TravMedia April 30, 2014 —Yosemite National Park in Northern California is popular year round, but in summer and autumn its popularity swells with full hotels, campgrounds and queues at entrance points. Many visitors aren't aware of the abundance of lodging options in communities at three of the park's main entrances.
The park and its surrounding Gold Country communities offer visitors easy access to attractions such as El Capitan and Yosemite Falls, and offer insight on lesser known, yet worthwhile experiences both inside and outside the park. The communities to the north, west and south of Yosemite provide visitors a local perspective and helpful tips on great places to stay, best times to visit and other visitor services such as vacation planners and maps.
Dispelling a major myth--cars are allowed in Yosemite National Park. Visitors are welcome to drive to the park and within it, including the Yosemite Valley. For those who prefer not to drive, transportation companies, like Yosemite Areas Regional Transit (www.yarts.com) and private tour companies provide a round trip to and from the park for visitors staying at various gateway lodging locations. In an effort to reduce entrance wait times and parking issues during peak season, the National Park Service is recommending that motorhomes use designated Park and Ride locations outside park gates or in selected campground facilities and ride YARTS or tours into and out of the Park.
When visiting Yosemite during the peak summer season, it's a good idea to plan on early entry through the park's gates to avoid queues. Head to the Yosemite Valley floor either early or later in the day (busy times are between 10 am and 2 pm, especially on weekends). Park in the day use area and take advantage of the free Valley Shuttle to see all the iconic sites like Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Merced River, Vernal Falls and Yosemite Chapel.
Tuolumne County – North Entrance – Highway 120
Tuolumne County is the North entrance (Highway 120) to Yosemite National Park. Highway 120 is the shortest route to Yosemite from San Francisco and all points north. Driving time from San Francisco to the Yosemite Valley floor is approximately four hours, traffic dependent. Visitors heading to Yosemite via the Highway 120 entrance can stop by the Tuolumne County Visitors Center in Chinese Camp to the latest information on activities in around the Park as well as on Tuolumne County and the surrounding Gold Country.
Continuing south from Chinese Camp on Highway 120 towards Yosemite for approximately 30 minutes you will encounter the quaint town of Groveland. The Groveland Hotel offers comfortable accommodations with each room dedicated to a famous, and sometimes infamous, character of the past. The hotel's Cellar Door Restaurant has held the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence since 2011.
A stop at the Groveland Museum will give visitors insight into the colorful past of this Gold Rush town. Just a couple minutes south of Groveland on Highway 120 (towards Yosemite) is the popular Rainbow Pool swimming hole.
Madera County – South Entrance, Highway 140
The south gateway to Yosemite National Park, on Highway 41 in Madera County, is the most traveled year round entrance for visitors who wish to self-drive, or sight-see on a tour bus, to experience this awe inspiring region of California. From Los Angeles, drive time is approximately 5 hours. Madera County offers convenient and affordable lodging options from full service resorts to local hotels/motels, vacation rental homes and bed & breakfasts.
When you're leaving Yosemite plan to depart in the early afternoon and take advantage of the long summer days to explore the many south gate attractions like the popular Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Ride back in time on the one-hour narrated tours that depart several times a day and enjoy the Thornberry Museum, gold panning, gift shops, and more.
More popular south gate attractions include the Madera Wine Trail, art galleries, museums, Fossil Discovery Center and an abundance of outdoor recreation.
Yosemite Mariposa County -- West Entrance, Highway 41
This region of the Gold Country offers access to Yosemite National Park from Highway 41 through the West gate is one hour north of Fresno, and is the shortest distance to the popular Mariposa Grove, a square mile home to the Earth's largest and oldest living organisms.
More than 500 Giant Sequoias keep the grove cool on even summer's hottest day. You can explore the area on foot or take a 75-minute guided tram tour from May through October, with programming in English, German, Japanese, French and Spanish. Tip: To avoid parking lot jams, visitors may park their car at the historic Wawona Hotel and take the free Wawona-Mariposa Grove shuttle to see the Sequoias.
The town of Mariposa, first settled in 1849, is the southernmost in the Gold Rush chain of towns. The streets follow the original street grid laid out by John C. Fremont in 1850. Several disastrous early fires convinced settlers to rebuild with stone, brick and adobe. Consequently, many of today's existing structures in the historic downtown had been built by the late 1850s, with most of the remaining ones completed by 1900. Because they have always been in use, the old buildings haven't had to be restored or recreated.
The old west is historically represented on Main Street with the wooden sidewalks, a tour of the oldest court house west of the Rockies still in continuous operation since 1854 and the Mariposa Museum and History Center at 5119 Jessie Street, named one of the best small museums in America by the Smithsonian Institute, where you can see remnants of the gold rush, a Sheriff's office and miner's camp, early Miwok Indian life, early frontier furniture and player piano and one-room school house. (Open daily year round, Adults $4, children under 18 are free.) http://mariposamuseum.com.
The Mariposa area has vineyards and wineries where you can taste or pick up a bottle to accompany your afternoon picnic.
A unique way to explore the area is in an historic, original Model T automobile with the top down. Visitors may choose from a variety of vintage vehicles, from a 1915 Touring car to a 1929 Model A Roadster with Rumble seat for children (www.driveamodelt.com).
Editor's note: To help you understand California better, we identfy our features as relating to one of a dozen separate regions of the state. Sometimes these regions have exact boundaries such as Los Angeles and San Diego Counties. Sometimes they are more general, such as “North Coast” or “Deserts.” At Taste California Travel we define Gold Country as that foothill land between California's great Central Valley and its High Sierra Mountains to the east. Since there is not precise dividing line, we consider our High Sierra section to start somewhere above 2500 to 3000 feet. Yosemite National Park would fit that definition. Other attractions mentioned in the article above might be at lower elevations in areas we call either Gold Country or the Central Valley.
In any case, we suggest you check out the Central Valley, Gold Country and High Sierra sections of our Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of hundreds of Lodging and Dining options, as well as links to area wineries and craft beer specialists.