Yosemite National Park: Things to know before you go

Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national park destinations in the entire US. The landscape is astonishing, which is why Yosemite is one of the ultimate destinations for hikers, climbers and anyone who loves to be outdoors.

We had three days in Yosemite during our California road trip, which is just enough to check out some of the park’s most famous natural sights, as well as get outdoors for some hiking, a welcome active break on what is typically a food and drink heavy American experience! This is our guide for anyone who is visiting Yosemite for the first time, to help you plan your stay and get the most out of this incredible place over a few short but busy days.

How to Get There

Yosemite is located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, so you will need to make your way to the park either by bus, train, car or a combination of the three. Many people choose to fly into San Francisco chill for a few days before hiring a car and driving to Yosemite. The scenery along the route is pretty breathtaking when you start climbing into the mountains, but just be aware that it’s a fairly long trip and will take around 4-5 hours depending on stops and traffic.

There’s also Fresno/Yosemite International Airport, which is only 1.5 hours from the southern entrance to the park, but you will still need to make your way into the valley by bus or car.

Entrance & Passes

Like most national parks, there is an entrance fee payable when you arrive. A pass will cost you $35.00 per car (price at Jan 2020) this can be easily purchased at one of the park’s entrances and is valid for seven days. We bought the America the Beautiful National Park Pass for $80.00 because we also wanted to check out Sequoia, so if you are thinking of doing a couple of parks during your trip, this is something to consider. If you are interested in this pass you don’t need to pre-book just ask at the entrance and they will sort it out for you there and then 🙂

Once you are in the valley however, car parking is free! Just make sure to get there early as car parks fill up fast, especially during peak times of the year.

When to Visit

The weather will have a huge impact on your stay in Yosemite. It can potentially make or break your trip, which we found out the hard way. We visited at the end of spring in May, which we read on several guides is one of the best times to visit, as the park is accessible but not too busy. Unluckily for us, May 2019 saw the worst weather California had seen for 25 years (typical ☹) and snow was still around higher up the valley, closing off access to Glacier Point Road and all the viewpoints, as well as some of the main hiking trails. Plus, it rained heavily and even snowed at times for two of the three days we visited the park. Gutted!

To avoid this disappointment, head to Yosemite in the summer months to try and catch the best of the weather. The park will likely be much busier, but it’s better than not being able to hike up and see all of the amazing scenery with bright sun and blue skies. You dont want to miss out on the higher trails and viewpoints! The best times in our well-earned opinion would be late June or early September.

Even so, altitude in the park varies dramatically depending on where you are or if you are hiking out of the valley, so the weather is often unpredictable, and temperatures vary dramatically. It’s very important to check the forecast each day, and for the specific area where you will be spending your day.

Where to Stay

There are a lot of options for staying both in and near to the park, so choose one that best fits your taste and budget. A general rule is the closer you are to the park, or in the valley itself, the more expensive your accommodation will be, with some exceptions.

The ideal option is to base yourselves in, or as close to the valley as you can so you can make the most of your time. However, accommodation close to the park gets booked up several months in advance, so be prepared to book early if you want to stay in the park.

We have friends who stayed at Yosemite View Lodge and gave it really good reviews. It’s only a 20-minute drive to the park entrance too! For the best balance of value and location, we would recommend this as your best bet. For a two night stay at the end of June prices are around $260.00.

The view from their hotel room

A cheaper option for staying in the park is to camp. Camping plots can either be reserved in advance, or you can simply turn up to some sites and spaces are available on a first come first served basis. Prices start from as little as $6.00 per person per night depending on the time of year and the specific site. Just remember to read up on the guidelines and make sure you have everything you need, unless you want a hungry bear sniffing around your tent during the night…

For those on a budget who don’t mind staying a little further away from the park, Mariposa is a good option too. Mariposa is a small town located about an hour and a half drive from the entrance to the park. This is where we stayed while visiting Yosemite and the drive into the park is along a deep canyon with a wide flowing river, so it’s definitely not the worst commute we’ve had!

We stayed at an Airbnb close to Midpines which was around a 20-minute drive from Mariposa and actually a little closer to the park. It was very isolated so when we drove through the woods in the dark it was a little unsettling. That being said, Christine, the lady who hosted us was wonderful to say the least! Her knowledge of the park is invaluable and really helped us to plan out our days, and her breakfasts are to die for! We couldn’t recommend her place enough.

Mariposa has all you need during your visit with plenty of bars, restaurants and supermarkets. 1850 Restaurant & Brewing Company gets an honourable mention from us for their great beers and steak!

Hikes

Yosemite is one of the most popular hiking spots in the USA. There are so many trails to explore that it would take years of living near the valley to find your way around most of them. For first time visitors, the trails below are some of the most popular, and rewarding hikes in the valley, taking you past some of the park’s most well-known attractions and vista points.

Yosemite Falls

If you feel like standing on top of the 5th highest waterfall in the world, this one’s for you. The hike to Upper Yosemite Falls is very challenging, it’s a 7-mile round trip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain, but also very rewarding with amazing views of the valley below, and the falls as you make your way up. At least when it’s not raining and covered in cloud as it was for us!

Don’t we look cool!

If this is too much for you, you can easily walk to the lower falls as it’s only a short 1.5-mile round trip that takes you on a loop on the valley floor to the base of lower falls. Prepare to get wet though as the spray from the falls will catch you along both trails.

Mist Trail

Another waterfall hike, this one will take you up to Vernal and Nevada Falls along stone stairs. It’s a 3.5-mile round trip to the top of Vernal Falls and 6.5 miles to the top of Nevada Falls. The trail gets its name from the spray from the waterfalls, which means you will likely get pretty wet while walking the route. Waterproof outerwear is essential for this one so make sure it’s in your backpack. This also means that the stairs can get slippery, so be careful and climb at your own pace.

Half Dome

The hike to the summit of Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes. So much so that in 2010 the park introduced a lottery where hikers need to apply for a permit to walk the trail, and only 225 are issued per day! One for the adrenaline junkies, this walk is considered one of the most dangerous in the USA. It is one of the longest and most challenging day hikes in the park at 17 miles with 4,800 feet of elevation gain. Be prepared if you are one of the lucky few who are picked for a permit, the last section of the hike will see you take on the infamous Half Dome cables, a steep climb up the slick granite rock with only two wire cables to hold on to, not the best place to be if you have a fear of heights or for those of you prone to tripping over your own feet like Joe!

Mirror Lake

Get off the shuttle bus at stop #17 and its just a short 2.5-mile round trip to the base of Half Dome and Mirror Lake. The trail is a good orientation hike for your first day in the park as you learn to navigate the shuttle busses and generally find out where everything is in the valley. When the lake is at its fullest it gives great reflections of the scenery around it, hence its name. It’s a great photo spot and also one of the most popular swimming spots during the warmer summer months so pack swim stuff if you fancy cooling off in the water.

It’s also a good spot for a cold one 😉

Bridalveil Falls

This is a short walk to the base of the first waterfall you will see when driving into the park. It’s only a 0.5-mile round trip along a mostly level, paved pathway, so we recommend checking it out as you’re leaving the park or on your way to Tunnel View (more on that later).

Viewpoints

Seeing as the weather wasn’t really on our side during our visit, we missed out on most of the best viewpoints in the park ☹ We don’t want the same for you, so here’s our roundup of the must-see views and photo spots that you need to check out during your visit.

El Capitan

When you first enter the park, you’ll be greeted by one of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks, El Capitan. A mecca for rock climbers, El Capitan is the first cliff face you will see as you drive into the park, and you will definitely want to stop off to have a look around. Luckily there’s parking all along the road here so just pull up wherever you like and take some time to enjoy your first Yosemite photo spot! This rock face has been famous amongst climbers for years but made headlines in 2017 when Alex Honnald became the first person to free solo (thats climb without ropes or safety gear) the 3,000-foot face. Something to think about when you’re standing at the base looking up.

Can you see the heart? <3

Tunnel View

One of the best views of Yosemite Valley. Tunnel View is only a short drive from the entrance to the park and is best enjoyed later in the day at sunset to round off a great day in the valley. With El Capitan in the foreground and Half Dome in the far distance, staring down the entire length of the valley is not to be missed! Just remember that a lot of people will likely have the same idea, so you may have to wait a little to get space on the car park.

