Yosemite National Park is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been to and definitely belongs at the top of your national park bucket list. While you could spend weeks exploring Yosemite, you probably don’t have that kind of time. So I’m here to share exactly how you can see the highlights on an epic day trip to Yosemite.
I’m sharing the best things to do in one day in Yosemite. Plus I’ll help you plan your trip with tips on the best time to visit, how to get around, where to stay, and what to pack.
Keep reading for all the details to plan an unforgettable adventure in Yosemite National Park!
Table of Contents
Best Time to Visit Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is open all year, but most visitors choose to come in the warmer months from May to October. July and August typically get over 700,000 visitors per month.
To avoid peak crowds, consider visiting in May to early June or October to early November.
In May and June, waterfalls are flowing and rivers are full. This is the best time of year to see attractions like Yosemite Falls.
Fall hits Yosemite in late October. The colder temperatures weed out the crowds and give visitors a chance to explore the changing leaves at a slower pace. Be prepared for colder weather by dressing in layers and packing a warm sleeping bag if camping.
How to Get to Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley is the heart of the park and is 4 hours from San Francisco and 6 hours from Los Angeles.
If you plan to fly to California, look for cheap flights from San Francisco (SFO) or Oakland (OAK) airports.
You’ll need to rent a car to get to Yosemite National Park. The roads are paved and well-maintained in Yosemite, so there’s no need to rent an all-wheel-drive vehicle.
Getting Around Yosemite in a Day
Yosemite National Park Shuttle Bus
Yosemite National Park offers a free shuttle bus that connects the popular areas of the park to Yosemite Valley. There are shuttles from Yosemite Valley to Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Meadows, and Glacier Point.
The park service also runs a shuttle around the Yosemite Valley floor. Stops include the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, Yosemite Lodge, and Upper Pines Campground.
Driving in Yosemite National Park
Driving your own vehicle or rental car gives you the most flexibility and is the best way to see Yosemite in a short amount of time.
But there’s one major caveat: parking in Yosemite can be difficult, particularly in peak season from June to September.
The best way to beat crowds and find parking is to start your day early. For your one day in Yosemite, plan to arrive in Yosemite Valley around sunrise. You can find a parking spot and tour much of the valley on foot.
The Best One Day Yosemite Itinerary
There are seemingly infinite things to do in Yosemite National Park. Heck, I could spend weeks in Yosemite. But working full time just doesn’t allow for that kind of travel. So instead, I want to help you see the absolute best of Yosemite in the shortest amount of time.
This one day guide to Yosemite covers the best of Yosemite Valley and ends the day with the best sunset in the park at Taft Point.
Prepare for a long day that you’ll never forget!
You can get my free, customized Google map for this walking tour of Yosemite Valley here.
Self-Guided Walking Tour of Yosemite Valley
Start your day in Yosemite early! To beat the crowds and find a good parking spot, you’ll want to arrive around sunrise.
This walking tour of Yosemite Valley starts at the Lower Yosemite Falls trailhead. You can find parking across the street from the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead at the entrance to Yosemite Valley Lodge. You’ll return to Yosemite Valley Lodge at the end of the walking tour.
The walking tour I outline below is just over 3 miles (most of which is flat and paved). This tour should take you around 2 hours with stops and time for photos.
Lower Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park, falling nearly 2,500 feet over the cliff edge. This waterfall is best seen in late spring to early summer when water flow is at its fullest.
The flat, short hike to the Lower Yosemite Falls Vista Point is a must for any tour of Yosemite Valley. From the parking lot across from the trailhead, take the first part of the loop out to the vista (the left-hand side trail when looking at the map linked above).
The best view of Yosemite Falls is along the wooden bridge at the vista point.
After stopping to take in Yosemite Falls, take the rest of the loop to Northside Drive near Yosemite Village (the right-hand side trail when looking at the map linked above).
Cook’s Meadow provides some of the best views of the valley and Half Dome. The Cook’s Meadow Loop trail connects Northside Drive and Southside Drive. Take the trail through the meadow, following the boardwalk parallel to the Merced River.
The meadow is lush and green in the Summer. In the fall, Cook’s Meadow turns brown, perfect for photos with the orange and yellow fall leaves (as you can see above).
The boardwalk through Cook’s Meadow connects you to one of the best views of Half Dome.
From atop the bridge, the Merced River reflects Half Dome in the still water.
