We caught an early start next morning, and it was first stop Safeway’s supermarket, and second stop Starbucks, before hitting the road east! Now that I’ve experienced the Yosemite thing, I know a lot more about the practicalities than beforehand.
Lodging is available inside the park, but the moderately-priced ones tend to be booked up way in advance of every Christmas holiday – up to a year or more in advance, apparently. You might catch some cancellations online if you keep your eyes open though, but don’t bank on finding something at the last minute – unless you fancy the beautiful and historic, but very upscale, Ahwahnee Hotel. Or at the opposite end of the scale, there’s always the heated tents in Curry Village. We were looking for something mid-range on that comfort scale though! Luckily I managed to find a room at Cedar Lodge, 8 miles outside the park.
We flew into San Francisco, and it was a comfortable 4 hour drive to Yosemite. The first 3 hours or so are on the highway, while the last stretch has you on mountain roads, which, although slower, are much more scenic. There is one stretch of road before Yosemite that is a single, narrow track – only one line of traffic can pass at a time. So it’s controlled by a light, and only one line of traffic goes at a time. If you happen to approach just as your lane catches the red light, you could wait up to 20 minutes until your direction moves again. So take your patience with you!
Mariposa is the last sizable town you’ll hit before Yosemite, so I’d advise stocking up on any necessities here if you haven’t already done so earlier. There are numerous places to buy food and any necessities in the park, but as you’d expect, the prices are hiked up in comparison to those outside the park.
The Mariposa County Visitor Center
This makes for a useful stop while you are in the town. Here you can purchase your pass for access into the park (currently $20 per car for a 7-day pass). This can save you a whole load of time later on, especially if it’s a busy time of year. At the park’s entrance there is only one toll gate in use for payments. There’s a second lane that allows you to drive on through if you’ve already paid – simply slow down and show your receipt to the ranger who’ll wave you on through. No waiting required. If you don’t have a pass, you’ll have to wait in the line of traffic – as we drove through in mid-afternoon when we first arrived, there were 8 cars in line. Imagine the line in the summer!
Stopping at the visitor center is also helpful since you can ask all your questions there, and get as much preliminary information as necessary before you first arrive at the park. Again, you don’t want to be stopping at the gate to ask the park ranger anything, or you’ll be adding to, as well as waiting in, the traffic line.
It’s a useful place to get the weather information too. We knew in advance of heading out west that there was no snow in the park, but I was still uncertain as to whether we’d need to be carrying chains. So we decided to visit the center here before renting or buying any chains. I’m glad we did, because the helpful ranger informed us that there was no snowstorm due for at least a few weeks, so everywhere in the park was open, and there was no snow chain mandate in effect.
If you’re wise, you’ll be sure to fill up on gas in Mariposa. There is a gas station a few miles outside the park in El Portal – usually open 24 hours (pay at the pump), but it is currently closed – the NPS shut down the station recently because some of its equipment failed to meet state environmental standards. Not sure when it’s going to be reopened. Gas is much cheaper in Mariposa anyway. There are gas stations in the park (Wawona, Crane Flat, and at Tuolumne Meadows on the Tioga Pass Road), but none within 16 miles of Yosemite Valley itself. In Mariposa, unleaded gas was running at about $3.49 per gallon while we were there, and gas within the park was about $4.49 or more. So you’re definitely wise to fill up outside the park whenever possible.
But typically if you’re heading out there in winter, however, you’ll be heading into a lot of snow, and you’ll need to carry snow chains. The Yosemite National Park Rangers are able to stop you to check that you do in fact have snow chains – and if not, they will turn you away from the park to acquire them. It’s CA state law that you carry them in the winter in chain control areas like the park. So be sure to carry them in the winter season – it’s not worth being turned away, or even worse – being caught in a snowstorm!
There are numerous places in Mariposa where you can buy or rent snow chains – some of the stores had signs outside, advertising them, so you’ll likely find some easily. To name just a couple of places – the Shell Gas Station had them, as did the Stage Stop Mini Mart/Gas Station on the left as you drive through the town towards Yosemite. You’ll only need chains for two of your tires, and they’re sold in pairs. One local store was renting them for $30 for a week (plus a larger deposit that would be refunded upon return). Just be aware that most places no longer give refunds on chains if you buy them and then try to return them unused.
And on the subject of snow chains – if you’re renting a car, you’ll have to be sure that the rental company allows chains on their cars. I’d done some investigating and heard that Fox and Dollar both were snow chain-friendly. But then I came upon some reports that Dollar no longer allowed snow chains on their cars. We went with Fox – at least at the current time, they clearly allow snow chains because they have instructions on their website for how to apply them. Plan ahead though, and make sure you choose a rental company that allows snow chain use.
Having been there and done it now, I can definitely recommend a bit of forward planning for your trip – it will certainly make things a bit easier for you if you’re spending a few days at Yosemite. Sure, you can get most things that you need either at stores in the park, or in El Portal, but a bit of forward planning could save you a decent amount of money if you’re there for any length of time.