Glacier Point

If you type Yosemite Valley into Google, photos taken from Glacier Point will likely be the first thing you see. The viewpoint is located directly across the valley from Half Dome, with the valley floor 3,200 feet below, this might not be one for those of you with a fear of heights but if you love photography, you will likely be up there for quite a while!

You can drive to Glacier Point or take a shuttle from the valley floor. Alternatively, for the more adventurous, you can hike up as well along the Four Mile Trail, which will take you around 3.5-4 hours each way.

Taft Point 

Afraid of heights? If you’re not sure, you will be after visiting Taft Point! Unlike Glacier Point, Taft Point doesn’t have a protective wall, and you can walk right up to the edge of the cliffs to look directly down to the valley floor below. This is one of the best viewpoints for El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Make sure to check out the huge fissures in the cliffside as well while walking the 2.2-mile round trip from the car park/trailhead.

Sentinel Dome 

360-degree panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains are your reward for hiking up to Sentinel Dome. It shares a car park with the Taft Point trailhead and it’s a similar distance round trip. All the park’s main attractions are visible from here, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and Nevada Falls, as well as the surrounding mountain range.

Sample 3 Day Itinerary

Day 1;

Arrive in Yosemite Valley as early as you can (before 8am is best) and stop to check out El Capitan.

Drive down to the visitor’s centre/village, find a parking space and get your bearings. Grab a bite to eat or some food for the day from the store if you haven’t already, you will need plenty of energy exploring the park! Have a walk around and find the closest bus stop to your car, you will be using the shuttle a lot during your stay.

Walk the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail and the Mirror Lake Trail during the morning. These are easy orientation walks with rewarding views from the bases of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. 

After lunch, get back in the car and head up Glacier Point Road to check out the viewpoints at Taft Point, Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point. Spend some time taking photos and enjoying the scenery before heading back down later in the afternoon for sunset at Tunnel View to round off your first day.

Days 2 & 3;

For your next two days we recommend checking out some of the longer, more challenging hiking trails. Pick the hike to Upper Yosemite Falls or the Mist Trail and just head off. Make sure you have enough food and water for your journey as you will likely be out most of the day on these hikes.

For those of you lucky enough to get a Half Dome permit, you will spend time on the Mist Trail as well, as this forms part of the hike up to the cables. Just make sure you have an easier day planned either before of after this one as it will be very challenging!

Useful Tips and Things to Bring Along

  • Pack for all weathers – As we’ve already mentioned, weather in the park is unpredictable and will likely vary day to day if not hour to hour. Be prepared and bring several warm layers with you as well as waterproof jackets and trousers.
  • Wear sturdy footwear – Although you can do some of the easier walks along the valley floor and to the higher viewpoints in trainers, we would recommend sturdy hiking boots or shoes with plenty of grip on the sole. Many of the trails are past waterfalls or up steep, rocky steps that can get slippery even when dry. Make sure to get yourself some good quality walking socks too.
  • Start early – Yosemite is one of the most popular tourist destinations in California, as such, in peak times the valley and viewpoints can get very crowded. Beat the masses and get into the valley and on the trails early.
  • Start late – You read that right. As important as it is to get on the trails early to avoid the crowds, the same can be said for starting later in the day. Once day trippers have started to leave, the valley becomes much less busy, and the scenery with the sun setting against the cliffs is not to be missed. One guide recommends grabbing a pair of binoculars and spotting the climbers on El Capitan hanging their tents thousands of feet above the valley floor after a day on the rock face. Something we wish we had known before! Plus, as Yosemite is isolated in the mountains, artificial light is scarce, which makes for breath taking night skies.
  • Book early – Accommodation in and around Yosemite Valley gets booked up months in advance, especially for peak times. We would recommend booking your stay at least 6 months in advance to avoid disappointment.
  • Pack a good quality water bottle – While out on the trails there are limited spots to grab fresh water, and you will need plenty of it for a long hike on a hot day. Carry at least a one litre bottle per person during the day. We would recommend grabbing some purification tablets or a filter bottle so that you can simply fill up at a stream or lake during the day and save some weight, which when climbing 3000 feet out of the valley will make a noticeable difference.

That’s everything you need to know about planning your first visit to Yosemite National Park. We were so disappointed that the weather prevented us from doing everything we wanted to during our stay, but on our one day of sunshine and two days of torrential rain we still got to appreciate the beauty of Yosemite, and think that anyone travelling to California should include it in their plans! 

This guide barely even scratches the surface of what the park has to offer, so we will definitely be heading back one day, hopefully a few times!

Cheers folks and happy hiking!

Joe & Nat xxxxx

San Francisco – A first timer’s guide to the city by the bay

San Francisco is one of the most diverse and colourful cities in the USA, from world famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, to small independent craft beer breweries and a pier filled with sea lions! The city by the bay has something for everyone and is the perfect place to start your Californian adventure 🙂

We had heard such good things about San Francisco and Nat was so excited to visit the home of one of her favourite childhood programs “That’s so Raven?”, that we couldn’t think of anywhere better to start our road trip around California. 

We spent three days exploring the city but this didn’t really give us enough time to explore everything San Fran has to offer, although it is enough time for a first time explorer to make their way through the city’s highlights. These are our top picks as well as hints & tips to help you discover the best of what San Francisco has to offer.

Quick jump-around guide

Getting Around Town

Despite how big San Fran is the transport links are generally very good. We made heavy use of the Muni busses during our stay and for a cheap, convenient way to get around, we would suggest you do the same. The busses run all over the city and you will never be far from a stop no matter where you are.

The easiest way to use the Muni is to download the Munimobile app and buy your tickets on there. A single adult ticket will cost you around $3.00. You can also pay in cash to the driver, but exact change is required so we found it much easier to use the app.

Another option for getting around is to use Uber Pool. For those of you like us who had never heard of Uber Pool before, it’s Uber’s taxi sharing service where you share your ride with other passengers travelling to a similar destination. You usually have to walk a little bit as pool drivers will pick you up and drop you off within an area and not a specific location. Don’t worry though, it is never more than a few minutes’ walk and more often than not, you get picked up and dropped off at your desired spot.

Using Uber Pool can reduce your fare by up to 50% so we would recommend using pool as much as possible when getting taxi’s, and if you haven’t signed up with Uber before here’s our code : natalieh4280due for a further discount.

So now that you know how to get around, lets get into how you should split your time in San Francisco.

Food first (always) make sure you grab a hearty breakfast…

If you hadn’t gathered by now, you’re probably going to have a busy few days, and busy days need to start with a good breakfast! Head to Honey Honey Café & Crepery just down from Union Square for one of the best in town. Their huge menu and HUGE portions will satisfy any hungry tourist and will definitely set you up for an action-packed day in San Fran.

Explore the Golden Gate Bridge, The Presidio of San Francisco & Golden Gate Park…

We’re guessing that like us, and 99% of people visiting San Francisco, that your top priority as soon as the plane touches the ground is to head straight over to see the Golden Gate Bridge (and it should be!). However, we recommend spending a little bit of time to explore the Presidio of San Francisco, the park and former military base on the western side of the city. Start off by checking out the Palace of Fine Arts. The rotunda and surrounding structures are visually stunning.

A great place to get some cool photos of the famous R2-D2 shaped building!

From the Palace of Fine Arts, it’s a 45-minute walk to the Golden Gate Bridge through Crissy Field, a former US Army air base. The paths and beaches along the waterfront are great to stroll along and take in views of San Francisco bay on clear days. Plus, closer to the bridge there are some great viewpoints, and a café at Torpedo Wharf where you can even pick up a crafty cold one 😉

Take one of several hiking trails up the hill for great vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge and its iconic red/orange painted towers are the cities’ top attraction and a symbol of San Francisco & the USA in general all over the world. 

Walking or cycling over the bridge and down into Sausalito is a great option for spending a few hours. There are ferries that will take you back to the city for around $12.00 that run hourly. If you have the time, you can also do what we did and hike some of the trails around Land’s End for more great views of the Golden Gate looking out at the Pacific Ocean. 

Head down into Golden Gate Park and check out some of the museums such as the California Academy of Sciences and their rainforest dome.

