Best Ways to Get from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
San Francisco is a major travel destination, arguably one of the most popular and romanticized cities in the world. Many, though, are too busy to research the sights accessible around the city before they arrive, especially for a four- or five-day holiday.
It’s not until a traveler lands (if he/she is not being assisted by a concierge or travel agent) and looks for unique opportunities of places around San Francisco to visit but is often at a loss to capitalize on them. This may occur because of crowds, limited space at popular sites, or not finding the right host for you or your group.
For instance, one of the questions you might ask yourself is, “How do I get from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park and back to my hotel for a one-day visit? Is it really worth my time and effort?”
Read on, because every way to arrive in Yosemite from San Francisco, with prices, is listed below, even the dirty secrets many companies do not want you to know.
Best Public Transportation Route to Yosemite
Public transportation, especially for the adventure-seeking type, is often the first choice of how arrive in Yosemite. The vision of coming over the snow-covered mountains for the first view of the beautiful Half Dome dances in the minds of travelers, with their locomotive leading the way. But that is hardly the case. Far from it, in fact.
Do you want to arrive in Yosemite by train? It’s not as easy as step-on-board-and-go, especially for the luxury market. Instead, the train only covers a portion of the distance to the national park, not actually reaching Yosemite. That means you’ll be riding a public bus or hiring a private driver for the remainder of the route, requiring more time, effort, and cash.
Can you afford to waste an entire day on buses and trains on your way to Yosemite? If yes, and you are looking for more of an adventure-based Jack Kerouac-type of road trip with time not an issue, great! How you accomplish that is explained in detail here.
However, if comfort is important and you are limited in your time, which we notice many luxury travelers are, then public transportation to Yosemite might not be your best bet. We realize traveling from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. by public transportation is just too much for some. To put that into perspective, on a three-day trip to Yosemite from San Francisco by public transportation, only your middle day will be spent hiking the trails.
If you insist on using public transportation, we recommend increasing your length of stay. Otherwise, your effort involved may not be worth it.
Types of Tours to Yosemite
Tours from San Francisco are a love/hate relationship when it comes to Yosemite. Many travelers choose a tour because of the time saved in going with an expert. But with Yosemite such a long distance away, who you select to lead you can make the difference between an enjoyable, enlightening experience and a lesson in drudgery. You want a person you can trust, and when it comes to the high-end market, that usually involves avoiding that “tour” feeling.
Here is every type of Yosemite tour offered from San Francisco, including budget options, so you can make an educated decision on which one is right for you.
Is Google Your Answer?
You’ll notice immediately, after one quick Google search, the amount of Yosemite tour options available from San Francisco and their names: “Small-Group Yosemite Tour from San Francisco,” “Yosemite National Park—Full Day Tour from San Francisco,” “Small Group Yosemite and Giant Sequoias in a Day Tour from San Francisco.” Blah, blah, blah.
It’s almost annoying how many options are out there, don’t you think? How do you tell them apart? Do you know which one is the right fit for you? Here’s a breakdown of the main types of tours offered from San Francisco:
Yosemite One-Day Tours
You can classify these tours into a few main categories with typical prices from San Francisco:
Bus or Large Vehicles, $120-$190 per person
These are the tour buses holding 20-50 passengers. They typically go directly to the Valley and offer your cookie-cutter Yosemite tours.
Vans or Small Group Tours, $120-$190 per person
Picture these as tour buses on a smaller scale. Instead of 50 guests, you may have 15. However, you are still shoulder-to-shoulder with travelers crammed into a smaller vehicle, typically a van.
Private Tours, $1000-$1300 (for up to five guests per day)
These are exactly what they say they are—private tours with only your group in a luxury vehicle. You pay for that and for the knowledge and expertise of your guide, who hasn’t memorized a guidebook but knows the history, natural wonders, and awesome, out-of-the-way sights in the park, usually infinitely better than your average tour guide.
On most Yosemite tours from San Francisco, your driver acts as your tour guide. Very rarely, unless you book a private Yosemite tour for a large group, do companies offer a separate, knowledgeable guide to host you. This is to keep costs down. Unfortunately, whether you like it or not, that’s Yosemite in one day.
The kicker? (And this is only our opinion.) Because Yosemite is so far and difficult to do in one day if you do not know your way around, many of the companies use this to their advantage to sell you on their tours, especially if you are going last-minute. There are ways around this such as staying longer, but not many. It’s the nature of the beast.
Multi-day Yosemite Tours
You are staying in Yosemite for more than one day. Yes! You’re about to see why Yosemite National Park was protected in the first place—the real, true meaning of the iconic national treasure. What are your multi-day tour options available from San Francisco? Again, these are ALL of the tour styles, even beyond luxury.
