I don’t know why I waited until I was in my late 40s to visit Yosemite National Park. I guess you hear the stories about the crowds and the traffic, and you start to think that it’s not worth it. You tell yourself you’ll visit during off-peak times, and then you never get around to it.
Well, let this article be your encouragement to visit Yosemite if you’ve never been. The Central Valley is truly one of the most amazing sights in the United States. Yes, there’s traffic on the weekends, but my wife and I almost didn’t mind. The views are just that amazing.
I’ll give you an example. We pulled off the road at one point and snapped this picture. It doesn’t look real, and this was just one of those random “pull off here -- I want to get a picture of this” photos.
If you’re visiting Yosemite, you’ll need a place to stay. Here are some of the best options.
The Ahwahnee Hotel
I should start with some clarification here. If you’ve planned a trip to Yosemite in the past and then tried to plan one in the last few years, the names of the hotels were probably quite confusing to you. Due to a trademark dispute, the names of the hotels had to be changed in 2016 while the lawsuit was going on. What had been The Ahwahnee Hotel for decades was changed to The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, and the historic Camp Curry became Half Dome Village. People who had booked there for decades had to learn the new names of the hotels and campgrounds.
That dispute was finally settled in the summer of 2019, and all of the hotels returned to their original names, including perhaps the most historic hotel at Yosemite: The Ahwahnee.
Built in the 1920s, The Ahwahnee is the true gem of Yosemite National Park. Of all the historic lodges in all of the national parks, The Ahwahnee stands out; there’s a reason it appears on so many top-five lists. It’s not easy to combine luxury with lodge living, but The Ahwahnee does so with ease, and it has the additional advantage of offering incredible views of Yosemite Valley.
Please note that The Ahwahnee is very pricey, but that seems to be a function of demand. For peak-season trips, despite very high room rates, you have to book weeks or months in advance. But the luxurious accommodations are worth it. The dining room alone -- with its massive vaulted ceiling that makes you feel like you’re in a grand ballroom -- is worth the expense.
Like I said, The Ahwahnee is truly the gem of Yosemite.
Yosemite Valley Lodge
The other main hotel on the north side of Yosemite Valley is the Yosemite Valley Lodge. This is perhaps the most centrally located lodge for those visiting the Central Valley. It is located near Yosemite Falls, so close that visitors staying at the lodge can walk there. (The best time to view Yosemite Falls, by the way, is late spring, when the snowmelt is in full force. Consider planning a trip for late April.)
The cost for a room varies based on time of year, but generally it’s less than half of the cost of a room at The Ahwahnee. While you’re not getting the luxury of The Ahwahnee, you still get a classic “staying at a fancy lodge in the mountains” experience.
The rooms are comfortable, the dining area is very nice, and the views in nearly every direction are spectacular.
If you’re traveling in a group, this should definitely be your choice. The Yosemite Valley Lodge has no problem accommodating large groups. Many families will rent a bunk room near the river with beds for the parents and bunk beds for the kids (or grandkids).
This was where my wife and I stayed when we visited Yosemite last spring during peak waterfall season. We knew it would be busy, and while we wanted to see the waterfalls, we also wanted to explore other areas of the park, so we chose to stay 30 miles away from Yosemite Valley (but still within the park) at the Wawona Hotel (known as Big Trees Lodge during the trademark dispute).
My wife and I enjoy staying at places that take us back in time, and the Wawona Hotel did that and more. When you walk up the wooden steps of this Victorian hotel and onto the massive porch, you’re transported back to, say, the 1890s, when families retreated to this relaxing place in the mountains. The original building dates to 1856, and the additions were built in the early 1900s. Our building was constructed in 1903.
Our room was simple, yet perfectly elegant. You can get a room with an ensuite bathroom or a room with a communal restroom down the hall. The dining area is nearly perfect if you’re looking for a Victorian lodge dining experience, with windows that open to the cool mountain breezes outside. After dinner each night we were there, my wife and I sat on the massive porch and enjoyed a cocktail.
The absolute best part of the stay was the evening presentation by Yosemite historian Tom Bopp. He played the piano in the lobby and showed a video on the long history of Yosemite, singing the songs of Yosemite’s history. I cannot recommend this presentation enough. If you plan to stay at the Wawona Hotel, call ahead to see if Tom will be presenting on one of the evenings.
If it’s a camping vibe you’re after, then you should consider staying at Curry Village. A stay there includes a hotel room in a massive tent. You’re not really camping -- this is a tent with a wooden frame, wooden floors, a bed on a bed frame, and lighting -- but you get the camping experience of sleeping “outdoors” in a canvas tent.
This experience is not for everyone. There are no televisions, no electrical outlets, and no phones. But that’s part of the appeal, and the reason it’s often difficult to book one of the tents. For many people -- specifically those whose families took them to Camp Curry when they were children -- staying at Yosemite means staying in one of the tents in Curry Village. You get the best of a campground and a hotel room at the same time.
Rush Creek Lodge
The four options above are all within Yosemite National Park and are operated by concessionaires chosen by the National Park Service. But those are not the only places to stay at Yosemite. There are also many lodges just outside the park limits that provide a comfortable, even luxurious stay minutes away from the park entrance.
Perhaps the best option outside the park is Rush Creek Lodge. This lodge is located only half a mile from the west entrance to Yosemite National Park. The drive from Rush Creek Lodge to Yosemite Valley is approximately 30 minutes, which, it’s worth noting, is the same length as the drive from the Wawona Hotel to the Central Valley, though the Wawona Hotel is located within the park.
Rush Creek Lodge has several lodging options. You can stay in the lodge itself in a mini-suite with a kitchenette. Or, if your party is larger than two or four people, you can stay in one of the hillside villas, with bedrooms that can hold up to six guests.
Wherever you stay, make sure to spend at least one day in the Central Valley. It’s truly one of the most spectacular places in the country.
Looking for more lodging options near Yosemite? Consider one of these gorgeous glamping spots.
As of June 11, 2020, visitors need a day-use reservation in order to enter Yosemite. For more information about park guidelines, check out our full list of national parks requiring changes for visitors.