Thinking of hitting up a US National Park for a brief visit? There are 58 to choose from, including 9 in California alone. Of those California National Parks, the most popular is undoubtedly Yosemite. Here’s some suggestions for what you can do on a brief visit to this amazing park.
Fresno is the closest airport to Yosemite at 90 minutes away. San Francisco is about 4 hours away while LAX is over 5 hours away. We elected to fly into LAX because the flight costs were fraction of what they were elsewhere. This meant that we had a full “travel day” tacked onto the front of our trip, but the cost savings were worth it for us, and it was interesting to drive through part of California and see a vastly different landscape than we are used to as New Englanders.
Day 1 - Mariposa Grove
If you are driving into Yosemite from LA, you will be entering the park from the southern entrance. While you are in this area of the park, it is a perfect opportunity to visit Mariposa Grove.
Recently reopened after a few years of restoration projects, Mariposa Grove is home to the giant sequoias of Yosemite. The parking lot for this attraction is only a few hundred feet from the park’s southern entrance, so you can have your car parked and be on the shuttle to the Grove within minutes of entering Yosemite.
Mariposa Grove features a number of hiking trails that take you amongst the giant trees. These trails are all very minimal in terms of elevation gain and you can choose the distance that you are most comfortable with. Obviously, the more you hike the more you get to see, but even going just a few hundred yards away from the parking lot will allow you to see a number of giant sequoia trees. We elected to do the 2-mile long Grizzly Loop trail. Some of the notable sights you will see along this trail include:
- The Fallen Monarch – a sequoia that has fallen over, allowing you to see the massive roots that these giant trees have
- Grizzly Giant – the oldest tree in the Grove at between 1900 and 2400 years old, this is also one of the largest trees in this area
- Tunnel Tree- this is not the “tunnel tree” that you can drive your car through (that one is in Sequoia National Park – and you can’t actually drive through it any longer because the tunnel has started to crack), but Yosemite does have a popular tree with a passage cut into it that many visitors use as a photo opportunity
- Faithful Couple – this sight is a short detour along the Grizzly Loop trail, but it is worth it to see a pair of trees that have fused together into one lower trunk
One suggestion for your visit to Mariposa Grove - take some time and head out on one of the longer trails. Once you are away from the main sights, the crowds all but disappear - even during peak times (we visited in Summer, which is absolutely the busiest time in the parks). Having the wonders of the trail largely to yourself is magical, so if you are able to do so, venture out on one of the slightly longer paths and leave the crowds behind. You will not regret it.
Day 2 - Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley is the most popular area of this National Park. The Valley is where the main attractions of Yosemite are located, including El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the Mist Trail. Many of these sights would be on our itinerary for this day in the park.
As you come towards the Yosemite Valley area from the south, you will enter Wawona Tunnel. This tunnel was bored into the solid granite of the mountain to create a bypass, and as you come out of the tunnel you are presented with one of the most popular views in all of Yosemite, appropriately called “Tunnel View.”
The Tunnel View lookout point boasts an incredible view of Yosemite Valley. From here you can see some of the major landmarks of this area, including El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Tunnel View is on every “must see” list for this park, and it provides a nice opportunity to get out of your car and stretch your legs after making the 90-minute drive from the southern end of the park.
A few minutes away from Tunnel View is another popular Yosemite attraction, Bridalveil Fall. While you can see these falls from a great distance at Tunnel View, by hiking the short trail at the Falls’ parking lot (it is about half a mile round trip hike), you can get a closer look, and you can even feel the mist that blows from these falls. In fact, these falls got their name from the wispy way the water looks as the wind catches that spray and blows it like a bride’s flowing veil.
Continuing into the Valley, you will drive past a number of picnic areas and turnoffs where you can park your car for a few minutes and just take in the wonder of this amazing landscape.
Our main destination for this day was a popular hike called the Mist Trail. Based on a suggestion from a park ranger, we decided to find a parking spot in one of the larger areas of the Valley and take the Yosemite shuttle over to the Happy Isles stop, which is where the Mist Trail’s trailhead is found.
Offered as a free service throughout Yosemite Valley, the shuttle is the easiest way to get from one location to another. It is not always the most comfortable journey, since they do pack riders into those buses to maximize each trip, but it gets you where you are going and shuttles run every 10 or 20 minutes, so it is never too long a wait before another bus will be pulling up to your stop.
The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite, in large part because it is only about 3 miles round trip to the top of Vernal Falls. Do not let this short distance fool you! This hike is no joke. You get about 1000 feet of elevation gain on this hike in just the 1.5 miles heading to Vernal Falls. The entire trek is a steep incline, including a number of stone steps as you get closer to the falls. Those steps become pretty wet and slick from the mist blowing off the falls, so this is certainly not an easy trek by any stretch of the imagination. You will work for this wonderful view.
After making their way to Vernal Falls, most people head back down to start of the trail. If you want to push yourself further, you can trek the additional 2 miles to Nevada Falls, taking the round trip to about 7 miles total.
A great way to end your day in Yosemite Valley is to spend some time at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. In addition to a number of informational exhibits and presentations, the Visitor Center has a grill serving hot meals, as well as a market offering a variety of supplies. There are also a number of shops selling every kind of Yosemite National Park souvenir imaginable. One thing to be mindful of when it comes to the Visitor Center is that it closes at 5pm, even during peak season. If you are planning to end your day at the Visitor Center, which is what we did, just remember to plan accordingly to give yourself at least a few hours to fully enjoy this area of the park.
