Yosemite National Park
How to plan your One-Day visit
Yosemite National Park is one of America most amazing park to visit.
Here you can find many famous scenic nature wonders like the tallest waterfall in North America, as many other smaller but not less immersive waterfalls, the largest granite cliff rock El Capitan, the Yosemite Valley, and the famous Half Dome.
During the last 25 years I visit in this park countless times and every visit I’m falling in love with it wonders as if this is my first time.
As of 2022 reservations is in place to enter Yosemite National Park between May 20 through September 30.
|(Link to my Yosemite Bear Pictures Blog)|
Below I wrote a longer than usual blog, trying to provide as much information as I can on many aspects related to your Yosemite National Park visit.
I hope that you will find the below information is useful and that it helps you plan your visit.
I’m planning to add many more blogs on Yosemite, giving more information on specific location and hikes. I will update this blog with relevant links as I will have more content.
Yosemite National Park was established on October 1, 1890 and declared as World Heritage site in 1984.
Related Blog Posts:
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Yosemite NP – Winter (Snow) Visit Planning
- Yosemite NP – Snow, Pictures from my Dec. 2, 2022 visit
- Yosemite National Park - Bear Pictures
- Yosemite NP – Hiking Mist trail to Vernal Falls and Nevada Fall
- Yosemite NP – Hike to Half Dome Diving Board
- Yosemite NP – Cloud Rest Hike
- Yosemite NP – 4 Miles Trail to Glacier Point
- Yosemite NP – Inspiration Point Hike
- Yosemite NP – Tunnel View to Dewey Point Hike
- Yosemite NP – Mariposa Sequoia Grove
- Yosemite NP – Wawona Pioneer Yosemite History Center
- Yosemite Valley - Pictures from my Oct. 2022 visit
- Yosemite NP – Tioga Pass Road
- Yosemite NP – Tioga Pass May Lake Hike
- Yosemite NP – Tioga Pass North Dome Hike
- Yosemite NP – Tioga Pass Lembert Dome Hike
- Yosemite NP – Tioga Pass Tuolumne Meadows
- Yosemite NP – Tioga Pass Tenaya Lake
- Yosemite NP – Tuolumne Sequoia Grove
- Yosemite NP – Hetch Hetchy Visit Planning
- Yosemite NP – Hetch Hetchy, Wapama Falls Day Hike
- Yosemite NP – Hetch Hetchy, Laurel Lake Day Hike
The park can be divided into the following 6 sections:
· Yosemite Valley
· Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows
· Mariposa Grove and Wawona
· Glacier Point
· Hetch Hetchy
· Large wilderness areas
Although Yosemite is a huge park (750,000 acres), covering both the western and eastern side of the high Sierra mountains, you can organize your one/two-day visit around Yosemite Valley famous attraction points, like Tunnel View, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.
If you are coming only for a short visit leave all other park section to another trip where you have at list 2-3 days.
In the following chapters I will try to help you to plan your one-day trip in Yosemite National Park.
Can I visit the park in only one day, does it worth it?
There is simple answer to both those questions: YES.
It is better to plan for 2-3 days but one day visit can also be an unforgettable experience.
You can easily take the one-day itinerary below and transform it into full 2-3 days visit.
When coming for a one-day visit to Yosemite National Park you may be overwhelmed from the things you can do and see in this amazing park, you do not have a lot of time so you need to try and plan your day visit in advance and focus on the “must see” attractions.
You need to understand that you can’t see/do it all and you need to focus on specific places, even after planning, the visit itself may be different, there is what you pan and there is life....
You may want to spend more time in one place, traffic, and lack of parking my slow you down, animals viewing or “just” enjoy “taking it slow”.
For one day visit you need to focus your visit to the main Yosemite Valley highlights and must-see locations.
When I’m saying “one day visit” I’m referring to a full day where you start your visit early in the morning and staying until the afternoon.
Take into consideration that if you are not sleeping in the park itself there is additional driving time from/to your hotel to Yosemite Valley.
The below location list is my suggestion for one-day visit in the Yosemite National Park
The list below is the valley main attraction points.
You can’t do everything in the list so according your “day progress” decide what to do, where to spend more time and what to skip.
Some of the locations in the list below are viewing points and you also have several short hiking options to fill your day.
You do not need to be an expert hiker to enjoy this park and there are many short, flat and easy going hikes in the valley.
I mark the really MUST do places with * so you can plan accordingly.
A detailed information on each location will be provided at the blog sections below.
The attraction points are listed according to the valley one-way road driving direction (see map below):
· Tunnel view* (can also visit here on your way out at the afternoon or when driving to Glacier Point)
· Bridalveil Falls - short Hike
· El Capitan roadside viewpoint*
· Cathedral Beach Picnic Area
· Swinging Bridge Picnic Area*
· Yosemite Valley Chapel (this is not a must visit location, take a photo if you want and keep driving)
· Sentinel Bridge*
· Visitor Parking and Yosemite Valley Visitor Center
· Hiking near the Merced River, many trails’ options*
· You need to choose one hike from the few options:
o Nature Center at Happy Isles
o Mist Trail to Vernal Falls Bridge
o Mirror Lake (only at Winter and Spring, at summer the lake is dry)
o Only the first mile up of the 4-Miles hike
· Mariposa Grove (only if you have time on your way out of the south entrance and when the local hike shuttle is operating)
Note: Glacier Point:
This amazing viewpoint can be access only when the road is open during the summer & fall months.
It was closed to car access during the summer of 2022 and expected to be open again in summer 2023.
See this webpage for more information about this closer:
Even when the road is close you can hike to Glacier Point viewpoint trough long strenuous hikes from the valley floor or trails along the south ridge (Four Mile, Panorama, and Pohono Trails).
If you are experience hiker in good shape and you decide to hike here you will be reworded by the best Yosemite valley views but if this is your
first Yosemite visit and you only have few days, focus your visit on the valley
I hiked the 4-miles trail to Glacier Point right after snowstorm (April 2022) and
it was amazing experience.
