The last time I saw Yosemite, it was two years ago on a connecting flight at 40,000 feet. The profile of Half Dome was unmistakable and a nice surprise. This is the only way I know to see all of Yosemite in a day.
But if a day is all you have to see this wonderful park, as we had, here are some sites and logistics to consider as you plan.
We chose to visit the Yosemite Valley, as we wanted to see the famous sites of the park, so this post is tailored to those visiting that destination.
Yosemite in a Day – Some Good Hikes…
We chose hikes in the park that were suited to children, as we have three elementary school age girls. They are solid hikers, but not quite up to taking on the hike up Half Dome. (If you want to do that awesome and somewhat perilous hike, plan ahead. The park service requires a permit, which is available on a first-come first-served basis. This is a classic hike but it steep and exposed enough to require tethering into cables.)
Here are the two hikes we linked up for a good stretch…
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail
This is an easy hike along the base of the Yosemite Valley, leading from a starting point about a half mile from the visitor center to the base of the Lower Yosemite Falls. The mile-long route is paved most of the way with nice wooden walk ways nearer to the falls. As you approach the falls, vistas of the Lower Falls appear, and the route brings you close enough to feel the cool, misty breeze just before the falls itself appears.
To get additional views, you can add on the Cook’s Meadow Loop that extends back into the center of the valley. This little loop adds another half mile or so and is great for those looking for an easier hike. It offers additional views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and Sentinel Rock.
Upper Yosemite Falls
This is one of the oldest hikes in the park and will bring you to the top of the Upper Yosemite Falls should you complete the entire trek. The hike is not for the faint of heart, as it ascends 2,700 vertical feet with some steep drops in places to bring you to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall.
We chose to do the first part of the hike up to the Columbia Rock, partially to limit the fatigue factor with our kids. The hike ascends quick switchback after switchback until the trail winds slightly east. Although we would like to report an exact number of switchbacks, we lost count after about twenty. Columbia Rock seems to float above the hiking trails and roads directly below and offers outstanding views of Half Dome, the opposing valley walls and the valley itself. A slight trek further up the trail brings the Upper Yosemite Falls into view. The 1,000 vertical foot hike to Columbia Rock is well worth the climb, and a good half-way point should you not want to make the entire trek closer to the top of the valley.
Bridalveil Falls was next on our list of highly recommended hikes, and I wanted to mention it for those that may be quicker hikers than us. Our day didn’t permit us another hike, but this would make a nice additional afternoon trek, as well as the Mirror Lake Loop, should you have the stamina.
The Valley Drive!
Yosemite Valley is best experienced some distance from the roadside in my opinion, but it’s fun to stop off the road to take in the sights. And if you want to do Yosemite in a day, then hitting up stops on the drive in or out is a good way to take in some extra sights. We stopped at a few places as we left the park, just as the sun was beginning to dip and parking was freeing up a bit. We stopped below El Capitan, and if you have a good pair of binoculars, you might try to spot climbers slowly making their way up the wall. (In my younger climbing days, I had dreams of scaling these walls, but life, and a progressive – or healthy depending if you listen to my wife – fear of heights, brought me in another direction.) If you get lucky, you might also spot a heard of elk grazing in the nearby meadows.
But Don’t Forget the Logistics!!
Pick Your Location
Yosemite is a big park with multiple entrances. You might want to visit the Tuolumne Meadows, but if you’re like most people with limited time, you probably want to see the major sights, including the Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and Half Dome, which all lie in the spectacular Yosemite Valley.
This is the iconic valley that runs roughly southwest to northeast near the center of the park, and there are a couple of routes into the park. We chose the southern road up to the entrance and the drive into the park itself just after sunrise was beautiful.
Choose A Place to Stay
There are a lot of campsites in the park, including iconic ones such as Camp 4, the historic base camp of the old school big wall climbers. But campsites fill up quickly, many on the very day they become available online, five months prior to the visit date. In fact, sites go within minutes of being listed as folks set their alarms for 7am to get their preferred site. There are first-come, first-served sites, but our family lifestyle doesn’t work well for those or the day-before lottery ones.
Sites for larger RVs and travel trailers are limited. Some of the largest rigs can’t even make it into certain areas of the park. So, if you want to stay in the park, especially if you have a large set-up, plan early and make sure you get online as soon as the site opens.
We chose to stay at an RV resort outside of the park, and as you can imagine, there are a lot of these, as well as state campgrounds. This will mean a longer drive to get to your destination, however, so keep driving time in mind.
Get There Early
Yosemite is spectacular but crowded. The park does an excellent job in my opinion of keeping this heavily visited area wild and rustic. But the park website warns that parking fills up in the early morning, and that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to get a parking space after early morning. Traffic on the roads also slows to a crawl in late morning through the afternoon in the high season.
We arrived at about 7:45am on a weekday in July and had our pick of parking spaces at virtually every stop in the park. But by 9:00am things were much different. Parking lots were packed and roads jammed.
Yosemite has a great shuttle service in the Yosemite Valley. We took the Park Service’s recommendation to park in one location for the day and take the shuttle to our destinations. This seems to work out well, but not loving standing in lines, we ended up mostly walking even when a shuttle was available.
Overall, we had a fantastic time at Yosemite. The girls declared it their favorite park of all time, which somewhat surprised me considering we woke them up before sunrise and had them trek up a somewhat grueling hike. But apparently, that is the power of the Yosemite Valley!