Trailgating 101: How To Picnic In Yosemite Mariposa

Couple enjoying picnic lunch in Yosemite

Sipping a cool beverage along the Merced River watching rock climbers scramble their way up a 3,000-foot granite wall... sitting on a soft bed of pine duff in the Sierra National Forest tearing sourdough as dappled sunlight dances to birdsongs... munching cookies on the shores of Tenaya Lake, nestled in an amphitheater of High Sierra peaks as the afternoon breeze skims across azure water... this is how we picnic in Yosemite Mariposa County.

From inspired backdrops to gourmet menus-to-go, from the more practical aspects of avoiding crowds and saving money to the more fanciful pursuit of romantic lunches al fresco, there are so many reasons why picnicking in Yosemite Mariposa County makes perfect sense. Here is our guide to a basket well-stocked and a blanket well-placed.

In Praise Of Picnics...And Why They Make Sense

Before the charcuterie is sliced, a brief word on why picnicking in Yosemite Mariposa County is worth its weight in truffle cheese. In a word: freedom. As a picnicker you have the freedom to find a stunning setting that suits your mood; one that is quiet and tucked away, not to mention the gastronomic self-governance to put together your own menu at a cost that could certainly be less than going out to eat. Talk about amazing things to do in Yosemite with kids - do the little ones want to use their outdoor voices and run wild? Plenty of room to roam. You and your partner want to whisper sweet somethings in private? The forest peacefully abides. The grandparents need somewhere flat, close to the trailhead parking lot? Got that, too. It's all about choices here in Yosemite Mariposa County, where picnicking comes with a cheerful calm side of good karma amid the natural beauty of the Sierra.

Where To Picnic in Yosemite Mariposa

The beauty of picnicking in Yosemite Mariposa is that blankets are welcome just about anywhere. From roadside pullouts (safely clear of traffic, please!) to short jaunts from the trail where perhaps no one has ever dined before to designated picnic areas (if you prefer somewhere a little more established), all you have to do is let inspiration be your guide.

Yosemite Valley

Sandy beach with view of El Capitan
Choose a picnic spot down by the Merced River in Yosemite Valley below soaring cliffs like El Capitan.

Picnicking in Yosemite Valley offers two main options. The first is taking advantage of the six designated picnic areas along the Merced River as it snakes below the iconic granite cliffs. With picnic tables and grills, these lunch pads are first come/first served and can get busy, but are situated close to such magnificent landmarks as Lower Yosemite Falls, Swinging Bridge and Sentinel Beach. All sites have vault toilets, garbage and recycling bins.

For those who want to avoid jockeying for parking spots in busy lots, simply cruising the loop of Southside and Northside Roads is a tough-to-beat second option. By pulling off the road at an established parking spot and stepping into any picture postcard of the Valley that inspires, picnickers have more control of where to spread their blanket and more elbow macaroni room whether that's at the base of El Capitan or with Half Dome peeking at you through the trees. Have blanket, will nosh!

Tioga Road/Highway 120

Yosemite's high country calls for a tasty picnic lunch surrounded by alpine meadows and Tuolumne granite domes.

Tioga Road is your passport to the rugged beauty of Yosemite's High Country. In addition to pull-offs where the rising elevation creates spectacular views, there are three designated picnic areas along Highway 120. Note: Tioga Road closes seasonally in winter so check current conditions.

Located 20 miles from the turnoff at Big Oak Flat Road, Yosemite Creek Picnic Area offers creekside tables as the pristine water courses through mixed conifer forests before eventually feeding Yosemite Falls. Heading another 12 miles east brings picnickers to Tenaya Lake. A popular summer destination, Tenaya Lake is considered the "Jewel of the High Country" as its bluest of blue waters are surrounded by peaks, unique granite domes and stands of lean and green lodgepole pines. At 8,150 feet, Tenaya Lake Picnic Area is perfect for beating the summer heat while enjoying a spread of tasty treats, or find a spot along the south-east side Tenaya Lake Trail. Just seven miles farther along and higher still, Lembert Dome Picnic Area is a modest group of tables near the parking lot at the Young Lake Trailhead. At 9,240 feet, Lembert Dome rises above the surrounding forest like a granite wave, tempting picnickers to take a break from all that snacking and scramble up its smooth surface from base to rounded peak "“ a picnic with a view!

Merced River Canyon/Highway 140

Choose a picnic spot in the Merced River canyon surrounded by steep hillsides covered in spring wildflowers.