The following blog sections will provide additional information on visit planning, specific location, hikes and attractions and additional general information that will help you planning your Yosemite visit.
Bellow you can find the following blog sections:
1. When to plan your Park visit
2. Yosemite Valley highlights – Things to see and do in one day, detailed information on each location
3. Driving to the park and heading to Yosemite Valley – Detailed information on all 4 park entrances.
4. General Information, Gas stations and Food
5. Night accommodations locations – where to looks for hotels
6. How you can connect your Yosemite visit to your California road trip plans
1. When to plan your Yosemite visit:
What is the best season to visit Yosemite?
I think there is only one good answer to this question: whenever you can.
If Yosemite is part of your California US west coast road-trip or you are coming specially to see this park from San Francisco or LA, it is always good time to visit this amazing park.
Although the park is open year-round, nearly 75% of visitors come during the busiest six months (May through October), probably April to August is the most recommended time to visit here.
There are 2 planning factors that you need to take into consideration: Entrance reservation and Tioga Pass Road (if you plan to get in/out the park from this entrance).
As of 2022 reservations is in place to enter Yosemite National Park between May 20 through September 30.
You must get reservation, see official page link with more information:
The reservation does not replace the need to pay entrance fee at the park entrance stations.
you need to pay 35$ per car for 3 days access (you can get in and out the park in you 3 days stay) or you can buy at the entrance a yearly pass to all America National parks for 80$/year.
Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120):
If you are planning to drive Tioga pass road (highway 120), enter or exit the park east entrance or visit Tuolumne Meadows make sure to visit the park main page to understand if this road is open or close. The road is usually open from mid-May to end of October.
Follow the link below for history records of road opening and closing dates:
Note: Weekends and holidays are always more crowded than mid-weekdays, sometimes holidays are so crowded that you can’t find parking spots anywhere in the park. Maybe now, when entrance permit system is in place there will be less load.
Every Season bring with it a different view of the park
The best season to visit the park is considered to be spring (April, May & June) where the waterfalls are flowing after the snowmelt, everything is green, not so hot and usually at mid/end of May Tioga Road is being open (depending on the winter snow level). From “nature” perspective this is probably the best time to visit.
Spring and Summer are the most crowded months, you will have challenges to find parking spots, trails and viewpoints will be packed with people, and you may have delays of traffic jams.
Tioga road is open for sure and you can plan to enter the park from the east gate (road that going up from highway 395) or visit the higher mountains area.
At summer, but especially late summer, the waterfalls may be dry or with low water level and Mirror Lake is usually dry.
At late summer (August & September), before the first rains, you can have wild forests fires that may affect your visit to the Sierra mountains. Even if the fire is not in the park itself it can create smoke that limit visibility.
Summer visitors will have enough daylight hours to visit more viewing points, do more hikes, and on foot explorations at the valley floor.
Fall is a short season in Yosemite (Sep.-Nov.), if you want to see the fall colors this it is the time to visit here. Drive to the Yosemite Valley and see the tress along the Merced River change their colors to yellow.
At the upper elevations, as in most of the Sierra Mountain, the dominate trees are pine and you will not see fall colors.
Usually, the water level at the short full season is also low and the waterfalls are less impressive.
From my experience, from mid-September there are a lot less visitors at the park so everything is less crowded, and you can hike the trails without a lot of other people.
You may have rain in late fall, check weather forecast before coming to the park.
The “real winter” season in Yosemite can start or end at different months.
In some years first snow already cover the mountains at end of Octobers and in other years the “real winter” starts only at end of December.
Need to remember that at Winter the day start late and end early and you have a lot less practical visit hours at the park.
Usually, you do not have snowstorms in April, this year (2022), we had a few snowstorms mid-April.
When it snows, the lower Yosemite Valley is open for visitors and snow is being plowed in the main roads leading the park.
Even if there is snow at the higher mountains the valley, that is only 4,000 ft high is not covered with snow all the time, usually only for few days after snow.
It is amazing experience to visit Yosemite Valley right after snowstorm, all the valley floor and the surrounding mountains will be covered with snow.
At winter, especially during and right after snowstorm, there are some additional visit considerations that are covered in a another blog post.
I will write a dedicated blog about winter visit at Yosemite, I will add it link here once it is ready.
2. Yosemite Valley Highlights – Things to see and do in one-day visit
Driving, Parking and the Shuttle System in the park
In general Yosemite Valley Road is one-way road that is leading into the Yosemite Valley on the left (south) side of the Merced River and going out from the valley on the right (North) side.
Along the drive there are only few connecting bridges where you can cross to the other side of the loop road.
Plan your day and visiting locations as you drive the loop, you do not want to waste time to go back to a missed point on the loop.
Note: At weekend holidays and summer days the park can be crowded, expect slow traffic and problem to find parking spots.
Note: When it is crowded plan for delay when exiting Yosemite Valley afternoon, at rush hour just before sunset this can be a 20-minutes additional driving time.
Yosemite Valley shuttle system
Because of overloaded traffic and limited parking, the free Yosemite Valley shuttle system provides convenient access around Yosemite Valley.
If you are planning to park your car and use the shuttle to get to your valley destinations, you must check the park webpage for latest shuttle schedule information:
Please see that the routes are changing on May 17 2022.
There are 2 shuttle lines in the Yosemite Valley (starting May 17 2022):
Valleywide shuttle: This route serves all stops in Yosemite Valley, including lodges, food service, campgrounds, and trailheads. Buses arrive every 12 to 22 minutes from 7 am to 10 pm.
East Valley shuttle: This route is limited to Yosemite Village, Curry Village, Pines campgrounds, and trailheads in eastern Yosemite Valley. Buses arrive every 8 to 12 minutes from 7 am to 10 pm.
