|Tunnel View Monochrome - Yosemite National Park, California|
So you want to visit the magnificent Yosemite National Park in California's majestic Sierra Nevada range, but you only have two days. How do you maximize your visit? What should you see and what should you avoid? What's a realistic itinerary? Where should you spend the night?
Yosemite National Park is one of those places you can spend two weeks inside the park and not be close to seeing everything. At almost 1,200 square miles, it's incredibly vast! Many areas require hiking to see. To get to some other areas you'll have to do some significant driving.
Because of the park's proximity to San Fransisco and Los Angeles, it's a common weekend destination. If you don't have a whole week to stay, it's not a big deal. I don't know if there is a better place in America to spend a weekend!
I've made weekend trips to Yosemite National Park a couple of times, so I have some advice to maximize a trip to one of the most beautiful places in the world!
Depends On Where You're Coming From
There are basically four ways into the park, and your itinerary will be dictated in part by which route you take. If you're coming from the San Francisco area you'll likely enter Yosemite via California Highway 120. If you're coming from Merced you'll likely drive California Highway 140. If you're coming from the Los Angeles area you'll likely traverse California Highway 41. And if you coming from Las Vegas you'll likely take California Highway 120 from the east side of the Sierra Nevada range.
No matter which way you come you'll want to get an early start. You want to get to the park just as soon as you can, preferably near sunrise, but certainly no later than 10 am. If you arrive too late you're going to miss out on some essential Yosemite experiences.
If you're driving east on Highway 120, there are not a whole lot of stops that I'd make before entering Yosemite Valley. There's a scenic pullout called Rim of The World that you may find worth seeing. If you go just a little past the Big Oak Flat Road turn (which is the road that will take you to Yosemite Valley) you can visit the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, which is in interesting stop. You can walk through a giant Sequoia with a hole cut through it, and otherwise see some of the largest and oldest trees in the world.
|Sequoia Forest - Yosemite National Park, California|
If you're driving north on Highway 41 and you have kids, be sure to stop at the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad just outside of the park in Fish Camp. This old narrow-gauge logging line is now a tourist train that takes passengers through some great mountain scenery behind a Shay steam locomotive. Once in the park, the first stop you'll want to make is Mariposa Grove to see the giant Sequoia trees. It's a great place to take a short hike and look up at some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world. After that stop, if you have kids, be sure to visit the Pioneer Village near the Wawona Hotel. If you are running late, all three of these stops can be skipped.
If you're driving west on Highway 120 from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range you'll want to stop in Tuolumne Meadows, which is one of the most beautiful sections of the park. There are a couple easy hikes here that offer exceptional sights. There are many pullout vistas with great views along Highway 120. You can also visit the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, where you can walk through a giant Sequoia with a hole cut through it, and otherwise see some of the largest and oldest trees in the world.
Yosemite Valley - Day 1:
|Cathedral Rocks & Bridalveil Falls - Yosemite National Park, California|
No matter which route you take to get into Yosemite Valley, the first stop once you arrive should be Bridalveil Falls. It can be accessed from Wawona Road or Southside Drive at the west end of the valley. This is where Bridalveil creeks spills over the granite at Cathedral Rocks. The hike to the base of the falls is short, easy and stroller friendly for those with young kids. If it's late-summer or autumn and the falls are dry, you can visit the nearby Fern Springs instead or simply move onto the next stop.
|El Capitan Reflection - Yosemite National Park, California|
|Cathedral Spire Veiled - Yosemite National Park, California|
|Glacier Point Infrared - Yosemite National Park, California|
Curry Village is an excellent place to spend the afternoon. There's a store and a couple of restaurants should you need food or refreshments. There are many trails to explore. It's a good place to just walk around and discover the sights. There are good views of Half Dome, North Dome, Washington Column, Rainbow Arch, and Glacier Point. The Merced River is nearby and has plenty of shores to explore.
Glacier Point or Tunnel View
|Half Dome From Glacier Point - Yosemite National Park, California|
If you plan to leave the park via Highway 41, spend sunset at Tunnel View, located off of Wawona Road just before the long tunnel, and go to Glacier Point the next evening. If you plan to leave via another route, save Tunnel View for the next day and head on up to Glacier Point, which is about an hour drive up from the valley floor. Whichever location you choose, you will want to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset and stay for 15 minutes or so after sunset.
Yosemite Valley - Day 2:
|Tree In The Meadow - Yosemite National Park, California|
I would start the second day at Curry Village. This is a great place to experience the morning in Yosemite. The meadows transform in the warm morning sun into something special, and it's common to see deer and other wildlife. There are great views of North Dome and Washington Column in the morning light. It's a good time just to walk around and take in where you are.
The Happy Isles
|The Happy Isles Trail - Yosemite National Park, California|
Next I would hike or bike (bicycles can be rented in Curry Village) to The Happy Isles Trail and stroll through the forest. There is a nature center here and it's also the beginning of the John Muir Trail. If you are feeling particularly adventurous you could explore Vernal Falls or Mirror Lake.
|Upper And Lower Falls - Yosemite National Park, California|
Near Yosemite Village you'll find Yosemite Falls, with parking right along Northside Drive. These falls, which are divided into three sections--Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades and Lower Yosemite Fall--total a 2,425' drop, making this the largest waterfall in North America and one of the largest falls in the world. A short, easy and stroller friendly loop trail takes you to the base of the lower falls. If it's autumn and the falls are dry, you could explore Yosemite Village and The Ahwahnee instead.
|Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow - Yosemite National Park, California|
Located across the street from the Yosemite Falls Trail is Cook's Meadow. There are great views of Half Dome and Cathedral Spires from the meadow, and the Cook's Meadow Loop trail will lead you through it. Some of my favorite Yosemite photographs were captured here.
|Valley View - Yosemite National Park, California|
One of Ansel Adams favorite spots to photograph was Valley View, which is located off of Northside Drive at the west end of Yosemite Valley. It's a great place to see El Capitan, Cathedral Spires, Bridalveil Falls and the Merced River in the evening light. The parking lot is small and towards sunset space fills up fast.
Glacier Point or Tunnel View
|Evening At Tunnel View - Yosemite National Park, California|
You'll want to end the second day either at Glacier Point or Tunnel View, whichever you didn't go to the day before. Again, make sure you arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset and stick around for 15 or 20 minutes after the sun dips below the horizon.
|The Ahwahnee - Yosemite National Park, California|
Stay the night inside of Yosemite Valley if at all possible. I cannot say enough how much better it is than spending the night outside of the park, which requires an hour drive each way. In Yosemite Valley you can camp, stay in a cabin in Curry Village (which is an excellent option), or stay in one of two hotels run by the park service. It may seem overpriced and spaces fill up fast, but it is definitely worth the extra effort and money. You wake up and you are already where you want to be.
If you choose to stay outside of the park, I recommend finding a hotel in Mariposa. The drive isn't too unreasonable and the accommodations are decent. It's a quaint town with shops and restaurants.
When To Go
|Autumn Colors - Yosemite National Park, California|
There is no wrong time to visit Yosemite National Park. Each season offers great beauty and has a different feel. Let's take a look at each.
In my opinion, Yosemite is at the pinnacle of beauty in the spring, particularly late spring. The rivers are flowing at maximum height and strength. The landscape is brilliant with fresh green. Wildflowers are beginning to blossom. While snow will have some parts of the park closed at the beginning of spring, by the end of spring everything is open and ready for you to explore. The crowds are small, but growing as you get closer to summer.
Summer is when most people visit Yosemite. That's no surprise as this is prime vacation season. It means that the park is crowded, and Yosemite Valley can get extraordinarily crowded. So much for wilderness seclusion! However, summer offers great weather and the most daylight, allowing you to experience more of the park.
Perhaps the most underrated time to visit Yosemite is in autumn. The water will be at its lowest and it's not uncommon for Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Falls to dry up completely. The landscape is more dry and brown. However, the park is less crowded and you can catch glimpses of fall colors here and there. The weather is usual great at the beginning of fall, but it will get colder and more wet as winter comes closer.
During the winter Yosemite becomes a much smaller park as much of it becomes difficult to access. Many of the roads close. It's cold. Yet, for those willing to make the trip, Yosemite Valley becomes magical--coated in white snow with clearing fog and winter storms. Winter in Yosemite is for the more adventurous traveler, but the reward is amazing.
|Half Dome Reflection - Yosemite National Park, California|
- Pack a picnic lunch. There are restaurants inside of the park, but if you bring your own food it will save you time and money. Food inside of the park is a bit expensive, lines can be long, and the restaurants may not be convenient to where you're at when you are hungry.
- Weather changes fast, so be prepared. It may be warm and sunny, but that doesn't mean that in a couple of hours it will still be that way.
- If you bring food, be aware that bears can smell the food that you leave in your car. If you plan to leave your car unattended for any significant time, you may want to store your food in a bear box.
- Make sure you book your sleeping accommodations months in advance.
- Be sure to gas up your car prior to entering the park.
- Check road conditions before traveling to make sure your planned route is open.
- Admittance is often free during National Parks Week in April.
- Bring water, a first-aid kit and a flashlight. It's better to be prepared than to wish you had been prepared.
- Don't interact with the wildlife. Don't feed the deer. Keep your distance from the animals, no matter how cute they may look.
- Have a camera ready at all times. Everywhere you turn is a great photographic opportunity.