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