Welcome to the breathtaking world of Yosemite National Park, where majestic granite peaks touch the sky, lush meadows come alive with vibrant wildflowers, and cascading waterfalls create symphonies of rushing water. Nestled in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, this iconic park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. Yosemite National Park offers lots of hiking trails, views, photo opportunities and more for people of all ages and skills to enjoy.
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first-time adventurer, this First Time Visitor’s Guide ensures you make the most of your Yosemite visit. Whether you’re seeking the perfect lodging for a rejuvenating stay, embarking on exhilarating hikes and breathtaking viewpoints, or discovering the best time to visit for an unforgettable experience, I have you covered. Explore a multitude of hiking trails suitable for all skill levels, each leading to unforgettable vistas and encounters with the park’s diverse wildlife. Discover the hidden gems and must-visit landmarks that have made Yosemite a destination of wonder and amazement for generations.
So, lace up your boots, immerse yourself in the wonders of Yosemite, and let this ultimate guide be your compass in crafting an unforgettable journey into the heart of nature’s masterpiece. Get ready to create cherished memories that will last a lifetime in one of the world’s most enchanting destinations.
Yosemite Quick Facts
Where: Eastern Central California
Entrance Fee: $35 per vehicle or $20 per person if entering by foot, bike, or horse.
Kid Friendly: Yes. (My son has been coming with me since he was 2 weeks old)
Dog Friendly: Moderately. Dogs are permitted on fully paved roads, sidewalks, and bicycle paths, in campgrounds, and on Wawona Meadow Loop trail. Some lodging allows pets, and a seasonal kennel is available for day-use in Yosemite Village.
How to get to Yosemite National Park:
There are a few airports that are close depending on your travel plans. The closest airport is the Fresno International Airport (FAT) which is 1.5 hrs away from Wawona and 2.5 hours away from Yosemite Valley. The Sacramento International Airport (SMF) is the second closest airport at 3.5 hours from Yosemite valley. If you want to fly in from San Francisco (SFO) it is a 4-hour drive to the valley.
I would highly recommend renting a car for your trip. You will have the freedom to move as you please and not be limited by the schedules of others. Once you are in the park, there is a shuttle in Wawona during the summer and a shuttle in the valley year-round. As of 2022, there is no shuttle bus in Tuolumne.
There are 4 entrances to access the Valley:
Tioga Pass Entrance (120 East, only open May-October, goes through Tuolumne Meadows); Big Oak Flat Entrance (120 West); Arch Rock Entrance (140 West) and the South Entrance (41 South, goes through Wawona).
The straightest road (for those not comfortable driving mountain roads and/or prone to car sickness) and the entrance least likely to close in winter is the Arch Rock Entrance (140 West).
Tips for Driving to Yosemite
Whatever entrance you come in on, you can expect 2 things: one, the roads will be windy & narrow. The 140 is the smoothest road but all of them are steep and windy. two, Do NOT rely on cell service for driving directions to Yosemite. Cell service is unreliable and nonexistent in most areas of the park. There is decent cell service in Yosemite Valley, Wawona and all the major areas but for the most part, expect to be on your own.
When planning your drive to Yosemite, double check that your directions are taking you to your specific destination within the Park. Just typing Yosemite into your map of choice is likely not going to get you where you need to go. Additionally, make sure you are going to the correct accommodations.
Yosemite Valley Lodge is located inside Yosemite Valley. Yosemite View Lodge is located in El Portal. Those are the most commonly mixed up hotels.
When visiting during peak months of late Spring to early Fall, expect long wait times at entrance stations, and full parking lots at popular destinations. The key to a stress-free (or at least less-stress) Yosemite itinerary is to be patient especially during peak hours and get to the park EARLY (like 6-7am early).
When visiting in winter after the first snowfall you are required by LAW to carry snow chains. I’d also recommend practicing so you also know how to use them. There may be times you are required to have snow chains on to enter or leave the park and there are very few people in the park to help you put your chains on.
