While a day trip to Yosemite may be somewhat different compared with the city crawling itineraries regularly found on this website, this departure will hopefully come as a breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally. A veritable monument to nature ranking among the top 5 most visited national parks in the USA, Yosemite is seen as a place of rest, where visitors can get in touch with nature, heal and escape the burdens of their stressful everyday lives. Somewhat ironically, Yosemite shares its name with the roughest, toughest little man is ever crossed the Rio Grande, even though this National Park is anything but little. On your day trip to Yosemite, prepare to be overwhelmed by dramatic, stunning landscapes filled with granite monoliths, towering waterfalls, idyllic meadows, and pristine forests.
What’s the best time to visit Yosemite?
Yosemite is open for visitors year-round, even though most visitors arrive between late spring and early autumn. The winter months, primarily December, January and February, are markedly less popular. It is a shame really, because there are still plenty of things to do at Yosemite during the winter, and the scenery is even more stunningly beautiful, with snow-covered mountaintops and frozen waterfalls forming peculiar snow cones. Not to mention, if you visit then, it will feel like you have Yosemite all to yourself.
On the other hand, the alpine wildflowers of Tuolumne Meadows reach peak bloom in July and August. In addition, Tioga Road, leading to the meadow, is only open seasonally, as soon as the snow has been cleared in the spring. Many other parts of the park are also closed during the off-season. Consequently, the best time to visit Yosemite would be from mid-May through the middle of September. The falls, Bridalveil in particular, reach their peak in May.
A few facts about Yosemite
A natural wonder covering an area of 747,956 acres, Yosemite was designated a World Heritage site in 1984, although it had inspired and awed visitors for the first time 8,000 to 10,000 years before that.
After visiting Yosemite, John Muir famously called it “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter”, while President Teddy Roosevelt likened a day trip to Yosemite to “lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”
Today, more than 95% of the park is designated wilderness, with minimal impact from human activities. Before the arrival of European settlers, the Ahwahnechee (″Yosemite Valley People″) lived in the Yosemite Valley. Exploring their cultural heritage is certainly among the best things to do in Yosemite National Park. Their neighbors, the Miwok, thought that they were particularly territorial, calling them Yohhe’meti, meaning “those who kill” or “they are killers”. Somehow, it was this name that caught on after being chosen by Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, the first non-Native American to visit Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite is located in the western part of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, with the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park taking about four to four and a half hours.
One Day in Yosemite Itinerary
Top things to do in Yosemite National Park
Follow this guide and make the best of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Yosemite.
Start Your Day by Visiting Tunnel View
When you enter the Yosemite Valley from the west, you should start your visit by making a small detour to Tunnel View, a scenic overlook on State Route 41. Take in the sweeping, iconic views of Yosemite Valley, with many of the well-known things to see in Yosemite right at your fingertips.
As you look towards the east, you will see Bridalveil Fall on the right, El Capitan (a massive 3,000 feet granite monolith) on the left, with Half Dome’s distinct shape trapped in between further in the distance. Most visitors spending one day in Yosemite don’t stray from Yosemite Valley. The 8-mile long valley is open year-round and packed with jaw-dropping scenery.
As you make your way towards your next stop, Yosemite Village, make sure to stop at the base of Bridalveil Fall, only a short drive from Tunnel View. The Ahwahnechee believed that inhaling the mists of Bridalveil Fall increases one’s chances of getting married. Now you know what to do in Yosemite if you’re looking for love or if you are hoping that your significant other will finally pop the question.
Head for Yosemite Village
Tunnel View notwithstanding, when visiting Yosemite, you should make Yosemite Village both your base and your starting point.
Leave your car at the visitor parking as soon as you arrive and explore the rest of the Valley Floor on foot, by bicycle, or by taking advantage of the Yosemite shuttle service, which can take you to all major Valley attractions completely free of charge.
But before we get to that, briefly visit the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, a veritable treasure trove of information on all things Yosemite. Featuring a bookstore selling maps, Yosemite guidebooks, and souvenirs, the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center is the obligatory first stop on your one day in Yosemite.
