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How to score a walk-in campsite at Yosemite's popular Camp 4

How to score a walk-in campsite at Yosemite's popular Camp 4

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Camping in Yosemite Valley

We knew winging it just wouldn't pan out this time.

Our heart's desire: tent camp in the valley of Yosemite National Park.

Camping in Yosemite National Park is a feat in of itself.  There are 13 popular campgrounds in Yosemite National Park, and 7 of those beauties are on a reservation system.  And some of those don't open until mid summer once the snow gives way.

From April through September, reservations are a must and even the first-come, first-served campgrounds usually fill by noon (often earlier) from April through September.

The reality: campsites are snagged within minutes of online availability.  Hoping to grab one is like playing the lottery.

You have these campgrounds to choose from in Yosemite Valley:

  • North Pines (reservation required)
  • Lower Pines (reservation required)
  • Upper Pines (reservation required)
  • Backcamper's Campground (base camp for wilderness permit holders; no reservation required)
  • Camp 4 (historically for rock climber; walk-in only)

According to the National Park Service website:

Campground reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time. Be aware that nearly all reservations for the months of May through September and for some other weekends are filled the first day they become available, usually within seconds or minutes after 7 am! For your best chance of getting a reservation, be sure your clock is set accurately and start the first few steps of the reservation process at www.recreation.gov before 7 am Pacific time. 

You guessed it. We did not even come close to reserving a campsite when we planned this past summer's California road trip through 5 national parks.

Related post: Budgeting and Planning a California Road Trip

Here's how to successfully snag a walk-in tent camp site in Yosemite National Park's only valley floor first-come, first-serve campground: Camp 4.  Popular among rock climbers and families alike, make this your camping destination of choice when headed to California parks.

But we were determined

Just maybe we could score a walk-in campsite at the historically famous Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley. We scoured the internet, made phone calls and devised a plan B and even a plan C, just in case.

We were holding on to hope. Camp 4 is the only campground in Yosemite Valley available on a first-come, first-serve basis to non-wilderness permit holders like us.  

So, we called Yosemite and talked to a ranger (twice!) who ended up being uber helpful in making our plan.  She provided insight that we couldn't find elsewhere online or from anyone.  

Here's how to successfully snag a walk-in tent camp site in Yosemite National Park's only valley floor first-come, first-serve campground: Camp 4.  Popular among rock climbers and families alike, make this your camping destination of choice when headed to California parks.

Aiming for Camp 4

The night before, we spent one very expensive, short night's sleep in an El Portal lodge 45 minutes away from Yosemite's Arch Park entrance. We slept in our clothes, woke up at 4:45 am, used the potty, and piled back into the car. Crazy town.

Hats off to the peeps who just pulled safely off the road to sleep a few hours before pulling into the park. You're the smart ones.

We entered Yosemite with the sunrise.  Reaching the Camp 4 parking lot by 5:45 am, our family piled out and into the already growing line of standing/sitting/sleeping people at the Camp 4 ranger station.

The clock finally ticked 8 am, and a ranger came by, welcomed the crowd, and handed out 53 numbered cards. Giddy, we received numbers 46-51. 

What the what?! There were 53 known people leaving Camp 4 that day. We were in!

Everything you need to know about Camp 4

  1. Remember, no reservations are taken for Camp 4.  The campground tends to fill up most mornings, spring through fall.  
  2. Cost is $6 per person, per night.  Cash or check are received.  No credit or debit cards.
  3. You MUST register with the campground ranger to stay overnight at Camp 4.
  4. Camp 4 is just across the road from Yosemite Valley Lodge.  Follow signs to the lodge, as there aren't many signs specifically for Camp 4.
  5. The ranger shows up between 8:00 - 8:30 am at Camp 4's campground kiosk.
  6. A physical human line forms well before 8 am and everyone in your party MUST BE IN LINE WITH YOU.
  7. Technically, you are allowed to show up no earlier than 6 am to stand in line. In reality, many people show up overnight and sleep in line at the risk of being nudged back to their vehicles by a patrolling ranger.
  8. Be flexible. Six people are assigned to each campsite in Camp 4.  There are 35 total campsites in Camp 4.  NOTE: people in your group may be assigned to different campsites. They do their best to keep families together when they can.
  9. When you register, you can pay and register for the maximum number of allowed nights to stay in that season (7 night maximum in the summer).  
  10. You can always leave early and be reimbursed for the nights you don't end up actually staying, so long as you talk to the ranger the day before you plan to leave.
  11. This campground is very popular among rock climbers.  They are a neat, international, friendly bunch.  The great thing is, they tend to go to bed early and get up early, so the campground remains quiet and serene for the most part.
  12. You are allowed to hang hammocks as long as you register them when you check in with the ranger and you hang them properly per the ranger's instructions. 
  13. Your vehicle away from your campsite in the Camp 4 parking lot; you will walk a short distance to your campsite. They have wheel barrels for your convenience.
  14. In the winter season, Camp 4 runs on a self-registration process.  It does not tend to fill up in the winter.
  15. All of the above info can be confirmed here.
Yosemite camp 4 waiting line first come first serve

Make coffee, make friends and other rad suggestions

Plan a Sunday through Friday morning stay.  Yosemite Valley floods with visitors, especially over the summer weekends.  Bumper to bumper traffic and loads of hikers.

If you can, check at the ranger booth the day before to get an idea of how many are leaving;  they post the number every evening. 

Make coffee and make friends. Share a hot mug of cocoa. Pull out the Jet-Boil, your pourover cone and two-cups.

We made friends in line with a sweet couple from Chile and and a family from San Francisco.  Be there as early as 6am and stand/sit in line snuggled up in blankets or sleeping bags. 

There are only toilets and a washing sink in the middle of Camp 4.  Drive or hitch a shuttle bus to Housekeeping Camp for showers and laundry facilities.  

Have a plan B in your back pocket.  If you don't get spots at Camp 4 on that glorious morning, go to Half Dome Village and put your name on the wait list for Lower Pines, Upper Pines, and North Pine campgrounds. You just never know.

Also, go back to Camp 4 at noon to check with the ranger in case any more spots opened up.  People sometimes choose to leave in the morning without having notified the ranger the day before.

Last resort: tack on a plan C for good measure.  Obviously, there are campgrounds outside of Yosemite.  Here's a list of campgrounds we were willing to try if we couldn't get one in the Valley:

  • Dirt Flat (make reservations here)
  • Dry Gulch (make reservations here
  • Railroad Flat (first-come, first-serve)
  • Willow Placer (first-come, first-serve)
  • McCabe Flat (first-come, first-serve)
Here's how to successfully snag a walk-in tent camp site in Yosemite National Park's only valley floor first-come, first-serve campground: Camp 4.  Popular among rock climbers and families alike, make this your camping destination of choice when headed to California parks.

What else makes Camp 4 so special?

Camp 4 is proudly listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its nationally remarkable role in rock climbing becoming a sport.

Kids love watching rock climbers of all abilities free-climb the ginormous boulders right by camp.

We found Camp 4 to be mostly quiet and serene with great views of Upper Yosemite Falls and Half Dome when standing in the right spot. Neighbors are friendly and respectful.  

These here are roomy campsites for tents only, and plenty of trees for hammocks. Two picnic tables, a fire-ring, and large bear proof lockers in each site as well. Lots of room to spread out without your neighbors waking you up.

Shade trees and nature. A mother coyote walked through camp on the hunt for squirrels. We had fun watching her from a distance.

Camp 4 is near the shuttle stop across the road at Yosemite Valley Lodge. It's also a nice easy stroll to the Valley Visitor Center. You can easily ride bikes around the Valley from here too. 

Lots of wonderful hikes can begin from Camp 4. Check out the Valley Floor Loop Trail, Upper and Lower Falls, and more.  

Related post: Hiking Yosemite's Mist Trail with kids

Here's how to successfully snag a walk-in tent camp site in Yosemite National Park's only valley floor first-come, first-serve campground: Camp 4.  Popular among rock climbers and families alike, make this your camping destination of choice when headed to California parks.

Have you ever camped in Yosemite Valley? What advice would you give for trying to snag a campsite at this popular national park?  Please share below, we'd love to know.

All pictures within this post belong to Tanya Raedeke. Please ask for written permission in order to use.  Thank you!

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