Yosemite National Park celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, putting the park in the spotlight more than ever. But figuring out where to stay—Under the stars at a campsite? In a rustic cabin with shared bathrooms? Within the luxe digs of its majestic Ahwahnee Hotel?—can be head-spinning, especially for first-time visitors. Here are some insider tips on where (and how) to stay, depending on your travel style.
Best for Visitors Craving Laid-Back Comfort: Tenaya Lodge
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Located just two miles from the park's South Gate, the 302-room Tenaya Lodge is a great way to escape the crowds of Yosemite Valley and explore some of the park's less crowded hiking trails, including the Wawona Meadow Loop and the Chilnualna Falls, an excellent, but strenuous, alternative to the always-crowded Mist Trail. (Also nearby is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, with more than 500 of the ancient trees.) Make sure to save a day or two to enjoy the on-property activities, including nature walks, flashlight hikes, and mountain biking on more than 20 miles of trails. Relieve tired muscles with a massage at the beautiful on-property Ascent Spa, with 12 treatment rooms plus a steam room and sauna. Later this year, the hotel will unveil renovations in all of its rooms (from $189), with brand-new bathrooms and rustic yet modern décor (for now, request a room on the third floor to avoid overhead noise).
Insider Tip: Take an extra day to explore the quaint Gold Rush town of Mariposa, about an hour from the lodge, home to historic bars like The Hideout Saloon, beer- and wine-tasting rooms, and even a zipline excursion.
Best for Adrenaline Junkies: Pitching a Tent at Camp 4
A few of the cons of Camp 4: You'll likely be waiting in a long line in the wee hours for a spot, you'll have to schlep your equipment to the site, and odds are you'll be sharing your campsite with strangers. But for outdoorsy types, staying overnight at Camp 4, a no-reservations area known as the birthplace of modern rock climbing, is well worth the hassle. With a worldly, welcoming vibe not unlike that of a European hostel, Camp 4 attracts hardcore hikers and climbers lured by the likes of such monoliths as 3,593-foot El Capitan. Plus, it's just $5 per person per night, cars are parked off-site (hence the schlepping), and RVs and trailers aren't allowed. By day, enjoy easy access to the some of the best hikes in the valley; by night, share your adventures with newfound friends around the fire pit.
Insider Tip: Be in line as early as you can prior to 8:30 a.m. with your entire group for your best shot at a space, and keep in mind the limits on how many nights you can stay.
Best for History Buffs: Yosemite Lodge at the Falls
The original site of headquarters of the U.S. Cavalry, the park's first protectors, the 245-room Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (from about $200/night) will mark its 100th anniversary in 2015. A recent multimillion upgrade has spiffed up the interior, with eco-friendly touches like wood flooring made with recycled materials and low-VOC paint and carpet. Plus, you can't beat the location, right in front of Yosemite Falls, with easy access to many sites around Yosemite Valley; guided tours also meet right out front.
Insider Tip: Several in-park museums and centers help recreate Yosemite in the era of horse-drawn wagons and log cabins. Be sure to check out Yosemite Museum and the nearby Yosemite Cemetery, the final resting place of the people who played important roles in the development of what is now Yosemite National Park.
Best for a Family Adventure: Tuolumne Meadows Lodge
Explore the less-crowded Yosemite high country from the rustic comfort of the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, made up of clusters of canvas tents equipped with wire-spring beds, clean linens, and wood-burning stoves (from around $148/night for two adults/two kids). Kids will love the experience of camping, while adults will appreciate avoiding the hassle of carting around tents and gear. Explore some epic hiking around Tuolumne Meadow (take advantage of the shuttle bus, which conveniently drops off hikers at trailheads), then return to camp for a hearty meal cooked by lodge staffers. Dishes are likely to include veal, salmon, or steak. Following dinner, join fellow campers around the fire pit and take in the star-filled Sierra sky.
Insider Tip: Observe the remnants of last year's massive Rim Fire, California's third largest, which burned some 77,000 acres of parkland, at the recently reopened section near the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias.
Best for Luxe-Loving Travelers: The Ahwahnee Hotel
The spectacular views of Half Dome, seen from the Ahwahnee's beautiful patio and majestic Great Room, have always been a selling point for Yosemite's most upscale property, The Ahwahnee Hotel, a National Historic Landmark that was completed in 1927. Plus, a $12 million renovation in 2011 put a fresh face on the 123 rooms (from around $471/night) and lobby, with new paint, drapes, and carpeting. Still, the vibe is way more historic than hip, since décor must be in line with the original furnishings of the hotel, which feature an American Indian motif, stained glass windows, and historic artwork featuring the park. For a budget-friendly way to savor the Ahwahnee's splendor, grab dinner in the spectacular dining room or a late afternoon drink on the patio (try the Sesquicentini, in honor of the 150th anniversary, made with gin, lavender syrup, and fresh lemon juice) and watch the setting sun reflect brilliantly on Half Dome.
Insider Tip: A perfect holiday gift for foodies or wine lovers? A stay at the Ahwahnee during the Vintners Holidays, which feature the chance to mingle with some of California's top vintners and chefs during wine tastings and seminars, plus a five-course gala dinner.