Yosemite National Park is one of the seminal places in the United States… everyone should see it once in their lives. It truly is that iconic and words do not do it justice.
Yosemite was the first land set aside for the purpose of a park. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864 to protect Yosemite Valley and the famed naturalist John Muir lobbied President Roosevelt to create a much larger national park. The park now spans 1,168 square miles and encompasses five major vegetation zones.
This was my first visit to Yosemite National Park and I spent most of the trip looking up in awe, especially in Yosemite Valley. But I didn’t see it all and now I have to go back. More on that later, let’s talk about where you need to go on your visit.
Getting into Yosemite National Park
Let’s start with entering the park. To get to the valley from the west, you have three choices: El Portal Road from Mariposa, Big Oak Flat Road from Manteca and Wawona Road from Oak Hurst. If you are coming from the east, there is only one choice: Tioga Road from Lee Vining.
Your choice on road can have a major impact of your visit to the park. We stayed in Mariposa at the Yosemite West/Mariposa KOA, which was not quite an hour drive from the park entrance on El Portal Road.
El Portal Road is a very pretty drive coming in on the Merced Canyon, but is also a bottleneck. We delayed entering the park a couple of hours on a Saturday and the line to get in was about an hour long.
Pro Tip: If coming in on El Portal Road, plan to enter the park no later than 8 a.m. to avoid excessive lines.
The other entrances on the west side have shorter lines to get in, but are about an hour by car from Yosemite Valley. To compare, it is only about 20 minutes to Yosemite Valley from the El Portal entrance.
The other major thing you need to bear in mind is road closures. For the past several years, Tioga Pass has been open by mid-May. As I am writing this, in mid-June, it is still closed due to heavy snows, meaning the entire eastern two-thirds of the park is closed off from vehicular access.
Additionally, El Portal Road was closed following a 4,000-ton rock slide just as we were getting ready to leave the area. We are grateful it did not happen while we were stuck in traffic in that exact spot two days earlier.
Yosemite Valley is the heart of the park. It is also where the vast majority of visitors spend their time and for good reason. It is breathtaking. There is so much to see and do. If you can only spend a day or two in Yosemite, this is where you should come.
As you come into the valley from El Portal Road, the first waterfall you will see on the left is the Cascades, which is quite pretty and, anywhere else, would be a showstopper. In Yosemite National Park, it is the waterfall equivalent of cocktail weenie. It’s tasty, but the main event is still to come.
The first major stop on the road in is Bridalveil Fall. The parking lot is on Wawona Road, just after the turnoff from Southside Drive (the entrance road). This iconic waterfall is worth getting out and seeing up close. As a bonus, the walk up provides great views of El Capitan, one of the iconic rock faces of the valley, and Horsetail Fall.
At this point, you have a choice: take the Wawona Road to either Glacier Point or Wawona or proceed into the valley. Let’s assume you keep on going into the valley. My recommendation: Go to either Yosemite Village or Half Dome Village and park. Once parked, do not move your car until you are ready to leave the valley. Yosemite Valley can quickly become overcrowded and getting around can become a major hassle. Fortunately, the park provides a free shuttle.
We parked at Yosemite Village for our first couple of days and spent time hiking in the valley. We hiked the Valley Loop Trail (be sure to read Bonnie’s article on it here). If you do nothing else, be sure to hike up to Mirror Lake. It was gorgeous.
There are plenty of great hikes in the valley which are much shorter or you can do just a portion of the Valley Loop Trail. I highly recommend getting out in the meadow near Sentinel Bridge. There is a nice trail there with plenty of amazing views of the valley and Yosemite Falls in particular.
Yosemite Village has a good visitor center, as well as several other services. The theatre at the visitor center provides great educational videos.
Located near the visitor center is the Ansel Adams Gallery. Three times a week, the gallery offers photo walks, where a gallery photographer will take up to 15 people on a walk though the meadow pointing out great photo locations… Be sure to call three days in advance for a reservation.
Half Dome Village is more centrally located to the campgrounds and has great views of, you guessed it, Half Dome.
Both areas have stores and restaurants, but the waits can be long just due to the numbers of folks there. We were disappointed in the restaurant offerings in Yosemite Village, but the deli and lounge was being renovated.
The Pizza Deck in Half Dome makes a great pie and serves some cold beer as well. The large pizza was plenty for the two of us for two nights.
There are also two lodges in Yosemite Valley. Both are not too far from Yosemite Village.
If you chose to take the Wawona Road to the Glacier Point Road, your first stop (after Bridalveil Fall) is Tunnel View. This is THE iconic view of Yosemite Valley. Yes, you should stop and take a picture. Yes, it is worth the crowds to do so.
Glacier Point Road splits off from the Wawona Road and ascends. The road winds a bit, but affords some great views of the Clark Range along the way, particularly at Washburn Point.
Continue on to Glacier Point and spend some time admiring the amazing views of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley and Vernal Fall.
