Yosemite for Procrastinators

Did you know you can book last-minute camping site in one of the busiest Parks in the busiest month of the year? We've been doing it for several years now. Here's how.
yosemite national park, mountains, fog-1846463.jpg

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Not only is nabbing last-minute camping spots in Yosemite possible, but it’s easier than booking months ahead. I managed to do it twice in August, the busiest month of the year.

Drawing of a clock

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

– Douglas Adams

My wishlist for the summer seemed simple – Sleep in a tent, Build a campfire, Swim in a lake, and Catch and eat a fish.  But summer weeks passed by, vacation ideas stayed just that, and my longing for an extended stay in nature went unabated.

I decided that a camping trip to Yosemite would do the trick. Naively I thought I’d open the computer, reserve a spot, pack, and go. Congratulations if you are aware that Yosemite sells out months in advance, I had no idea. Looking back, of course it makes sense, one of the most beautiful places in the USA and the world-class destination that it is.

Luckily, I don’t give up easily. I figured, if you have to book a spot in April for your August trip, there surely must be plenty of people whose plans change and reservations get canceled.  So I put in my dates and sat there refreshing the Recreation.gov website every 5 minutes and bam! A day pops up! Off to the shopping basket it goes.

The basket holds your order for 15 minutes so you have to make sure to click “Add 5 minutes” when a pop-up appears on your screen. If you have several tabs open, you can add 5 minutes to each and they all add up. Or you can add any random item to your shopping cart to reset the timer to 15 minutes, just remember to remove the item before you check out. 

An hour later, another day pops up! A different spot in a different campground but who cares? It’s all Yosemite. And, bit by bit, I had 3 consecutive days booked, in 3 different campgrounds.

Update a year later: We booked 9 consecutive days using the same method. The first 5 of them from home, a few days before departure, snatching up spots that someone just canceled. We booked the rest while in Yosemite. Every morning, while having breakfast at the Degnan’s cafe, I checked the Recreation.gov website and, one morning, spots opened up and we booked them.

Yosemite is an immense National Park. I had no idea. The driving distances between campgrounds can span hours, especially if there’s roadwork as when we went so just make sure you know where your sites are located when you pick them. It was my blind luck that our campsites were all in Yosemite Valley (North Pines, Lower Pines, and Upper Pines), within walking distance from each other and a pleasant, wooded walk to the store and restaurants. Packing up camp and moving proved no bother at all. I used the same technique to get the following 2 nights at Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP for an amazing 5 day, 2 National Park road trip.

I was so smitten with Yosemite, its grandeur and beauty that, a week after returning home, I found myself refreshing the booking website again. Amazingly, 4 consecutive nights in the same spot popped up. Ecstatic, I grabbed them, we packed again and in the wee hours of the following morning, we found ourselves in the car, traversing the 9 hours of the desert landscape once again. It felt like going home.  I got 4 out of my 5 summer wishes fulfilled. I didn’t fish and I’m no longer sure I want to.  Fishes are people too.

No lions, no tigers, but bears, oh my! I spent the first trip terrified to go to sleep, taking every crack of a branch, and every whisper of leaves as a sure sign of impending death. I soaked strips of cloth in PineSol and tied them around the tent and the car because, apparently, bears don’t like the smell of pine extracts. Go figure. Well, it must have worked. Not a bear in sight, even though we did hear a park ranger on a couple of early mornings yell “Go away bear! Go! Go away!” into a megaphone. Then, one day in Sequoia National Park, in broad daylight, together with about 100 other people, I saw one. I saw a bear. It was black, about a third of the size I was imagining, it was adorable, and it ran as soon as the ranger yelled at it, its cute bottom bobbing in the air.  The rangers seemed to have been trying to protect the bears from us, not the other way around. The bears need to be killed if they befriend a human or get used to human food. Do not feed a bear, no matter how cute it is. Otherwise, you’ve just signed its death sentence. Needless to say, on our second trip I slept like a baby (a baby that sleeps soundly through the night, that is.)