Public Transportation to Yosemite
If you are not comfortable driving into Yosemite, don’t worry, daily bus service is provided by Yosemite Area Rapid Transit (YARTS) year-round.
YARTS operates 4 routes to Yosemite Valley and surrounding communities and hotels, departing from Merced (including the Merced Regional Airport, Geyhound, and Amtrak Station), Fresno (including Fresno-Yosemite Airport and Amtrak/Greyhound Station), Mammoth Lakes / Highway 395, and Senora.
Reservations are strongly recommended for YARTS buses. Only the Merced / Highway 140 Route operates year-round, and services are reduced during winter and holidays. Learn more about the YARTS bus and make reservations, here.
Where to stay in Yosemite National Park:
Yosemite offers a wide array of lodging options within and surrounding the park, catering to your preferences for a memorable visit.
If you prefer staying within the park, you have three hotel choices. The Ahwahnee, a National Historic Landmark hotel, mesmerizes guests with breathtaking views in Yosemite Valley and boasts delightful dining experiences. The Yosemite Valley Lodge, conveniently close to all attractions, provides everything you need for a comfortable stay, including easy access to Lower Yosemite Falls, just a 10-minute walk away. For those seeking a charming Victorian vibe, the Wawona Hotel, established in 1856, beckons near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
If camping is your preferred style, Yosemite features numerous campgrounds that are in high demand, often selling out quickly. To secure your campsite, it is advisable to book at least 6 months in advance. Learn how to reserve your spot and check the camping calendar for all campsites here.
Beyond the park’s accommodations, there are some exceptional Airbnbs and hotels in the area that are worth exploring. Here are a few of my favorites:
Ways to get around Yosemite National Park:
Yosemite Valley Shuttle
Yosemite provides a free shuttle bus which loops around the valley regularly, saving on congestion and pollution.
Especially in Summer, you will need to arrive very early and if you are fortunate enough to find a parking space, do not move your car until you are ready to leave!
Take the shuttle bus as much as you can but especially during the summer when the roads are very congested it might be faster to walk.
The shuttles are nice in winter when everything is covered in snow. Plus, they’re empty and warm most of the time.
Best Time To Visit Yosemite National Park:
It doesn’t matter when you visit, Yosemite is going to blow you away. Every season offers its own unique take on the park and you will have to compromise one thing for another.
Summer is known for being unbearably packed so we advise to avoid Yosemite Valley at all costs and look into visiting the other parts of the park.
- Spring – The best time to visit for waterfalls in full flow, spring bloom, fewer crowds than Summer, you will need layers for hot/cold/hiking.
- Tuolumne Meadows will be closed.
- Summer – Longer daylight hours, hot weather, overcrowding problem, busy trails, traffic jams, book accommodation way in advance to stand a chance.
- Visit Tuolumne Meadows, Hetch Hetchy, or Wawona if possible.
- Fall – Gorgeous autumnal foliage colors, barely any water flowing, comfortable temperatures and crowd levels, layers required.
- Everything will be open with a lot less people and better temperatures than summer.
- Winter – Unique time to visit Yosemite with Skiing, Ice Skating and Snowshoeing very popular. Expect fewer crowds, stunning winter wonderland scenery and cold weather. If you’ve ever wanted to go skiing in a national park, you can in Yosemite at Badger Pass.
- Tuolumne Meadows & Glacier Point will be closed.
Things to do in Yosemite National Park:
Yosemite Valley is open year-round and home to the most iconic viewpoints in the park. Each season brings new opportunities for beautiful views and new experiences. Here are a few of these experiences that are fantastic year-round
Valley Floor Tour
The Valley Floor Tour offers an excellent experience, whether it’s your first or 100th visit to Yosemite. Park Rangers lead each tour sharing valuable park history, diverse flora, fauna, and engaging personal anecdotes to keep the tour exciting.
