Where to Go for Thanksgiving: Friendsgiving Ideas for Yosemite National Park

Where to Go for Thanksgiving: Friendsgiving Ideas
Where to Go for Thanksgiving: Friendsgiving Ideas

Looking for where to go for Thanksgiving this year with the family? Or maybe you’re looking for some cool Friendsgiving ideas. Thanksgiving camping recipes? Yup, I’ve got some of those too. Read on for the most awesome place to go for Thanksgiving this year.

Where to Go for Thanksgiving: My Favorite Time of Year

I’ve always loved Thanksgiving, mostly because I love that time of the year. I love boots and scarves and watching the leaves turn. I love being outdoors as the weather shifts from summer to fall, and sometimes straight on to winter, depending on where you are. And when thinking of where to go for Thanksgiving, I choose the majestic Yosemite National Park every year. I love hiking, camping, backpacking – all of it. The mountains are my escape from city life. And I firmly believe you don’t need to be hardcore to enjoy the outdoors.

Really, can you think of anywhere better to go for Thanksgiving? Surrounded by trees and granite in every direction, breathing in the frosty air, enjoying nature. It’s simply perfect…as long as you can handle the cold! There are options for everyone – you rough it, or you can enjoy it comfortably.

Living in San Diego, I’ve found that most people around me are transplants from somewhere else, and they end up staying local for Thanksgiving rather than going home to their families. Flying for the holidays is expensive, and most of us choose to travel for Christmas and stay local for Thanksgiving.

So, some years ago, a friend told me how he liked to get up to Yosemite in the fall to avoid the crowds. What a lovely Friendsgiving idea! I decided to get some of my hungry, lost friends together and I organized a Friendsgiving trip up to Yosemite for the holiday weekend. Now this tradition continues, each year, inviting new transplants to experience the best way to spend your Thanksgiving! But Yosemite isn’t just a perfect Friendsgiving idea, it’s also great for families as there are so many options for how to plan your trip to Yosemite.

Read on and I’ll share my tips for when to head to Yosemite, where to stay in Yosemite Valley on a budget, what to make, and how to have the perfect Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving.

In this post:
Getting to Yosemite National Park for your Thanksgiving Holiday
Where to Stay in Yosemite for Thanksgiving
Things to Do in Yosemite for your Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving Fun and Friendsgiving Ideas
Thanksgiving Camping Recipes and Dinner Ideas

Getting to Yosemite National Park for Thanksgiving

If you’re a local Californian, it makes the most sense to drive. If you’re flying in from another state, you’ll likely have to rent a car and drive from the closest airport. Tioga Pass is generally closed this time of year, so you won’t be able to come through from the Eastern side of the Sierras, but you could come down from Tahoe/Reno, or drive from San Francisco or San Jose.

If you don’t have to worry about work days and PTO, this section will mostly be irrelevant for you, lucky dog. I’m pretty limited on my PTO so I try to take as few days off as possible – I need those days for more traveling!

Coming from southern California, we usually drive up to Yosemite from San Diego late Wednesday night, avoiding the traffic through LA as much as possible. I’ve learned that leaving earlier in the day will not necessarily get you to Yosemite any earlier because everyone seems to have that same idea. One year, some friends in our group left around 1 pm, we left around 6 pm. They only got up there about 2 hours before us.

I like to leave San Diego around 6 pm, grab some food, and hit the road. We generally don’t hit much traffic at all, but the downside is that we get to Yosemite around 2 am. Driving that late on the winding roads into Yosemite can be very difficult, and dangerous, so please drive safely. There is generally little to no traffic that time of night, but you do have to stay alert for wild animals and often, inclement weather conditions. If you’re planning to drive late like we do, be sure to take shifts driving, and bring lots of coffee.

And, if there is inclement weather, make sure to carry chains for your tires (you should have these anyway, just in case). If you don’t have any and a storm comes through Yosemite, you’ll end up spending far more on your chains buying them in the Valley!

