Yosemite National Park was established in 1890 to protect the incredible natural wonders – mountainous formations and towering sequoias – in this part of the Sierra Nevada range. In the 130 years since the park was first established, it has become one of the most beloved and most visited national parks in the U.S. (It ranked #5 in 2019, with 4.4 million visitors.)
Yosemite is also an incredible stargazing destination, and pretty easily accessed from the San Francisco Bay Area (#12 among the most populous metro areas in the U.S.). If you’re craving an escape from the Bay Area, planning a trip to Yosemite and are curious about your stargazing prospects, or an avid astrotourist who wants to tick ‘stargazing in Yosemite’ off of your astronomy bucket list – here’s what you need to know to plan a Yosemite stargazing trip.
Note: Due to the novel coronavirus, National Parks vary in opening hours and access. Be sure to check if the park you want to visit is open before planning a trip.
How to Get to Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is located a few hours’ drive east from the San Francisco Bay Area. That means you’ll need to fly into one of the three San Francisco area airports (SFO – San Francisco, OAK – Oakland, or SJC – San Jose) and rent a car to drive to Yosemite.
It’s almost always easier and cheaper to fly into Oakland or San Jose. Since Oakland is in the East Bay and San JOse in the South Bay, you can avoid a lot of the traffic in the Bay Area by flying into SJC or OAK.
Once you’re in the car, you’ll take a series of interstates (880/280, 680, 580, etc.) to California Highway 120 which leads to the Yosemite Valley. It takes 3.5-4 hours with no traffic; on busy weekends or holidays, the drive can take up to 5 hours so plan ahead and take a rest stop if you need it!
How to Go Stargazing in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is one of the most popular national parks for stargazing; many people visit for the natural wonders in the Yosemite Valley in the daylight hours and after the sun goes down. Unsurprisingly, there are some great spots to go stargazing in Yosemite!
Where to Go Stargazing in Yosemite National Park
You can go stargazing almost anywhere in Yosemite, but here are five of the most popular, well-known, and most epic vistas for stargazing.
1. Glacier Point
Glacier Point is far and away the most-recommended stargazing spot in Yosemite. It’s so popular that this is where star parties are held in the park! On good nights for stargazing, amateur astronomers often set up telescopes here so you may get a close-up view of the stars while enjoying the night sky from high in the Sierra Nevadas.
(Pro-tip: Watch sunset here and then enjoy twilight as the stars come out before you start stargazing!)
2. Sentinel Dome
An alternative to Glacier Point if you want to avoid any crowds there, Sentinel Dome is located off Glacier Point Road but before you reach the final vista. From Sentinel Dome you’ll have unobstructed night sky views in every direction, plus an epic view of the Yosemite Valley.
3. Badger Pass
Located out along Glacier Point Road, Badger Pass ski area is a great spot for winter snow sports. During the summer it’s one of the more isolated parts of Yosemite you can reach by car – making it an ideal stargazing spot in the park. You’ll be outside of the Yosemite Valley too, so enjoy the completely unobstructed views.
4. Cooks Meadow
There are lots of spots within the Yosemite Valley where you can see the open sky above you, but Cook’s Meadow is the most commonly cited spot for stargazing. That’s because the Meadow has nice unobstructed views; those can be tricky to find with the shape of the Yosemite Valley and the trees there.
5. Tunnel View
Tunnel View is one of Yosemite’s most scenic views; it’s the postcard-perfect panoramic view everyone thinks of. That epic vista is equally impressive at night, when you can see a wide view of the sky above all of the main formations in the Yosemite Valley.
The National Park Service also notes that during the summer months, park rangers occasionally offer astronomy talks and guided night walks in the Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and Wawona. You can always check the Yosemite NP stargazing page to see if there are upcoming astronomy events.
Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park
There are plenty of options for where to stay after your night of stargazing in Yosemite. Let’s break down the main two: hotels and campsites.
Hotels in Yosemite National Park
There are three hotels in Yosemite National Park that you can stay at during your stargazing trip: The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Valley Lodge, and the Wawona Hotel.
There are also six non-hotel accommodation options – lodges and camps – in Yosemite that you can choose to stay at: Curry Village, Housekeeping Camp, White Wolf Lodge, Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, High Sierras Camp, and Glacier Point Ski Hut. Most are located further from development in the Yosemite Valley so can be a great option for those who want to enjoy the darkest skies possible. Most are available by reservation and/or lottery, so plan ahead if you want to stay at one of these.
