So many travelers dream of Yosemite, with its towering waterfalls, the world’s biggest slab of exposed granite, idyllic flower-filled meadows and vast forests with some of the largest trees in North America. They picture meandering slowly and introspectively through this beautiful national park, ready to embrace silence and be awed and humbled by nature in all of its glory. The reality that often hits is quite different. While no one can argue the park’s stunning natural beauty, 4 million annual tourists, accommodations that often sell out before most people even begin to plan a trip, and sitting in a hot car for three hours in stop and go traffic to sneak a peek at the 3,000-foot wall of El Capitan is not what most travelers envision. 

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant, which was the first national act to conserve an American landscape. Thirty-seven years later the Sierra Club’s first outing was a hike from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. While many in history fought hard to secure Yosemite for the enjoyment of the public, it is doubtful that any of them could have ever imagined such modern-day throngs of crowds saturating the park. 

Travel with Experienced Guides on a Small Group Tour

Do a quick Google search on how to avoid the crowds and the typical answer is “go in the off-season”. But for those needing to take their holiday over the summer break of June, July or August, or for those who really want to see the colorful wildflower displays in peak season, that advice doesn’t help a whole lot. The very best bet to avoid crowds in the summer season is to plan a trip with an experienced provider who takes care of the difficult logistics and can get a very small group of lucky guests to the off-the-beaten-track spots only locals know about. They have the inside scoop on snagging those coveted hotel rooms within the park (meaning not having to settle for staying at the crowded lodging outside of the park that everyone who didn’t get a reservation has to book). Time that many travelers spend stressing on complicated details such as parking and reservations is much better spent taking photographs in hidden nature spots with expert guides who know the ins and outs of the park. 

Home to the half-mile-high and very picturesque Yosemite Falls and the world-famous El Capitan, Yosemite Valley is the obvious centerpiece of Yosemite National Park. While the valley occupies only 1% of the park’s 1,169 square miles (Yosemite is virtually the same size as Rhode Island!), it receives 95% of all Yosemite visitors. Another fun fact: most visitors to Yosemite National Park never get more than a quarter of a mile away from their cars. A good operator will make sure that their guests get to see so much more than El Capitan and the Falls.  

The view of the Yosemite Valley from the tunnel entrance to the Valley. Yosemite National Park, California

Explore the High Sierra

For example, some of the park’s most gorgeous scenery is located in the High Sierra, whose altitude reaches above 8,000 feet. During peak summer season, Yosemite Valley can be undeniably warm and more crowded. But head to the High Sierra and the crowds thin out like magic and the temperatures drop to downright enjoyable at elevation. The High Sierra is accessible via Tioga Road, a 47-mile scenic drive that connects Crane Flats with 9,943-foot Tioga Pass. It takes adventurers to such sights as North Dome, Olmsted Point, Soda Springs, Tioga Lake and Dana Meadows, and in the summer the views are speckled with wildflowers that dot the expansive high-country meadows with vibrant color. 

The Bachelor and Three Graces, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite

Hike Away from the Crowds

While the grand majority of visitors to Yosemite experience it from their car, hiking is the way to go for those who want a more memorable experience. The crowds vanish immediately. Yosemite has over 800 miles of hiking trails within its boundaries and the trails often lead to Yosemite’s most spectacular viewpoints.  And in places like Mariposa Grove, where there are some of the largest trees on Earth, it’s easy to find secluded spots. The park’s rich habitats range from thick foothill chaparral to conifer forests to massive expanses of alpine rock. The high diversity of habitats in Yosemite that are largely intact help support the more than 400 species of vertebrates found in the park including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. While wildlife abounds in the park, visitors should be realistic that larger mammals like black bears, bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes and red fox can be elusive. The trails are wonderful, quiet places to keep an eye out for some of Yosemite’s 262 bird species—165 are year-round park residents. For an even more isolated experience, visitors should take in the park from the water as opposed to the roads. The Merced River, which has inspired so many painters, is an ideal river for a fun float trip away from the crowds. 

Row of evergreen trees in front of the Milky Way at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

Sunrise & Stargaze in Yosemite

After a long day of sightseeing, most Yosemite visitors head straight to their beds. But nighttime is when Mother Nature literally shines. The Sierras, and especially Yosemite, have some of the darkest skies in California. Nat Hab Expedition Leaders can help curious observers identify many of the constellations that are difficult or impossible to spot in places that have more ambient light. Speaking of light, sunrise is also an incredible time of day to be in Yosemite. Most visitors sadly sleep right through it. But those in the know are prepared with their camera, as the morning light is terrific for photos—just take one look at Ansel Adams’ famous photos of landscapes in the park for confirmation. 

Travelers should not let a fear of crowds keep them from enjoying Yosemite in all of its summer splendor. With the proper itinerary and experienced guides, any time of the year is wonderful to get to know this awe-inspiring national park.