Pro and cons of using the shuttle:
Pro: You park your car at the main parking lot in the morning and you do not need to worry about traffic or finding parking near your destination, you can be flexible and hike back some of the way or visit another location.
Con: You need to wait to the shuttle in the buss-stop, sometime this can take longer than advertised, in busy days you can find a long waiting line to the shuttle. You are far from your car, so you need to carry with you all what you need for the day. Shuttle do not have stops at all locations (like Tunnel View).
Personally, I never used the shuttle system, I prefer to be flexible and hike back to my car even if it is far away.
I will recommend you using only the East Valley shuttle (hike Yosemite Falls from the main Visitor center) and for other locations visit them as you drive in and out the park.
Places and Attractions To Visit:
How Long Will This Visit Take?
After reaching the park valley entrance, it will probably take you 4-5 hours to cover the stops below at a leisurely pace.
You should add 2 hours for each short hike (from the list of hikes below) and you should add more time (at list 1 hour) if you want to have a sit-down meal instead of a quick picnic.
If you plan driving Glacier Point for sunset add additional 1.5-2 hours to your plan.
Note: that Glacier Point is close to any traffic during 2022.
One of the best vantage point locations for the famous Yosemite Valley view.
This is a great place to start your visit. From here you can see the valley opening and trees, El Capitan on the left and Bridalveil falls on the right (you do not see Yosemite falls from this point), and Half Dome at the far side of the valley, 8 miles away.
If you are coming from the south entrance, it is on your way to the valley, but even if you are coming from the north or central entrance it is a short 5-minutes’ drive detour. Just before heading into the main valley turn right and follow the signs to Wawona and highway 41 south.
When the small parking lot at the viewpoint is full you can find additional parking spots on the roadside before the viewpoint. When you are driving from the valley up the road and you start to see many cars park on the roadside try to find a parking space even before reaching the parking lot, it is probably already full. Make sure that when you park on the roadside you do not block the narrow road.
There is no sideroad parking when driving down to the valley.
I highly recommend visiting here as you start you Yosemite visit, this is also popular sunset viewpoint where the last sunlight is hitting El Capitan and Half Dome coloring them with yellow and orange glow.
Note: there are no bathrooms at this popular viewpoint.
This is not a must visit location, but I added it to my one-day to-do list because this is a relatively short hike, you can visit the base of the impressive waterfall and be back in your car within 30 minutes.
Bridalveil Fall is one of the most prominent waterfalls in the Yosemite Valley and you can see it from many valleys entrance viewing points (like Tunnel View). The waterfall is 188 meters in height and flows year-round.
The easy to walk paved trail from the parking lot will take you to the base of the waterfalls, this is 0.5 mile out and back walk. You can get very close to the waterfall and enjoy the water spray at a hot summer day.
El Capitan Viewpoint*
As you are driving into the valley, this section is one-way road, you will soon see a lot of pull-outs parking on both sides of the road and an opening in the forest. Find a parking spot and stop here to admire El Capitan, in the left side of the valley.
El Capitan is a granite monolith with about 3,000 feet (914 m) from base to summit (2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building) and it is known as a popular objective for rock climbers.
As with all other rock formations of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan was carved by glacial action.
Have a short stop, enjoy the view, take few pictures, and keep driving.
Cathedral Beach Picnic Area:
Right after you are passing the junction with a crossover road you will see singes to Cathedral Beach Picnic Area on your left.
This is excellent place to eat but the real reason I’m recommending coming to this place is to see the Merced River and El Capitan reflection in the water.
You can stop here for a short time, just get out of the car, walk to the river front and take few pictures. You can also have longer hike along the river, trying to find your “perfect reflection picture” of El Capitan.
Swinging Bridge Picnic Area*:
At this stop you can enjoy walking near the Merced River meadows, walk to the bridge that is crossing the river and enjoy the amazing view of both Yosemite Waterfall and Half Dome.
You can spend here 30 minutes or even hike along the river for much longer time.
There are restrooms in this location and although there is relatively large parking lot it is getting fill up fast.
Visitor Parking and Yosemite Valley Visitor Center
When driving into the valley you will eventually run into a left turn road, here, if you keep straight, you will reach the valley campgrounds and Curry Village. If you take a left, it will take you to the main park parking lot and the visitor center.
Take the left and you will immediately cross the Sentinel Bridge. If there is a place to park just past the bridge, try to do so, walk back to the bridge and enjoy the Half Dome view from the bridge over the river.
Park your car in large day-use parking lot. Nearby you will find the information center (located a 5 to 10-minute walk from the parking lot in the direction of Yosemite Waterfalls), a museum, restaurant, and large food store.
Try not to spend too much time here, it is better to spend as much time outside.
Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead and Lower Yosemite Fall Vista Point*
Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in the North America at 2,425 feet and one of the top 20 tallest waterfalls in the world!
There are 3 sections to the waterfall, Upper Yosemite Fall at 1,430 feet, the middle Cascades are 675 feet, and Lower Yosemite Fall is 320 feet.
Note: if you are not going to the visitor center I will recommend scheduling the visit in the lower Yosemite Falls to the afternoon, after visiting and hiking to other locations.
This is on the road leading out of the valley, it an easy to walk trail and better do it at the afternoon.
You probably saw the upper waterfall section from your car or from the many different valley viewing point. Here we will visit the lower section of the waterfalls.
In my view this is a must do hike so you need to plan your day and leave enough time at the afternoon to your visit here.
Dedicate this visit 1 hour, enough to walk to the base of the waterfall vista point and back to your parked car, this is around 1 mile hike.
There isn’t a large parking lot here, only few spots are available at the side of the road. You have 2 options: park near the visitor center and walk here or to keep driving passing the waterfall shuttle station (stop #6) and turn left into Yosemite Valley Lodge parking lot.
Note: At the afternoon there is always traffic jam in the direction of the waterfall because many people are crossing the road from Yosemite Valley Lodge parking lot (left side of the road) on their way to the waterfall (right side of the road).
Need to understand that Yosemite Falls is also a seasonal waterfall and can be dried up in late summer/fall. If you are coming during late summer and the waterfalls are dry, I will recommend not to visit here but rather see other park attraction.
Because that at summer also Mirror Lake may be dry you may want to spend a lot more time hiking the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls that is flowing year-round (see below description).
When the water is flowing Yosemite Falls is probably the most crowded place in the park, do not expect to be alone here.
Hiking at the trails near the Merced River:
There are many different options to hike at the valley floor near the Merced River, one highly recommended option is at Swinging Bridge Picnic Area (see above). Other hiking options are near the visitor center, hike to Sentinel Bridge and to Berg Bridge.
Few short hike options for one day visit:
If you have time, I recommend here few 2-3 hours hike options at the Yosemite Valley. Need to take into consideration that you need to drive & park or take a shuttle to the hike starting point.
Hike 1. Nature Center at Happy Isles:
A short and easy hike that can be combined with hiking the nearby mist trail to Vernal falls bridge.
If you are coming with the shuttle there is a bus stop right at the trailhead (stop #16, see above shuttle map).
If you are coming with a car you need to park it at the nearest parking lot.
|The parking lot from above - The picture was taken from Glacier Point|
To reach this lot you need to drive pass Curry Village and after a short drive you will see an entrance to the parking lot on your right, unless you are coming early in the morning this parking lot is probably full so try to find a parking space at much larger Curry Village Parking Lots.
From the parking lot follow the almost half a mile hiking trail parallel to the road to Mist Trail & John Muir Trail Trailhead. You will need to hike back this section once you finish your hike.
Once you are at the Nature Center that offers natural history exhibits, interactive displays, and art workshops. Nearby, short trails focus on the area's four different environments: forest, river, talus, and fen. You can also see substantial evidence of the huge 1996 rockfall from the Glacier Point cliff far above the nature center.
Usually, families with kids visit here. Overall, you can visit there for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Hike 2. Mist Trail to Vernal Falls Bridge*:
See explanation above on where to park your car and how to reach the Happy Isles trailhead.
This is one of the most popular hikes in the park. At winter and spring, you have many other attractions you want to visit so check that you have enough time to hike here but at summer where many waterfalls are dry this is my preferred hike.
Mist Trail from the road bridge trailhead to the wooden bridge is only 1.6 miles roundtrip, but it is a relatively steep climb. I saw here all level of hikers and families with kids, but this climb may not fit everyone.
From the wooden bridge you will see the cascade of the Merced River and you can also catch a glimpse of Vernal Falls top section up the canyon.
If you have time you can go to the base of Vernal Falls, you do not need to climb to it top but enjoy it from below.
A much longer hike is the following: from the wooden bridge hike, up mist trail to the base and the top of Vernal Falls viewing point (this is 2.4 miles hike + a climb). You can enjoy the view here and go back down or keep hiking up the canyon and the switchbacks and you will reach the higher Nevada Fall (overall from the trailhead this is 5.4 miles hike + additional climb).
The longer hike all the way to the top of Nevada Fall is amazing hike, but I do not I recommend for one day visit, you still have a lot of things to see in the valley below.
If you are fast hiker that start your day early, or when coming at summer when Yosemite Falls and Mirror Lake are dry so you have more time for longer hike, and you are willing to give it a try than this is one of the best half-days hikes you can do in Yosemite.
You can hike to the base of Vernal Falls where you will get wet by the mist or hike the additional steep short bolder section to the top of the waterfall.
Hike 3. Mirror Lake (only at Winter and Spring):
If you are looking for a gorgeous and relatively easy hike, Mirror Lake is one of the popular options.
This trail begins at shuttle stop located at the start of Mirror Lake Road (stop #17). The first mile of this trail is a paved service road that leads directly to Mirror Lake.
The trail follows along Tenaya Creek all the way to the lake section. From here most people enjoy the lake reflection and then they hike back on the same way they came. You can keep hiking up the river until you will reach a bridge that crosses the river, and you will hike back on the other side of the river.
Distance: 2 miles (3.2 km) round trip to lake and back; 5 miles (8 km) loop around lake.
Usually, it takes about 2-3 hours round trip and only has 100 feet of elevation gain.
Winter and Spring are the recommended time to see water in Mirror Lake. During the summer the lake, that is wide section of Tenaya Creek get dry and there is not lake or reflections, you will still see the amazing view of Half Dome towering right above you.
There is no parking by the Mirror Lake trailhead. The closest parking area is at Curry Village or by taking the public shuttle bus.
Hike 4. Four-miles trail, only the first one mile:
I do not recommend hiking this long and strenuous trail all the way to Glacier Point but rather hike only 1 mike up the trail, above the tree line and enjoy the panoramic view of the valley entrance and the Yosemite waterfalls on the other side of the valley.
Note: the trailhead to this hike is just before Swinging Bridge Picnic Area and there only few parking spot on the road.
On your way out stop at the following points:
El Cap Meadow
On your way out of the valley, the road passes right in front of the base of El Capitan, there is a pull-out on the left side of the road. This is a great place to try and watch climbers in action, though they may be far away up the cliff.
Merced River Yosemite Valley View*
From El Cap
Meadow drive west, out of the valley, for additional 0.5 miles and you will see
at a road band a small parking lot near the river on your left, pull out and
try to find a parking spot. because the "official" parking space near the river is always full of cars and you need to wait to others driving away I always park 300 ft before this location on a small road side parking (on the left), from here it is only a short walk to the viewing location.
If you reach the park entrance road junction you
missed it by less than a quarter of a mile (300m).
Black Bears in Yosemite:
Hundreds of black bears live in Yosemite. While you're unlikely to see a bear during your visit, be sure to protect yourself and bears by storing your food properly, day and night. If you see one, make sure to take the time to enjoy viewing the bears from a far distance, remain at least 50 yards from it.
