Visiting Yosemite During COVID – My Experience (June 2020)

Travel Talk

What a year it’s been. Lockdowns, phased re-openings and finally the chance to travel again including to Yosemite which opened up in full just 10 days ago after a few months. Wahoo to that! I was lucky enough to snag a Day Use Reservation (aka a Day Permit) for today, the second weekend of the opening, to make my return for a hike a chance to take a look around.

For some quick context: As a Californian living pretty close to the park, I’ve been lucky to make it to Yosemite many times over the last few years so of course, lots of excitement to return for one of my favorite hikes and get a chance to check out things in this strange, strange time. Now I’m excited to share what I saw on how things were working, what’s open, and what distancing is like as you plan your own trip whether you’ve been to the park before and are just wondering what’s changed or are coming for the first time into a complete unknown.

Yosemite during COVD - park sign, june 2020

2020 Entry Permits

As of this post, Yosemite is limiting entry to the park to about 50% of usual peak attendance by requiring day use reservations for everyone who wants to enter the park without an overnight reservation or half dome permit. This is of course not how Yosemite normally works (yes, this is a hotly debated subject but this post focuses on the reality — leave your thoughts in the comments if you want) and the permits have just started to roll out so expect some bumps.

Yosemite COVID Pass Registration Sign - June 2020

To do this, 1700 day use permits (good from 5am – 11pm) are allowed each day for each car entering (as in you need one permit per car, not per person). The initial ones having already been claimed while 80% of August permits will be available July 1st at 7am PT and 20% of permits (340) becoming available 2 days in advance at 7am. Per the park, you must enter on the day your permit is for but can then continue to enter 7 consecutive days (so you only need one permit for up to 7 days of visiting.)

Anyone with an existing overnight reservation for a hotel or campsite, wilderness backcountry use or a Half Dome climb can enter with that reservation and does not need a day use permit.

Note: This is all subject to change at any time so be sure to check the Yosemite National Park official site before heading out.

To get Yosemite Day Use Permits, visit Recreation.gov.

My Permit Check-in Experience

Like I mentioned before, permits are good from 5am – 11pm daily and with hot summer temps expected for my visit, I decided to arrive early on to make the most of the day and avoid that heat.

When I showed up around 5:30, the gate was open but unstaffed which is typical from past seasons where rangers usually start a few hours later. Instead, the sign post above was out and self-certification forms were provided to fill out for every car entering the park for rangers to check around the park through the day (just like say a street parking pass). Yosemite also regularly checks cars headed out to collect entrance fees / verify annual passes so you may need to show your permit details again there as well.

Self-registration for the park during covid

Beyond filling that form out, putting it and my day use permit on the dash, it was a quick process. Driving out, only a few cars were lined up and seemed to be moving quickly as they went through a visual certification to show their passes. Yosemite has 4 entrances and with reduced cars coming in, I’m sure it’s a fairly quick process though I would expect a bit of of a wait 7-10am when most people probably head in.

How were the crowds on the trail and around the park?

Well as the math suggests, 50% of regular entrances means less people than normal and I suspect when it comes to trail use, it cuts down even further. Given how travel is out there, most of the people headed to the park right now are likely living in Northern California and while we are an active crowd in general, plenty of people almost certainly booked a spot just to get out of the house and a have a place to tour around with their group.

Empty parking lots with yosemite permits

June is a good time for Yosemite’s waterfalls so I decided to go with The Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls which is probably the park’s most popular trail and for good reason, it’s pretty awesome.

When I headed up at 6:30, things were of course pretty quiet with just a few people on their way up which would be the case even in a normal summer day. While trail was definitely NOT quiet or slow on the way back, it was certainly less busy than I’m use to coming down mid day.

The parking lot by Happy Isles was full when I drove out with people parking down the road. Of course much of that is because the Shuttle service has been stopped to address close quarters with COVID of course, but I suspect will open up its own issues with parking access and traffic patterns.

Cars line up by lower yosemite falls trail

Driving around the park after the hike, it was clear that the major trails and river / beach areas still have much of their summer crowds but beyond that, the park felt closer to a nicer winter weekend than summer. Less frequented trailheads and bike paths were quiet. With everyone driving to their trails, parking lots were fairly open, even the generally packed ones like by the Village Store.

What were trails like?

Hitting the the trail, there are of course immediate signs about COVID, social distancing, recommendations for face coverings, frequent hand-washing and the likes. These continued all along the trail. On an exciting note, the bathrooms along the trail which are generally quite nice all things said were well stocked with hand sanitizer as well, a trend I hope continues even after COVID cause you know, hygiene.

Mist Trail signs

As for mask use, that really varied by person and crowds. Heading up, there were few people around and little use of coverings as a result. It is of course quite hard to hike with a mask on, especially heading up hill in the heat but on my way back, I did see a surprising number show up, far more than I’ve experienced on trails elsewhere in recent weeks.

The most successful approach definitely seemed to be a bandanna or my choice, a buff, which while obviously less effective of a mask, is much easier to actually use and can be pulled up and taken back down easily depending on the crowd and width of the trail during a passing moment.

Mist Trail signs

With the large crowds the Mist Trail draws, the park service apparently elected to make a pretty significant change for this summer and the trail from the Vernal Falls footbridge to the top of that Falls has been turned into a one-way loop during peak hours (9am-4pm). Uphill hikers take the Mist Trail stairs and downhill hikers the JMT from Clark Point down.

