Tips for Visiting Yosemite National Park in One Day

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“Among them are killers.”

This is what the first Caucasians to visit Yosemite Valley were told upon descending into the granite valley in 1851. Except the Sierra Miwok phrase actually came out “yohhe'meti,” and was referring to the Ahwahneechee people who were populating the valley at the time.

The name, however violent, stuck.

Today, Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national parks in America, playing host to 3.7 million tourists per year. Landscape lovers come to Yosemite for its steep granite cliffs and domes — and serious rock climbers come for the same reason.

Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park

I've been to a good number of national parks and monuments by now, and Yosemite is definitely one of the most awe-inspiring I've seen.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

But what if you have only one day to explore the best of Yosemite?

It's certainly not ideal, but it's exactly the situation I found myself in on my first visit to this beautiful park. Here's everything you need to know about visiting Yosemite in one day.

When to visit Yosemite

Yosemite is open to visitors year-round, however heavy snowfall in the winter often means that many of the roads through the park are closed during the snowy months. High season is generally from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and, while the weather is warm and all the roads are open during the summer, these months are also the busiest.

If you can, do what I did — visit just before or after high season. I visited in early May, just after all the roads had reopened, but before all the park tours and shuttles started operating. It worked out perfectly, since a lower-than-usual amount of snowfall meant that I visited during the peak water flow for all of Yosemite's waterfalls.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Falls

If you have to visit during the summer, be sure to get into the park as early as possible to get a jump on the crowds.

What to see in Yosemite in one day

Yosemite is a huge park — it covers a total of 761,268 acres of forest and mountain. Most visitors focus on Yosemite Valley, which makes the park seem a bit more manageable.

Yosemite Valley

Start your visit with a Ranger-led tour of the Valley. These 2-hour tours will set you back $25, but at least you know your money will be going back into the park. The tours are extremely educational, and the open-topped tram you ride in is perfect for taking photos of the Valley's famous rock formations like the Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan.

Yosemite National Park

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park
El Capitan

Our guide, Ranger Brian, shared all sorts of trivia with us about the park as we stopped at breathtaking viewpoints and rode through sun-dappled forest. He told us about how Galen Clark first “discovered” the Giant Sequoias in Yosemite, and championed protecting the park back in the 1850s. Thanks to Clark's efforts, Abraham Lincoln signed an Act of Congress in 1864 that protected Yosemite and turned it over to the State of California.

Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

It's amazing to think that, in the middle of the Civil War, this one corner of the wilderness was deemed special enough to warrant protecting. Yosemite may not have been the first national park in the world (that designation goes to Yellowstone), but it was the first bit of land set aside exclusively for recreation.

Valley View, Yosemite National Park

And, for the record, John Muir, father of national parks, loved Yosemite just as much as Yellowstone.

Yosemite Falls

You'll see these Falls on your tour of the Valley, but be sure to take some time to get up close on your own. You can easily hike to the bottom of Lower Yosemite Falls in 10 minutes — well worth a detour.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

Glacier Point

During high season, tours go to other parts of the park besides the Valley. When I visited, however, nothing else was offered. So my friends and I asked Ranger Brian what else he suggested we do with our day. He told us to either go up to Tuolumne Meadows, or drive up to Glacier Point.

We chose the latter, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Yes, it's a long, twisty drive up the mountain (it takes roughly an hour from the Valley Floor), but it is SO worth it.

Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park

Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park

From Glacier Point, you get a fantastic view of Half Dome, as well as of Nevada Falls and the Valley Floor far, far below.

Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park

Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park
Nevada Falls

Mariposa Grove

Even though many people associate Yosemite with Half Dome and Tunnel View, there's one other part of the park that is a must-see: Mariposa Grove.

Mariposa Grove

Another hour's drive from Glacier Point, Mariposa Grove is home to a large number of ancient Giant Sequoia trees. While you can do a tram tour here, too, in the summer, my suggestion is to just go it on your own and hike among these giants at your own pace.

Marvel at how big around these trees are, and be fascinated by the fact that their sap actually acts as a natural fire-repellant.

Mariposa Grove

If you're pressed for time, some of the coolest trees can be reached within half an hour or 45 minutes on the trail.

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park

What to bring

For a day trip to Yosemite in the warmer months, be sure to wear sunscreen, bring plenty of water (you will be at higher elevation, remember!), and wear layers. The Valley floor can be chilly in the morning, but can heat up quickly in the afternoon. And don't forget the good walking shoes!

Some of my favorite gear for a day trip like this includes:

Yosemite National Park

Where to stay in Yosemite

If you're planning to stay overnight in the park, be aware that you'll need to make reservations for a campsite, heated tent, or hotel room months in advance, regardless of the time of year that you'll be visiting.

