Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you). This helps support and run my blog. I only recommend products I personally use and love. Thank you for your support.
Yosemite National Park is one of the oldest and most visited national parks. It’s home to majestic waterfalls, large granite rock formations, ancient Sequoias, and incredible hiking trails. It sees about 4 million visitors each year and is a must-do on your trip to California.
Yosemite has become a playground of sorts for climbers looking to conquer its world-famous summits but it should be on every adventure lover’s bucket list. It truly has something for everyone, including the inexperienced hiker. Continue reading to discover everything you need to know before visiting Yosemite National Park as well as the best things to do in my Yosemite 3 day itinerary.
About Yosemite National Park
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks“ – John Muir
In 1864 protections were put into place to preserve the Yosemite Valley and in 1890 the area became the nation’s third national park. Yosemite’s park status can largely be accredited to John Muir, a naturalist and writer. He campaigned Congress for wilderness conservation programs and stressed that if the land continued to be exploited then there would eventually be nothing left.
His writings, which have now been read by millions, described his adventures, the beauty of the valley, and the human relationship with nature. His activism not only helped preserve Yosemite but Sequoia and other large wilderness areas.
Yosemite National Park is located in California’s Sierra Mountains and covers 1,169 sq mi (3,029 km2). However, a very small portion of the park is actually explored by visitors. Most stay within its main attraction, Yosemite Valley. Much of the park, about 95%, is designated as wilderness. Yosemite is home to over 400 species of vertebrates that include birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. It has over 1000 species of plants and about 20% of all plant species native to California can be found within the park.
How to Get to Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is located in central California and can be reached by either plane, train, or bus. The preferred way is by plane and car rental. The roads are well maintained throughout the year, with the exception of the Tioga Pass. The Tioga Pass usually closes from November through late May or June due to snow and ice. Tire chains may also be required in the park during this time.
A car, however, isn’t absolutely necessary. Public Transportation from Fresno, Merced, Mammoth Lakes, and Sonora is available via Yosemite Area Regional Transit System (YARTS). YARTS is a fixed route transit system into Yosemite National Park that operates year-round from Merced and Fresno and during the summer months from Mammoth and Sonora. The buses or comfortable, air-conditioned, and fares include admission to Yosemite National Park. Fares can be purchased here.
It’s fairly easy to get to Yosemite National Park from any of its nearby airports. The closest airports to Yosemite National Park are Merced Regional Airport (MCE), Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH), and Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT). Merced Regional Airport is just a 2-hour drive to Yosemite Valley but you will need to connect at either Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or Oakland International (OAK) first. The Mammoth Yosemite Airport is a 2.5-hour drive but it only has access to the park when the Tioga Pass is open.
The Fresno-Yosemite Airport is the closest international airport and will most likely be your best option. It’s located about 65 mi (104 km) south of the park. The drive is about 1.5 hours to the park’s south entrance and about 2.5 hours to Yosemite Valley. Other nearby international airports include San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), and San Jose International Airport (SJC).
AMTRAK trains serve many of the surrounding cities and provide transportation to the Yosemite area. The San Joaquin train can be taken to Merced where the YARTS bus lines can then be taken directly to Yosemite Valley.
Greyhound does not offer direct bus service to Yosemite but it does service Merced. YARTS can be utilized from Merced to reach Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Road Trip
Yosemite can be a terrific road trip if you reside in California or a nearby state. The drive to Yosemite from Los Angeles is about 6 hours, from Las Vegas about 7 hours, and just 4 hours from San Francisco.
No matter what direction you are coming from, there are many amazing things to see along the way. Other nearby stops include Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Bodie State Historic Park and ghost town, and Wild Willy’s hot springs near Mammoth.
How to Get Around Yosemite
Getting around Yosemite is fairly easy. Most choose to drive the Yosemite Valley Loop but many of the park’s main sights are accessible by shuttle, bike, or hiking trail.
The easiest way to get around Yosemite is by car. If visiting during the winter months, be aware that chains may be required and roads may be closed. Many of the sites within Yosemite Valley are walkable from one another but you will likely want to drive to further away sights such as Glacier and Taft Point. There are beautiful hiking trails to these points from the Valley but they are lengthy.
All the roads within Yosemite are scenic and the famous Tioga Road is an incredible drive during the summer. The Yosemite Valley Loop includes many of the park’s most popular sights. The loop is one way, so plan accordingly. There is no way to backtrack and the loop can take some time to complete, especially during the park’s busier times.
Yosemite does have a shuttle system; however, it is not currently in operation (2021) due to COVID restrictions. During times of operation, there are two main shuttles that service the Yosemite Valley portion of the park.
The Yosemite Valley shuttle goes around eastern Yosemite and usually operates from 7 am to 10 pm. It stops at all lodges, major viewpoints, and stores. The El Capitan shuttle stops at El Capitan, Four Mile Trailhead, and the Valley Visitor Center. Its usual operation is from mid-June through early October from 9 am to 5 pm.
Other areas of the park can be accessed via the Tuolumne Meadows Shuttle, the Mariposa Grove Shuttle, and the Glacier Point Tour.
Another popular way to see Yosemite National Park is by bike. Yosemite Valley has over 12 mi (19 km) of paved bike paths. Bike rentals are available within Yosemite Valley at Curry Village, Yosemite Village, and Yosemite Valley Lodge. Rentals are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and cost $40 per day. This can become expensive, especially if you are in the park for more than a couple of days, so I recommend bringing your own bike or renting prior to your arrival in the park.
Yosemite National Park also operates a free bike-share program. The program is also first-come, first-serve and can be a great option if you are looking for quick transportation within the Valley. The Yosemite Bike Share App can be used to unlock a bike at one of the bike share stations located in the Yosemite Valley Parking Area or in Yosemite Village. The bikes can be used for short trips or up to 2 hours.
Best time to Visit Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is open year-round but many trails and roads close during the winter due to ice and snow. During the winter months, you may find the best deals on lodging but it can get very chilly. December through March has highs in the mid-40s and lows in the low 20s.
Everything is generally open from June through September. The best months to visit Yosemite National Park are May and September. All the trails and roads are open but the park is not overcrowded. May sees temperatures with highs in the mid-40s and lows in the 20s. September experiences highs in the mid-70s and lows in the mid-40s. Spring is a great time to see wildflowers and view the waterfalls, which tend to dry up during the summer months.
A summer visit to Yosemite can be enjoyable as well. Just keep in mind that summer is peak travel season and you can expect crowded parking lots and congested trails. The cost of lodging is high and campsites are extremely difficult to come by. Average summer temperatures can range from highs in the 90s to lows in the 50s.
The Perfect Yosemite 3 Day Itinerary
The following is what I consider to be the perfect Yosemite 3 day itinerary. All of the trails are categorized as easy or moderate and none of them require a permit. A beginner hiker should be able to complete all of them. If you are a more experienced hiker, you may want to wish to hike the Half Dome Trail. This hike will require you to secure a permit in advance.
Yosemite Day 1:
Hike to Sentinel Dome
Sentinel Dome is a granite dome that is known for the now fallen pine, Jeffrey Pine, that grew from its peak. The trailhead to Sentinel Dome is located off of Glacier Point Road.
The trail is 2.2 miles (3.5 km) round trip and is fairly easy up until the very last stretch which is up the dome itself. This last part is fairly steep. From the top, you’ll have views for miles. You’ll be able to see Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and the Merced River Valley.
Walk to Taft Point
Taft Point offers dramatic views of Yosemite Valley and El Capitan. It’s an easy hike with little elevation change and is one of the most popular viewpoints in Yosemite. The trail winds through the forest and ends with an overlook at the cliff’s edge.
Only a very small portion of the edge has guardrails so this may not be a great choice for small children. The hike is 2.2 miles (3.5 km) round trip and the trailhead can be accessed from the same parking area of Taft Point.
See the Ancient Trees in Mariposa Grove
Mariposa Grove is home to over 500 giant Sequoia trees, including the largest one in Yosemite Park. It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the southern portion of the park or entering/ departing from the South Gate. However, it is out of the way from many of Yosemite’s major sights and I don’t consider it an absolute must-do, especially if you plan on Visiting Sequoia National Park.
