Visiting Three National Parks in California - Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree

YOSEMITE National Park

LA to Yosemite National Park

We hightailed it back north to visit Yosemite National Park.  We did very little planning but really lucked out with our campsite.  We had found some free camp sites over an hour away from Yosemite Valley but their higher elevation would have meant subfreezing nightly slumbers.  We had read about Camp 4, which is the only campsite in the National Park that does not require reservations.  All other camp sites—the ones that are still open for the season—were booked solid.

Camp Site: CAMP 4, First Come First Serve Campground

We stay warm by the fire in Yosemite National Park, California

We showed up at 6:30pm and to our dismay the sign to Camp 4 read “Campground Full”.  We parked in the parking lot and had a little argument about the merits of sleeping in our car with the intent to wait in line early in the morning to get a next available camp site.  We had read online that during high season people start lining up as early as 2am.  Wikipedia has a page about how early the sites book up.  They typically fill up early in the morning.  I read at least one review where a person had been in line since 6:00am and was #50 out of the #52 available spots.

Despite the sign claiming the campground was closed I walked through the site and noticed there were a few spots where I could probably fit a tent.  The campground crams up to 4 tents in one spots.  I asked around and was told that if a beer locker was empty then the tent site was unclaimed.  I found a spot and claimed it with a jacket.  For $6 per person per night we were sleeping in one of the most sought after campgrounds in any of the national parks.  Camp 4 has a long history for hosting climbers.  It seems that the vast majority of campers in the site are here solely for climbing the granite cliffs.  El Capitan is a famous granite wall that is a short hike from out camp site.

We had two French couples staying in our area and one of them even brought their 2-month old baby boy.

We enjoyed some warm meals during our stay—even cooking homemade pizza on a cast iron skillet over an open fire.

The nights at Camp 4 were lively with guitar music, food preparation, and conversations about the day’s adventures.  However, noise levels were reasonable and mostly quiet throughout the night.

After our first night in Camp 4 we returned to our car to find a warning ticket form a park ranger.  Sylvie had left a box of cereal and a bottle of shampoo in the rear seat.  There are strict rules about bringing all food and any scented items from the car and putting them in one’s respective beer locker.

Hiking Trails

Four Mile Trail – The four-mile trail was actually 4.7 miles each way (resulting in a total distance of 9.4 mile round trip).  The hike was up hill the entire time and consisted of countless switchbacks.  The 3,200-foot elevation gain during the trail culminated in scenic views at Glacier Point which provided a grand vista including the infamous half dome granite formation.

SEQUOIA National Park

Camp Site: South Fork

We camped out in a small camp site 12 miles from the small town of Three Rivers. The campground is called South Fork and sits at only 3,620 ft. above sea level.  During off peak season (which it currently is) the site is free, otherwise it is $12/nt..  Aside from one other car we were the only people using the entire campgrounds.  Getting to the campsite involved driving up a winding unpaved road which I imagine would make the surface of the moon look like a baby’s butt.  The road was covered in fallen rocks and foot deep craters.  However, the beautiful campsite was well worth it even if it did mean an hour negotiating tough terrain for our poor Honda Civic.  We camped right next to a brook that provided a wonderful white noise during our stay.  It’s worth noting that on the drive up the rugged road we came across both a Bobcat as well as a Coyote.

Our Lovely Secluded Campsite in Sequoia National Park

National Park

Although our campsite was in the National Park we had to drive back out to through Three Rivers and up another road to enter the main entrance of the park—Foothills Visitor Center.  Upon entering the park, we learned that due to construction access into and out of the park was only permitted every 2 hours.

Inside the park we visited General Sherman Tree—the largest tree in the world by volume. We went on a few short hikes and visited the Giant Forest Museum which both of us found to be pretty educational and enjoyable. At its peak the park had a gas station, restaurants, and over a hundred different buildings. Around the year 2000 scientists learned about the damage the structures were doing to the trees and they have all since been eliminated except for a few park offices.

Stargazing at our campsite in Sequoia National Park, California, USA

JOSHUA TREE National Park

Camp Site: Jumbo Rocks

It was a last minute decision to go to Joshua Tree.  About 3.5 hours into our drive to Lake Meade I considered detouring to Joshua Tree instead (thanks to a handful of recommendation from our friends in Yosemite) and 20 minutes later we were on our way to Joshua Tree.  It’s great to have that type of flexibility. We were lucky to find a campsite considering that this is high season for this park.  Unlike the ‘summer parks’, Joshua Tree is most visited in the fall.  We stayed at Jumbo Rock Campground, which is in the middle of the park.  A typical space is $15/night but with our national park pass it was half that.  The campground was covered in very small pebbles (also covering the entire park) making for a more comfortable tent pitch vs the typical hard ground, stones, and twigs.

 The first-come first-serve campgrounds had already filled up so I called and made a reservation for Jumbo Rock.  The next day I learned that it had also booked up solid (on a weekday mind you).  I still found this hard to imagine since it seemed that only half of the 200 sites were actually being used.  I wonder if people simply reserve spots ‘just in case’ and never show up?  The guy next to us was from Santa Barbara and was very welcoming, giving us a handful of freshly picked avocados from his own backyard.  He also made me a very large yellow fin tuna steak that night.  What a nice guy!

The following morning, I talked at great length with a Dutch couple staying just a few spots down from us.  They are on a 3 or 4-week holiday.  It’s so nice to be reminded of a ex-American mindset.  Being back in the states for nearly 2 years has me almost forgetting that most of the world does not ‘think like Americans’.


We hiked nearly 10 miles along 3 different treks the next day.  One hike took us to an old gold mine where the original equipment still stood.  Another had us walking through a valley of rocks and the last hike brought us to Barker Dam.  It was quite a site seeing such a reservoir or water in such a dry environment.  The hikes were very different than those in the other parks, but still very enjoyable. You can do all in one day and they will give you a good overview/variety of what the park has to offer

  • Lost Horse Trail Loop (6.5 miles)

  • Hidden Valley Trail (<2 miles)

  • Barker Dam Trail (< 2 miles)

We enjoyed sunset both nights in various parks of the park.  One night we hiked atop a large set of rocks near our campsite and the second night I drove a short distance and brought along my tripod—Sylvie stayed in the car out of the biting wind.  Despite being sunny without a cloud in the sky the wind brought with is a deep coldness that neither of us could shake for the entire day.  Once the sun set and the temperatures dropped we changed into our merino shirts, sweatshirts, and both fleece and down jackets.  Layers are key on a trip where you cannot bring your entire wardrobe.

In November the temperatures got very cold at night (thinking just above freezing) but the wind made it feel much colder. Even though the sun’s rays felt great the air was brisk during broad daylight. We both wore our merino long sleeve shirts, which helped us stay warm while still allowing our sweat to be wicked away quickly while we hiked…keeping us cool when we exerted ourselves. An added plus is that after 10 days of wearing our merino shirts without a wash they still had no odor to them! I love this model as they include thumb loops so you can cover half your hand to keep the sun off and they double to keep your hands warm: Merino365

I searched for some dead Joshua Trees and salvaged the trunks of some fallen ones and used them later for firewood. The porous nature of the wood allowed great airflow and it burned amazingly well—both hot and for a long time.  We enjoyed our dinner by a roaring fire our last night in the park. PLEASE NOTE: this is probably illegal and you should bring your own firewood if you don’t feel right committing a crime on US federal lands.

Stargazing at Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park, California