If this doesn’t sound doable, don’t turn down Yosemite as an awesome idea for where to go for Thanksgiving just yet. You can also get up nice and early Thursday (like, 4 am) and drive up then. You’ll still make it to Yosemite for your Thanksgiving dinner, and enjoy plenty of daylight as well! Whatever you do, do make sure you have enough days to get your fill. There’s not quite as much to do in Yosemite in November as there is during the summer, but there’s still plenty. More of that later…

Where to Stay in Yosemite for Thanksgiving

There are plenty of options for lodging in Yosemite, so the “where” really comes down to preference…

Camping: Upper Pines
Glamping: Curry Village (aka Half Dome Village)
Hotels: A few options to choose from

Thanksgiving Camping in Yosemite Valley:

If you’re a tough camper and have the right gear for winter camping, Upper Pines has beautiful campgrounds for your Thanksgiving / Friendsgiving adventure. If you choose this option, you’ll need to plan ahead because they book up pretty early on. Most of the other campsites are closed this time of year or are first come first served, which can be difficult to snag. Reservations open up, I believe, 6 months before your intended camping date. So, plan ahead!

The benefit to camping is that you get a campfire to cook over. If you’re planning to bring/make your own Thanksgiving dinner like we do, it can be difficult (but not impossible) to do the whole thing on stoves.

The downside to tent camping in Upper Pines is that, well, for one, it’s very fricken cold. This part of Yosemite Valley where Upper Pines sits is one of the coldest parts of the valley. Seriously, it’s like 10 degrees colder than it is over by Yosemite Falls. And, the sun doesn’t reach the campsite until late morning which makes for a cold morning. Some years are better than others, but, still pretty frigid.

Another issue with tent camping at Upper Pines is that there are RVs everywhere. For those of you who have RVs, they look very comfy. However, if you’re hoping to camp in a tent and enjoy the sounds of nature, you’ll be very disappointed. Instead, you’ll most likely sit listening to generators all day long. They do enforce quiet hours after 10 pm, but some people leave their generators on all day long, and it’s terribly annoying to listen to. I wish Yosemite would coordinate the campground better to keep the RVs together, and tents together, but until then, generator central it shall be.

For the last few years, we have rented a tent campsite in Upper Pines for Thanksgiving night so that we can heat our camping meals (which we make in San Diego and transport to Yosemite) around the campfire. Then, on Friday, we move into Curry Village (now Half Dome Village) until Sunday.

Thanksgiving Glamping in Yosemite Valley:

Recently, Yosemite had to change the names of a lot of their campgrounds, hotels, etc because of greedy people. The old Curry Village is now called Half Dome Village, but I still call it Curry Village most of the time.

Anyway, Curry Village / Half Dome Village is a great option for budget + comfort. They have these lovely heated canvas tents that are close to glamping. They’re pretty basic – just a few cots and a heater – but the (shared) bathrooms are great and pretty clean. There is a dining hall with coffee and food, as well as a building where you can go sit by the fire with a book or play some board games with your friends.

If you choose the Curry Village option, you’ll still want to bring your own sleeping bags or blankets for the tent, and there is no cooking allowed in all of Curry Village. You can cook at picnic tables around the valley from sun-up to sun-down, which is nice, but otherwise, you’re at the mercy of their rather expensive restaurants. It all goes to a good place, so I can’t complain too much. They also have bear bins outside of each tent for you to store your food and toiletries – anything scented. Bears can be a problem, so you want to camp smart.

Curry Village also has cabins, but they’re a little more expensive. And, of course, because these are the more affordable Yosemite option, they book up early. Their cancellation policy does allow for full refunds up to a week before, so sometimes you will get lucky with a last-minute cancellation. I always have my trip booked by May, just to be safe.

Thanksgiving Resorting in Yosemite Valley:

If camping and glamping aren’t your thing when deciding where to go for Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving, don’t worry. There are a few hotel options in Yosemite Valley to consider. But, they’re not quite as inexpensive as Half Dome Village, and certainly far more expensive than camping. Yosemite Valley Lodge is still reasonably priced (around $200+/night), and the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (previously known as the famous Ahwahnee Hotel) is your top dollar option ($500+/night).

There are also hotel options outside of Yosemite Valley, but they’re far less convenient and I think it’s worth the extra money to be in the valley. These hotels may look like they’re not very far, but the roads are winding and will take you longer than you think in and out of the valley.

Things to Do in Yosemite for your Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving Fun and Friendsgiving Ideas

Sure, it’s going to be colder in November than if you were to head to Yosemite in the summer, but the crowds are far smaller which is a huge plus. And, even though you won’t be able to access some of the cool hikes that you can reach in the summer, the valley is awe inspiring so it’s not as though you’ll be missing out.