The area has four different loops to choose from. One trail is short and easy, another is moderate with some elevation gain, and the other two are more strenuous. I suggest the moderate Grizzly Giant Loop Trail. The trail is 4 mi (6.4 km) round trip and includes California Tunnel Tree as well as the park’s oldest Sequoia, Giant Grizzly Sequoia, which is 3,000 years old.
Enjoy Views from Glacier Point
Glacier Point is located at the end of Glacier Point Road and is one of Yosemite’s easiest trails. The trail is just one mile (1.6 km) round trip and is even wheelchair accessible. It’s one of Yosemite’s best overlooks with incredible views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.
The view is absolutely breathtaking and my photos do not do it justice. During my trip, I got caught in a downpour of rain mid-trail. A lightning storm also sparked a small fire in the forest so much my view was obstructed by dark clouds and smoke.
Yosemite Day 2:
This is the perfect day to rent a bike and explore Yosemite Valley. Many of the following sights are located along Northside Drive and Southside Drive. The two roads make up a one-way loop through the Valley.
It can be time-consuming to backtrack so please keep in mind the order of your stops. If driving, you may need to change the day’s itinerary based upon what gate you enter through. A bike will give you much more freedom and will likely save you some time.
Stop at Tunnel View
Tunnel View is Yosemite’s most photographed viewpoint and is the view that made photographer Ansel Adams famous. Most of the park’s major sights can be seen from Tunnel View, including Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall. It’s located at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel. Tunnel View is easily accessible and can be a quick stop. No walking is necessary to enjoy the view.
Photograph Bridalveil Fall
Bridalveil Fall is 620 ft (189 m) tall and flows year-round. However, spring is the best time to view it when its spray is the strongest. The trail to the falls is an easy 0.5 mi (0.8 km) roundtrip and should take just 20 minutes. As of July 2021, the trail to Bridalveil Fall is closed for a rehabilitation project. However, you can still pull over roadside and take some great photos.
Swim at Sentinel Beach
Sentinel Beach is the perfect place to cool off in the summer. It’s located on the Merced River and has sandy areas where you can spend some time relaxing (the water will most likely be too cold for swimming outside of the summer months). Go for a swim or bring a tube and have your own lazy river experience. You can pack a lunch to enjoy at the picnic area and then enjoy amazing views of Yosemite Falls from nearby Swinging Bridge.
Sentinel Meadow & Cook’s Meadow Loop
Sentinel Meadow and Cook’s Meadow Loop is an easy 2.25 miles (3.6 km) round trip. Cook’s Meadow is located between Yosemite Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge and Sentinel Meadow is located just west of the chapel. The loop winds through the two meadows and offers beautiful views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.
Visit Lower Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest waterfall, standing at 2,425 ft (739 m) above the Valley floor. Lower Yosemite Falls is its final 320 ft (98 m) drop. A visit to Lower Yosemite Falls is the perfect way to end your day. The trail is just one mile (1.6 km) round trip and will take about 30 minutes. Park at the Valley Visitor Center and follow the bike path to reach the trailhead.
Yosemite Day 3:
Hike Mist Trail
Start your morning by hiking one of Yosemite’s most popular trails, Mist Trail. Mist Trail goes to two of Yosemite’s incredible waterfalls, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. The hike to the top of Vernal Fall is 2.4 mi (3.9 km) roundtrip. If you continue going to Nevada Fall then it becomes 5.4 mi (8.7 km) round trip. The John Muir Trail via Clark Point connects to Mist Trail so if you wish to continue past Nevada Fall then it does loop back to the trailhead. This will add a couple more miles to your hike.
I completed the lower portion to Vernal Fall. The hike is a strenuous one with about 1000 ft (305 m) of elevation gain but is well worth it. There was plenty of flowing water, even during the summer, and the views from the top are stunning. The trail includes 600 steep granite stairs. Expect it to take about 3 hours and come prepared with a refillable water bottle. There’s a water station just after Vernal Fall Footbridge. The trail does get congested and it can get very hot, especially during the summer. I recommend arriving as early as possible.