During summer, the tram tour offers five different time slots, each led by Park Rangers for a unique adventure. In contrast, in winter, experienced bus drivers guide the tours from an enclosed bus.
Starting at the Yosemite Valley Lodge, the tour spans 2 hours and takes you on a captivating journey past El Capitan, Valley View, and Tunnel View. Along the way, you’ll witness several iconic spots in Yosemite Valley, presenting numerous photo opportunities and the chance to spot wildlife.
Immerse yourself in the park’s history as you explore these renowned locations. The Valley Floor Tour serves as an ideal introduction to Yosemite’s wonders, helping you plan your further exploration. Secure your tickets or discover more about the tour by clicking HERE.
This is the iconic Ansel Adams view of Yosemite, a sight that has become synonymous with the park. Photographers from around the globe flock to capture this breathtaking vista, and it’s no wonder why – the view is undeniably gorgeous.
Driving up the Highway 41 from Wawona, you’ll encounter this view on your way into the valley, welcoming you with its splendor. However, if you wish to avoid the crowds and experience the magic in tranquility, consider arriving at sunrise. At that early hour, you’ll share the view only with fellow photographers. Conversely, be prepared for larger crowds during sunset, especially in the warm summer months.
Yet, if you want the same awe-inspiring view without the hustle and bustle, and are up for a rewarding hike, there are two trails that offer the vistas of Tunnel View in serene seclusion: Artist Point and Inspiration Point. These hikes give you the opportunity to soak in the majestic landscape without the usual crowds of tourists, providing an even more personal and rewarding experience.
Tuolomne Meadows (pronounced to-all-uh-me) is considered Yosemite’s High Country.
To place things in perspective, the Yosemite Valley is located at 4,000 feet above sea level. On Tioga Road (120 East), you are going to reach altitudes of over 9,000 feet. Because of its altitude, it receives more snow than the valley therefore making it a seasonal road. Tioga Road usually closes by around mid-November and reopens by early June. Because of the record snowpack in 2023 Tioga Road didn’t open until late July.
Tuolumne Meadows, located in Yosemite’s high country at 8,600 feet, is the largest subalpine meadow in the park. This lush area is surrounded by rugged granite domes, peaks, and stunning mountain views. The heart of Tuolumne Meadows is the Tuolumne River, which provides excellent opportunities for fishing and peaceful walks along its banks. Wildflowers bloom in abundance from July to August, creating a colorful display. Popular activities include day hikes to Lembert Dome and along the Pothole Dome loop, as well as backpacking trips into the Cathedral Range and along the John Muir Trail. Tuolumne offers a perfect high-elevation retreat, with cooler temperatures and wide open spaces, away from the crowds of Yosemite Valley. With its beautiful meadows, wealth of outdoor recreation, and proximity to the iconic high Sierra, Tuolumne Meadows is a special place for many visitors.
If you are driving Tioga Road east towards Lee Vining, this is the first pull-out view point on your way. This view point gives you views of the back face of Half Dome and the mass of granite surrounding it. You can see this symbol of the National Park from the parking lot area. However, if you walk 0.3 miles, the views get better.
With the right camera zoom, telescope, binoculars, or even your bare eyes you can see people ascending the top of the dome through the cables. It’s the only side of Half Dome that gives you that view. The vantage point also allows you to take in Clouds Rest, Tenaya Lake, and other highlights of Yosemite’s high country. Stopping at this overlook is a must for anyone driving the Tioga Road.
The next stop after Olmstead point along Tioga Road is Tenaya Lake. Surrounded by granite domes and peaks, Tenaya Lake’s perfectly still blue waters reflect the rugged wilderness of Yosemite National Park. Lush green forests ring the lake, contrasting with the stark granite.
This gorgeous lake is fantastic to visit during the summer. It is a perfect place to swim and cool off after a long hike on one of the many trails near the lake or enjoy a picnic lunch while enjoying the beauty. Tenaya Lake is also ideal for kayaking and paddling across its pristine waters.