If you like hiking, there are hikes for all levels of ability. If you’re new, or just like going for a stroll, the walk to the base of Yosemite Falls is nice and relaxing, and beautiful. Mirror Lake is also a beautiful and easy trail, we do it every year!

If you want an extra push, you have two options here: you can either hike up to the bottom of upper Yosemite Falls, or you can hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. The hike to the bottom of the falls is quite difficult. It’s uphill the whole way, and although it’s only about 2-3 miles round trip, the two times I’ve done it, it’s kicked my ass. In a good way, but also in a “there’s no way I’m hiking to the top of the Falls”, way.

If you want to hike to the top of Yosemite Falls, it’s about 7+ miles round trip. And it’s all uphill to the top. The views, I hear, are very worth it, but Thanksgiving isn’t the time for my ambitious hiking. It’s more my “let me hike a bit, have a beer, and relax” trip.

The Four-mile hike is another great option for a moderate hike, as is the John Muir Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls. Mist Trail is often closed because any amount of ice can make this very dangerous.

If you like rock climbing, there’s obviously plenty of this around the valley, and during the day when the sun is shining, it’s pretty comfortable to be able to climb. You can also bring or rent bikes to ride around, or just sit in a meadow with a beer and enjoy the views. OH! And don’t forget about ice skating. One of my favorite traditions is to pick a night to go ice skating in Yosemite Valley. The rink is outdoors, so you’ll want to bundle up, but it’s so much fun. And, even if you’re not staying at the Awhanaee, you can go sit in their lobby and relax by their gigantic fireplaces.

Thanksgiving Camping Ideas: The Best Camping Tips & Recipe Ideas for your Friendsgiving

Now that we figured out where to go for Thanksgiving, what about Thanksgiving camping recipes for dinner by the fire….?

Tips for Cooking your Thanksgiving Dinner Outside

If you’re planning to cook while camping on Thanksgiving, of course, the first thing to consider when deciding WHAT to make is how you are going to heat it up. I recommend making what you can at home, and then simply reheating it on your trip.

If you’re camping, you’ll have your campfire (in a designated area/fire pit), so that’s a good start. This post from Design Mom gives a lot of great advice on how to set your fire up properly for cooking. If you have camping stoves or burners that you can bring, and you’re going to be in an area that allows for them, it never hurts to do so.

If you’re not renting a campsite but want to cook food at a picnic table, you’ll need to bring some stoves. I have a small MSR Backpacking Stove that I absolutely love, but for a Thanksgiving group size, it’s really only big enough to take care of heating up some cider. I’ve recently invested in a 2 burner Stove that’s great for morning eggs and bacon. It’s also great for heating up cranberry sauce, gravy, soups, etc. You could also heat up turkey and other food in a skillet. And obviously slow cookers are great, but you’ll need to figure out how and where to plug it in. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Consider what cooking tools you’ll need – for instance, I use those throw-away foil tins for turkey, ham, stuffing, etc. to heat things over the campfire. Things like corn can be rolled in foil and placed right on the campfire coals for space. Liquids can be heated in a heat safe pot over a stove. Remember to bring large spoons to dish out the food, and something to take the hot food off of the fire so you don’t burn yourself.

You’ll also want to consider what should be cooked over the fire (or some other alternative), and what should be cooked on stoves. Also, make sure you consider what will take longer to heat up so that you get those going first – you don’t want to have your turkey ready while the gravy is still heating up!

And please, do not start a fire for your Thanksgiving camping recipes and immediately throw the food right on top – it will get burned and taste far too smoked. Start the fire early – a good hour or so before you intend on starting your cooking – so that the embers burn down and get real hot before putting any food on top.

Next, you’ll want to consider what you can feasibly prepare beforehand to heat up over a fire. My favorite Thanksgiving camping recipes and meals are listed below:

Thanksgiving Dinner Ideas for Camping

Thanksgiving food is my favorite. I mean, what’s better than stuffing and potatoes?? Here are some of my favorite Thanksgiving camping recipe ideas:

1. Thanksgiving Turkey

I love making a turkey. I don’t love eating it necessarily because it’s not my favorite, but I love making it. I’ve done the standard roasted turkey, the apple cider brine, and even tried baking it with bacon on top for that extra delicious flavor.

