One of the most beautiful spots in North America, Yosemite National Park is famous for its sheer granite cliffs, beautiful waterfalls, and stately Giant Sequoia groves.
Things to Know
Plan Ahead: Particularly in the summer, things book up quickly in this popular park. Thus, book well in advance.
Seasonality: Springtime offers the most spectacular waterfalls; by the fall, many falls diminish to just a trickle or nothing at all (although crowds are diminished as well). Winter has the fewest crowds and interesting views, although some roads/hikes are closed. Summer is the most crowded.
Crowds: Parts of the park are very popular, so be prepared for crowds. That being said, most tourists stay in a few parts of Yosemite Valley, so you can lose the crowds even in the busiest seasons.
Bears: The black bears in the park are not dangerous to humans, but to protect both them and visitors, park officials strictly advise that all food be locked up in bear lockers or other approved locations—do not leave food in your car unless you want your door removed!
How to Get There
Options are described in detail at http://jrabold.net/yosemite/transp.htm
This option provides you with the most flexibility; while the park service is trying to discourage car visits, it's much more convenient than the alternatives
It takes at least 4.5 hours by car to reach Yosemite from San Francisco, but with traffic, etc. it can take 5-6 hours. The typical route is 580 East --> 205 East --> 120 towards Sonora
If you're coming from elsewhere, the Fresno Airport is the closest airport with significant flights
You then have to rent a car (or take the train/bus) to get to the park
Other airports are listed here
Amtrak trains run from Emeryville to Merced; from there you ride the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) bus (otherwise known as Amtrak Thruway Bus Route 15) to Yosemite
Also check out www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/bus.htm
Various tour companies, such as Gray Line, run an all-day bus day tour to and from Yosemite, but be warned that most of the day is spent in transport.
Note that you need a permit or reservation to sleep anywhere inside the park. Many of the main options are run by Delaware North Corporation (DNC), which runs the website www.yosemitepark.com Here are your main options:
Stay in Yosemite Valley
Ahwahnee Hotel - fancy, historic hotel, but expensive (>$400 / night)
Yosemite Lodge - standard hotel (~$100-180 / night, depends on season and room)
Curry Village - motel rooms, cabins, and canvas tents (~$100-160 / night, depends on room type, season, and weekend versus weekday)
Housekeeping Camp - each tent-like unit sleeps up to 6 people, they provide beds but you provide linens/sleeping bag (although you can rent them for a fee); the only non-campground lodging that lets you cook on your own (and have a campfire), $79 / night for 4 people (additional people $5/person/night).
Campgrounds - Yosemite offers many campgrounds, which are described on the park website, which allow up to 6 people (including children) and 2 vehicles per site. Note that these are not run by DNC so you won't find them on yosemitepark.com; they tend to book quickly, especially in the summer, although a few sites are available without a reservation (you typically need to arrive first thing in the morning to get them, though). Campsite reservations are at www.recreation.gov's website. Like Housekeeping Camp, most campgrounds allow campfires and cooking. Most campsites are $20 per night.
Stay in the park but outside of Yosemite Valley
Tuolomne Meadows is a beautiful meadow north of Yosemite Valley, which is less crowded than the Valley (but doesn't feature waterfalls or sheer granite cliffs). If you're coming here, be sure to stop at Olmsted Point, which offers a spectacular view of Yosemite Valley from the northeast. Both campgrounds (same process as above) and a lodge (through DNC, canvas tents on cement platforms) are available, but the whole area is closed in the winter.
Backpacking/Wilderness Permit allows you to camp in various wilderness locations in the park, but not in the Valley. See the NPS wilderness permit page for more information.
White Wolf - run by DNC, between the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, canvas cabins, ~$100-130
Other Campgrounds - both North and South of Yosemite Valley, described on the park website. Campgrounds outside of the Valley aren't quite as crowded/popular as those in the Valley, but it still helps to book ahead (especially in summer).
Stay outside the park
Wawona Hotel - run by DNC but 4 miles outside the south entrance, this can be a good option if you want to be close but the valley is full; also near the Mariposa Sequoia Grove, ~$100-190 (depends on season, weekend/weekday, and whether room has a private bath)
A number of nearby communities (e.g. Mariposa, Groveland, El Portal, and Oakhurst) offer hotels, motels, and B&Bs that allow you to rest in comfort (and cheaper than the Valley) while still staying within a short drive of major park destinations
www.yosemitehikes.com is the best online resource for day hikes, with detailed descriptions and tips.
Luke really enjoys the Half Dome hike, but it requires preparation and starting very early. If you want to go up the cables to the very top (and not just the shoulder, which itself has a beautiful view), you have to apply for a permit.
the beginning of this hike is up Vernal and Nevada falls, which are beautiful in their own right
Yosemite Falls is another very popular—but strenuous/uphill—hike.
Also check out the Yosemite Park YouTube channel for inspirational and informative videos, including these on day hikes: