One Amazing Day In Yosemite: Itinerary and Tips You Need To Know

Is this your first time going to Yosemite and you only have one day to explore? Waterfalls and valley views are the highlight for a quick day trip to Yosemite, and I’ll show you just how to plan your route.

We’re obsessed with Yosemite, and we even visited 3 times within the year we moved to California. After trying various combinations of things to do in one day, this is my recommended itinerary for first-time visitors to Yosemite in the warmer months (May to November). If you’re visiting in December to April, check out this winter itinerary.

Most of the popular viewpoints in Yosemite can be accessed via shuttle or by car, making it easy to get around. I hope you enjoy hiking because I’ve also included two short but amazing hikes that will give you the true essence of Yosemite within a short time.

Get your cameras ready, and let’s start our perfect day in Yosemite! Spoiler alert – it includes my favorite sunset photography spot, Sentinel Dome.

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Yosemite high Sierra sunset

Overview of this one day Yosemite itinerary

I have packed in as many activities as I think is doable in a day trip to Yosemite, considering the long daylight hours in summer. Don’t feel like you need to cover all these places too, because it’s most important to enjoy the experience in Yosemite even if it means doing less.

You can choose which viewpoints or hikes to prioritize based on what appeals to you. For me, that would be to hike the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls Footbridge and going to Sentinel Dome for sunset. I’ll also include some guidance on how long you might spend in each place to help you plan better.

Although this itinerary aims to help first-time visitors make the most of a day trip, here are additional activity ideas for repeat visitors:

  • Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
  • Tuolumne Meadow via Tioga Pass
  • Longer day hikes – e.g. Upper Falls Trail, Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and more
  • Camping in Yosemite Valley

How many hours should you plan to spend in Yosemite?

Since summer is known to be the busiest time of the year, I suggest getting to Yosemite by 8:30am. If that means leaving San Francisco at 4:30am, I think it’s worth it.

Thankfully, you get long daylight hours up to around 8:30pm too, and I’d encourage you to make full use of it if you’re only going to be there for a day.

Cook's Meadow Loop in Yosemite

Can you see Yosemite by car?

Technically, yes you can see Yosemite by car. However, going in summer means that parking in Yosemite Valley is limited due to the crowd. It’s a hassle trying to find parking throughout the day, so cycling or taking the free park shuttle is best. You’ll only be driving again when you’re ready to drive up to Glacier Point Road.

In addition, there are no gas stations in the valley, so do make sure to get gas outside the park. The ones close to Yosemite tend to be more expensive, such as in El Portal, Wawona, and Crane Flat.

How to plan a route in Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley is a small but incredibly scenic part of the National Park, and is where most people go when they’re visiting for the first time. There, you can look up around you and be face to face with huge granite cliffs.

One thing you should know is that the road within Yosemite Valley follows a one-way anti-clockwise direction. Since we’re trying to optimize our day in Yosemite, we’ll quickly park at one of these spots and start our exploration the valley.

  • Curry Village
  • Yosemite Village
  • Yosemite Valley Lodge
  • Other roadside parking (if available)

We’ve also allocated time to drive up to Glacier Point Road from the valley. If you’re visiting during shoulder season, make sure to check on the latest road conditions here.

1. Hike Mist Trail to Vernal Falls Footbridge

As you drive into the valley, the stunning El Capitan shows up to welcome you. If you look closely, you might even see some climbers on the rock. Feel free to stop by the roadside at El Capitan Meadow to admire it.

Let’s start our day with one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite, Mist Trail. It features the Merced River and two waterfalls – Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. Since we’re only here for a one day trip, we’ll just hike to the Vernal Falls Footbridge to get a taste of the incredible scenery.

It takes roughly 1.5 hours to hike the 1.6 miles (2.6 km) round trip with 400 ft (120m) of elevation gain. Take your time here as the trail is mostly uphill all the way to the footbridge. Overall, it is a moderate trail that most people can do. You can also bring hiking poles to help with going downhill.

  • Nearest shuttle stop: #16
  • Starting point: Mist Trail head
  • Restrooms: Available at Curry Village, Mist Trail head, and Vernal Falls Footbridge
  • Time to spend here: 2 to 2.5 hours

Yosemite Chapel

2. Lunch at Base Camp Eatery (plus other suggestions)

Location: 3 miles from Mist Trail head, take shuttle from stop #16 to #7

Head to Base Camp Eatery at Yosemite Valley Lodge, which has crispy chicken, sandwiches and burgers. There’s also a Starbucks beside it, which is really convenient for your afternoon coffee fix.

Another place we’ve tried is Degnan’s Kitchen in Yosemite Village and get their hearty sandwiches in a cosy wooden-aesthetic restaurant. There’s a fireplace there that’s perfect for colder days, or you can dine outside too. Why not pop by the Village Store while you’re here and browse for some souvenirs too.

Here’s a list of the dining options in Yosemite so you can pick whichever is most convenient:

Yosemite Village – shuttle stops #1/2/4/5

  • Degnan’s Kitchen
  • Village Grill

Curry Village – shuttle stops #14/19

  • Seven Tents Pavilion
  • Bar 1899
  • Pizza Deck
  • Meadow Grill

Yosemite Valley Lodge – shuttle stop #7

  • Base Camp Eatery
  • Mountain Room Restaurant

The Ahwahnee hotel – shuttle stop #3

  • Bar
  • Dining room

Lower Yosemite Falls

3. Check out Lower Yosemite Falls

Location: 0.3 mile (7 min walk) from Base Camp Eatery

After lunch, we’ll take a walk to Lower Yosemite Falls, which is one of the 3 parts of the famous Yosemite Falls.

As you walk along the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, you’ll see both Upper and Lower Falls in the distance. This takes you to the base of the waterfall, where you’ll see water gushing down during summer. You could also scramble over the rocks to get to the base of Lower Falls.

If you’re visiting in early fall, note that the waterfalls might not be as impressive. That’s also why summer is the most crowded time of year, because everyone wants to see the waterfall in its full force and when the weather is warm.

The path is quite easy and relaxing, only 1 mile (1.6 km) along a flat trail. Going through this trail takes around 30 minutes, but you could always spend more time here if you prefer a more leisurely pace.

  • Nearest shuttle stop: #6
  • Starting point: Lower Yosemite Fall Trailhead
  • Restrooms: Yosemite Falls Bathroom
  • Time to spend here: 30 min to 1 hour

Cook's Meadow in Yosemite - summer wildflowers

4. Take a walk in Cook’s Meadow Loop

Location: 0.5 mile (9 min walk) from Lower Yosemite Fall Vista Point

After completing the Lower Yosemite Falls loop, head towards Sentinel/Cook’s Meadow Loop on Google Maps. This takes you on an anti-clockwise loop that ends at Cook’s Meadow Loop Trailhead. It is also a short and easy trail, covering 1 mile (1.6 km) along a flat route.

This is one of the easiest walks, yet with the most stunning and varied views. As you loop around the meadow, you’ll experience the vastness of the surrounding landscape. Try to identify Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Sentinel Rock, and more.

There’s a boardwalk leading from Yosemite Falls Vantage Point back to Cook’s Meadow Loop Trailhead, which has Yosemite Falls in the background. Don’t forget to snap a shot here!

  • Nearest shuttle stop: #6
  • Starting point: Sentinel/Cook’s Meadow Loop
  • Restrooms: Yosemite Falls Bathroom
  • Time to spend here: 20 to 45 minutes

5. See Yosemite Chapel via Superintendent’s and Sentinel Bridges

Location: Extra 0.6 mile detour (12 min walk) across the Merced River from Cook’s Meadow

If you have more time, you can also extend the Cook’s Meadow Loop trail by crossing over the Superintendent Bridge, which leads to Yosemite Chapel, then crossing back via Sentinel Bridge.

  • Nearest shuttle stop: #1/6
  • Starting point: Superintendent’s Bridge
  • Restrooms: Yosemite Falls Bathroom
  • Time to spend here: 15 to 30 minutes

6. Feel the mist under Bridalveil Fall

Location: 6.1 miles (14 min drive) from Yosemite Village

We’ve pretty much seen the best things we can fit into a day at Yosemite Valley, so let’s make our way up to Glacier Point. Before that, you can also stop at Bridalveil Fall as it is on the way out of the valley. It usually has decent flow even when other waterfalls like Yosemite Falls dries up.

To get to the base of Bridalveil Fall, you’ll take a short paved walk from the parking area. The total round trip distance is only 0.5 mile (0.8 km), and is mostly flat. Eventually, you’ll feel the refreshing mist from the waterfall on your skin as you admire it from below.

There tends to be traffic congestion in this parking lot because it’s not big, so I would just skip this trail and view the Bridalveil Fall from Tunnel View instead.

  • Parking: Bridalveil Fall Parking Area
  • Restrooms: Available at parking area
  • Time to spend here: 30 to 45 minutes

Posing at Tunnel View in Yosemite

7. Admire the scenery at Tunnel View

Location: 1.6 miles (4 min drive) from Bridalveil Fall

Tunnel View is one of the most iconic and must-see viewpoints in Yosemite. If you’re entering by the South Entrance, Tunnel View is the first sight you’ll see once you exit the tunnel. However, if you came in through Arch Rock or Big Oak Flat Road Entrance, this would be your first time seeing the iconic Tunnel View.

The parking lot is small, but people tend to stop for only a short while here. I recommend waiting around to get a parking spot because the view is worth it! In summer, Tunnel View showcases El Capitan and Bridalveil Waterfall in the foreground, as well as Half Dome peeking out from the background.

In case the view looks familiar, that’s because this view of Yosemite Valley was used for a Mac OS default wallpaper. If you decide to end the day here, it’s also a great spot for sunset.

  • Parking: Tunnel View parking
  • Restrooms: None
  • Time to spend here: 15 minutes

Washburn point on Glacier point road

8. Drive up Glacier Point Road to Washburn Point

Location: 22.7 miles (1 hr drive) from Tunnel View

Buckle up, because we’re going to drive up Glacier Point Road to the cliffs that overlook Yosemite Valley.

People often fail to realize that Glacier Point is actually not “near” Yosemite Valley, even if it looks like they’re just next to each other on Google Maps. Technically they are really side by side – just with a 3,200 ft difference in elevation. Hence, Glacier Point Road is only open during the warmer months after the snow clears.

You can visit both Glacier Point and Washburn Point depending on how much time you have. I felt that Washburn Point felt less crowded and I enjoyed having space to take photos freely. It’s almost like a quieter version of Glacier Point. In addition, there’s a short walk required to get to Glacier Point, whereas Washburn Point was just a lookout.

  • Parking: Washburn Point parking
  • Restrooms: None (nearest at Glacier Point parking)
  • Time to spend here: 10 minutes

Sunset in Sentinel dome

9. Hike to Sentinel Dome for sunset

Location: 1.6 miles (10 min drive) from Washburn Point

Now for the cherry on top of your Yosemite trip. I love this recommendation because not many people have done it, and if you’re willing to make a short hike out it will be really rewarding.

The hike to Sentinel Dome takes 1.5 to 2 hours as a round trip, covering 0.9 miles (1.5 km) each way and gaining 400 ft (125 m) in elevation. However, we will take a longer time than that since we want to watch the sunset at the top.

Similar to all other parts of Yosemite in summer, parking can be hard to come by so I recommend arriving at the parking lot 2 hours before sunset. That way, you’ll have ample time to make the hike to Sentinel Dome after waiting for parking.

At the top of Sentinel Dome, you’ll get a 360-degree panoramic view of the High Sierras. You can actually walk across the top of Sentinel Dome to check out different viewing angles. For example, you’ll see the orange hues of the sunset hit the side of Half Dome, providing perfect lighting for photography.

You can find more information about how to navigate and plan for a Sentinel Dome sunset photography hike in my other article. Isn’t it the perfect way to end your Yosemite trip?

  • Parking and restrooms: Sentinel Dome/Taft Point Trailhead
  • Time to spend here: 2.5 hours

Driving into Yosemite

Things to know before you go to Yosemite

Now, I probably gave you a lot of ideas of ways to maximize your day trip to Yosemite. Remember that you can always remove some activities if you need more time to relax. Besides, you could always come back to Yosemite again in future.