Or you can just relax and enjoy the quiet with your beer buddy 🙂

Tour Alcatraz island…

We could write a whole blog about Alcatraz just on its own (and we might). Alcatraz has earned itself the nickname of the ‘worlds most notorious prison’, and with former inmates like gangsters Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, its easy to see why.

Tours must be booked online at https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ and cost around £30 per person for a day tour and £36.50 for a night tour. Ferries leave from Pier 33 and the whole tour generally take around 3 hours.

The tour ticket includes an easy to follow audio guide which takes you around the cell house & the infamous solitary confinement cells in D-block as well as walking you past locations of escapes and prison riots. The audio tour guide is one of the best and most informative we’ve experienced so make sure you make good use of it!

Explore Fisherman’s Wharf…

Be prepared Fisherman’s Wharf is very touristy and in Nat’s opinion might not be for everyone, think of Blackpool on steroids! It’s still a fun way to spend a couple of hours and there is a lot to do here – plenty of seafood restaurants, souvenir stores, museums to check out and SF’s main attraction sea lions! Our personal picks are: 

  • Grabbing a sourdough bread bowl of Clam Chowder at Boudin Bakery.
  • Indulging your sweet tooth at Ghirardelli square, the home of world-famous Ghirardelli Chocolate.
  • Enjoying an Irish coffee from The Buena Vista.
  • Visiting Pier 39 to see the colony of sea lions that live on wooden decks next to the pier.

Cruise around the bay at sunset…

A sunset cruise around the bay is the perfect way to spend an evening. We went with Red and White Fleet California Sunset Cruises and paid around £50 each for our tickets which included food and 2 drinks on the boat, but there are also plenty of options on Get Your Guide and Airbnb which we would suggest looking into.

Hopefully you will have better weather than us! 🙁

Take a perfect postcard photo of the ‘Painted Ladies’…

These Victorian style houses on Alamo Square have been featured in an estimated 70 movies, TV shows (That’s so Raven 😉 ) and ads over the years and are one of the must snap photo spots in San Francisco.

Relax in Mission Dolores Park…

Dolores Park is a great place to chill and soak up authentic local San Fran vibes. Head down to the park on a weekend and you’ll find tourist and locals aplenty sunbathing, picnicking, playing sports, enjoying some beers or just hanging out with friends. 

Nat clinging onto the 90’s – Britney style 😉

Get lost in Chinatown…

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the USA and the most densely populated area of the country outside of Manhattan (if you’ve ever been to Manhattan, you know!). The main area for tourists is Grant Street, however Chinatown covers 24 city blocks so spend an afternoon just getting lost around its streets and alleys sampling all of the food and tea you can! Number 1 tip : follow the locals!

Drive, or watch cars wind their way down Lombard Street…

Lombard Street is one of the most famous roads in the world. It is mainly known for the one-way block on Russian Hill, where eight hairpin turns past beautiful Victorian mansions (some of the most expensive in the city) make this the worlds most crooked street. 

Driving down the switchbacks is on many tourist’s bucket lists so wait times to actually get onto the street can be up to 20 minutes, and there are plans in place to introduce a system where drivers need to reserve a time slot in advance to reduce the congestion. If you’re nervous about driving Lombard Street then don’t worry, there are stairs on either side with plenty of great photo spots. But be aware, you will be sharing your perfect Instagram shot with hundreds of other wannabe photographers so you may be competing for the best angles.

Ride around in a tram…

The San Francisco cable car system has been a part of the culture of the city since the late 1800’s and it is said to be the world’s last manually operated tram system. Only 3 of the original 23 lines remain in use today but most people recommend the Powell-Hyde line for the best views of Coit Tower, Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay.

Get 360 panoramas from Twin Peaks…

Many locals will tell you that the best views of the city are to be had from the top of Twin Peaks. The two summits rise almost 1000 feet above the sea level and give unobstructed 360-degree views over the entire city, as long as you don’t head up on a foggy day that is! The best way to visit Twin Peaks is by car as they are located away from the rest of the city, but you can also grab an Uber or hop on a city sightseeing bus, as some of the routes do drop off and pick up at the base of the hills. Remember to dress warm too, the weather up there can be unpredictable!