Yosemite Valley Chapel
A paved sidewalk along Southside Drive connects Sentinel Bridge to the quaint Yosemite Valley Chapel.
The small, one-room chapel is one of the many historical buildings in Yosemite National Park. You may even spot a wedding as the chapel is still an active venue.
From the front steps of the chapel, you’ll have a great view of Yosemite Falls.
As you continue along Southside Drive, you’ll reach Swinging Bridge. As you might guess, this bridge across the Merced River used to swing. Today the bridge is fixed in place for visitor’s safety.
The beach under Swinging Bridge is a popular spot for swimming in the Merced River on a hot day.
Yosemite Valley Lodge
Finish your walking tour of Yosemite Valley with a visit to the Yosemite Valley Lodge. One of the bigger lodges in the park, Yosemite Valley Lodge has nearly 250 guest rooms, a swimming pool, a gift shop, and a handful of restaurants.
If you’re looking for breakfast after your morning stroll, stop in at the Base Camp Eatery or Starbucks (yes, there’s a Starbucks in Yosemite Valley).
Yosemite Valley Visitor Center
After the walking tour, drive over to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. This is a great place to check in on park conditions, talk to park rangers, buy souvenirs, and stamp your national park passport.
Next door to the visitor center, you’ll find the Ansel Adams Gallery. This gallery is dedicated to the famous photographer who captured Yosemite’s beauty. Here you can view famous Ansel Adam originals as well as work from other artists. Some of Ansel Adams’ original works are for sale here too (but for a hefty price!).
El Capitan Meadow
After exploring Yosemite Valley on foot, continue along Northside Drive to take in one of Yosemite’s best marvels: El Capitan.
El Capitan is the premier rock climbing destination in Yosemite. You may recall it from movies like Free Solo and The Dawn Wall. At any given point, you’ll be able to find climbers making their way up El Cap.
The meadow across from El Capitan is one of the best spots for spotting climbers. Spectators gather here with telescopes and binoculars to track climbers’ progress. Bring your own pair of binoculars to see the rock climbers!
Tunnel View is one of the most popular vantage points of Yosemite Valley. From here you can see the entirety of the valley including El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls.
One of my favorite parts of visiting Tunnel View was the bronze carving of the valley here. This engraving shows the valley in 3D, including hiking trails and all the famous rock faces. It’s one of the best ways to get your bearings on a short trip to Yosemite.
Glacier Point looms high in Yosemite Valley, almost directly above Curry Village. But to get to Glacier Point, you have to drive all the way around on the windy Glacier Point Road.
Glacier Point Road is typically open from May to November, but the opening and closing dates change every year due to snowfall. You can find the historical opening and closing dates here.
A short walk from the parking lot takes you to a stunning overlook of Half Dome and Yosemite’s high country. In the spring and summer, you can spot Yosemite Falls from here too!
Sentinel Dome + Taft Point Loop for Sunset
The best way to end a day trip to Yosemite National Park is with sunset at Taft Point. After visiting Glacier Point, return to the Taft Point Trailhead off of Glacier Point Road. Parking may be difficult here, so be prepared to park along Glacier Point Road and walk to the trailhead.
Start this hike at least 2 hours before sunset to leave plenty of time to get to Taft Point before sundown.
The moderate Sentinel Dome and Taft Point loop trail takes you to Sentinel Dome first before looping around to Taft Point. In total, the trail is 5.1 miles with 1,122 feet of elevation.
The top of Sentinel Dome provides 360-degree views of Yosemite Valley, the Sierras, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Stop to enjoy the panoramic views from the top of Sentinel Dome before heading to Taft Point for sunset.
The trail from Sentinel Dome to Taft Point takes you along the cliff edge with stunning views from spots like Roosevelt Point (see the picture above if you don’t believe me!).
The view from Taft Point at sunset is the most miraculous sunset I’ve ever seen. As the sun fades in the west, El Capitan glows in the orange light and the sky lights up brilliantly. Expect pandemonium at the viewpoint as this is one of the most popular sunset spots in the park, for good reason.
After sunset, put on your headlamp for the 1-mile journey back to the car. Be sure to change out your headlamp for plenty of light before the hike!
What to Pack for One Day in Yosemite
- Layers – In the Spring and Fall, weather can vary dramatically between day and night. While the mornings may start off cool, afternoons can be hot. Pack moisture-wicking hiking shirts and warm fleece layers to keep you comfortable all day.