The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
The Mariposa Grove in Yosemite’s Wawona area is home to over 500 massive giant sequoia trees, some of the largest and oldest living things on Earth. Walking through the shady grove is a breathtaking experience, with options to stroll the 2-mile accessible trail or hike the 6-mile loop passing the iconic Grizzly Giant. Make sure to see the California Tunnel Tree, which you can walk through, as well as the lifeless Telescope Tree that has a tunnel carved in its trunk. In the summer, climb the stairs up Wawona Point for panoramic views from the lookout. Allow time to sit quietly and contemplate the sequoias’ grandeur. With its combination of natural beauty and traces of Yosemite’s past, Mariposa Grove is a must-visit.
Glacier Point offers one of the most breathtaking views in Yosemite National Park. Perched high above Yosemite Valley at an elevation of 7,214 feet, this popular lookout provides jaw-dropping vistas of several of Yosemite’s most iconic sights. Get an unobstructed view straight down 3,200 feet to Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America. Peer across to the mighty Half Dome rising nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor. Take in panoramic views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, and the High Sierra. Watch rock climbers ascending the vertical face of El Capitan. Picnic while admiring the views or hike some of the trails radiating out from Glacier Point. The exhilarating scenery from this sheer granite precipice makes Glacier Point a must-see destination for every Yosemite visitor.
For thrilling views and a sense of adventure, head to Taft Point in Yosemite. Located at an elevation of 7,503 feet on the south rim of Yosemite Valley, Taft Point juts out over a sheer cliff face, providing breathtaking views 3,500 feet down to the valley floor. Peer down at El Capitan and across to the mighty waterfalls. The fissures in the granite make you feel as if you could walk right off the edge. For the brave, head out to Fissures Edge where you can see straight through a crack in the rock down to the vertical drop below. Just a mile away from Taft Point lies The Sentinel, a stunning domed granite formation rising nearly 2,000 feet above the valley. The stunning views of The Sentinel and the valley make Taft Point a highlight for those seeking vantage points that are off the beaten path.
Nestled within the towering granite peaks and pristine wilderness of Yosemite awaits a magical winter wonderland called Badger Pass. As the first designated ski area in a US national park, Badger Pass has been thrilling outdoor enthusiasts since 1935 with its captivating blend of stunning scenery and heart-pumping slopes. From gentle bunny hills to challenging black diamond runs, Badger Pass caters to skiers and snowboarders of all abilities. Not just for the downhill crowd, the area also boasts over 90 miles of meticulously groomed cross-country ski trails and snowshoe paths that traverse through ethereal snow-draped forests.
Located in the northwest region of Yosemite, Hetch Hetchy is a granite-walled valley flooded by the O’Shaughnessy Dam, creating a pristine reservoir. The 13-mile long Hetch Hetchy Reservoir provides drinking water to 2.4 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though submerged under water, the valley’s sheer cliffs, waterfalls and rock formations rival those of the famous Yosemite Valley just 12 miles to the south. Visitors can enjoy scenic vistas from viewpoints like O’Shaughnessy Dam Overlook and Wapama Falls, watching shimmering spring water cascade 1,430 feet down the rocky face. Activities include hiking, camping, swimming, boating and fishing. The serene beauty and unique history of Hetch Hetchy make it a fascinating side trip for those who want to experience a different side of Yosemite.
As your journey through Yosemite comes to an end, remember that the memories crafted here will be the tales you carry home. From the towering sequoias to the thundering waterfalls, this iconic park has woven a tapestry of experiences that will stay etched in your heart. Whether you wandered along the well-trodden paths or discovered hidden alcoves off the beaten track, Yosemite’s beauty has left an indelible mark on your soul. Take with you not just photographs but the whispers of the wind, the scent of pine, and the awe-inspiring vistas that have nourished your spirit. Let me know about your experience in the comments.