Drive the Tioga Pass
If you’ve been able to complete everything on this itinerary, then I suggest spending the afternoon driving the scenic Tioga Road. Tioga Road, also know as State Route 120, is Yosemite’s highest road at just under 10,000 ft (3,048 m). Most of Yosemite’s visitors spend their time in the Valley and often overlook the Tioga Road area.
The area is remote, quiet, and the perfect way to escape a busy park. It has lakes, meadows, and even its own Sequoia grove. It is also your best chance to see wildlife. Make sure to include stops at Olmstead Point, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows. The drive is about 64 mi (103 km) long and will take about an hour and a half without stops. It does close from roughly October until May. There are no set dates and its opening is based upon weather/ice melt so check before you go.
Where to Stay in Yosemite
Reservations for Yosemite’s lodges and campsites can be made up to 366 days in advance. They do fill quickly so making a reservation well in advance is recommended. If your desired dates are sold out, there is private lodging available in the surrounding towns.
Camping in Yosemite
Yosemite National Park has thirteen campgrounds. Some require reservations and others are on a first-come, first-serve basis. First-come, first-serve sites fill very early in the morning. You’ll want to arrive at the park opening and have a backup plan in place during the busy season.
Upper and Lower Pines are both great choices for campgrounds. They are both close to Curry Village and Mist Trail. More information can be found at recreation.com.
Yosemite Lodging (In-Park)
Yosemite offers a range of lodging options within the park. These range from simple tent cabins to deluxe rooms at the park’s luxury lodge. Some of the best options for in-park lodging include:
Curry Village is the most popular choice for lodging inside the park. The experience is similar to camping but you aren’t totally roughing it. Curry Village has a variety of lodging options that include a motel, small cabins with a private bath, small cabins with a shared bath, and canvas-sided tents with a shared bath.
It’s located in Yosemite Valley and is convenient to most major sights. The property has a swimming pool, bike rentals, shuttle access (when in operation), dining options that include a coffee shop and a small bar, and an ice rink in the winter.
Yosemite Valley Lodge is a good choice for families or large groups. The large lodge has 245 rooms that include both traditional and family-size rooms. Rooms have standard amenities including a mini-fridge, hairdryer, and toiletries.
The property is within walking distance to Yosemite Falls and many other Valley sights. It has multiple dining options, a swimming pool, bike rentals, and is one of the few places in Yosemite National Park that gets some wifi.
The Ahwahnee is Yosemite’s luxury lodge. It’s known for its architecture, beautiful interior, and fantastic dining room. The property is registered as a National Historic Landmark and offers standard rooms, suites, and cottages. Some of the rooms even have waterfall views. It has a heated pool, bar, concierge, and wifi.
Private Lodging (Outside Park)
While lodging outside the park is easier to come by, be aware that the drive to and from the park can be long. It can take 1-2 hours to reach Yosemite Valley depending on location. Some great options are:
Tenaya Lodge is a beautiful resort located a little over an hour from Yosemite Valley. It’s located just two miles from Yosemite National Park’s South Gate and is close to Mariposa Grove. The main lodge offers standard and deluxe rooms and the property has private, detached cottages as well.
The lodge has four swimming pools, hot tubs, a spa, bike rentals, restaurants, and offers a variety of activities such as horseback riding. Tenaya also offers tours that guarantee entry to the park during times when a reservation is required.
Quality Inn Yosemite Valley Gateway
Quality Inn Yosemite Valley Gateway is a great option if you wish to stay in an actual town. It’s located in Mariposa and is about 1 hr 15 min from Yosemite Valley. The property is your basic budget hotel.
It’s clean, has standard amenities, and is within walking distance of the small town. The historic town has a handful of great dining options. I recommend 1850 Brewing Company for dinner and Sticks Coffee for a quick bite in the morning.
Yosemite National Park Fees
Yosemite National Park offers three types of passes that can normally be purchased at the gate or in advance. The passes are usually good for seven days. However, due to current COVID restrictions, things are operating somewhat differently.