Black bears may show dominance by bluff charging, especially when guarding food or cubs. Attacks are rare, and no one has been killed or seriously injured by a black bear in Yosemite.
Never feed a bear !
Keep your food in proper lockers.
Canisters are required in all of Yosemite's backcountry overnight staying.
|Picture taken at Lake Tahoe|
Few Facts about California Black Bear:
· Most are not black but brown reddish brown.
· Average adult male is about 250 pounds and adult female is about 150 pounds.
· They eat mostly grasses and berries, with acorns as a favored food in the fall.
· Bears hibernate during the winter in hollow trees or logs or in caves formed by a jumble of large rocks.
I must say that at all my many visits to Yosemite, including long multi days hikes, I never saw a Bear in this park. I saw a lot of Bear pop and footprints in the snow but not a bear… maybe next time….
|Bear Footprints in Yosemite|
At my May 7 2022 visit I saw a Bear in Yosemite, this was at my hike to Half Dome Diving Board, off-trail hike, few pictures of the bear (link to a blog post with a lot more pictures from this encounter).
During all my many visits in Yosemite I did saw many Dears, Coyote, Bobcats and even Rattlesnakes….
3. Driving to the park and heading to Yosemite Valley – Information on all 4 park entrances.
For night accommodation options before your Yosemite day trip see the relevant section below at this blog.
If you are not sleeping inside the park the day before your visit, plan to be early at the park entrance and paying station.
If you are coming after 9am you can find a long line of car waiting to pass the fee station, try to come around 8am or even earlier.
Once, at a holiday weekend visit, we waited for one and a half hour at the north park entrance just to drive into the park, arrive as early as you can and enjoy less crowded morning visit.
San Francisco Day trip to Yosemite?
Not sure I will recommend doing 1 day trip to Yosemite from San Francisco and driving back to the city at night. This is 4 hours drive to the main Valley. And if this is your first and only visit to the park, I will highly recommend that you will stay for the night and have your second day to really enjoy the park wonders.
It can be done but not sure this is for all.
I’m living in the south bay area and some time I’m doing one day trips to the valley, usually after snowstorm in the winter or if I want to do a specific hike.
I start driving at 5am, arriving to the park valley around 9am, hiking for many hours and at the afternoon/night drive back 4 hours back, arriving home late at night.
I like this one-day escape to nature wonder, but this is not fun so much with all the driving, especially driving 4 hours back home after long hike and early morning start.
I assume that you can find organized one-day trip from San Francisco but then you can relax/sleep in the buss. I do not have any information on such trip so I can’t provide any recommendation.
Driving into Yosemite:
Driving from the park entrances to the main Yosemite Valley:
Plan for the following driving time to reach from the park entrance to the main park valley:
North entrance on highway 120: From this gate you need to drive for 40 minutes to the main park valley.
Central entrance on highway 140: From El Portal it is 20 minutes’ drive to the main park valley.
South entrance on highway 41: It will take you 50 minutes’ drive to the main park valley; this is without visiting Glacier Point (close for 2022) or stopping at Tunnel View.
Yosemite East Entrance Gate: Plan for at list 2 hours drive from the east park entrance to the main park valley.
The Tioga pass road and the high section of the park is a trip destination by itself, I highly recommend spending at list half a day in this area of the park. In multi day visit you can do this on your way to/from the main park valley.
Things to do when driving to the Yosemite Valley:
In this section, I will describe what you can do on your drive when coming into the park and heading to Yosemite Valley or when driving out of the park at the afternoon.
I wrote below detailed description for each park entrance.
Arriving from the North Park entrance (highway 120):
In this section I will cover where to stop and what to see if you are coming from the north park entrance on highway 120 (the most popular and shortest road for the one coming from or driving to San Francisco).
On your way to/from Yosemite on highway 120 you can stop for a short break at the small town of Groveland.
Here you can find the historic Iron Door Saloon that is the oldest continuously operating saloon in California. There are several other dining options in this small town, and it is a popular dinner stop on your way out of park.
When driving east on highway 120, soon after passing the left turn into Hetch Hetchy northwest section of the Yosemite Park (I will not cover this park section in this blog), you will reach the Yosemite National Park Signage and the park entrance.
Here you can find a small Big Oak Flat Information Station and restrooms.
From the park entrance plan for additional 40 minutes to 1 hour drive to Yosemite Valley.
After driving for 7.8-miles you will reach a road junction, here highway 120 turn left into Tioga Pass, Tuolumne Meadows, and the east park entrance (47 miles, 1:15 hour drive without any stop). At this junction you can find a gas station and a small store.
From here you will keep driving straight for another 10 miles until you will reach the junction with highway 140 (El Portal Rd).
At this drive section (from Tioga Pass junction to highway 140) I will recommend stopping at the below viewpoints.
If you will stop at all 3 points it will extend your drive by 15-20 minutes. Do not waste to much time in every viewpoint, find parking walk quickly to the viewing point, take few pictures and keep driving. You do want to start your trip in the Yosemite Valley as soon as you can.
Note: at early morning you can have the sun in your eye if you are stopping here at the afternoon, you will have the sun on your back.
Yosemite Valley Viewpoint:
After driving 6.4 miles from Tioga junction and passing on you’re right the small side-road to Foresta the road start to go down into the Merced River canyon.
At this point look for small parking lot on the right side of the road. Try to find available parking spot and go to the viewpoint.
This is the first time you will have a look into the Yosemite Valley canyon, you can see on the left side the El Capitan granite cliff, the south mountains on the right and in the middle, you can see first glimpse of Half Dome in the distance.
Big Oak Flat Rd Vista Point:
Once you keep driving from Yosemite Valley Viewpoint you will pass a long tunnel, right after the tunnel you will see another small parking lot on your right, stop and enjoy the view from this viewpoint. From here you will see the Merced River canyon below you and at the far end you can see the Bridalveil Falls.