You can find information about all of these options on the Yosemite NP site.
Note: These are starting room prices and can vary wildly based on the season and tourism demand.
Camping in Yosemite
There are lots of camping options in Yosemite: four campgrounds in the Yosemite Valley, two south of the Valley near Wawona, and seven north of the Valley.
Rather than breaking them all down, here are some tips if you want to camp during your stargazing trip to Yosemite:
- Check out the Yosemite NP site for specific details about each campground.
- Do your research to figure out where the campground is. Often you’ll face more light pollution if you camp in the Yosemite Valley but you’ll be closer to more popular stargazing spots, so it’s a trade-off.
- Plan ahead! Almost every campground requires reservations in advance – especially during the summer months, aka Milky Way season.
I hope that helps you arrange camping on your Yosemite stargazing trip.
Things to Do in Yosemite During the Day
What to See in Yosemite National Park
Explaining all of the things to see in Yosemite is a whole other post in itself – but this isn’t a blog about daytime sights, after all!
In case you’re not familiar with Yosemite and you’re starting your trip planning with stargazing info, here are some of the sights you should be sure to research, add to your itinerary, and try to see in Yosemite:
- Half Dome
- El Capitan
- Tunnel View
- Bridalveil Falls
- Yosemite Falls
- Glacier Point
- Tuolumne Meadows
- Cathedral Peak
- Mariposa Grove (The Redwoods!)
As you can tell, there’s no shortage of things to see during the day in between nights of stargazing.
What to Do in Yosemite National Park
Unsurprisingly, with so many natural wonders, there are some equally epic ways to enjoy what Yosemite has to offer.
- Auto Touring – Most visitors do at least a small auto-tour of the Yosemite Valley. As this is so popular, it’s common to struggle with parking so it’s best to do an auto tour in the morning if you’re staying in Yosemite after stargazing the night before.
- Hiking – Hiking is by far the most popular physical activity in Yosemite. There are 750 miles of trails in the 1,169 square miles of Yosemite National Park! From easy hikes to multi-day treks, hikers of all skills can find a trail to love.
- Cycling – If you’d rather work up a sweat while enjoying the Yosemite Valley, there are 12 miles of paved cycling roads in the valley that you can use to go ‘cycle’ touring instead.
- Rock Climbing – It’s an understatement to say that Yosemite is a climber’s playground. I mean, we’ve all seen or at least heard about Free Solo. Be sure you research routes and closures to make sure you’ll be safe on your climb.
There are tons of other activities too, from birding to horseback riding to fishing. Yosemite is a natural playground, and will stay that way if we all work to Leave No Trace.
Other FAQ about Stargazing in Yosemite National Park
Is Yosemite National Park open at night?
Yosemite is open 24/7/365 with no reservations needed… so yes, Yosemite is open at night.
However, some stations are closed at night and some roads are closed during the winter. So depending on your travel plans you should always check in advance to make sure the areas of the park you want to visit are open. (They almost always are!)
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Yosemite? When?
Absolutely, yes, you can see the Milky Way in Yosemite! The Milky Way is visible in the northern hemisphere during the summer months, so if you plan your Yosemite stargazing trip between April and October, you should be able to see the Milky Way (depending on the time you go stargazing).
When is the best time to go stargazing in Yosemite?
You can go stargazing in Yosemite all year long. Thanks to the climate in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite enjoys normal seasons and good air quality throughout the year.
That said, like with all stargazing destinations, you can plan your trip depending on what you want to see in the sky. For example, in the spring, you could try to run the Messier Marathon in Yosemite; in the summer and autumn, you can look for the Milky Way galaxy.
Is there a dark sky festival in Yosemite? Are there guided night tours?
There is no dark sky festival in Yosemite, but there are star parties and other astronomy programs offered through the National Park Service.
There are also some astronomy tours offered in the Yosemite area:
- Yosemite Family Adventures offers one from April 1 to September 30 each year.
- Tenaya Lodge has stargazing programs too, both on their property and in the park.
I’ll update the list with others if I hear about them. Do you have other questions about stargazing in Yosemite? Let us know in the comments!