You’ll notice this option on sites such as Trip Advisor or Viator—both the same company, but more on that later—but what do those words mean? To us, “semi-guided” is a nice way of saying “We’ll drop you off in Yosemite to fend for yourself.” If you have accommodations in the Valley, you have no problems. Otherwise…uh-oh.
If you are staying outside the Valley, especially in summer, be wary because you’ll be forced to ride the public bus YARTS to reach your outside-of-the-Valley accommodations, sometimes hours away. This can chew up copious amounts of Yosemite exploration time and is definitely not luxury. Read the fine print on any paper generated by these companies before you reserve, so you know the exact product you are purchasing.
Again, “Yosemite Camping Tour” is a vague description. Really, these can be classified into two main types: car camping, which is the same place the RVs camp, and guided Yosemite hiking tours, where you physically hike yourself into the wilderness with your gear on your back, just as John Muir did in the 1800s.
Yosemite Car Camping Tours, $400-$600 per person
These are the majority of the “Yosemite Camping Tours” offered from San Francisco. Why? They are the easiest to operate with a driver-guide. Wilderness certifications are not required for the driver, and you are always within basic reach of emergency services.
But you are not always in the best locations for camping, rather oftentimes in a crowded campsite side-by-side with other campers and RVs. And almost always, because of Yosemite restrictions, the tour operators’ campsites are located outside of the park. Only the smaller companies, those that offer limited, custom tours, can offer private Yosemite camping inside the park.
Yosemite Guided Hiking and Backpacking Tours, $1200-$1500 per person
These are “Yosemite Camping Tours” as well, yet require more skill, thought, and dedication than car camping. Instead of car stereos, dogs barking, or babies crying, you may hear birds chirping or waterfalls rushing or nothing. You are hiking into the wilderness for the real Yosemite—to go where others are not and hear the sounds or serenity of nature. You experience the pristine Yosemite instead of the crowded one.
But what do these wilderness hiking tour operators never offer? A ride from San Francisco. That’s right. None of them, absolutely none, will pick you up. Instead, you are forced to rent a vehicle and drive yourself or use public transportation, both raising your budget and time needed for arrival and departure. None of these companies will pick you up. None, that is, except us.
What Does Luxury Mean to You?
For us, luxury means experiencing something very few visitors to the park get to enjoy in an easy manner—seeing the historic wonder of Yosemite in the best way possible and with trustworthy friends, how the original explorers saw it. If that means carrying your gear on your back, so be it. It’s the only way to understand why John Muir fell in love with the place, why Teddy Roosevelt felt such a strong desire to protect our national parks. And your healthy workout helps you appreciate the true magnitude of Yosemite. We wholeheartedly feel wilderness camping is the best way to experience the true, authentic Yosemite.
By now you are probably becoming disheartened by the revelations of tours to Yosemite and how many of them might not be the right fit for you. Finding easy traveling to Yosemite from San Francisco and back in a comfortable manner is not, in fact, easy, especially in a luxury setting.
You might be asking: Is there anything more we should know? Bear with us, because the tour section on how to reach Yosemite from San Francisco is not quite over.
Bloggers, Luxury Magazines, and Large Booking Engines (And Their Suggestions)
This was supposed to be an article on the easiest ways to reach Yosemite from San Francisco. Why on earth, then, are we beginning to talk about bloggers—what do they have to do with anything?
Bloggers, along with journalists or anyone else creating content online, have more influence than you think. The world of marketing is dividing. Every day, anyone can offer suggestions and advice online, just like we are doing now. The world is a free market. However, because the Internet moves so fast, here is what has begun to happen in the travel industry in the last few years.
Trip Advisor, Get Your Guide, Viator, Tours by Locals, and Major Booking Engines
These companies will have Yosemite tours on offer, but none of the businesses actually operate a tour. Instead, they are like travel agents: they link you up with the tour operator and collect a percentage of the booking fee for their commission. Cool, we appreciate that because that’s business. But as these content creators become more savvy about profits, how does that sway their suggestions? You guessed it. The most profitable and most expensive tours are often listed first, with honest suggestions being sacrificed for profitable ones. For us in the luxury market, that means we may get preference. But did we earn our number one spot because we are the best? Or the most profitable for these third-party suppliers? Think of that next time you Google “Best Yosemite Tours from San Francisco.”
And what about their commissions? Many times, your tour price rises by that amount. You could be paying a higher price, which is why the brand names of these Yosemite companies are often hidden and replaced with “Small Group Tour from San Francisco.” Devious, huh?
Now we must say as our disclaimer, not all third-party suppliers are bad. The commission, in fact, is well worth it sometimes. We’ve used their services overseas and have been thankful for it! However, in Yosemite, we’ve seen hundreds of travelers be taken advantage of and feel we need to say something. Again, we want you to be informed so you can make the right choice for you.