Mist Trail signs

This adds some additional mileage but honestly, it’s always a mess getting people up and down the stairs anyways. The JMT routing is easier on the knees with more shade and a nice view of Nevada Falls so I often take it anyways.

What’s open in the park?

Impressively, almost everything in the park has already re-opened. The most notable exception is in Curry Village where the Pizza place, bar, cafeteria and community lounge are being renovated (the community lounge has outdoor seating too). Not sure if that was planned before COVID but it was a needed upgrade anyways.

Food in yosemite is open during covid

Of course open does mean business as usual. Every store, restaurant, and other service has been adjusted to respond to COVID. Since most buildings are fairly small, this has meant installing barriers and building lines for social distancing generally outside. The typical markers appear inside stores, employees counted how many people were inside in a few spots and hand sanitizer dispensers were outside just about everything. Many places had mid-day closing for an added cleaning as well.

Visitor Centers have been moved from buildings to Easy Up tents where rangers are available. The wilderness center remained open for permits but with a walk up desk at the doorway as was the case for other service buildings that no longer let you inside for now. As a federal land, the park signs suggested face coverings but did not mandate them. Most people seemed to wear them inside.

Ranger tents outside for covid

Picnic tables, dining rooms were all open. Outside facilities were already well spaced and inside ones seem to have been adjusted a bit though again, I didn’t see the crowds inside anywhere to come close to this being an issue.

Despite all this and walking around at lunch time, I found there to be almost no real lines to wait in. Perhaps at dinner, things back up a bit further but even the Starbucks which is usually packed was near empty. Everything was pretty much well stocked, save of course for Clorox wipes.

Some campgrounds are open though it’s unclear when more may resume and how (camping in Yosemite in summer is hard to get any year but this year expect it to be super limited and very competitive as many, many people look to get out).

Park shuttles closed in yosemite to social distance

I also mentioned before that park shuttles are closed which is a real drawback to getting around the valley but you can rent / bring a bike and avoid driving!

Please keep in mind that the park staff and everyone working in the park facilities have only recently returned and are doing a great job stepping back in to provide the best service they can while adopting to social distancing, in generally smaller, older facilities. Patience is important.

What’s available outside the park

The drive to the park from the Bay Area, Sacrament or LA is in many ways pretty typical to what you’d normally experience though of course with the obvious signs of COVID in route. In bigger cities, major stores are open, just about every gas station, etc.

Iron door saloon in Groveland

Getting closer to the park, things are both mostly normal and not always normal. The counties around the park are generally well along in California’s re-opening protocol than the major metro areas you may be coming from or have traveled through but they are also small communities with limited health-care resources so be safe as you pass thru. Note for out of state visitors: As of Friday, June 19th, California mandated face coverings for shared inside spaces and where social distancing isn’t possible.

While the local towns have opened up with plenty of coffee shops, snack stops, restaurants, outdoor activities, hotels, private camping and anything else you can think of, sadly not everyone seems to have been able to hold on and some businesses have certainly been impacted. Others are still trying to figure out how to properly re-staff and re-open.

I highly urge you to stop in, support the local businesses however you can with a purchase. Many of these towns are heavily reliant on tourism which has had plenty of ups and downs over the years and they could all use your support.

Also keep in mind that what’s around the park is awesome, small, local businesses who are adjusting to rapidly changing rules and adding their own steps for extra comfort. Don’t expect an app for everything but do know you’ll get great service, just give it a few minutes for them to handle everyone as they work to reopen.

It’s a great time to visit Yosemite if you’re up for it (and can score a permit).

Overall I’m so excited that I was able to get back to the park this weekend and I was amazed to see how much Yosemite was able to put in place and open back up. Sure, there’s impact to how you get into a store, less camping open, probably fewer hotels. There’s the whole new world of permits and reduced capacity with limits on entering a park and that comes with that (trust me, not just being able to go the park is big to me too) but I will say that the silver lining of less people is well, less people. Less car crowds. Less lines and still all the epic views to enjoy.

Yosemite Valley views, June 2020
Yosemite Valley views from my visit in June 2020.

Keep in mind that the valley is just a small part of Yosemite too. Heading into the backcountry (with permits or as a day hike), up to highway 120 through the park, down 41 and just away from the main attractions gives an entirely different world with tremendous views, huge hikes, great lakes, and so much more.

While the Valley is truly iconic of course and certainly worth a visit, especially if it’s your first time to the park, this is a great year to explore outside the valley where crowds are likely to be very light — or even just to get to a trail that’s less visited, a picnic spot further off the main road to enjoy with your group and take advantage of the upside that comes with this new system and this strange moment.

Final reminder

In closing, remember to check the park site for the latest news, rules and changes. And please, while our focus is on COVID and permits and all this wackiness, don’t forget that all the other realities of a trip out still apply.

Yosemite paper, june 2020

Speeding still kills bears & other wildlife. It’s summer which means hot days, so bring plenty of water, along with snacks, layers (it can still get stormy) and all the other essentials for your hike. Don’t forget to fill up on fuel before you head to the valley or off across 120. Pack a map with your sanitizer and mask. You know, all the things you’d usually do for a trip into the great outdoors!

It’s time to get out and enjoy but do your planning first — have fun!

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