Outside of Yosemite National Park, all-season Highway 140 follows the dramatic Merced River Canyon offering ample opportunity to sample from your well-stocked basket. Picnic areas such as Red Bud, Cranberry Flat, Indian Flat, McClendon Beach and Briceburg Put-In are all stone-skipping distance from the current and feature picnic tables, drinking water and restrooms. Situated between 1,000 and 2,000 feet in elevation, these spots can get toasty in summer so bring a hat and shade structure for sipping a cold one with maximum comfort. Day use fees between $3 and $10 required per vehicle.


Swing down to the river in Wawona for a relaxing picnic and a trip across the swinging bridge. Photo: Theresa Ho

Located along Highway 41 (also called Wawona Road) approaching Yosemite from the South Entrance, Wawona is a historic mecca with the South Fork of the Merced River rolling through. A great place to picnic here is the Swinging Bridge/Wawona Swimming Hole (not to be confused with the Swinging Bridge in Yosemite Valley). This spot features a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to a bouncy yet secure suspension bridge over a gentle cascade of water and granite, not to mention some sandy areas for cooling your tootsies. Perfect on a hot summer day. (Note: Wawona Swimming Hole can be reached two ways "” from a trailhead at the top of Chilnualna Falls Road for a longer, more scenic route, or the shorter hike mentioned above that embarks from the end of Forest Drive).

Lake McClure/Lake McSwain

There's plenty to do at Lake McClure. Take a break for a picnic lunch during a mountain bike ride at Exchequer Mountain Bike Park for a bird's eye view of the lake below.

If fishing, boating or mountain biking are your things, the twin gems Lake McClure and Lake McSwain are a sure bet. Picnics here are the perfect complement to a host of outdoor activities such as a Mariposa County swim and the Splash N Dash Aqua Park, not to mention a great way to beat the heat.

A Complete Basket Case: Essential Picnic Supplies

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, picnicking in Yosemite Mariposa is in the taste buds of the nosher. Here is a basket-filling list of suggestions...

  • Ice chest (if picnicking close to your car)
  • Lined backpack (if walking a distance)
  • Picnic basket (for the traditionalist)
  • Picnic blanket or lightweight ground tarp (sized for your crew)
  • Compostable paper plates/cups/napkins
  • Utensils (if necessary "” think finger foods if packing light)
  • Small cutting board
  • Knife (essential, and often forgotten!)
  • Separate, compostable garbage bags for green waste, recycling and landfill (see Pro Tip below)
  • Favorite beverages (see Pro Tips)
  • Favorite foods (such as hard cheeses, cured meats, locally grown olives, bread, crackers, nut butters, fresh fruit, sliced carrots, celery, bell pepper, cucumber, pre-made salads, sandwiches, etc.)
  • Condiments/hot sauce (raid your packet drawer at home and finally use those suckers!)
  • Desserts (baked goods such as cookies are quick & easy...remember chocolate can melt so weigh the risk/reward!)
Time to plan a scenic picnic treat in Yosemite Mariposa County! Choose a sandy beach down by the river or along the edge of Tenaya Lake for a relaxing dining venue with unbeatable scenery.

Pro Picnic Tips

Cold Comfort: Consider bringing foods that don't need to be refrigerated, or if they do try freezing a gallon jug/plastic freezer bags of spring water for your ice can drink it once it melts!

Consolidated Fun: If using an ice chest, pack as many items that will fit into a plastic garbage bag and stow it inside the ice chest to keep supplies clean and dry in your backpack and make room for extra gear.

B.Y.O. H20: There is no potable water in local picnic areas so bring your own, or bring a water filter if you're near a lake or stream.

Get Your Bear-ings Straight: Yosemite provides bear-proof food lockers for storing all food items "” never leave food in your car unless you want a furry 400 lb bandit prying your door open! If hiking in the backcountry, bear canisters are required. Of course, never feed any wildlife including squirrels, birds and deer.

Pass On Glass: Glass is a no-no in the wild so bring soft drinks/beer in aluminum cans, or transfer wine to a plastic water bottle and leave the corkscrew at home.

Leave No Trace: Avoid picnicking in sensitive habitats and pack out all your trash, including putting rocks back where you found them if used to hold down the corners of your picnic blanket.

Quit Bugging Me: This is nature, after all, so consider bringing a portable screen dome to cover food and eco-friendly bug repellent just in case your picnic causes a buzz.

Variations On A Theme: Consider a themed picnic and pack the appropriate flourishes whether that's romance (cut flowers), family fun (Beast Mode Yosemite board game) or holiday-specific (i.e. red, white & blue for July 4th).

Shop Local: For all your Yosemite Mariposa County picnic supplies please shop local to support the community whether that's grocery supplies and take-out food, local wine & olive oil or baked goods!

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