Eat at the Ferry Building…

One thing that San Fran definitely isn’t short of is foodie hotspots, and you will definitely find something that takes your fancy at the Ferry Building. As the name suggests this is the main terminal for commuter ferries all around San Francisco Bay but it is also the home of the Ferry Building Marketplace, a hub of food stores, bars and restaurants that are a food lovers delight. A variety of vendors serve up everything from artisan cheeses to burgers and tacos with some of the best Californian wines to go with it.

We ate at Mijita Cocina Mexicana and would recommend for all fellow taco lovers!

Soak in the views from Coit Tower…

You’ll find the 210-foot-tall concrete column of Coit Tower on the summit of Telegraph Hill which boasts stunning panoramas over the city and the bay. Skip the line and book your tickets in advance online for $9 per adult, $6 for teenagers (12-17) and $3 for children. We would have loved to head up the tower during our stay, but the weather was so bad that the view would have been totally obscured. So, naturally we decided to grab a couple of cold ones instead 😉 Speaking of which… 

Try all the craft beer you can…

San Francisco has a seriously diverse bar scene, with independent craft beer microbreweries and pubs all over town, there’s no shortage of cool places to enjoy a drink or two. We tried a load of great bars during our stay, but our personal favourites are; 

Black Sands Brewery – For an awesome beer in a modern setting, head into Lower Haight and treat yourselves to lunch at Black Sands Brewery. Not only do they have a great selection of home brewed beers but their fish tacos are also not to be missed! 

Southern Pacific Brewing – A little further out of town in Mission District is Southern Pacific Brewing’s impressive bar/restaurant/brewery. Situated in a former industrial unit, the bar is one of the best we visited in America featuring an upper mezzanine and outdoor patio, both perfect for those hot summer nights enjoying a cold one. Pair the California Blonde Ale with the Brass Hat Burger and you’re in for a good time!

The Detour (Brewcade) – Another cool spot in Lower Haight. Definitely one of the quirkier bars we checked out in SF and absolutely worth a visit! This bar pairs a quality beer list with classic arcade games such as Pac-Man, Mortal Kombatt and Super Mario, we had lots of competitive beer drinking fun here! Pick up your game tokens from the bar and away you go.

Mikeller – Grab a seat at the bar in this classy brick lined beer pub in central San Fran and work your way across as many of their 40 taps as you can. Make sure you head downstairs into the cellar, this is home to The Tivoli sour room, where you will find the best Lambic and sour beer selection in the entire city. You won’t regret it!

Woods Cervecería – At the north west corner of Dolores Park this small bar has a great ‘lounge in somebody’s house’ vibe. Relax with a cold one and an empanada (a cute Spanish pastry), pick a board game or playing cards up from one of the shelves and enjoy some downtime in the busy city.

To finish the most important tips we can give would be:

  • Bring a jacket! The weather is so unpredictable and the majority of the time it can be very windy, our visit was late May and it felt like November time 🙁 We were very unlucky with the weather for that time of year but still being prepared never hurt anyone!
  • Whatever budget you’ve made (unfortunately) double it!   San Francisco was the most expensive place Nat had ever been too and Joe said it was on par with New York prices, so make sure you’re also prepared to part with a lot of dollar during your stay.
  • You don’t need a hire car in SF!  If you’re planning on arriving into the States via San Francisco don’t plan to pick your car up until you’re ready to leave. Parking spaces around the city are rare and pricey, and like we said the transportation links are very good and probably the only thing in SF that’s fairly priced. Save that dollar for your first beer, trust us you’re going to need it!

San Francisco is one of the most diverse cities we’ve ever travelled to. It can be a bit daunting at times because there is so much to see and do that there’s no way you could cover everything in a single visit, so don’t worry! Narrow down the things you really want to do and get stuck in. There’s a lot we didn’t get around to so who knows, maybe we will head back to the bay one day!

Let us know if you have any questions about SF or if you have any other suggestions for our next trip 🙂 Watch this space too as we are finally getting around to writing more blog posts from our Californian road trip adventure, including “Things you need to know before your first road trip”, to provide you with some useful tips we know now that we definitely wish we’d known before!

Happy road trippin’ folks,

Joe & Nat 

xxx