If you are looking to get away from the crowds, be sure to head down Four Mile Trail, which will take you all the way to the valley floor. If you aren’t up to the entire hike (especially the hike up), follow it down just 10-15 minutes where you will find even more staggering views including Yosemite Falls. The hike back up from this point isn’t too bad.
On the way back down Glacier Point Road, we stopped at the Sentinel Dome Trail and hiked up to the top of Sentinel Dome. The hike is not hard, but it does take you to the top of a granite dome more than 8,000 feet in elevation. We took it slow and steady and had no problems getting to the top, even with the snow.
Depending on how much hiking and stopping you do, a trip to Glacier Point takes about an hour.
The drive down to Wawona Valley is scenic and it takes about an hour to come down from Glacier Point.
At Wawona, you will find a campground, a gas station and store, a small visitor center and a lodge. You will also find the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, which has restored buildings along with blacksmithing demonstrations.
We decided to take a hike around the Wawona Meadow, which was a great 3.5-mile hike along an old fire road circling the meadow. It was quite relaxing.
I would love to be able to tell you all about our visit to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia at this point. I really would. Alas, the grove was shut down for restoration.
Tuolumne Grove is one of three groves of giant sequoia in Yosemite National Park. The hike down from the parking lot is a bit steep, but is reasonably easy. We hiked down and back in 70 minutes.
The trees are staggering. The immensity of the trees really must be seen to be understood.
I would love to tell you all about our adventures heading up the Tioga Road, or better yet, pulling our camper over Tioga Pass. It was closed due to heavy snow when we went and the Park Service is not sure when the road will be cleared. Locals in Lee Vining are hoping by the first or second week in July!
Hetch Hetchy is a day use area of the park located on the north end of the west side of the park.
You can get to Hetch Hetchy by driving out of the park on the Big Oak Flat Road and picking up the Evergreen Road to the Hetch Hetchy Road.
The drive in through the Poopenaut Valley has great views of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and O’Shaughnessy Dam. Congress authorized the City of San Francisco to dam the Tuolume River and turn Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was likened to Yosemite Valley in beauty, into a reservoir.
Granted, the dam provides water and clean electricity to San Francisco, but at significant cost and controversy.
Parking near the dam is limited and the rangers keep track of all of the folks coming in and out of the day use area. You can’t stay overnight without a permit, which is mainly for backcountry hikers.
It takes a couple of hours to drive to and see Hetch Hetchy, but it is certainly worth it.
Planning Your Visit
The biggest piece of advice I can give you on planning your visit to Yosemite is to do your homework ahead of time and pay attention to park notices. Unlike many other popular national parks, Yosemite is not far from several major metro areas, leading to significant crowding in the park.
While we believed in the overcrowding, experiencing it was a pretty big source of frustration.
Pro tip: Don’t plan on being in the park on a summer weekend if you can help it.
When we go back, we want to find a way to stay in the park. There is so much we missed out on because we had to drive an hour back to our campground. Staying in the park, however, requires planning and a bit of sacrifice in terms of hook-ups for the camper.
Our other big tip is to pay attention to road closings. On this trip, we headed out as early as we could to make sure we saw the waterfalls, which dry up later in the summer. Boy, we saw the waterfalls! They were roaring due to the snowmelt. The tradeoff is we could not see the eastern two-thirds of the park.
In the future, we plan on returning later in the summer, or maybe in the fall, to see what we missed.
Our Planned Seven Day Itinerary
We stayed in Midpines, a small town on the outskirts of Mariposa.
- Day 1: We got up early and drove into Yosemite Village in Yosemite Valley. We spent the day hiking the valley. We were in the valley until after dark.
- Day 2: We got up early again and drove into Yosemite Valley for the Ansel Adams Gallery Camera Walk. It took about two hours all told. We then spent the rest of the day recovering from our hike the day before. I suggest spending the time to see anything you missed in the valley on Day 1.
- Day 3: We drove the Glacier Point and Wawona roads. We left fairly early and spent the day seeing and hiking those two areas and drove back to our campground through Oak Hurst. We would have also gone to the Mariposa Gove near the southern entrance, had it been open.
- Day 4: We drove Crane Flat, hiked Tuolumne Grove and drove out to Hetch Hetchy. We ended up coming back into the Yosemite Valley for Bridalveil Fall and sunset views.
- Day 5 (missed): We would have spent Day 5 driving the western part of the Tioga Road.
- Day 6 (missed): We would have taken the camper over Tioga Pass and over to Lee Vining.
- Day 7 (missed): Tuolumne Meadows and anything else on the eastern side of the Park.
As you can tell, the snow closing Tioga Pass threw a wrench into our plans, but, hey, it gives us a good reason to go back.
We loved Yosemite, but it certainly requires a bit more planning than some of the other national parks. The crowds weren’t fun, but the views were so worth it.