How to Spend a Day in Yosemite National Park
There were at least two separate occasions during our visit to Yosemite National Park that I wasn’t just overawed, but very nearly overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of the place.
America’s first national park might not be quite as stunning as Yellowstone or quite as well known as the Grand Canyon, but to say I was grateful that my US trip itinerary would include the soaring cliffs and dense pine forests of Yosemite is an understatement. A day in Yosemite wasn’t enough – but it was one I’ll not forget.
And not just because we ran into a black bear…
If you’re looking for more Yosemite inspiration, be sure to check out Make Time to See the World’s Yosemite Travel Guide.
Yosemite in One Day
There are numerous suggested itineraries for doing Yosemite in a day, but we tinkered and toyed with those we found to make one of our own. A basic run-down would be:
– Wawona (and the Mariposa Pines)
– Tunnel View
– Bridalveil Falls
– Yosemite Valley & Village
– Mirror Lake
– Sentinel Dome
– Glacier Point
Of those on the above list, we perhaps could have skipped Mirror Lake (it was more of a field when we visited) and arguably Yosemite Falls (which were not running). That would have substantially cut down our time in the Valley proper, allowing us time to maybe visit Vernal Falls or something instead.
We actually did this over two days on account of having slept in too late on day #1, but it’s entirely possible to fit this itinerary into a single day by starting at Wawona and then trekking through to do a sunset view at Sentinel Dome and some stargazing at Glacier Point.
A Day in Yosemite
I won’t bore you with too many words in some attempt to do Yosemite justice. Instead, below you’ll find a selection of photos and a brief rundown of how we spent our day in the Yosemite Valley. Bon appétit!
We actually visited Wawona early on our second day in the area – arriving at around 8.30am and leaving before noon. It’s entirely possible to take in the more famous sights and be out of there quicker – we managed to get a little lost in our search for The Faithful Couple and Clothespin.
After arriving and spending about six laps of the car park looking for a space (and cursing caravan/camper van drivers taking up so much space) we got out on the trek to see some of the marvelous Giant Sequoias that tower over the rest of the forest.
Woodpeckers chipping away and songbirds chiming in, it was easy to ignore the hubbub of the crowds and just soak in the natural beauty of the place: the sun-dappled paths, the stirring of the wind in the trees, and those moments of blissful solitude when our trek took us away from the crowd.
Worth seeing are the Fallen Monarch, Grizzly Giant, the California Tunnel Tree, and the Faithful Couple. Along the way you can also see the Washington Tree, the Bachelor and Three Graces, and the Clothespin.
With the exception of the Faithful Couple and the Clothespin, you can see all of the above on a short 60-90 minute hike.
A longer hike also takes you to the Telescope Tree, the Columbia Tree, the Wawona Tunnel Tree, and the Fallen Giant.
Most (if not all) Yosemite Valley guides recommend stopping shortly after coming out of the tunnel and pulling over to take some truly breathtaking photos of the valley below.
The view itself isn’t among the most spectacular I’ve ever taken in, but it gives a fantastic vista of the park below and we weren’t alone in pausing to snap a few dozen pictures.
Our first real detour on day #1 was a visit to Bridalveil Falls. We were lucky to find it still running; most of the park’s waterfalls had gone dry for the summer.
Clambering over sun-baked rocks took me back to my more adventurous youth, when any pile of rocks or mildly climbable hillside became a playground for me. I’ve still got fond memories of climbing the hill behind Tibooburra in outback NSW and turning a railway cutting near my family home in Ben Lomond into a rock climbing gym.
The going from the carpark to the waterfall isn’t terribly tough, although there are a few hairy moments on slippery rocks from time to time. It’s well worth the climb, though. A delightfully chilly pool of freshwater waits at the top.
We even caught a few particularly adventurous travelers inventing their own waterslide to enter the pool. Without a change of clothes on us, though, we decided to make do with snapping some photos in front of the falls.
To say we were disappointed by our visit to the valley proper is an understatement. With most of the waterfalls not running, we were a little disappointed by our visit to Yosemite Falls.
Still, some of the best Half Dome pictures can be taken from the valley floor and there’s solitude to be found if you’re prepared to walk that little extra distance.
The place was alive with tourists and campers, something that I’ve never encountered in my travels in Asian or Australian national parks. The joy people clearly take from their time in Yosemite was evident in the delighted squeals of kids swimming in the river and the smiles on the faces of those cycling along shady paths.
Heather had been excited about Mirror Lake ever since we’d read about the way its waters reflect the mountains above and create a fantastic photo opportunity.
A shuttle bus is needed to get there unless you’ve rented a bike, but the buses are frequent and not too crowded.
As we ambled along the track that lead from the road to the lake, we were already beginning to doubt it would be there. With the waterfalls dry, it stood to reason that the seasonal ‘lake’ would probably be gone as well.
Our fears were correct. Little more than a stream remained for us to take in, but the walk itself was a pleasant one. The crowd here had thinned considerably compared to the valley, and you’re still out surrounded by nature.
With sunset approaching, we hopped back into the car and made our way towards Sentinel Dome – which we’d been told provided fantastic views of the valley, especially at sunset.
The hike out there isn’t the easy going we’d become accustomed to in the valley; at times you lose the trail completely and have to just trust that you’re headed in the right direction. With the sun setting on another hot California day, the air began to pick up a chill as shadows lengthened.
After about half an hour of walking we came upon Sentinel Dome – a magnificent outcrop jutting out over the valley if you’re brave enough to clamber up its side. We weren’t alone up there, but we certainly weren’t crowded either. About a dozen hopeful photographers joined us up there.
The views are spectacular. With the cliffs being turned brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows by the setting sun – I reckon Heather and I snapped off in excess of 200 photos between us.
Our one mistake was waiting to catch the very end of the sunset, which left us to hurry back the 1.5 miles to the car before we lost all light.
I’ve written about our encounter with a bear in Yosemite here, so go read that to get a more harrowing account of our journey.
Between the black bear, the eventual complete loss of light save that provided by Heather’s phone, and the fact that every sound or shadow was clearly a mountain lion intent on eating us – it was a heart-pounding adventure for the two of us.
Our hearts pounding out of our chests as we huddled in the rental car and scanned our backtrail for hungry bears or mountain lions, we still felt like we had it in us to check out Glacier Point.
A long and winding drive took us to a crowded car park. Still a little jittery from our brush with a bear, we nervously moved along the path until we came to a seating area that overlooked the valley. It was too dark to look out or down, so we made do with staring up at the seemingly endless sprawl of stars that lay overhead.
The air was crisp, cool, and clear and the stars put on a fittingly beautiful show to end our day in Yosemite.
Want to see some gorgeous photos from Yosemite? Check out Les Berlinettes visit to Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes.
Our original plan had been to spend a few days camping in Yosemite so we could really do the place justice, but I feel like we did enough in our one day visit that I could leave without feeling like we’d missed too much.
Have you ever been to Yosemite? What would you recommend as a must see addition to a day in Yosemite?
Or if we’d had more time, what could we have added to our trip?