A better bet is probably to book accommodation NEAR the park – like in Mariposa, Wawona, El Portal, Yosemite West, or Fish Camp. Some very well-reviewed hotels include:

Compare Yosemite hotel prices here.

Half Dome, Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park

If you decide to camp within the park, do NOT bring food with you if you think you might forget to put it in a bear-safe container. While there are no grizzlies to worry about (they've been extinct in California for decades), black bears are a real concern and have excellent noses.

Book your Yosemite accommodation:



Booking.com

How to get around Yosemite

Once you're in the park — especially if it's during high season — park your car in a lot near the Visitor Center, and hop on the free Yosemite shuttles that traverse the Valley Floor and beyond. This is definitely the most stress-free way to get around the Valley Floor.

Yosemite National Park

The best Yosemite day tours

Are you interested in visiting Yosemite but don't have a car? There are day trips you can take from nearby towns, or even from San Francisco! Here are some of the best Yosemite day trips:

Now, I'm definitely not suggesting to only spend one day in Yosemite. There are tons of great hikes to tackle, and plenty of nature to enjoy beyond just the must-see sights. But, if one day is all you have, hopefully this post has given you an idea of what you can accomplish.

If you want to see more photos from this amazing park, check out my Yosemite photo essay.

Useful guides:

Have you ever visited Yosemite National Park? If not, is it one your list?

 

Yosemite National Park in one day

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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52 Comments on “Tips for Visiting Yosemite National Park in One Day

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  1. Thanks for sharing this post! It was extremely helpful. I’m a full time house sitter with a long term sit in Walnut Creek coming up. I’ll only get to take a couple of day trips to Yosemite, but I’m SUPER excited. Your pics are wonderful!

    Hi! I loved reading your post. I am planning on taking a rock climbing trip in March to Bishop for the weekend, however, it is a lot cheaper to fly out on Tuesday night so I was thinking of spending all of Monday exploring Yosemite because it is top of my bucket list! Any suggestions on what time to start there to have time to see a lot of stuff on your own or would you suggest doing the tour instead? I would like to get in as much as I can.

      The Ranger-led tours don’t last that long, so you could pair one with doing your own thing if you want to learn more about Yosemite. Either way, you really need a car to see all the good bits in one day – and I recommend starting as early as possible because it’s a very popular park!

    This place looks stunning! For the tour, were y’all able to stop and take pictures or how did that go? I want to go there so bad but I have no idea where to go and if i can drive my car and wondering if theres any parking areas along the different places.

      The tour is only of the valley, and I think we did make one or two dedicated photo stops at popular lookouts. Many of the other photos in this post were taken as we were driving around on our own and stopping wherever we wanted. It has been about 6 years, though – I have a feeling it’s much more crowded these days than when I went, so I’m not sure what the parking situation is like anymore! (But there is definitely still parking at the popular lookouts and trailheads. And, as with most national parks, you can pick up a good map on the way in!)

        Awesome! Thank you so much for the info. 🙂

    Thank you for your detailed one day trip, I recently went over there, but now I think, I should have read your post before going one day trip, as I missed Glacier Point and Guided tour. Any way I am planning to revisit, next summer and stay over there(Getting an accommodation inside park not easy, unless we book couple of months in advance), this info really helps …

      Well hopefully you can use these tips next time! 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your photos and suggestions! We love Yosemite and are finally getting to take our 12 year old son next week! The last time we were in Yosemite, it was New Years Eve. We rented a beautiful cabin from a man who was obviously a skilled rock climber (many beautiful photos in the cabin, and even a small rock climbing wall inside). It was absolutely beautiful in the snow! Enjoy your adventures and keep sharing your insight with us.

      How fun! I hope he enjoys it as much as it sounds like you have!

    For the guided tour, do you purchase tickets to that in advance or at Yosemite? I can’t wait to go and thank you for this post… I’ve been yearning to go for a day trip since I live in San Francisco and need to unplug!

      We just purchased tickets when we got there! It’s a long day trip from San Francisco, but worth it anyway!

    This blog really helped me have the most incredible trip to Yosemite. Usually i would avoid the likes of trolley tours but i took your advice and it did not disappoint one bit! Thanks so much for all the information.

      That’s so great to hear, Alana! I’m happy my tips helped you have a great trip!

    Great article with such excellent content, Amanda! I would have to say that one of the very best day trips is to go on a Tioga Road trip. You really get to see a great deal of the park and you’re able to do it entirely in your own time. Yosemite National Park has some exquisite sights, I really think everyone should visit it and see as much as they can if they have the chance!

      I definitely need to get back to Yosemite and some point and spend more than just a day there!

    I haven’t been there yet, but am planning to go in in late May. Your post was very helpful and inspirational 🙂

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