The Off-Season Guide to Yosemite National Park, Part 1

My wife and I are lucky enough to live so close to Yosemite that we’ve been there hundreds of times.  SONY DSCAfter all these trips, we’ve discovered the best places to stay, the best places to eat and most importantly, the best places to take pictures.  Read on, and we’ll share some of our secrets with you.

Yosemite used to have a well-defined off season.  If you headed to the park in October or April, you would have the place to yourself.  That’s no longer the case.  Now, just about any month can be called “crowded” in comparison to other national parks.  I blame the crowds on cameras.  Everyone wants to take pictures with their new digital camera, and quite frankly, there’s no better place to take pictures then in Yosemite.

However, there are far less people in the park from early October to the end of April.  And that’s especially true on weekdays, or in periods of “bad” weather.

The Fall, while not as colorful as many places on the East Coast, or even as colorful as some spots in the Eastern Sierras, is still gorgeous.  SONY DSCAnd the Merced River, which runs through the Valley, slows and pools into a nearly infinite number of reflection ponds; perfect for capturing both the color of the trees, and the imposing granite cliffs.

Winter is my favorite time in the Park.  Fewer people.   Amazing scenes.  If you’re a fan of black and white photography, a clearing winter storm in Yosemite is an event you’ll remember for the rest of your life._DSC3040-Edit-Edit

Spring is exceptional.  This is when the park shows up its famous waterfalls.  And the meadows are so green, they almost look unreal.  Head to the Valley in May and you’ll be treated to dogwood blossoms as well.SONY DSC





Camping with a Class B motorhome, like our Roadtrek Agile is perfect for the Valley, but there are some challenges.  There are three “car” campgrounds in the Valley.  North Pines, Lower Pines and Upper Pines.  Through most of the year, these are reserved campgrounds ( and getting a site can be difficult.  Reservations are made on the 15th of the month, five months ahead of the time you want to go.  During the coldest months, the campgrounds are first-come, first served.  If you don’t have a reservation and you want to take a chance on cancellations, visit the reservation offices in the Camp Curry parking lot or at the Highway 120 entrance.

There are some very strict rules on camp fires and generator use.  Both are restricted to certain hours of the day, and it seems like those hours are getting smaller every year.

There is a free dump station at the entrance to Upper Pines Campground.

Do not even try to camp outside of the campgrounds.  I know it’s tempting, but they catch everybody who tries to do it.  They really do.  No kidding.

The campgrounds are inexpensive, but you aren’t getting much for your money.  You’ll get a flat campsite with a fire pit and a bear locker.  The bears in Yosemite have figured out how to break into cars, so anybody tent camping is required to put their food and their toilet articles in the bear locker.  RV’s are exempt.  I guess bears just haven’t figured them out yet. Give them time – they’re very persistent.

The campground bathrooms are bad.  No other way to put it.  Just Plain Bad.  It’ll make you happy you have your own private bath in your van.  The showers in Curry village are acceptable, but expensive at $5 a shot. SONY DSC Curry village is a short walk from Lower Pines Campground, a longer walk from Upper Pines and a real hike from North Pines.  But, you can drive over and park in the large Camp Curry parking lot.

Eating in the Valley is a matter of extremes.  On one hand, you have the absolutely wonderful, but very expensive, Ahwahnee Dining Room.  On the other hand, you have the usually disappointing and sometimes even inedible Lodge Cafeteria.  Here are some good bets for fairly-priced, good-tasting food.

Degnan’s Deli in the main Yosemite Village (near the large visitor’s center) makes wonderful sandwiches and soups.  They open early, and I’d suggest going early because there is nearly always a long line at lunch time.  We get ours and head out to a pretty spot in the Valley for a picnic. The Chicken Waldorf sandwich is my favorite.

Visiting the Pizza Deck at Camp Curry is a family tradition.  Sit outside and enjoy some pretty darn good pizza and drinks. (In the off season, they’re only open on weekends, but they do have some inside seating.)

For a fancy dinner, though not as formal, nor as expensive as the Ahwahnee Dining Room, try the Mountain Room at the Yosemite Lodge.  It’s been consistently good through the years.

Even if you decide not to eat at the Ahwahnee Dining Room, be sure to visit.  It’s a breathtaking room.  KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERADinner is a slightly formal affair.   Men might get away with wearing a nice pair of pants and a sweater, but they prefer a jacket.  I’ve eaten dinner there a few times and it was worth the price, but my favorite meal is their Sunday brunch.  It’s not cheap either, but if you eat around 11:00, it might very well be the only meal you eat that day.  So that makes it a good deal in my book.  And the dress code is casual.