VISIT TIP: If you want some free souvenirs from your time in Yosemite, you can check out the “stamp counters” found at major points throughout the park. Found at all the US National Parks, these counters are where you can get a passport-style stamp from that park. These are called “cancellations” and you can buy a stamp book at any of the gift shops, or grab one from Amazon before your visit. If you do buy once in advance, which is what we did, just be mindful of the physical size of the book. The one we bought was pretty large and lugging it in our pack became a bit of hassle by the end of the trip.
Day 3 – Choose Your Own Adventure Day
You have a number of options for your third day in the park. One popular destination to consider is Glacier Point. This outlook, which is only accessible by car from mid-May to November, gives visitors an amazing view of Yosemite Valley and its iconic sights. Located about 35 miles from the southern entrance of Yosemite, there are also a number of hikes of various lengths that are accessible from Glacier Point Road.
If hiking is what interests you, you can also consider a day at Tuolumne Meadows. Located about 80 miles from the southern end of Yosemite, a trip here will require a 2.5 hour drive each way, but as a reward for your efforts you will be greeted with one of “the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada” (8600 ft.) and some of the best scenery in all of Yosemite. Hikes in this area can range from an easy 1.5 mile/1 hour trip to a strenuous trek of nearly 14 miles which will take you nearly all day to complete. Note that the road to Tuolumne Meadows does not open until late May or early June, and it can remain wet with melting snow for a few weeks after it opens. The road is usually closed for the season in November, with the exact closure date dependent upon weather conditions.
If you are looking to change gears and relax a bit on your final day in the area, which is what we choose to do, you can take full advantage of the amenities of where you are staying. For us, this was at Tenaya Lodge (more on this location in the “Where to Stay” section of this brief). The expansive grounds of this resort include a trail that you can use for hiking, running, or heading out on bikes rented from the resort. There is also a barn along this trail that offers horseback riding.
We decided to begin our day with a 5-mile run along the trails, followed by a few hours by the pool enjoying some good books and cold drinks, before ending our “rest day” with a wonderful meal in one of Tenaya’s excellent restaurants.
VISIT TIP – I know that a lot of people consider a “rest day” on a vacation, especially on a short trip, to be a waste of a day, but I disagree. We had spent a full day traveling from the East Coast to California, and had then had two wonderful, but very full, days in Yosemite. While we could’ve pushed ourselves to head to Glacier Point or Tuolumne Meadows for our final day, we knew that we would be trading quantity for quality and that we wouldn’t get the most out of the experience. Sometimes a day off is exactly what you need. If you’re on a brief visit of your own and you need to scale back for a day and slow down, don’t hesitate to do so. Oddly enough, this day, which we really spent enjoying each other’s company, ended up being one of our favorites from the trip.
Where to Stay
There are a few options for where to stay in Yosemite, and your choice of lodging will very much shape your experience in the park.
When you see pictures of Yosemite National Park, the “Valley” is where most of those popular sights are found. Because of this, Yosemite Valley is the most popular area to stay, and there are a number of campsites in the Valley as well as a few hotels, including the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
If you stay in the Valley, you will be right in the middle of the action. Shuttles run between all the major stops in this area, so you can use that transportation to get around since the roads in Yosemite Valley are often clogged with traffic. The advantage of staying in the Valley is absolutely your proximity to the main sights, but the downside is that you are staying in a very, very busy area and it can feel a bit overwhelming.
If you want to have some time away from the crowds, you can stay by the southern entrance to Yosemite. In this area, your best option is Tenaya Lodge, which is where we elected to stay. Located about 2 miles from that southern entrance, Tenaya Lodge is pricey, but you get wonderful accommodations, amenities, resort activities, and some excellent restaurants all on the property. Additionally, as popular as Tenaya Lodge is, it never felt crowded or overwhelming.
The lone downside to staying by the southern entrance to Yosemite is that you are about 90 minutes from the popular sights of the Valley. Those sights are only about 36 miles from that entrance, but because of the winding roads that you have to drive to get anywhere in the park, you will need a good hour and a half to make the trek.
VISIT TIP - If I had to book this trip again, I would’ve spent a few nights in the Valley to be close to the main sights and cut down on travel time needed to get to those attractions. I would’ve then booked one or two nights at Tenaya, which would’ve allowed us to do the nearby Mariposa Grove and then spend some time enjoying the amenities and quiet of that gorgeous resort.
One final suggestion if you plan on visiting Yosemite - be sure to plan ahead and prepare BEFORE entering the park! Your options are limited once you are inside the National Park and prices are high. I suggest stopping off at a grocery store before you get near the parks to pick up some supplies. If I had to do this trip again, I would’ve grabbed a collapsible cooler, some ice packs, and some basic supplies to make PB&J sandwiches or other quick meals that would travel well on the trails. Our room at Tenaya Lodge included a small refrigerator, so we easily could’ve saved some money by picking up some basic food items before checking in. You will also want to make sure you have enough sunblock and bug spray for your visit, since these are also very costly if you are buying them at your resort or in one of the park’s gift shops. Finally, bring a reusable water bottle with you. There are many fill-up stations throughout the park, and you can easily keep yourself hydrated by refilling at these stations, while also saving yourself from having to buy bottles of water at the gift shops.
Back to Back Briefs!
Want to spend some more time in the National Parks of California? You can do what we did and drive 2.5 hours from Yosemite to piggy back a brief visit to Sequoia National Park and.or Kings Canyon National Park onto your Yosemite trip. Check out our suggestions for a brief visit to these parks.