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Yosemite Day Trip- One Day in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Day Trip- One Day in Yosemite National Park

Are you thinking about planning a Yosemite day trip? Yosemite is a place where it is easy to spend days, but many visitors simply don’t have that much time. Fear not! We have put together a great itinerary for one day in Yosemite National Park.

The key to packing in all the highlights that this Yosemite day trip itinerary has to offer is to start your day early. Plan on arriving at a park entrance station by 7AM.

An early arrival will help you avoid time-wasting, long lines at the fee stations and allow for ample time to pack in as much fun to your Yosemite day trip as possible.

Note: This itinerary is designed for people coming in from the west side of the park via highways 120, 140, or 41. If you are coming from the Eastern Sierras, I suggest you focus your itinerary on the many Yosemite attractions off Tioga Road.

When Should I Take My Yosemite Day Trip?

Crowds are Common in Yosemite During the Summer and on Holiday Weekends
Crowds are Common in Yosemite During the Summer and on Holiday Weekends

The best time of year to visit Yosemite and see its waterfalls at peak flow is late spring and early summer. In addition to flowing falls, you will also be able to enjoy longer days, so you will get the most out of your Yosemite day trip.

The downside to visiting during late spring and early summer is that it can be crowded, especially on weekends. Stay ahead of the crowds by arriving as early as possible, but expect that you will be sharing this magical place with the masses.

You will also have to consider whether or not you need park reservations. Visit the park website for current reservation guidelines. I recently visited the park on during the week in mid-May and I didn’t have to deal with reservations, easily found parking, and the waterfalls were at full flow. If you ask me, that is the sweet spot.

If you are crowd averse, consider taking your Yosemite day trip during the early fall. The weather is still warm, the days are still relatively long, and the crowds are low.

The main downside to visiting during the early fall is that many waterfalls can be dried up (like show-stopping Yosemite Falls) or running at a trickle.

Late fall and winter in Yosemite are both gorgeous, but road closures are frequent due to weather. Glacier Point and Tioga Road are typically closed from the first significant snowfall through at least Memorial Day.

Reservation System for 2024 in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park recently announced that will require reservations for select dates April through October, 2024 in order to decrease overcrowding in the park.

From April 13 through June 30, a reservation is required from 5am – 4pm on Saturdays, Sundays, as well as May 27and June 19, which are government holidays.

From July 1 through August 16, a reservation is required from 5am – 4pm daily.

From August 17 through October 27, a reservation is required from 5am – 4pm on Saturdays, Sundays, as well as September 2 and October 14, which are government holidays.

Reservations are also required in February during “Firefall season” when Horsetail Fall can glow orange when it’s backlit by sunset, which can make it appear to be on fire. These dates are February 10 -11, 17 – 19, and 24 – 25 in 2024.

Reservations will begin being released on January 5 at 8am and be available in advance. Some afternoon reservations and full-day reservations will be released one week in advance of the date as well.

Pro Tip: You do not need a reservation to enter Yosemite National Park when you use YARTS, the public bus system which takes visitors into the park from various gateway cities, like Mariposa and El Portal off HIghway 140. It is recommended that you book your seat on YARTS in advance, however, especially furing peak season.

Staying at a hotel just outside of the park, like the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal or Autocamp in Midpines, and taking YARTS into the park from there is a great peak season hack around the park reservation system.

What Should I Bring on My Yosemite Day Trip?

Yoseimte Valley Boardwalk
Yosemite Valley Boardwalk

Since you are planning on arriving early in the morning, I suggest you pack a breakfast. I would also be sure to have plenty of snacks in your daypack, as well as a reusable water bottle. Sturdy, comfortable shoes are a must.

There are several places to eat inside of Yosemite Valley, so you don’t need to pack lunch of you don’t want to. Other essentials for your daypack include sunscreen, a small first aid kit, sunglasses, a hat, a backup phone battery, and a camera.

The weather in Yosemite can vary, so be sure to check the forecast and be prepared to layer. A lightweight rain jacket is always good to have on hand, especially if the spray from the waterfalls is intense or there is potential for rain in the forecast.

Ready to visit more California national parks? Check out this Joshua Tree Day Trip Itinerary.

Itinerary for One Day in Yosemite National Park

1. Visit a Sequoia Grove

Mariposa Grove is a great place to see Sequoias in Yosemite
Towering Sequoias in Mariposa Grove

Yosemite is home to some of the largest trees on the planet, and has three different giant sequoia groves. Stopping to walk through one is a must, especially if you have never seen a sequoia in person before.

If you are coming from Southern California, you will likely use the entrance on Hwy 41. Just two miles from that entrance is Mariposa Grove. It is the largest and most accessible sequoia grove in the park.

There are a few different trails in this grove, but since you are short on time, I suggest hitting the highlights- Fallen Monarch, Grizzly Giant, and the California Tunnel Tree.

If you are entering the park from Northern California, you are likely going to use the Hwy 120 entrance. Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove are both off this highway.

Unlike Mariposa Grove, these groves require that you take a short hike to see the sequoias. Both hikes lose 500 feet in elevation on the way to the sequoia groves. The hike to Merced Grove is 1.5 miles and the hike to Tuolumne Grove is a mile.

Both trails are wide and well-maintained. They are a great way to get the blood flowing in the morning before you head into Yosemite Valley.

Note: There are no sequoia groves off Highway 140. I suggest you visit Tuolumne Grove, which is the closest to that entrance.

2. Take in the Yosemite Valley at Tunnel View

Sunrise in Yosemite Valley as Seen from Tunnel View. A must see on your Yosemite Day Trip
Sunrise in Yosemite Valley as Seen from Tunnel View

The next stop on your Yosemite day trip should be Tunnel View. This roadside pullout has some of the best views of the Yosemite Valley.

From Tunnel View you can see many of the Valley’s superstars including Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Half Dome. This is the spot to get the perfect Yosemite Valley photo.

If you are coming into the park from Hwy 41, you will pass through a mile-long tunnel and see the famed pull-off shortly thereafter.

If you are coming from Hwy 120 or 140, follow the signs for Bridalveil Fall. The parking lots for Tunnel View will be just before you enter the tunnel. There are lots on either side of the road.

3. Stop and Admire Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall should be included on your one day in Yosemite itinerary
Bridalveil Fall

After stopping to admire those Valley views, hop back in the car for a very short jaunt over to the Bridalview Fall parking lot. From the lot is it a short, quarter-mile walk to the base of this 620-foot waterfall.

The trail is paved and this waterfall runs year round. You will be able to feel the spray from the falls when you are close to the base, so prepare to get a little wet.

4. Park and Peruse the Visitor Center and Surrounding Museums

Be sure to visit the Indian Museum and Visitor Center on your Yosemite Day Trip
Miwok Dwelling at the Indian Village of the Ahwahnee

Parking can be a a challenge in Yosemite Valley during the high season, so prepare to park your car and leave it until you are ready to leave the Valley.

Thankfully, it is easy to explore the Valley via YART, Yosemite Valley’s free shuttle, as well as on foot or on bike.

I suggest parking in the lot closest to the visitor center (hopefully you arrived early!). Do not leave any traces of food in your car! Bear sightings are common and bears are well known for breaking into cars for food.

I always like to check out a National Park Visitor Center early in my visit to gain the latest information about special programs and closures, grab a Junior Ranger booklet for my kids, and quickly check out the exhibits.

The visitor center is also where I get my National Park Passport booklet stamped and pick up a patch for my National Park collection. There is also a park movie playing in the visitor center’s theater which is usually worth watching.

Next door to the visitor center is the Yosemite Valley Museum and the outdoor Indian Village of the Ahwahnee. These free museums focus on the original inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley.

It is worth your time to walk through the recreated village to see a variety of Miwok dwellings like the Chief’s House, a sweatlodge, a couple different bark houses and a Miwok cabin.

The Ansel Adams Gallery is also near the visitor center. It is a good place to walk through if you are interested in the famous photographer’s work.

5. Embark on a Tour of Yosemite Valley

Yosemite in One Day- what to see and do
Don’t Expect Empty Roads During the High Season- Park Your Car & Take a Tour!

If you want to take tour led by the experts themselves, then definitely sign up for the Yosemite Valley Floor Tour at the Yosemite Valley Lodge.

You can call (209) 372-1240 for tour availability and times for the day you are visiting, but usually the first tour is at 10AM, so try to get on that one! Tours cost $38 for adults and $28 for children.

Tours are led by Yosemite park rangers in open air trams. They provide you with a great overview of the Valley as well as plenty of history and fun facts. The open air tram allows you opportunities to get some great photos along the way.

Highlights of the tram tour include Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, and some sites you might have already see like Tunnel View and Bridalveil Fall. Still, the overlap is worth your time because you will get lots of great information about the sites.

6. Bike the Yosemite Valley

Biking the Yosemite Valley
Biking the Yosemite Valley in October

If the Yosemite Valley Tour is not available or sitting in an open air tram for two hours is not your thing, maybe biking around Yosemite is more your speed.

Biking around the Yosemite Valley is quite easy, since the terrain is mostly flat and the paths are wide and plentiful. You can bring your own bikes or rent them at Curry Village or the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Bike rentals are typically available late May through mid-October.

On a Yosemite day trip I prefer to rent bikes from Yosemite Valley Lodge because the walk from the visitor center parking to the bike rental stand isn’t too far and you can take time to see Yosemite Falls along the way.

Better yet, save even more time and bring your own bikes. Ebikes are a great way to explore the Yosemite Valley. We love our foldable Centris ebikes that are perfect for travel.

Sentinel Meadow Yosemite
View near Sentinel Bridge

There are 12 miles of paved trails that loop around the Valley Floor. On these trails it is easy to cover the 7-mile length of the Valley in a short period of time, all while taking in meadows, granite monoliths, and the meandering Merced River.

Be sure to hit the highlights- watch rock climbers scale El Capitan, enjoy views from Sentinel Bridge, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife in the meadows and along the river, and make time to stand near the base of Yosemite Falls.

Note: Bikes are not allowed on dirt trails.

7. Take the Hike to the Vernal Falls Footbridge

Vernal Falls in Yosemite
Vernal Falls

The Mist Trail is one of the most popular trails in all of Yosemite because it is the route to Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and Half Dome.

Since you only have one day in Yosemite, you won’t have time to make the 5.4-mile round trip hike to Nevada Falls or the 15-mile trek to the top of Half Dome, but you will be able to make the 1.6-mile hike to the Vernal Falls footbridge.

The hike is mostly uphill on the way to the footbridge and is considered moderate, but shouldn’t be hard for anyone moderately in shape.

From the bridge you will have a nice view of Vernal Falls, especially during peak flow. You can continue uphill another .4 miles to get a view from the top of Vernal Fall. Expect to get wet from the fall’s mist as you climb the stone steps (this is how the mist trail got its name).

Love to hike? Here are 16 Easy Hikes in Yosemite National Park.

8. Take a Break on the Ahwahnee Patio

The Ahwahnee

The Ahwahnee Hotel is probably the most famous of all the National Park lodges. This grand hotel was used by Stephen Mather, the first National Park director, to lure the rich and important so they would visit the incredible Yosemite Valley and see why it was worth funding.

The patio area of the Ahwahnee has lovely views and a sprawling grass lawn where wildlife sightings are common- I once saw a bobcat! It is a great place to sip on a cocktail or eat a sandwich.

If you are closer to Curry Village when you are ready for a break, the Curry Village Pizza Patio & Bar is a good spot to relax and enjoy pizza or a salad washed down with a beer.

9. See Yosemite Valley from above at Glacier Point

Half Dome as seen from Glacier Point
Half Dome as seen from Glacier Point

Your time in Yosemite Valley has come to an end, but there is still more to see!

Glacier Point sits high above Yosemite Valley at 7,200 feet in elevation, and offers incredible views of the High Sierras, Half Dome, and the Yosemite Valley floor 3,200 feet below.

You will reach Glacier Point by heading out of Yosemite Valley, following Wawona Road through the tunnel, and then taking a left turn onto Glacier Point Road. The entire route is 32 miles, but expect it will take an hour to get there.

Glacier Point is extremely popular and you may have to wait for a parking spot, but be patient because the views are worth it! So is the ice cream from the seasonal ice cream stand.

The walk from the parking lot to Glacier Point is nothing more than a quarter mile round trip. If you want to stretch your legs and have time before the sun sets, consider taking the hike up to the top of Sentinel Dome which is nearby. The views are spectacular and it is a great way to end your epic Yosemite Day trip.

Note: The road to Glacier Point is closed from the first significant snowfall (typically early November) through mid-May, typically. Check road conditions if you are visiting during the shoulder seasons.