If you are driving out of the valley there are few pull-off parking spots on your side of the road.
Cascades Creek and Waterfalls Viewpoint:
After a sort drive down the road and you will cross one bridge and soon after you will see a parking lot on your left (before the second bridge), turn left carefully, park here and walk to the bridge crossing Cascades Creek.
There is a sidewalk to walk safely on the bridge but be careful and aware of the passing cars.
When looking from the bridge down the creek you can see the cascades of water falling to the main canyon and on the other side of the bridge, looking up, you can see the impressive waterfalls.
I do recommend stopping in this point only at winter and spring, where there is a lot of water flowing in the streams below. At summer it can be a lot less impressive…
From here, driving down the road and you will soon reach the junction with highway 140 (El Portal Rd), turn left to the direction of Yosemite Valley.
Overall, from the north park entrance to this point it can take you around 45-60 minutes depending on the traffic and how much time you spend in the highly recommended viewpoints.
Turn left to the direction of Yosemite Valley.
Driving into the park from the Central West Park entrance (highway 140, El Portal):
If you are driving east on highway 140 from the small town of Mariposa (you can find in Mariposa several accommodations, restaurants, and gas stations) the road will lead you down into the impressive Merced River canyon.
The road follows the Merced River east. At some point, you will get into a one-way road section controlled by traffic light. Here a huge rockslide covers the road and traffic is being detour to the other side of the river over a narrow bridge. Do expect at list 5-10 minutes delay in this section.
After driving from Mariposa for around 40 minutes (30 miles) you will reach the small town of El-Portal. Not a lot much more than few hotels, restaurant, store, and a gas station.
El-Portal is the nearest town to Yosemite Valley and a recommended place to sleep at.
From here a short drive up the road will lead you to the park entrance stations.
Note: This road is the preferred entrance to Yosemite at winter when it snows. It is the lowest road that enter the Yosemite Valley and it is really snows in this relatively low elevation canyon.
Immediately after the park entrance you will pass with your car under a huge bolder rock, many stop and take their car picture under the boulder.
From here the road climbs alongside the river canyon, there are few viewpoints along the road, but I do not recommend stopping here, keep driving and enjoy the view.
After 3 miles you will see Cascades Picnic Area on your right, and on the left a parking lot and large waterfall viewpoint. You can stop here but this is not a must stop.
Soon after passing the junction with road 120 (on your left) a you will reach the point that the road is crossing the river to it south side, now you are getting into Yosemite Valley (5.5 miles from the park entrance).
Arriving from the South Park entrance (Highway 41):
When driving north on Highway 41 from Oakhurst you will pass Fish Camp and reach the large park entrance.
From this park entrance it is additional 26 miles drive to the Yosemite Valley, driving this road section will take you around 40 minutes without any stop. You will probably want to stop at the must-see Tunnel viewpoint so plan accordingly.
There are few attractions point along this park entrance road (41), but I will recommend skipping them if you are coming only for one day.
If you are arriving early in the morning, I would continue into Yosemite Valley and try to beat the crowd in the valley.
Right after the park entrance you can see on your right the new Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and parking lot.
Mariposa Grove is the largest collection of the giant sequoia trees in the Yosemite National Park. In this area there are several hundred giant sequoia trees, two of its trees are among the 30 largest giant sequoias in the world.
If you are coming from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks or planning to visit there next, I recommend skipping the visit in this location.
How to visit here:
From the Mariposa center you have the shuttle that will take you to Mariposa Grove (the buss is not operative during winter).
Out of season when shuttle service is not available, access to the grove is via a four-mile round-trip hike with 500 feet of elevation change. In winter you can expect snow or ice on this hike. After reaching the grove it's an additional 1.5 miles round trip (and another 500 feet of elevation change) to the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree.
Because this blog is about one-day visit in the park I do not think that you will have the time to visit Mariposa Grove.
Pioneer Yosemite History Center at Wawona:
From Mariposa center you will drive 5 miles and you will reach Yosemite History Center at Wawona.
The Pioneer Yosemite History Center is an assembled collection of historic buildings where visitors can walk around the buildings year-round, and the interiors are open in the summer on a limited basis.
If this is one day drip to the park not sure you need to stop here or sped time in this location.
From here it is another 12.5 miles drive and you will reach Glacier Point Road Junction.
In every other year I will recommend you turn here left and drive to Glacier Point, one of the most impressive viewpoints in the park.
Unfortunately, when writing this blog, 2022, the Glacier Point viewpoint road will not be open for cars.
Because this blog is all about one-day visit there is nothing important to see on the road section that is open this year. If you are coming for 3-4 days visit there are few rewording hikes starting from the road.
Driving from Glacier Point junction additional 7.7 miles will get into a long tunnel, drive slowly and right when the tunnel ends find a parking spot on the right or the left side of the road, you reach Tunnel View.
Tunnel view*: I covered Tunnel View in the Yosemite Valley visit attractions and places section above.
After the taking pictures additional 1.5 mile drive down the road from tunnel viewpoint will bring you to the Yosemite Valley main loop road.
Arriving from the East Park Entrance (highway 120):
There is only one road that cross the park from it west to east sides, this is Tioga Pass, highway 120.
When you are planning your trip at early summer or late fall you need to take into consideration if Tioga Pass Road (highway 120) that is connecting the west park to the east is open.
This is the only road that cross the high Sierra mountains from east to west and if it is not open you need to drive around 7 hours to pass the mountains to the other side (south at Bakersfield and north at highway 88).
You need to plan for road close at first snow, this is usually happened in mid-November, at 2021 it happened on October 21st.
Historical Seasonal Opening and Closing Dates of this road can be found here:
Few words about the eastern Sierra:
There are so many things to see and do when visiting the eastern Sierra. I think this is one of the hidden jams in California and I visit there many times.
