I decided to write a few blog posts about how to enjoy several different National Parks if you only have one day there. I hope you find my suggestions for Yosemite National Park helpful.
I have only been to Yosemite twice so far, but I’m sure I’ll be back at some point. I’m certainly no expert on the park, but I think I’ve seen enough to recommend what to do if you’re only there for a short time.
Yosemite, at nearly 762,000 acres, is one of the largest National Parks in the contiguous United States. So, there’s no way you’re going to see the entire park (or even much of it) in one day. That doesn’t mean you can’t see a lot in your limited time, though. Similar to Yellowstone, you want to be sure to arrive with a plan in mind. There are plenty of different things to see and do so you want to prioritize what is most important to you.
Yosemite is famous for several different reasons. The three things that especially draw people to the park are its massive sequoia trees, incredible waterfalls, and colossal granite cliffs and domes. The park was the fifth most visited park in 2017 with over 4.3 million tourists. Many of them come to Yosemite for the hiking trails or the world-renowned rock climbing. If you’re only in the park for a day you’re probably not going to be able to fit in any rock climbing, and you’ll likely be limited to a small amount of hiking.
I will try to give you a good taste of Yosemite in my itinerary. Like I said earlier, you won’t be able to see the entire park, but I’ll recommend a nice balance of hiking, waterfalls, giant sequoias, and some sheer granite cliffs in the most amazing valley in the world. Due to time restraints I’d have to regretfully recommend you skip Hetch Hetchy, Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Road.
Also, I’d recommend visiting in May, if possible. That’s the best time of year to see the park’s many amazing waterfalls. Some of them will dry up later in the summer.
Here’s how I recommend you spend your time in Yosemite National Park if you only have one day:
1. Just like I’ve recommended in each of my similar blog posts, I have to stress here that you need to get into the park early. This is especially true for a park like Yosemite, where you have a lot to see and do. It is a very crowded place, too, so the earlier you arrive, the better chance you have to get around and temporarily escape the crowds.
2. Your route will depend on which park entrance you use. There are five points of entry to the park. I’m going to start from the south entrance near Wawona. First off, I again want to stress entering the park very early. My first time to the park I entered this way after spending a night in a hotel in nearby Oakhurst. The small entry town is only about ten miles south of the park.
3. Right after entering the park take the turnoff for the Mariposa Grove. This is the largest of the three Sequoia groves within Yosemite. The Grizzly Giant, the largest sequoia in the park, is about a half-mile from the trailhead. You could spend a few hours exploring the grove if you have more time, but if you only have a day I wouldn’t do that. Spend an hour or so exploring the gigantic trees before returning to your car.
4. Next you’re going to want to follow Wawona Road north until you reach the turnoff for Glacier Point Road. Follow the curvy road all the way to its end. The drive should take you about an hour. It may seem a little long to just stop at a scenic vista, but it’s well worth it. Glacier Point is often regarded as the best view in the park. Yosemite Valley is more than 3,000 feet below you. A flawless view of the profile of Half Dome is right in front of you and there is also a great view of three different waterfalls. You can see Yosemite Fall, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall.
5. Next up it’s time to head to Yosemite Valley, home to one of the most stunning landscapes on the planet. But first you get a preview. Shortly before reaching the famed valley you will pass through the Wawona Tunnel. Upon reaching the eastern end of the tunnel you should pull off the road to take some photos from Tunnel View. This is one of the most popular vistas within the park.
6. Get back in your car and continue toward the valley. Right before you reach Yosemite Valley you have one more quick stop to make. Take the turn to Bridalveil Fall. Park your car and walk the very short trail to the base of the 620 foot-tall waterfall.
7. Ok, now it’s finally time to enter the valley. Southside Drive parallels the Merced River as you follow it into the valley. You will quickly pass El Capitan, the massive granite monolith, on your left. When I first entered the park I thought there was a pale gray sky in front of me between some trees, until I learned it was El Capitan. Both Ribbon Fall and Horse Tail Fall drop off the face of El Cap, but if you’re there in summer those waterfalls may be dry. The road will soon take you to Yosemite Village. You will see a few hotels, campgrounds, a visitor center, and a nice general store. From the heart of the valley you will have a great view of Half Dome and Yosemite Fall, likely the two best known symbols of the park.
8. Embark on the short and easy trail to the base of Yosemite Fall. It’s mostly paved, gains only fifty feet, and is about a mile roundtrip. The path takes you to a small pool at the base of the gigantic waterfall.
9. Next, I recommend you go on a real hike. Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Fall, and a brief jaunt into the Mariposa Grove were just a tease. If you have a little time to spare and are reasonably fit you have to hike up the Mist Trail. You start at the Happy Isles Trailhead at the eastern end of the valley. It’s about two and a half miles roundtrip to the top of Vernal Fall, which is a very photogenic cataract. Again, this waterfall looks much better in the Spring, but it is a wide waterfall that will have at least some water all year. If the waterfall is rushing you will get wet as you ascend a large rock staircase on the way up to the brink of the fall. The trail gains 1,000 feet to get there. If you have time and want to escape most of the crowd, carry on up to the top of Nevada Fall. It will add about three miles to your hike and another 1,000 feet, but it will be worth it. The two waterfalls combine to create one of the best hikes in the entire National Park System. If you are staying longer than a day, have a permit, and are in great shape; you can follow the trail all the way up to the summit of Half Dome.
10. Lastly, stop at Valley View on your way out of Yosemite Valley for another one of the most iconic vistas within the park.
I admit I laid out a long and hectic day for you there, but trust me; if you can fit it all in you will not be disappointed. In fact, I’m confident that Yosemite will impress just about anyone no matter what you end up doing there. Just beware; Yosemite Valley is going to be incredibly crowded. If you don’t arrive very early it can be hard to park, so you may want to utilize the park shuttle.