Planning your first trip to Yosemite National Park

Out of the 58 National Parks in the United States, Yosemite National Park is one of the largest, and many people believe it to be the best. Endless breathtaking views of the large granite rocks and roaring waterfalls create one of the most picturesque backdrops you will ever see. 

El Capitan Yosemite National Park
The Iconic El Capitan

Traveling to Yosemite from both Northern and Southern California is fairly easy and just a car ride away. The park is about five hours (279 miles) from Los Angeles and about three hours (167 miles) from San Francisco.

Weather is such a major factor when planning a trip here with the best time being late spring. Located in the Sierra Mountain Range, Yosemite National Park tends to have a cold Winter season filled with snow. Due to the snow pack, some favorite access points such as Glacier Point Road & Tioga can be closed well into June. But as the chilling winter melts away into spring, Yosemite is left with the echoing roar of waterfalls that range anywhere from 60ft to 2,425ft. 

The park is made up of 1,169 square miles of scenic views, 800 miles of hiking trails, and over 20 waterfalls, so fitting all of that in over a two-day weekend trip is unrealistic. The park is very spread out so picking areas is vital for each trip, such as Hetch Hetchy, Tioga Road, or the iconic Yosemite Valley Village. As a first-time visitor to Yosemite, I wanted to try and pack in as much as I could, but because of the sheer size of the park, and the amount of time we were there, I had to pick and choose what I wanted to do and see. I do have a follow up trip planned for October so I can see the other landmarks and witness the park in a different season. #FallFoliage

Upper and Lower Yosemite Waterfall
View of the Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls

If you love to hike this is the place to be! Some of their more famous hikes require permits so be sure to plan ahead because they tend to be full immediately upon release. Half Dome is one of, if not Yosemite’s most famous hike. If this is something you want to do, you will need to plan well in advance to get a permit and reserve either your campsite or lodging. If you choose to camp, they do have first come first serve campsite access at some of their campgrounds. I recommend getting there first thing in the morning to avoid any chances of ruining the weekend and not having a place to sleep if you are doing the rolling the dice approach. There are some hotels about 20 minutes outside of the park entrance (about 90 mins from Yosemite Village) but these will book up quickly especially in the Spring and Summer seasons. My point here is… plan ahead or you will be doing a lot of unnecessary driving. 

Yosemite National Park Map
Yosemite National Park Map - Plan the Trip to avoid added driving for backtracking.

Day 1: Glacier Point Road

One of the main roads entering the park coming from Southern California is Route 41. As you get deeper into the park there is a break off to continue on Wawona Road (Tunnel and Yosemite Village) or you can veer off to the right onto Glacier Point Road. Glacier Point Road is only open late spring /early summer to early fall. If you are planning a trip at that time be sure to spend a day going that way as it is definitely worth it. Here is my list of places to stop on the way: 

Glacier Point Road Half Dome View Yosemite National Park CA
The Grand Finale from your drive down Glacier Point Road

Sentinel Dome / Taft Point

There are two amazing hikes here. Depending on the time of the year, some of the trails may still be covered with snow which may cause them to be closed or not recommended. Travel at your own risk. When I visited this Summer, Taft Point was still covered with some snow so we chose the Sentinel Dome trail (both trails start at the same spot). Sentinel Dome is a 2.3 Mile hike with moderate difficulty and will give you great views overlooking the Yosemite Valley. Taft Point hike is about the same distance with amazing cliff views. But don’t worry, you can’t go wrong with either choice. 

Hiking Yosemite National Park
Hiking Yosemite National Park

Washburn Point

Continuing on Wawona Road you will drive about 10 minutes and pull in to Washburn Point. Here, you will have a similar view to what you can expect at Sentinel Dome without the full 360 degree view. You will still have a 180+ degree view of a few of those famous waterfalls and hikes including The Mist Trail, Vernal Falls, Yosemite Falls (Lower & Upper), and Half Dome. 

Yosemite National Park Views from Washburn Point
Taking in the views from Washburn Point

Glacier Point 

Continue along the road until it stops and you will get to Glacier Point. There is a larger parking lot here (but it does get full quick) with bathrooms, a great amphitheater, and trails to walk. Definitely plan to be here for sunset and watch the light hit the granite of Half Dome as the sky lights up. Be sure to stay after the sun sets as some of the best night skies you will see are in Yosemite. For those who enjoy night photography or simply looking at the stars, plan your trip on or near a new moon. With the right camera gear and conditions, the Milky way can easily be captured and even seen with the naked eye. 