Pay a Visit to the Ansel Adams Gallery & the Yosemite Museum
The Ansel Adams Gallery is right next door, featuring some of the most famous works of the accomplished landscape photographer and environmentalist, whose black-and-white photos of the American West have fired up the national imagination through their numerous reproductions on posters, books, calendars, and now the Internet as well.
The Yosemite Valley Museum is also right there in front of the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. Completed in 1925, the museum was designed by architect Herbert Maier. Since it was the first building in the national park system that was originally constructed as a museum, it served as a model for other parks in the USA. The museum’s original collection consists of priceless Native American baskets, whose unique beauty still wows visitors today. The museum’s layout serves an educational purpose, since visitors are encouraged to view the exhibits in a chronological order.
Grab Some Lunch Before Heading Out
For moderate and experienced hikers, there’s never a shortage of things to do in Yosemite National Park. After all, Yosemite features 800 miles of hiking trails. Even if you don’t plan on hiking a single mile, a day at the park often requires quite a bit of walking, and you wouldn’t want to face the challenges of Yosemite on an empty stomach.
Which is why you should stop for lunch before venturing further. For convenience, we recommend Degnan’s Kitchen, a cafeteria style restaurant offering sandwiches, pizzas, soups, and other lunch-type meals. It is a great place to eat if you’re visiting Yosemite with kids, and, best of all, it is next door to the gallery and museum, allowing you to save on time.
Sharing the same building, Degnan’s Loft is a bit more upscale, and is a great alternative if you’re tired of eating fast food and you’d like to go for something healthier. The restaurant opens at noon and serves both western and Asian food, in addition to tacos and nachos. Visitors get free Wi-Fi for an hour.
Take the Yosemite Shuttle Bus to Glacier Point
After lunch, take the first Yosemite shuttle bus to Washburn Point and Glacier Point, two of the park’s greatest outlooks. Enjoy the scenery as the bus makes its way along the scenic Glacier Point Road. Glacier Point itself is famous for its sweeping, top-down views of Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls. It also offers the best view of Half Dome in all of Yosemite. Half Dome, named after its distinctive shape, is one of Yosemite’s most recognizable landmarks.
Complete the Four Mile Trail Back to the Valley Floor
Some of Yosemite’s trails are simply too challenging and too time consuming if you’re only spending one day in Yosemite. For example, the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls is a 5-hour hike, mostly for moderate to experienced hikers.
Apart from taking the bus, you can reach the aforementioned Glacier Point by completing the Four Mile Trail starting from the base of the Sentinel Rock. Instead, we recommend taking the Yosemite shuttle bus when going up, and then hiking down the trail, which is less strenuous, but still lets you enjoy all of the stunning sights you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. As you descend, you will find yourself on the opposite side of Tunnel View, allowing you to admire the already familiar Yosemite Valley landmarks from a new perspective, normally not seen on postcards. Even if you take your time, completing the trail shouldn’t take more than two hours, and it’s definitely worth it, since there is arguably no better way to truly understand what’s so special about Yosemite Valley.
Check Out Lower Yosemite Falls
After you make your way back to the Valley floor, take a short walk east towards the Swinging Bridge Picnic Area. Cross the Swinging Bridge and follow the hiking trail until you reach the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead.
Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America, but it flows in three sections, which can be seen from various vantage points, including the Four Mile Trail. Climbing all the way to the Upper Falls would take up an entire day, but getting a good view of the Lower Yosemite Falls should take less than an hour, with no climbing involved. Due to its atmosphere, the spot where the trail crosses the Yosemite Creek is a good place to take a short break if you’re visiting Yosemite with kids. Continuing along the trail will take you back to where you started, in front of the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center.
Wind Down with Dinner and Drinks
In the evening, there aren’t too many things to do in Yosemite in terms of going out, partying, and so on. And understandably so. However, there are a couple of places where you can enjoy a great dinner and have a few of drinks after a day of hiking.
For example, the Mountain Room Restaurant, part of the Yosemite Valley Lodge, will charm you with its rustic glass-and-wood front and warm yellow lights.
