Yosemite National Park: Ultimate First Time Visitor’s Guide

Get ready to experience the mind-blowing beauty of Yosemite National Park. 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 great stay, hitting up some epic hikes with mind-blowing viewpoints, or discovering the best time to visit for an unforgettable experience, I’ve got you covered. 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 and in campgrounds. Some lodging allows pets but always check to make sure.

As of 2024 you need reservations to get into Yosemite National Park during peak hours. To learn more about the permit system & get your permits click HERE.

How to get to Yosemite National Park:​

Couple with baby in front of the Yosemite National Park sign on the 120 west entrance

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).

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.

For a more luxurious camping experience, consider  Curry Villiage & Housekeeping Camp. Both offer glamping options, where you can enjoy the essence of camping without the hassle of setting up tents.

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:

The Yosemite Cabin

Yosemite’s Chateau East 

AutoCamp

Ways to get around Yosemite National Park:​

Shuttle

Yosemite provides a free shuttle bus which loops around the Yosemite valley regularly, saving on congestion and pollution. The shuttle is great in winter and the shoulder seasons when the park is cooler & less congested.
However, in summer & busy seasons it is usually faster to walk or bike to your next location than wait for a bus.

If you want to visit the Mariposa Grove, a free shuttle conveniently transports visitors from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza (the parking lot) to the grove itself. This shuttle service typically operates from late spring to early winter, although specific dates can vary from year to year, particularly in the spring.

For those eyeing some winter fun at Badger Pass, Yosemite’s ski area, but dreading the snowy and icy roads, fear not! A free shuttle departs from the valley at set times, whisking you away to Badger Pass hassle-free.

Interested in exploring Tuolumne Meadows or seeking access to your desired backpacking trailhead without the hassle of driving? The Tuolumne Meadows hiker’s bus is your ticket to convenience. While this shuttle is the only paid option, it’s a small price to pay for the ease of exploration it offers. Keep in mind that it operates exclusively during the summer when Tioga Road is open, so plan your adventure accordingly.

Walking & Biking

Yosemite Valley offers an extensive network of paved trails and roads that are perfect for walking, hiking, and biking. With stunning views of iconic landmarks like El Capitan and Half Dome surrounding you, exploring the valley on foot or by bike is an incredible way to experience the beauty of this remarkable place.

Bikes are permitted on all paved roads and paved trails in Yosemite Valley, opening up lots of additional areas to explore car-free. If you don’t have your own bike, no worries! Bike rentals are available from the Yosemite Valley bike stands at Yosemite Village, Lodge, or Curry Village from spring through fall, making it easy to embark on your adventure.

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 I advise to avoid spending all your time in Yosemite Valley and instead explore the cooler & less busy parts of the park.

  • Spring – The best time to visit for waterfalls in full flow, spring bloom, fewer crowds than Summer, will need layers for hot/cold/hiking.
    • Tuolumne Meadows will be closed.
  • Summer – Slightly 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:

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.

Tunnel View

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 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 yearn for 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 hiking adventures grant you the opportunity to soak in the majestic landscape without the usual throngs of tourists, providing an even more personal and rewarding experience.

Tuolumne Meadows

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.

Olmstead Point

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.

Tenaya Lake

Tenaya Lake is the perfect summer destination for a variety of activities. Bring a picnic lunch and claim a spot on the sandy shores to admire the clear blue waters and striking scenery. Looking for a hiking trailhead? The popular Cathedral Lakes trail begins near the west end of the lake.

When temperatures rise, take a dip in Tenaya Lake’s refreshing waters to cool off. The lake’s multiple beaches with gentle sloping entries make it ideal for swimming and lounging in the sunshine. More adventurous visitors can rent kayaks, paddleboards or canoes from the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge to explore the lake from a different vantage point. Paddle out to take in the sweeping views of the surrounding granite domes and peaks reflected in the mirror-like surface.

Wawona

Mariposa Grove

No visit to Yosemite is complete without experiencing the ancient giants of the Mariposa Grove. This protected area within the park contains hundreds of mature giant sequoia trees, some of the largest living things on Earth. Walking among their massive trunks and gazing upward at their towering heights is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience.

The Mariposa Grove is home to over 500 giant sequoia trees, including the famous Grizzly Giant which is one of the grove’s oldest residents at 1,800-2,000 years old. This incredible tree stands 209 feet tall with a circumference of 96 feet at the base. Other sequoia highlights are the Bachelor and Three Graces trees, forming a distinctive triangular shape growing together as if posing for a photograph.

There are several hiking trails that wind through the Mariposa Grove, ranging from easy paved paths to moderate dirt trails. The relatively flat Grizzly Peak Loop is a 2-mile hike that provides an intimate look at many of the largest trees while passing by the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree. For a longer 6-mile trek, take the Mariposa Grove Trail to the higher reaches of the upper grove.

Glacier Point

Hetch Hetchy

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