Just an aside, the Sunday Brunch at the Ahwahnee has been going on for as long as I can remember.  Back in the 70’s, my friends and I would eat there after a week of snow camping.  Boy, did they lose money on us.

The cafeterias at the Lodge and Camp Curry should be avoided, unless you’re starving and desperate.  I’ve had a few decent meals at both, but they’ve been few and far between.

There is a good sized grocery in Yosemite Village.  It’s connected to a large gift store, so there are some crowds to deal with, but you can get in and out pretty quickly.  An important note, the parking lot behind the store says “No motorhomes”.  It’s been my experience that this does NOT apply to 20 footers.  Anything bigger might get kicked out.  There is a larger “day” lot just down the road a bit.

Next time, Getting In, Getting Around and Season-based Photography.SONY DSC

13 Responses

  1. If there is no or little snow on the ground we always bring our bicycles to get around the valley. It is fun, we can stop whenever we want, and they are easy to park. We haven’t camped in Yosemite in our RV yet but want to, so thanks for the tips on making reservations. Great article.
    Also, we like the taco salad at Curry Village at the window, but this is opened during the summer months.

    1. Never tried the Taco Salad, but I’ll put it on my list for next Summer. Thanks. And yes, the bikes are fun. I was already thinking about mentioning that in Part 2. Thanks for checking out the blog.

    2. Hi Linda!

      You’re right about using a bike.
      Riding my bike in Yosemite Valley and hearing the *ring ring* of the bell is one of the most joyful experiences I know. Makes me feel young again. 🙂

  2. Thank you for the Yosemite information. I have been there only in the summer but I really want to exerience the winter there.

    How does your Agile do on snowy roads? I have a 2014 SS Agile and I ski a lot. I would love to take my RT skiing rather than my car!

    1. Hi Judi, Glad to meet another Agile owner. We bought ours last May, so I haven’t tried it on snowy roads yet. We live in the snow and our other car is a Subaru, and it’s great in the snow. But you sure can’t sleep in it. I guess we’ll be getting some snow chains for Charley. I’ll have more about getting around Yosemite in the off season in the second part of this story. Thanks for checking out our blog.

  3. I’m gonna have to travel here someday. But just for the food. The Ahwahnee Dining Room looks and sounds pretty cool and well worth the trip.

    Okay, I’ll do some picture taking, also. =).

    1. Mr. Sane (I really like calling you that)
      You’d love it and there are some times of the year Valley is “relatively” empty. Those are the best. Hope we can meet you there someday.

  4. Hi there, came across your blog when I was searching on Ahwahnee Dining experience. Do you think the dinner or big brunch is more worth trying? We are expecting ourselves to be there on a Sunday in January.

    Dress code wise, I know they are all saying it’s proper attire. But we are thinking how convenient it is for us to change since our day would be spent around the valley area and our accommodation is not anywhere near – got to drive out to Oakhurst. We need a second opinion on this. Dinner or lunch? 😉 What time does the brunch start and end?

    1. Hi Josephine,

      Thanks for checking out my blog. Yes, Oakhurst is pretty far away from the Valley, especially in January when it gets icy. If I were you, I’d go to the brunch. It runs from 7 to 2, but I believe they bring out more “main” dish courses, plus the deserts (which you DO NOT want to miss) around 11. So, that’s when I’d go. I hope you have fun.

      1. Hey Kevin, thanks for your reply! I’m really tempted to go for brunch but we would have to rush a little as we are coming down from Death Valley at 4am. We probably want to set off even earlier to be there by 11-ish or 12. Gotta avoid Tioga Pass and go by Bakersfield.

        And I’m looking forward to your part 2. It has to come soon enough… We are driving but I bet it is not the wisest to drive around the valley in winter. Bike / Hike / Shuttle buses are our options, yes?

        This is our first time to Yosemite and we can only afford a short 2 days… so we really need to maximize our time. We don’t know when we will come again. Singapore to California is a 16-hour flight LOL.

        1. I’ll be doing Part 2 pretty soon. Long before you get to the park. I think it might answer a lot of your questions, but if not, then just leave a comment or send me an email at

          And if you haven’t already, you might subscribe to my blog. I’ll be doing Yosemite updates fairly often as it is the place we visit the most.


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