For generations, the American highway has fueled the imagination of romantics, iconoclasts and dreamers. The open road evokes powerful travel themes including freedom, adventure, and horizon-pushing possibility. Today’s variation: van life. Bringing the comforts of home and a flash of personal style along for the ride is a great way to travel and immerse into the wonders of America’s great wide open.
Whether you’re driving a custom Mercedes Sprinter van, vintage VW Westphalia, crossover soccer van, or not a van at all, the heart of van life is how it opens the opportunity to veer from the itinerary, call an audible, and change course. By tapping into the van life spirit of adventure, travelers can get a more immersive and ultimately more memorable Yosemite Mariposa County experience.
Arrival: Parking and Camping
It’s cool to think of your vehicle as a travel capsule and your team as earthly astronauts, exploring with newfound purpose. Once you’ve touched down, Mariposa County is geared up with a range of van-friendly campgrounds and terrain.
In Yosemite National Park, sleeping in your van is allowed only in designated and reserved campsites. Yosemite has 10 campgrounds that can accommodate vans, RVs and trailers (including fifth wheels) up to 35 feet. Reservations are required for all campsites.
There are numerous options for camping outside of Yosemite in Mariposa County that are both beautiful and close enough to Yosemite for day trips into the park. These include the Sierra National Forest and Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County. It is generally legal to sleep in your vehicle within federally designated lands (with the exception of national parks). Off-grid camping, also known as “Boondocking” or “dispersed camping” is one of the best parts of van life. The ability to get out and camp away from crowds on public lands, often for free, is a pillar of van life. Camper vans, especially 4×4 Sprinter vans, allow you to do so in style.
With so many people starting to disperse camp, more and more public land areas are negatively impacted by visitors not following important leave no trace principles, not following rules regarding fire, grey and black water disposal and keeping vehicles on roads and sensitive areas. Remember to always #RecreateResponsibly.
Many of the dispersed camping areas found in national forests and on BLM land are found miles from highways and paved roads. While Sprinter vans are not a true off-road vehicle, they do have decent clearance and the 4×4 models provide great traction on unpaved surfaces. Regardless of whether you have 4×4 or extra clearance, you should always travel with an off-road safety kit if you plan on driving on rough roads deep in the backwoods.
There are a variety of private campgrounds around the county that offer amenities and full hookups. Local options include the Mariposa Fairgrounds, which accommodate vans, RV and tent campers, and Indian Flat RV Campground. Private campgrounds that add water play options to the agenda include those along Lake McClure and Lake McSwain including Bagby Campground, McClure Point and Barrett Cove. Find the complete list of Yosemite Mariposa campgrounds here.
Field Guide to Yosemite Mariposa County
Yosemite Mariposa County is a world-acclaimed destination with a bounty to see and do that takes “la vida van” to even higher ground. Epic views, massive granite peaks, quiet forest service roads and thundering waterfalls make #YosemiteNation pure A-list with wall-to-wall, Insta-ready #vanlife content.
Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and a camper van is an extraordinary vehicle for exploring the Park, surrounding national forests and recreational options available all across Mariposa County.
For many, Yosemite Mariposa is a world-class hiking destination first and foremost. There are great trails both inside and outside the Park. Everything from easy running-shoe walks around Yosemite Valley to wilderness backpacking and rock climbing is here, all within the frame of High Sierra panoramas.
Camper vans are made for stowing bicycles. Yosemite Mariposa County is laced with great biking trails and terrain, from paved paths made for cruising to chain-stretching forest roads and mountain bike parks. Let the good GoPro times roll!
There’s a strong DIY current in van life DNA but everyone welcomes an occasional break from the helm ““ even more so when it’s outside your comfort zone. Take a tour and let a professional take the wheel. Yosemite tours run the adventure spectrum from sightseeing to steam trains to skydiving.
Another great thing about camper vans is how they enable you to stock up and be self-sufficient while traveling. Finding essential goods like groceries, snacks and maybe even a little duct tape and sunglasses while you’re on the road and running around Yosemite Mariposa is a snap.
The Village Store is located in the heart of Yosemite Valley. It includes a small supermarket and gear shop. The Village Store also has basic camping essentials like firewood and tarps. For fuel, The Wawona Gas Station is located on the Wawona Road/Highway 41 inside the park at the southern end of the park. On the north side of Yosemite is Crane Flat Gas Station at the intersection of Big Oak Flat Road and Tioga Pass. Gas is available 24 hours a day year-round with credit or debit card.
Outside the Park, options for gas and provisions abound and include Mariposa’s Pioneer Market and Foster Ace Hardware, Fish Camp General Store, and the Coulter CafÃ© & General Store.
#Vanlife Pro Tips
- Park Rules: If you plan to spend the night in your van within Yosemite National Park, you must be in a designated campsite. Overnighting is not permitted in parking lots or along the side of the road. Electrical, water, and sewer hookups are not available within Yosemite National Park.
- Vehicle Safety Check: Always travel with a full-sized spare tire, traction boards (in case you get stuck), a tow strap (in case you get really stuck and need to have someone pull you out), and an extra few gallons of fuel.
- First Aid Kit: A well-stocked first aid kit stowed under the front seat is essential for any trip away from home, doubly so when you’re hitting the open road.
- Consider the Ranger: Rangers are the best resources on exactly where you are allowed to camp and whether any restrictions are in place, such as fire restrictions or bear safety protocol. They are generally happy to point you in the direction of some great off-grid campsites, too.
- Bring Books: Reading is a key form of vanlifertainment. John Steinbeck coined the van life credo “bumdum” in his ode to the open road, Travels with Charley. Anything by beat generation talisman Jack Kerouac is fully road-tested. Feel free to genre-bend and bring the entire stack that’s been collecting dust on your nightstand. Useful #vanlife reading accessory: headlamp.