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, on the other hand, knocks it out of the park with its awe-inspiring historic dining room and large windows overlooking a meadow. The hotel bar is open until 10 PM, with a decent selection of drinks. Formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel, the facility was built in the late 1920s for rich socialites visiting the area. It was used as a wartime hospital during World War II.
Where to stay in Yosemite?
Best Western Plus Yosemite Way Station
Located in Mariposa, a quaint small town not far from the Yosemite West Gateway on Highway 140, and an hour’s drive from the Yosemite Valley, the Best Western Plus Yosemite Way Station features spacious, comfortable, air-conditioned rooms with amenities such as satellite TV and free Wi-Fi. Breakfast is included, while guests can take advantage of the hotel’s fitness center, hot tub, and seasonal outdoor swimming pool.
Château du Sureau
Château du Sureau is Yosemite’s most exclusive experience, surpassed only by visiting the national park itself. It is located in Oakhurst, not far from Yosemite’s South Entrance on Highway 41 from Fresno.
Although smaller than some of the other options, this place is a literal castle that will make you feel like royalty. All rooms come with a balcony. Other regular amenities are included as per usual, but this hotel takes it one step further, and it shows. It is the extra touches that make it special, such as the toiletries from Molten Brown, or the complimentary bottle of wine from the owner’s vineyard.
Yosemite Westgate Lodge
If you’re coming from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, you will probably be taking California’s State Route 120, known as the Big Oak Flat Road during the Gold Rush. If so, there’s no better place to stay than the Yosemite Westgate Lodge at Buck Meadows. Apart from the prime location right outside of Yosemite National Park, the Yosemite Westgate Lodge features comfortable, contemporary rooms, an outdoor hot tub, and a great restaurant next door.
Day trips from Yosemite
Finding a Yosemite day trip from San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, or Los Angeles is like shooting fish in a barrel. But what about the other way around? Say, if you ever run out of things to do in Yosemite, as unlikely as that may be? In that case, consider one of the following day trips from Yosemite to spice things up after a day at the park.
Visit the Nearby Sequoia Groves
As you may know, giant sequoias grow only in a limited area of the western Sierra Nevada. It would be a real shame to visit Yosemite without seeing the giant sequoias. The Giant Sequoia National Monument is about three and a half hours away, but there are several sequoia groves within the park itself.
The Mariposa Grove sees the most visitors, with its 1,800-year-old Grizzly Giant and the Wawona Point overlooking Wawona Valley. Other groves include the Merced Grove, the Nelder Grove, and the Tuolumne Grove. While still in Yosemite, these groves are a bit further away from the Yosemite Valley, so you should visit them either when you’re on your way there, or you should dedicate a whole day to seeing them all.
Go Fly Fishing in the Sierras
There are several companies that offer fully guided and instructional fly fishing tours in Yosemite and the surrounding High Sierra backcountry. If you are into that sort of thing, it can be one of the best things to do in Yosemite with kids and a great bonding experience. So, grab your fishing rods and head out to the Merced river, the mighty Tuolumne river, the endless Stanislaus river, or the beautiful Mokelumne river.
Book a Guided Tour
If you want to get the most out of Yosemite, your best bet is to book a guided Yosemite tour with experienced guides who know the area well. The guides are always flexible and will take your wishes and capabilities into account. Options include hiking, backpacking, sightseeing, and other adaptive adventures.
Extra tips for visiting Yosemite
-Seeing as millions visit Yosemite each year, if you want to avoid crowds, you should steer clear of weekends if you can. Additionally, the best time to visit Yosemite National Park is early in the morning. That way, you will avoid parking issues.
-Take public transportation. YARTS is Yosemite’s public bus system, serving all of the park’s surrounding communities. For example, visitors can leave their cars in Sonora or Fresno and take the bus to Yosemite. This makes visiting the park easier – no fuss with parking, and the park entrance fee is included in the bus ticket price. The bus tickets are free for children.
-If you’re driving, you should drive slowly due to the wildlife, abundant throughout the park. Black bears are especially common. If you come across a bear, you should stay at a safe distance. If you’re carrying food, make sure it is stored properly.
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