Whichever way you cook your Thanksgiving turkey, make sure you have enough time before your trip to make your turkey. I usually make mine on Tuesday, slice it up, and store it in the fridge or freezer until we leave on Wednesday night.

And don’t forget to use the drippings for gravy and stock!

2. Sourdough, Cranberry, and Apple Stuffing

Stuffing may be one of my all-time favorite foods. Ever. For those meat lovers, unfortunately, I don’t add meat to my stuffing (although I do love meat). I like my stuffing a little more carb-basic. I tend to mix together a few Thanksgiving stuffing recipes because I like a little of everything…except sausage. For me, sausage should just be eaten separately as to not ruin the deliciousness of the carby stuffing.

My stuffing consists of delicious sourdough bread (you can usually find it on sale in the afternoon at the grocery store near the expiring bread – and that’s perfect, because you want it to be a bit crispier!), chopped green apples, celery, carrots, onions and craisins (those delicious flavored cranberry raisins). I break the bread into little cubes and bake them on a pan for about 10 minutes at about 375 degrees, and then add them to a large mixing bowl.

Separately, I saute the onions in a little butter, add the green apples, celery, and carrots until they’re all nicely cooked. I add the craisins towards the end to keep them somewhat fresh, then add in some broth (chicken, vegetable or beef – they’re all great) and voila! Mix everything together, bake it, and then preserve it to be warmed up for Thanksgiving dinner.

Yum. Major yum. You can find some great recipes on Food.com for portion sizes – I’m more of a “a dash of this” type of cook – I like to season to taste.

3. Easy Thanksgiving Ham

Ham is so deliciously easy, and it heats up really well as a leftover. No recipe needed, really. You can buy a nice ham at the grocery store, bake it in the oven before your trip (usually pretty simple – sometimes comes with a glaze, throw it on a pan and put it in the oven just so that it gets warmed up).

When you get to your campsite, you can easily heat the ham slices in the foil tin with the turkey and stuffing, and you have a mash of deliciousness! Ham is even good cold the next morning, or cooked in with your post-Thanksgiving breakfast!

4. Cranberry Sauce Recipe with Grand Marnier, Apples and Walnuts

I’m not a huge fan of the gummy cranberry slices that come out of the can as they are. But, take the cranberry slices, mash it up with some chopped walnuts, chopped green apples, craisins, Grand Marnier, and a bit of juice from a lemon and an orange, and you’ve got major deliciousness to spice up your turkey. I start off sauteing the apples in some butter, then I add the rest and just let it simmer. This recipe leaves out some of my additions but gives you a basic idea for the recipe.

5. Sweet Potato Soufflé Recipe With Marshmallows and Brown Sugar

I’m more of a savory than a sweet person, but when you have a sweet potato soufflé with brown sugar, butter, and marshmallows, it’s a perfect mix of savory with sweet. It’s like a dessert that you can eat with your dinner, rather than after. I don’t think a Thanksgiving meal is really complete without it!

6. Veggies

These are a super easy option for your Thanksgiving camping dinner. You can roll some corn up in foil and toss it in the fire, or roast some brussel sprouts with bacon in a skillet. Green beans, yum. And who doesn’t love a green bean casserole? Casseroles can be made ahead of time in a foil toss-away container and heated over the fire, but the others can be made on hand. They also make you feel a little better about all the other crap you’re going to eat.

Wherever you to go for Thanksgiving this year, remember that there is always a lot for which to be thankful. Even in the worst of times, if you look hard enough, you can see the good peeking through the clouds. I wish you all a very happy and safe Thanksgiving!

“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around” – Willie Nelson

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  1. The 12 Biggest Lessons I learned in 12 Months of Adventures | My Life of Adventures

    […] Friendsgiving!! My favorite time of year. This year’s group was much smaller than last year – only 6 of us vs. last year’s 23 – but it was just enough to have a fantastic time. We ate delicious Thanksgiving food, drank delicious spiked cider, had hilariously delirious conversations, fell while ice skating more than once, and enjoyed the incredible granite and snow covered trails of Yosemite! All of this was possible because there were people who cared enough to fight a long time ago to protect and preserve our land. Could you imagine how these parks may have been torn down and developed with condos and malls had they not? Teddy, John….I thank you. […]

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