Bloggers, Newspapers and Magazines
The Internet has revolutionized the way we search for things, and bloggers are at the forefront. Their suggestions on cuisine, tours, and places to go and things to do are informative and real, from luxury to budget options, and anywhere in between.
However, today, as bloggers and magazines become more in-tune with how the Internet operates, these suggestions, depending on the blogger, are beginning to become suspect.
How? Just as the large booking engines can receive a commission for suggesting a tour, so can bloggers. Some of them—and when we say bloggers we mean any type of content creators online, such as magazines, newspapers, and even other tour operators—are beginning to suggest tours they can only make a dollar on. How can you tell? Many times their suggestions will forward you to the same large booking engines we mentioned above. Your thoughts?
Whew, now that we’ve finished the tour section on how to arrive at Yosemite from San Francisco (and even included tours and the companies and content creators who suggest them, which could be a book in itself, including the murky, sometimes deceptive details), we can resume describing the other ways to make your way to the beloved national park, without all these businesses tossing their hats in the ring.
Drive Yourself to Yosemite
Once you know what you are doing, driving yourself to Yosemite is really a piece of cake. Before that happens, though, it can be a challenge. The question, we say again, is how much is your time worth? If you have more than enough, then great! You can research and plan the correct route, the best parking lots (and when they fill up in summer), and the best viewpoints to stop at, and you will have a great time. You will, of course, never know as much as a local does, but that’s all right. You will complete your Yosemite tour with the satisfaction of accomplishment since you handled things yourself, with only the help of prior research.
But plan on hours of research. For example, how much time did you spend searching for this article? And how much time have you spent reading it? Just knowing the weather and equipment you’ll need for a hike can take hours to plan. Then there are driving directions, entry fees, parking issues, dealing with crowds, and other information to soak up. Add it all together, and is driving yourself worth it to you? Driving yourself also can be exhausting, especially if visiting for only one day.
It’s about balance. Driving yourself from San Francisco can be freeing, although, as with public transportation, the longer you stay in Yosemite, the better.
Can I Fly to Yosemite?
Flying will usually cost $2000+ one way for a group of three, and take about the same amount of time as driving. Why? Yosemite is a national park and has no fly zones, which means you’ll be taking off from San Francisco (or most likely one of the nearby private airports) and landing not in Yosemite, but two hours away in Merced or Mariposa. The only person who will be flying to Yosemite and landing at the base of Half Dome, really, is the President. Everyone else, including you, will be renting a car from a smaller airport or hiring a private chauffeur to drive you the remainder of the distance. Ironically, driving privately from San Francisco ends up taking the same amount of time.
You can see our more detailed article about how to fly to Yosemite from San Francisco.
The Real Problem with the San Francisco-Yosemite Connection
As you can see, the wormhole goes deeper than you originally assumed for traveling from San Francisco to Yosemite, whether for one day or multiple days. And hopefully, this article ranks high enough in Google for you to see your true options, without confusion.
As in most of our life endeavors, time is our governing factor. So when people call us to see Yosemite, we ask one simple question: What type of Yosemite do you want to see?
The landmarks? The falls? The cliffs? The wilderness? Once they answer that, we develop the best kind of Yosemite tour for them. And if we can operate the tour ourselves, then sure—we’d love to show you our home.
And if not, or we sense the guest would receive less than a 5-star experience from us, then we suggest an answer which is more their fit, whether that’s another tour company or suggesting renting a car to explore on their own. It’s about reading the person, with no tricks, and no pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes, because that’s what each person deserves.
…Wait a Minute. Is This A Sell?
Yep, you caught us red-handed. This is a sell. Why else would we spend countless hours of writing, editing, and choosing the correct photos, not to mention editing those photos, rewriting, and key-wording our article to rank in Google, if we weren’t trying to offer our services. In this dog-eat-dog world of marketing, can you blame us?
Instead of the normal way of selling, though, we decided to sell you on honesty and our genuine interest in showing you the real Yosemite—the one both the sightseer and Yosemite deserve. Why other companies do not concentrate on this simple, turn-key style of service, we have no idea. But we are small, family-owned and have the freedom to choose, without a board of directors to oversee us—a huge advantage for us.
If our words relate to you and you decide to trust us for a tour, we appreciate your business. Tours can be confusing, especially when it comes to the luxury market and the lifestyle you are seeking.
And if not, and you do not relate to us, at least you are one step closer to finding the right person or company who does, and now you know your best options and price ranges to make an informed choice on how to arrive in Yosemite, whether renting a car and driving yourself, using a tour company, or a combination of the two.
Yosemite is a world-famous location. How you choose to arrive in the natural wonderland from San Francisco is up to you.