I will not cover here, all that you can do in the east side of the Sierra before/after your Yosemite visit, I add below links to few of my blogs about what you can do there:
- Mono Lake: South Tufa Area
- Mammoth Lakes
- Devils Postpile National Monument
- Bishop and highway 168 west into Bishop Creek Canyon
- Bodie Ghost Town
If you are driving from the east and your main visit destination is Yosemite Valley you need to add additional 10 miles drive from the gas station junction to the main valley floor.
Although overall only 70 miles long, driving this road without any stop will take you almost 2 hours, take this into your driving time planning.
If you only have one day to visit at Yosemite Park and you are coming from the east park entrance you will need to drive Tioga Pass Road with only few stops at selected viewpoints.
I will mention here the most recommended stopping point along this road (from east to west).
Tioga Pass Road Valley View:
On your way up from Lee Vining stop in Tioga Pass Road Valley View (6.6 miles from highway 395). From this viewpoint you will have a view east, back into the canyon you just climb. You will appreciate the engineering effort to build and maintain this road, especially at the land-slide mountain section on your left.
Keep driving west, pass the entrance station and get into the park, soon you will arrive to Tuolumne Meadows.
Drive passes the Tuolumne Meadows Campground and the Grill on your left until you will see on your right a small roadside parking, this is just before the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center.
This is probably the best place to have a stop, get out of the car and enjoy the view of the valley.
From here you can walk a short 1 mile out and back hike to Tuolumne River and the Footbridge (30 minutes hike). If you have only one-day visit I will skip this hike and keep driving west.
This is a very popular lake during summer. A perfect place to have breakfast or a short coffee break. There are several Tenaya Lake access points, on a much longer visit and in the hot summer day it is a perfect refresh to swim in the cold-water lake.
Soon after passing Tenaya Lake the road climbs the mountain slopes, drive slowly and after 1.5 miles you will see a large parking lot on the other (left) side of the road. Cross the road carefully and get into the busy parking lot, this is a must stop viewpoint.
From here you will have a unique view of the park mountains' peaks, Clouds-Rest ridge, and the famous Half Dome from a different perspective.
In this high elevation you can see the unique landscape of exposed granite mountains where only few trees are able to grow in the rock cracks.
You can also walk to the nearby boulder rocks that are spread on the granite slopes. These large boulders that are called “erratic” were left when the last glacier came through.
Try not the spend to much time here, you still have a long drive to Yosemite Valley.
After Olmsted Point keep driving west on highway 120 for additional 30 miles. The road cross few mountain ranges until it reaches the junction with the road that will lead you to Yosemite Valley (there is a gas station here), here you need to turn left.
When heading to Yosemite Valley you can stop at the few viewing points (see above section that describing north park entrance).
4. General information about your Yosemite visit:
There are 3 gas stations that are located inside and near the park:
1. When coming from the north entrance at the junction of highway 120 and the road that lead to the park valley (when highway 120 turn into Tioga Pass).
2. Chevron El Portal just outside of the park entrance on highway 140.
3. In Wawona on highway 41 (south entrance).
Except gas station #1 there is no other gas on Tioga Pass. When you heading east the nearest gas station can only be found at Lee Vining, down on highway 395.
At all 4-park entrance you can find additional gas stations within 30 minutes’ drive out to the nearest towns.
Visiting the Park with RV:
If you're driving in or around Yosemite, most roads are adequate for RVs and travel trailers. However, some roads, particularly the Glacier Point Road, Mariposa Grove Road, and Hetch Hetchy Road, have restrictions that affect some RVs and most trailers.
See below link for Vehicle Restrictions:
Parking for larger class A and B vehicles is available at Curry Village parking or at Yosemite Falls parking (in the parking lot west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, across the road from Camp 4). For smaller class C RVs, parking is available in the day-use parking area at Yosemite Village or in the parking area west of Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Bears and Food Storage:
You can store food in your RV while you're away from it, as long as: the RV's windows, doors, and vents are completely closed, all food is out of sight (e.g., in cupboards), and the RV is completely hard-sided.
There are many RV campground in or near Yosemite but usually they are taken many months in advance.
I saw RV’s visiting the park so there is no real limitation, this is like any other car.
Take into considerations that it will be slower drive, and you will have a lot more issues finding parking spot in the park if you are not coming early in the morning. I will recommend to park in the large parking lot and use the shuttle.
Note: you can’t just park your RV for a night stay in Yosemite, you must be in official campground.
Ride a Bike in Yosemite Valley:
Riding Bike in Yosemite is very popular, and you have over 12 miles of paved bike paths available in Yosemite Valley. You can reach all trailheads using your bike.
Not sure I recommend this activity for one-day visit, but it is an option to cover a lot of ground in the main valley.
Bicycles are available for rent in Yosemite Valley at Curry Village, Yosemite Village, and Yosemite Valley Lodge. All rental bikes are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Food and Restaurants:
To maximize your short visit time, you have at Yosemite's I will recommend skipping a lunch in a restaurant. There are only few restaurants in the park, the waiting time can be long, and this will consume at list 1 hour of your day.
If you can pack a picnic basket or foods that you can carry in your backpack and eat on the go.
Always bring with you enough water for the day and the hike, there are many water fountains in the park so you can fill your bottles.
There are only few places where you can buy food in the valley:
· Village Store (a large general store)
· Degnan's Deli (variety of “fast food serving”)
· Yosemite Valley Lodge Food Court
· Starbucks Yosemite at Yosemite Valley Lodge
One thing to remember is Yosemite Valley is at 4,000 feet elevation. The temperature can change a lot during the day. It can be a cooled morning, followed by hot summer days.
At some winter days it may snows at the valley floor so be prepared.
You can find many spots in the Yosemite Valley that do have good cell reception. There is a tower at Glacier Point, so reception is usually better on the north side of the valley and higher elevations.
In many sections of your drive into and in the park there is no cell coverage.
