on a Sunday morning, I ran into very little traffic on the main highway from I-80 East to I-580 East to I-5 South. After leaving my apartment around 7:30 AM, I arrived at the entrance to Yosemite via Highway 120 around noon. The drive was smooth sailing up until that point – when I ran into the dreaded valley traffic. The Pines campgrounds are located at the end of the valley, which means you’ll be sitting in bumper to bumper traffic if you’re visiting on a weekend or anytime during the summer. It took me 45 minutes to drive the 5 miles from the valley entrance to the campgrounds, oof.
1PM: Setting Up Camp
Since this was my first time solo camping, I wanted to set up camp as soon as I arrived. One less thing to worry about later in the evening! I had site #515 in North Pines, which has an excellent view of Merced River and plenty of level ground space for at least three 2-person tents. All of the Pines campgrounds have incredible views of North Dome, Royal Arches, and some even of Half Dome. These campsites are located close to Half Dome Village, which has a sizable convenience store and even a pizza grill.
2:30 PM: Leisurely Exploring the Valley on Foot & Taking Photos
I originally planned to hike the Mist Trail this first day, but given my late start, I decided to take the day easy and roam around the valley floor for photographs. While the campgrounds are within walking distance of some of the main attractions, there is also a free! electric shuttle bus that you can take as well. Or, if you’re feeling a bit more active, you can rent bicycles from the Half Dome Village Recreation Center and bike around the valley floor.
5 PM: Early Dinner
I was excited to test out my new MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove with a quick and easy dinner – Patagonia Provision’s Red Bean Chili Soup. Thus far, I’ve tried both their chili and black bean soups – both of which are delicious!
6:30 PM: Sunset at Tunnel View
As cliche as this spot is, Tunnel View is a must-see vista point, especially for first-time visitors. I drove up to Tunnel View about an hour before sunset and joined 20+ other folks to photograph a sunset that highlighted Bridaveil Falls just right. It was a bit touch-and-go with the cloud cover – but we got lucky! Had I arrived a little earlier, I would have hiked up to Artist’s Point where you can get a similarly stunning view without any of the crowds.
7:30 PM: Resupply at the Yosemite General Store
On my way back to camp, I stopped by the general store to buy locally sourced firewood in accordance with protecting local trees. The store has everything you might need – from tarps, to bug spray, to fresh groceries and even some Pendleton wool throws. However, road construction meant that I had to loop around the rest of the valley to get back to my campsite. This took an additional 15 minutes, which left me scrambling a bit to set up my campfire before it was fully dark outside.
7 AM: Pack Up & Head to Happy Isles Trailhead
After a quick breakfast, I packed up my camp and set out at 8am to the Happy Isles Trailhead for the 7 mile long Mist Trail – John Muir Trail loop. Since this was a Monday morning, there were plenty of parking spaces left. This area is still in bear country, so I stored all my remaining food in the bear lockers at the entrance of the lot.
From there, it was a short walk to the trailhead, where there is a visitor center (open during summer) and restrooms. There’s also a shuttle stop here, for those who park elsewhere and don’t want to move their car (highly recommended).
8:30 AM: Hiking the Mist Trail & John Muir Trail Loop
I decided to hike the Mist Trail – John Muir Trail loop, which includes both Vernal and Nevada Falls. End to end, this loop is a little over 6 miles – it took me about 4.5 hours to complete with ample time for photos and a quick lunch break.
This is a quintessential Yosemite hike with stunning views of not only the waterfalls, but other parts of the valley as well. I’ll be writing a more detailed post on hiking the loop!
1:30 PM: Drive Home!
Luckily, there was almost no traffic leaving the park since it was a Monday. I’d highly recommend leaving on weekday to avoid the crazy road congestion that’s bound to happen.
Choosing a Campsite in North Pines
Because I picked up a campsite that was released at the last minute (it was previously held due to potential flooding), I had fewer choices when booking. However, it worked out well, as it was located right by the river and my immediate neighboring campsite was empty. Normally, the valley campsite can feel quite crowded and you don’t get as much privacy. I’ve accepted that as a trade-off for the benefit of providing more folks with access to the outdoors!
In the North Pines Campground, I would recommend sites 502, 504, 506, 520, 522, 524 and 526. The last site is particularly special, as it’s set pretty high above the river level (for example, 520 still seemed a bit swampy in certain spots), and there’s no adjacent campsite to the side where you pitch your tents. I enjoyed site 515, and 513 and 511 also looked promising. During the summer, it’s better to avoid the sites in the 100s, which can be a bit… fragrant from the horse stables 🙂
Cell Phone Service
Some parts of the valley does have cell phone reception – most campground areas do not. I downloaded PDFs of the valley and trails so I could reference them on my phone in airplane mode.
Trail and Road Closures in Winter & Spring
I visited in the middle of May – Four Mile Trail was still closed, and Glacier Point had just opened. Tioga Pass was still closed, which meant Tuolumne Meadows was inaccessible. Depending on the winter season, these areas may remain closed well into May, or even into the beginning of June. For example, the opening of Half Dome cables were delayed this year from May to June 2nd. Of course, there is still plenty to see even if certain routes are closed. Just something to keep in mind in case your heart is set on anything specific!