Starting May 21, 2021, an advance reservation is required to enter the park. Reservations are good for three consecutive days and can be made through recreation.gov. Make sure to print or screenshot your reservation in advance since you will likely not have cell service upon arrival at the park. The available passes include:
- Vehicle: $35.00
Admits all passengers of a single, non-commercial vehicle with 15 or fewer passenger seats
- Motorcycle: $30.00
Per motorcycle for 7-days
- Individual: $20.00
Per person entering the gate on foot, bike, or horse
If you plan on visiting any other national parks within the next year, I suggest purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass. The pass is $80 and includes unlimited admission for a year to all National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management sites. If you visit at least three park sites then the pass is well worth it.
Other Tips for Visiting Yosemite
- Always practice proper food storage. Food left out in the open is an invitation to bears and other wildlife.
- Cell service is extremely limited. Download maps in advance and plan accordingly.
- Follow park speed limits to keep wildlife safe.
- Visit the top sights outside of peak hours (9 am to 5 pm).
- Reservations are currently required (2021) to enter the park.
Have you visited Yosemite? Is there something I should add to this Yosemite 3 day itinerary? I’d love to hear about your experience. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Interested in more of California’s national parks? Continue to my post, “The Perfect Weekend Guide to Joshua Tree,” to read about one of my favorite parks.
Planning a trip? Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance. I recommend World Nomads. For more of my travel favorites, click here.
Linda (LD Holland) says
We had only an afternoon at Yosemite. But 3 days would be great to really explore all the park has to offer. We would plan to book well in advance and stay in the park.
I feel like if you’re staying in the park then you can do a lot in just 2 days. It’s nice having some time to enjoy a hike or two though.
We visited Yosemite several years ago and had a wonderful time. 3 days is a good length of time to explore this park well. I remember visiting the giant Sequoia trees and the Bridel veil falls. This is such an awesome place that it is time for a second visit. Thanks for sharing. :-)
Yosemite is so, so high on my list! I would definitely love to visit in September or May like you recommend (when the weather is nice and it’s not too crowded.) And to hike Sentinel Dome! I love short but beautiful hikes!
May would be perfect! I definitely want to return in the spring and hopefully see more wildlife.
This is such a comprehensive guide.
I remember going on a family holiday to the US when I was 5. We took the road trip option from San Fran and pretty much just drove around the park. My parents were not hikers.
I’d love to go back as an adult and check out all the hikes you’ve mentioned.
It’s such a pretty park. I live in California and really don’t know what took me so long to visit.
Chelsea Messina says
I wish we would have had more time in Yosemite when we visited. The second picture you have – we took a picture in that field. But because of the wildfires, the mountains could barely be seen and the sky was a hazy orange color. It made for cool pictures, but the circumstances that made the setting were awful :( great guide!
We experienced a fire there as well…luckily it was small and rain helped put it out but we did have a day of very hazy skies.
I’d love to visit Yosemite! It looks so beautiful! The view from Sentinel Dome looks incredible! I’d love to explore the trails and waterfalls! Thanks for the great guide!
I have so many friends that have been to Yosemite and having seen their photos I really want to go at some point. It looks like you had a fantastic 3 days in the national park – some of those views are amazing!
I love this guide, and beautiful photos! I just can’t wait to visit Yosemite.
Yosemite is high on my list…so beautiful! This is the perfect three-day itinerary!
Your photos of Yosemite are stunning! It looks so beautiful. I can’t wait to visit.
We are ashamed to admit it , but we are SoCal locals and we have been planning our trip up to Yosemite for ages. We can’t wait to get up North to just relax and really explore nature and the falls :)
I feel ya. I live in San Diego and this was my first visit there. Way overdue…
These are stunning photos and such a comprehensive guide!
I visited Yosemite a few years ago but only had a day in park as we were staying in Mariposa
These photos really make me want to go back!
I actually stayed in Mariposa as well…it was such a drive every day. Next time I definitely want to book ahead and stay in Curry Village!