5. Night accommodation’s locations – to help with your trip planning
In this section I will not recommending on a specific hotel but rather where you can look for hotels arrangements and how to plan your visit.
Once you plan your trip and set on dates, I highly recommend booking your hotels in advance. According to your specific visit date and at that time, if needed, also reserve the park entry permit (in 2020 entrance reservation is needed May 20 - Sep. 30, see description and links in first blog section).
I will try to describe 3 circles of sleeping locations: Inside the park, Near one of the 4 entrances to the park, and 1 hour drive from the park entrances.
Staying the night Inside the Yosemite Park:
Most of the in-the park accommodation options are in the main valley, this is the perfect and most accessible location in the park.
There are 2 large lodge in the valley: The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Both can be pricey and must have advance reservation.
Curry Village or Camp Curry sits located in the main valley just below Glacier Point and is a unique place, here you can find both cabins and Canvas tent with share a convenient bathhouse.
There are many AirBnB rental cabins in Yosemite West, check online for availability.
As in all other large parks there are several camping sites available in Yosemite NP.
The one that are in Yosemite Valley are: Lower and Upper Pines Campgrounds, North Pines Campground and Camp 4 Yosemite Valley.
Check online for availability and reservation.
You must reserve them many months before your visit, I failed to find available slots many times and do not plan of having last minute cancellations:
There are few campgrounds that are not in the main park valley, the main ones are:
Hodgdon Meadow Campground – located near the north park entrance.
Tuolumne Meadows Campground – located in the high park section (close in winter) along highway 120.
Wawona Campground – located near the south park entrance on Highway 41
Hotels near one of the 4 park entrances:
If you are sleeping outside the park, please take into consideration the park entrance station. In busy days you can wait for 30 minutes or even more just to pass the park entrance station. Start your visit as early as you can to avoid the traffic.
North entrance on highway 120:
Rush Creek Lodge and Spa at Yosemite, from this point you need to drive for 40 minutes to the main park valley.
Central entrance on highway 140:
Looks for hotels in El Portal, this is the nearest place to the park main valley. From El Portal this is 20 minutes’ drive to the main park valley.
South entrance on highway 41:
North Wawona – there are many accommodation options in this location, just at the south park entrance on Highway 41. Need to understand that from here this is additional of 40-50 minutes’ drive to the main park valley.
Hotels at Fish Camp – located not so far from the south park entrance on Highway 41.
Yosemite East Entrance Gate:
I think that the nearest night accommodations as well as gas station and restaurants is at the small town of Lee Vining, on highway 395.
You can find more hotels at the nice town of June Lake, 20 minutes’ drive south.
Sleeping 1 hour drive from the park entrance:
North entrance on highway 120:
There are many hotels at Sonora, California that is located 1 hour drive from the north park entrance. There is another 40 minutes’ drive from the north entrance to the main park valley.
You can also find hotels on the way from Sonora to the park along highway 120, mainly near Groveland.
Central entrance on highway 140:
There are several options at Mariposa that is located 1 hour drive away from the main park valley.
South entrance on highway 41:
On the south park entrance look for hotels at or near Oakhurst or Bass Lake, this will be around 30 min drive away from the park south entrance, need to drive additional 30 min to the main park valley.
Freson, CA located in the central valley is another option, this is around 1.5 hours drive from the south park entrance, 2.5 hours’ drive from the main park valley.
Yosemite East Entrance Gate (120):
I think that the nearest night accommodations as well as gas station and restaurants is at the small town of Lee Vining, on highway 395.
You can find more hotels at the nice town of June Lake, 20 minutes’ drive south.
You can also find a lot more night accommodations at Mammoth Lakes to the south and few options north on highway 395 at Bridgeport.
6. How you can connect your Yosemite visit to your California road trip plans:
Usually, people do not just come and visit only Yosemite but rather this is part of their US west or California road trip. Although this blog is about one day visit I do recommend to stay for the night and have 2 days visit.
There are so many different combinations for California road trip, I will try to suggest few options how to connect Yosemite to your road-trip:
Start at San Francisco and drive to Yosemite Valley (~4 hours), using the north entrance, spend a half day at the park valley.
Stay for the night in/near the park (El Portal is the best) and visit the valley the following day or drive to the high section of the park at Tuolumne Meadows.
Stay another night, visit Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (not a must if you are driving to Sequoia NP) and drive to Fresno for a night stay.
From Fresno you can have 2 options:
- Drive and visit Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, this is one day visit, you will drive on the park road and exit from the other side of the park. That night you will sleep at the city of Visalia. From here you will keep south to LA (or to Vegas passing through Bakersfield).
- Drive and visit Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, this is one day visit, at the end of your visit you will drive back on the same road you went up and sleep at Fresno. The following day you will drive west to Monterey (less than 3 hours drive) and start your Route 1 experience, visiting Monterey and heading south to LA.
Start the same as Option-A at San Francisco but instead of going Sequoia NP (one day park visit) you will exit the park trough Mariposa and drive west to Monterey.
From Monterey you will drive south on highway 1 along the coastline to Morro-Bay, the flowing day you will drive to LA.
Start the same as Option-A at San Francisco, after your park visit you will drive to Las Vegas trough highway 120 that is open only during summer.
You can drive directly from Yosemite to Las Vegas, or you can spend day along the interesting things you can see at the eastern Sierra.
Short list of things on your way: Mono Lake, June Loop Drive, Mammoth Lakes, Devils Postpile National Monument, and sleep at Bishop. The following day you can drive to Vegas.
Note: I will not recommend visiting Death Valley at the hot summer months.
You can also do this the opposite direction, start at Vegas and drive to Yosemite and from there to San Francisco.
Start at LA, drive and visit Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks for one day and at the end of the day drive and sleep at Fresno.
The following day you can drive to Yosemite and spend 2-3 days at the park.
After Yosemite you will drive and visit San Francisco.
I hope that you find this blog information as useful.
Few more Pictures from Yosemite