Light Trail Long Exposure at Glacier Point Road Yosemite National Park
Light Trails After Dark at Glacier Point Road

DAY 2: Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley and Village has so much to do. Here are my recommendations if you are only spending 1 day in the Village. During the weekend and summer season, the park can become very crowded… and with crowds comes parking. Get to where you want to be early and find a parking spot closest to what you want to do that specific day. The park does provide a free shuttle service. Keep in mind that the shuttle follows a one way loop, so it may be quicker for you to walk to your next location. I learned this the hard way and was left with some extra walking after a long day of hiking.

Tunnel View

After a 30+ minute drive from the Park Entrance you will finally reach the tunnel. Once you get out you will be welcomed in to Yosemite with the iconic endless view of the valley. The best time to capture the Tunnel View is early in the morning when the sun rises over the granite city. A lot of early risers and photographers will be here at this time. I recommend getting here early to stay ahead of the crowds going to all of the same places as well. 

Tunnel View Yosemite National Park
The Iconic Tunnel View of Yosemite National Park

Bridalveil Falls

A 5 minute drive down the road is the easiest hike within Yosemite. Here, you will be rewarded with being front and center with the waterfall. This “hike” from the parking lot to the base of Bridalveil is more like a 3-minute stroll down a paved walkway. During Spring, which is also peak water fall season, you will come face to face with one of nature’s biggest fascinations while becoming fully immersed in the mist overspray. A raincoat or jacket will be good to have here. 

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Falls - The easiest way to get upfront and personal with a Yosemite Waterfall

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls is made up of two spots; Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls. These iconic falls roar and constantly echo throughout the valley and you can see the waterfalls from most of the park. Lower Yosemite Falls is easily accessible from the Main Village Area (restaurant, parking, grocery store, etc.). You can take a 15-minute hike and walk up to where the waterfall reaches ground level. Like Bridalveil, this is an easy paved hike that will bring you fto the base of the waterfall for great photo opportunities. On a sunny day you may even be fortunate to see a rainbow from the overspray. The water is cold and the spray will definitely get you wet, so be sure to bring a raincoat here as well. Remember: this water is from melting snow… pack appropriately. 

Upper Yosemite Falls is one bus stop down the shuttle loop or a 10-15 minute walk from Lower Yosemite Falls. This is one of the most strenuous hikes in the park, ranking 8/10 in difficulty. This is a 7.2 mile hike with over 3,000 Feet in Elevation Gain. Initially, I was only planning to hike the first part and see the midpoint of the waterfalls. After about an hour and a half of hiking up switchback rocks we finally got to the top of the first waterfall. The view was epic. 

Everyone who passed us on their way down gave us misleading information about the rest of the hike. We got so far and heard it was only another mile to a great overlook. Little did we know they were talking about the top of the 2nd waterfall. Being two former college D1 athletes, Gabby and I kept pushing forward (or up rather). 

We got to about 3/4 of the way to the top and the views were great but the incline was getting to us. We were told we still had about 50 mins up to the peak from where we were. Not including the 50 mins back down as well. Gabby and I looked at each other and questioned if we should keep going, and once again our competitive nature took control of our decision process. We came this far, there was no stopping now. 

Upper Yosemite Fall Hike
@TheTravelDaughter contemplating finishing the hike

Our final push of the hike wasn’t anything different, but since we were above the tree line there was a spike in temperature and no luxury of a shady resting place. Once we finally made it to the top we saw our guardian angel with his fresh water pump. We were running low on water as we weren’t planning to come all the way up so he was a true savior. This hike should not be overlooked - plan appropriately!  

The views are indescribable with memorizing overlooks bringing you right to the edge making it not ideal for anyone with a fear of heights. Try to overcome your fears as the views are surely worth it.   After 3.5 hours of what seemed to be the hardest hike of my life, we were able to rest in the shade while sitting next to the most powerful waterfall in Yosemite. I am glad we pushed forward and made it to the top as I knew I would never want to attempt this hike again.

If you are going to do this hike, do not schedule any other hikes that day or the day after (your legs will be shot). This hike starts at Campsite 4 which is a very popular hiking spot. If you are going to do this hike you should try to reserve a campsite at this location. It is a very strenuous hike but it is a great achievement. Be sure to bring plenty of water and food. Tag me in your photos if you make it up to the top. Good Luck!

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls

Upper Yosemite Falls Hike
1/2 Way up the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike

Top of the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike
Top of the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike

Yosemite Waterfalls
Looking down on to the magical Lower Yosemite Falls