- Hiking Boots – One of the best ways to see Yosemite is on a hike. You’ll want sturdy, comfortable hiking boots or trail runners with solid traction. Don’t forget to break in your shoes first!
- Merino Wool Socks – Good hiking boots don’t mean anything if you have crappy socks. Always opt for merino wool socks. They might be a bit expensive, but they will last a long time, keep your feet dry, and protect you from blisters.
- Headlamp – You’ll start your day early and end late with this itinerary. Be prepared by packing a headlamp with fresh batteries for your sunset hike back from Taft Point.
- Hiking Backpack and the 10 Essentials – It’s important to carry safety gear every time you hike. Be sure to pack the 10 hiking essentials and bring a hiking backpack with plenty of room for water and extra gear.
- Bug spray – Bug Spray is a must for Summer in Yosemite National Park. If you’re planning any hikes near lakes or rivers, be sure to apply bug spray underneath your hiking layers before starting your day.
- Camera – Yosemite National Park is one of the most jaw-dropping national parks I’ve been to. You’ll want to capture every moment, but how you do that is up to you. Today, even an iPhone or GoPro (they shoot in 5K now!) will do. If you do choose to hike with a DSLR camera, I highly recommend investing in a sturdy camera clip like the Peak Design Capture Clip to secure your camera to your hiking backpack.
Where to Stay After a Day in Yosemite
Yosemite National Park has so many places to stay, from park lodges to campgrounds. The areas surrounding Yosemite have plenty of rental properties too!
Lodges in Yosemite Valley
The Ahwahnee is a luxury hotel with fine dining and high-class amenities. Brunch at The Ahwahnee is one of the best meals in Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite Valley Lodge is the more affordable of the two lodges and is close to many activities in Yosemite Valley.
To stay in either of the Yosemite Valley lodges, plan to book a year in advance when reservations are released.
There is no shortage of campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. Glampers can pick from cabins and canvas tents in Curry Village or Housekeeping Camp. Tent campers or RVs can camp in Upper Pines, Lower Pines, or North Pines.
Campground reservations are incredibly competitive in Yosemite National Park. To reserve a spot, book at exactly 7 am Pacific Time on the day reservations open.
Reservations open on a rolling 5-month basis. For example, reservations for May 15 through June 14 open on January 15. Find the exact date reservations open for the upcoming year here.
Tips for Seeing Yosemite in One Day
This park has so much to offer, so you want to be prepared for your day trip to Yosemite.
Here are a few essential tips to get the most out of your time in Yosemite:
- Book a place to stay in advance. As one of the most visited national parks in the country, accommodations fill up quickly. To stay at the in-park lodges, book a year out when reservations open. Book campsites 5 months out.
- Start your day early. Crowds in Yosemite are no joke. The best way to beat the crowds is to start at sunrise or wait to visit popular spots until the late afternoon! Head to the popular tourist spots like Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, and Glacier Point early in the morning or in the late afternoon.
- Pack your lunch. With only one day in Yosemite, you’ll want to eat on the go. Plan to pack a lunch to keep in your backpack for a quick bite between adventures.
- Store food properly and remember bear safety. Yosemite National Park is filled with wildlife, including bears. Don’t leave any food in your car when it is parked as bears have been known to break into cars if they smell food. If you encounter a bear on the trail, give it plenty of room and do not get within 100 feet of it.
- Download all your reservation confirmations and important documents offline before you leave home. Cell service isn’t a guarantee in most areas of the park. Make sure any documents you need are saved and accessible offline (I prefer to do this in Google Drive).
- Download Google Maps offline to ensure you can navigate without service. To do this, go to your Google Maps app, select your profile next to the search bar, and choose ‘offline maps’. From there click ‘select your own map’ and drag the view to your custom area. It’s also a great idea to download music for your long drives too!
- Check the Yosemite National Park website regularly. In 2020, Yosemite National Park required all guests to have a day pass reservation to enter the park. For the latest updates on trail status, road closures, and how the park is handling COVID-19, check the Yosemite website.
>> Explore More of California:
- One Day in Joshua Tree National Park
- What to Do in Redwood National Park
- Hike Alamere Falls: San Francisco’s Best Day Hikes
- Road Trip California’s Lost Coast
- Drive the Pacific Coast Highway
>> Get National Park Inspiration: