Over this past Labor Day weekend, Danté and I visited Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Over the course of our six plus years of dating, we’ve visited quite a few National Parks together. Our last was Joshua Tree. It’s something we both really enjoy and it’s a feature of this country that we both believe strongly in supporting. Speaking only for myself, I think our National Park system is a national treasure.
But how do you best enjoy them? It’s not always as simple as just going. Particularly for us as photographers. We kind of flew by the seat of our pants on this particular road trip to Yosemite and Sequoia. Beyond planning a few places we wanted to photograph in the parks, and choosing one hotel in advance, the rest we left up to the last minute. Don’t do what we did.
Do what I say instead…
How to Get to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks
We left our West Hollywood apartment in LA before dawn, in a Genesis G80 that the car company loaned us for the purposes of a review. The hope was that this would get us into Yosemite in plenty of time to photograph the park in the early morning light. However, it took us far longer to get into the park that we anticipated and we ended up arriving in what felt more like middle of the day light. For photographers, that’s not ideal. If you’re just a tourist who doesn’t care about “the right lighting”, this probably won’t bother you. In fact, in the hot sun of a late summer day, this might have meant you’d arrive just in time to get nice and hot before dipping in the river for a swim like we saw many other visitors doing. There are so many fun places to swim in Yosemite on Labor Day weekend.
Backing up a bit, because we were coming from Los Angeles, we entered the park via 41 from Oakhurst. If you happen to get car sick, this might throw you for a loop. Literally and figuratively. Even though I was driving, which would usually prevent me from feeling my normal level of carsickness, I felt very ill. The road for me was the most miserable part of our Yosemite experience. And after driving in/out four times in one day, the last in the pitch dark long after sunset, I didn’t have it in me to do again on our second day in the area.
If you happen to get car sick too and you’re coming from the Oakhurst area, then I’d recommend driving in once in the morning, spending all day in the park, and then driving out later at night.
When to Visit Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks
As I’ve said, we visited for Labor Day weekend. This might be the biggest fault in our planning. It meant crowds! Not in the super early morning and not late at night. But definitely at every other time of day. I would recommend, particularly for my fellow photographers, visiting at a time that it’s not a National Holiday.
You might also want to avoid summer and the crowds that it brings. We thought we were smart[ish] doing this but in hindsight I think visiting on any holiday is just a bad idea.
Where to Stay when visiting Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks
For Yosemite, we stayed in Oakhurst at Sierra Sky Ranch which is part of Choice Hotels ‘Ascend Hotel Collection.’ It was fine. But I wouldn’t highly recommend it. Food wasn’t great, service was only ok and the included breakfast was a joke of gas station plastic-wrapped carbs like cinnamon rolls and sugar-filled granola bars. And our room opened to what we thought would be a private balcony. In reality it was a main walkway used all day long by other guests that left us little privacy. Instead of enjoying our view to the trees that deer are said to frequent, we kept the drapes closed. That gave us privacy but made us feel very closed in since the room was so small.
For Sequoia, we stayed in Three Rivers at Comfort Inn & Suites. It was all that was left by the time we decided we wanted to stay in town the day before. It’s fine for what it is. Though I wouldn’t stay there again. I’d plan ahead to stay in the park or even closer to the park at the less modern hotels that at least offer a sense of place with log cabin design and fun nightlife. The pool at the Comfort Inn, which I was looking forward to using because of the intense heat, had very cloudy water with a lot of floaties that I did not want to identify….
Why You Might Not Want to Book Last Minute
Like I mentioned before, we had booked Oakhurst in advance. But we didn’t know exactly how we’d feel about Sequoia and we left that till the last minute. I think we got the last room left and while we were waiting for our room to be ready, we heard a lot of people walk in and ask if there were any rooms left. There weren’t!
There are good hotels in both areas but they book up far in advance! It’s the ones you won’t enjoy staying at as much, that may have availability last minute. If you’re like us and don’t plan to spend a lot of time in the room anyway, then that might not be as big of a deal. However, we ended up feeling so let down by our own poor planning.
This all make me realize there is definite room for improvement in both areas in terms of hotels made by and built for a younger audience with discerning tastes. Everything we found, that had any availability, seemed very out of date. We’re both almost 40 so while we aren’t YOUNG, we also aren’t too old to want some of the benefits that come with properties that are made for and managed by a younger crowd. Like good design, a great food and beverage program on-site, a really updated but also comfortable bed. All those things were lacking from the two places we stayed. And it was noticeable.
Where to Eat Near Sequoia
There was one pleasant surprise in Three Rivers! The dining scene.
For coffee: Sequoia Snack Shack
There’s a wait for sure! But it’s worth it. I was grateful they were totally cool with my request to have my iced mocha is my own reusable coffee cup to spare the recycling bin one more paper cup and plastic lid. And the mocha was superb. We also tried the grilled donut which I appreciated because it wasn’t too sweet or sugary. It was actually a nice treat for the morning. Danté enjoyed his ham and cheese croissant. And I loved the small selection of locally-made goods that the shop sells, like honey and jam.
It’s right next to Buckaroo and has parking in front just like the restaurant does.
For lunch or dinner: Buckaroo Diner/ ol Buckaroo
It was so good, we went back for brunch and for dinner. You might end up waiting. I did not feel they had enough staff for how popular they are. It’s really the only place in the area like it. Meaning it has fresh/healthy options plus a lovely setting above the river with indoor and outdoor seating. Our server did warn us it would be a wait before we placed our order. We really appreciated knowing that up front. I thought the homemade soda and cocktails were superb. As was the arugula salad with crispy shallots, pot de creme dessert and the chilaquiles with pulled pork. Make sure you ask for hot sauce with the fried chicken sandwich, which Danté got. That’s what was missing from the straight-off-the-menu version. Would highly recommend and would go back if we are in the area again.
In closing, you might appreciate this in-depth guide on the Best Time to Visit Yosemite National Park which I found quite helpful for us in planning future visits.