Tips on booking Yosemite last minute and having a great trip

  • Go to Recreation.gov, make an account and log in. Check for campsites in Yosemite (or any other National Park you’re interested in) for your desired dates. Keep checking until something pops up. Fridays and Saturdays are harder to come by, but not impossible.  When you see an available day, add it to your shopping cart immediately. Someone is always searching for a spot. Blink and it’s gone.  Add first, think later, you can always cancel.
  • The shopping cart expires in 15 minutes so either keep pressing “Add 5 minutes” when it shows up on your screen, or add a random item into your shopping cart and then delete it, which will add another 15 minutes. Make sure to check for availability at all the campgrounds, but also check the distances between them to see if the moves make sense for your itinerary. When you have all the desired dates (this can take a few hours), purchase them and get packing! Cancellations more than 48 hours in advance of arrival date only incur a $10 transaction fee. Within 48 hours, $10 and the first night’s fee are charged.
  • Download Google Map of the area for offline use. We would have been (literally) lost without it. There’s no cell signal in much of the park and some of the roads are one-way only. One wrong turn and you’ll find yourself on a 20-minute loop to a place that should have taken 2 minutes to get to. Don’t bring this up with my hubby, it’s still a tender point.
  • You are more likely to find a spot for tomorrow than for a week from now. Finally, an area where being a procrastinator pays off. Let’s just call it spontaneity. Sounds cooler. ?
  • Check what stores and restaurants will be open. We came across some “Closed for the season” signs even though it was the beginning of August.
  • Every campground has toilets and water fill stations, but the best bathrooms are at Camp4, Degnan’s restaurant, and Curry Village.
  • Showers are available at the Curry Village pool house and at Camp4 (if you stay there). We swam in the lakes and rivers but didn’t use any soaps or shampoos, of course, for the fishes’ sake.
  • Getting a spot at Camp4 is hard. It’s either by lottery or on a first come first serve basis (some years). It’s also positioned between a rock and a hard place (between a mountain and a road) and the campsites are not drive-in, you leave your car in the parking lot and carry everything to your campsite. The bathrooms and showers are great and it’s the most affordable campground in Yosemite.
  • No curry in Curry village, FYI. Wouldn’t want you to live through the same letdown we did. Great pizza though.
  • Every day, all the time, keep anything with any smell in the metal, bear-proof boxes provided at each campsite. Food, toiletries, candy, trash (before you take it to the trash can), cologne, chapstick, minty floss – anything with any odor to it, whether or not it’s food-related, stick it into the bear box and take it out only when you’re using it.
  • Early mornings are magical. We saw dear grazing in the campground, sun rays shining through the fog, everything’s quiet… peek out of your tent or camper. You never know what you might see. We didn’t need to use our rain-fly and were thankful for the views.
  • You can see the famous Half Dome and Washington Column from each of the Pines campgrounds.
  • You can swim in Yosemite. I had no idea. Thankfully I brought my swimsuit. There are, of course, many areas too dangerous to swim in and people have died. The currents can be stronger than they seem. But there are also areas that are slow and calm, and deep blue lakes you can dip into. One such river runs right between the Pines campsites and you will see people wading, swimming, even floating on their inflatables. Sentinel Beach, Cathedral Beach, and the Swinging Bridge area are great for swimming too.
  • Swinging Bridge is not a swinging bridge anymore, FYI. Still pretty though.
  • You don’t have to be in tip-top shape to enjoy Yosemite. There are many hikes for many tastes and fitness levels. Even just walking through the forest to the store every day was magical. There are also many paved roads and paths making Yosemite wheelchair accessible.
  • The Village Store area has a pretty good cellphone signal.
  • There’s a strange and beautiful phenomenon that sometimes occurs during sunset. The tops of the rocks like Half Dome look like they’re on fire.
Half Dome at sunset

So there you have it. By all means, try to book a camping site months ahead, the moment reservations open. I tried that and failed. Booking last-minute spots worked much better for me. I wish you good luck and happy camping!

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