Camping Outside Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Valley
Are the Campgrounds Inside Yosemite Full?
That's okay. Camping outside the Park has its benefits.
My husband and I visited Yosemite National Park for a week at the end of March and, while the campgrounds that were open inside the Park at that time of year were full (reserved) well before our trip, we had an entire, albeit small, campground all to ourselves near Yosemite's west entrance. As a bonus, we camped right next to the beautiful Merced River.
We were also happy to find that it was warmer at our campsite than it was at the higher-altitude campgrounds within Yosemite Valley, where there was a dusting of snow early in the week.
Here is some information about camping outside Yosemite Valley, specifically at Dirt Flat and Dry Gulch Campgrounds, and some photos of the area we took while we were there.
Photo credits: Debra Kingsbury; all rights reserved
Dirt Flat Campground on the Merced River - Near the West Entrance to Yosemite Valley
- Number of walk-in tent sites: 5
- Potable piped water
- Pit toilets
- Fire rings with grates
- Metal bear boxes at each site
We were getting close to the entrance of Yosemite, so we knew our camping destination was even closer. Then we saw the left turn off of highway 140 at the Red Bud Picnic Area. We crossed the bridge over the swiftly flowing Merced River and turned left on Incline Road, barely wide enough for two vehicles (and sometimes not, so there were pull-outs). Passing unoccupied Dry Gulch Campground, we drove another 1.5 miles to Dirt Flat. No one was home there either.
And that's how it was the whole week -- no one else camped at either campground but us. But even if they had, it was a beautiful spot with plenty of room for tents, shade- and rain shelters (like ours pictured here, over the picnic table), and camp chairs to relax in while watching the Merced water go by and the campfire flames flicker into the night.
Across the river, vehicles passed on Highway 140, coming and going from the Park and a nearby lodge, but they were far enough away that the headlights and the sound, the latter largely drowned out by the Merced, didn't bother us at all.
Behind and up-slope of our campsite, an occasional vehicle passed on Incline Rd, heading to or from several homes further up the road, but that wasn't a bother, either. In fact, we enjoyed evening walks with our dog along that mostly quiet road, as we enjoyed strolling along the former railroad bed and the wildflowers blooming up the steep hillside. We saw our share of wildlife here, including ducks and other birds, a deep red Yosemite salamander and even a bobcat.
Camping Outside Yosemite
With easy access to the Park....
Each day but one, when we decided to stay and relax in camp, we'd drive just a few minutes up the road to the National Park entrance and enjoy another day in Yosemite Valley, where it was noticeably cooler than back at camp. Being early spring, we experienced everything from winter to summer conditions in that one week, with cool to cold nights. Walking past the full campgrounds inside the Park, even during the warmest part of the warmest day of the week, we noted how chilly it was in the shade of the sequoias.
In the evening, we'd return to our warmer campsite, sometimes with a wave from the friendly Sequoia National Forest ranger who'd stopped by to greet us on our first day, give us his wisdom on the area, warn us to keep our food in the bear-proof locker at our site due to recent bear activity in the area, and chat for a while. He also told us about the cause of the recent fire, the evidence of which was all too clear on the slopes around us: A passing RV had caught fire and set the forest ablaze.
Despite the fire, the area around Dirt Flat and Dry Gulch campgrounds is just beautiful and a wonderful alternative to tent-camping inside the Park. No RVs are permitted here, however. And you won't save much--if any--money by camping at either of these sites, which were $21 per night while we were there. (Additional vehicles per site are $5 extra, and there's an extra charge on holidays.) I'm quite sure these sites, like others near the Park, also fill up well in advance at certain times of year, so don't hesitate to make your reservations.
Jeremy takes a dip in the Merced River by our campsite. There's a sandy "beach" at the nearby day-use area.
Supplies Near Dirt Flat and Dry Gulch Campgrounds
If you're camping near or inside the Park, I'd go as prepared as possible with all or most of the supplies you'll need for your stay.
There a few general stores with groceries and other items and an outdoor sport shop inside the Park at Yosemite Village, but, as you might expect, prices are high. There's a pretty big selection of foodstuffs available, though, should you forget or run out of something or just want a treat.
There's also a small store -- the El Portal Market -- with a deli on Highway 140, close to the campgrounds on Incline Road, between there and the Park entrance. Again, not cheap, but they have plenty and know what visitors to the Park usually need.
When we were there, it looked like new gasoline tanks were being installed at the then-closed station next to the store. So that station is probably open now. But, again as you'd expect, the cost of gasoline will be high there. In March, 2012, the closest gas to the campground was about 18 miles away in El Portal. Here's more information about where to get gas in Yosemite from YosemiteBlog.com.
Camping Near Yosemite National Park - Links for More Information and Reservations
- Dirt Flat Campground
California Public Lands website
- Make Reservations for Dirt Flat Campground
- Dry Gulch Campground (El Portal, CA)
Just like Dirt Flat Campground, you'll pass by these tent sites first, on your way to Dirt Flat.
- Camping In and Near Yosemite National Park
Includes many campgrounds around the Park, near its various entrances, not just Yosemite Valley.
- Dirt Flat and Dry Gulch
A brief forum discussion about these campgrounds
A Guide to Yosemite
This comprehensive guide includes current travel information (including the new rules for hiking Half Dome), chapters on geology, ecology, wildlife, and the history of the area. This guide, an enjoyable read, tells the story behind the incredible scenery of Yosemite, from the many waterfalls to the High Sierra, Yosemite.
This is also a practical traveler's guide, with in-depth information on lodging, camping, and dining as well as outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, rock climbing, rafting, and skiing. You'll also find details about transportation issues and seasonal weather patterns. More than 20 hikes are listed, with trail descriptions, topographical maps, and photos.
Yosemite Park Maps
Save and cover the whole Park and it's perimeter areas by buying the bundle.
Need a National Park Pass?
You can pay $30 at the gate for a 7-day pass just for Yosemite and go in and out as often as you like, or you can visit the U.S. National Park Service website to purchase an unlimited pass good at all National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas for a full year.
Snugs as Two Bugs (with a Book) Camping Outside Yosemite - This is how we spent some of our evenings after putting the campfire out....
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
How many tents do you think we can fit into one site just outside of Yosemite?
The size of the sites varied. The one we were at fit our two-person tent and our large screen tent. And there was still room for another tent of our size. But there isn't always a lot of flat space. I would say two two-person tents or one large one would fit in most of the sites we saw.
© 2012 Deb Kingsbury