Which entrance to Yosemite is best?

During May to November, the best entrance depends on where you’re driving from. Here’s what I recommend when you’re driving into Yosemite Valley from various parts of California.

Los Angeles (Southern California)

San Francisco (Northern California)

Central Coast (e.g. Big Sur and Monterey)

If you’re looking for a place to stay in or around Yosemite, you’ll want to check out this article.

Wearing a hiking backpack in Yosemite

Things to bring

Whether you’re going to Yosemite for a casual stroll, to hike or even camp, this packing list will give you some ideas of things you should bring.

To make the most of your adventure, it’s essential to come prepared. Here’s a checklist to ensure you have everything you need.

Hiking essentials and comfort items

  • Hiking boots or shoes: Comfortable and supportive footwear is a must so you’ll have the best experience. Waterproof boots can be useful for muddy trails.
  • Hiking day pack: It should have enough space to store snacks, water, and any extra clothing. Here are some affordable hiking backpacks below $100 to consider.
  • Water: Stay hydrated, especially during warmer months. Water reservoirs with up to 3-litre capacity are useful for longer hikes. In general, bring at least 0.5 litres for every hour of hiking.
  • Map and navigation: Having a map adds an extra layer of security. Offline Google Maps also helps.
  • Snacks: Pack energy-boosting snacks to keep you fueled throughout the hike. These could be energy bars, nuts, or some sweets.
  • Sunscreen and cap: Protect yourself from the sun, especially during the open sections of the trail.
  • Layered clothing: For example, bring a fleece sweater and wear a sweat-wicking base layer. Rain jackets can also act as a windbreaker.
  • Camera
  • Phone tripod: If you’re hiking alone, having a phone tripod is great for filming shots of yourself.
  • Trekking poles: Provide extra stability on uneven terrain and downhill sections.

Summer crowd and parking tips

Yosemite’s summer traffic can get really intense – which is probably why the permit reservation system got implemented starting in 2024.

Nonetheless, I recommend arriving in Yosemite earlier to secure parking. After that, leave your car at the same spot for the whole day and get around by walking or taking the free park shuttle.

Sometimes the shuttles are so full that you need to wait for the next one, so that’s another thing you need to be flexible about.

Bear safety

There are black bears in Yosemite National Park, so don’t be surprised if you see them out and about. However, you do need to be aware of how to store your food and scented items appropriately because the bears are highly sensitive to them. They are even strong enough to break into cars.

In addition, bear spray is illegal in Yosemite, so you just need to understand why and be aware of what to do in an unexpected bear encounter. I have this article here that might help you.

Do I need a reservation to enter Yosemite National Park?

You might need to make reservations to enter Yosemite National Park if you don’t have a campsite or accommodations inside the park.

Each vehicle will need to make payment for a $2 non-refundable reservation online via the official booking system in order to enter the park between 5am to 4pm. Even if you’re just driving through the park, you will still need a reservation to get through to the Sierras.

This applies for the following dates in 2024, according to NPS:

  • April 13 to June 30 (weekends)
  • July 1 to August 16 (daily)
  • August 17 to Oct 27 (weekends)
Source: NPS

When can reservations be made?

The reservation slots are released on January 5, 2024 at 8am, and will be available until they sell out. There will be additional reservation slots released 7 days before each day as well, so better suit those who are making last-minute plans.

Firefall reservations for Yosemite in February

This is in addition to the usual Firefall reservations in February, though the concept is similar. During the second half of the month, reservations are required for 24 hours of entry into Yosemite.

  • February 10 to 25 (weekends)
  • February 19 – Washington’s Birthday

Conclusion – making the best use of one day in Yosemite

A day trip to Yosemite offers a glimpse into the park’s stunning beauty, even if don’t get to see it all. Hopefully this itinerary helps you to experience the park’s top highlights, including waterfalls and iconic valley views. If you’re planning a multi-day California road trip, including Yosemite is definitely the right choice.

Remember to adjust this itinerary based on the daylight hours you have and keep things flexible. If you’re feeling spoiled for choice and want to extend your Yosemite trip, here’s my recommended itinerary for 2 days.

Janice, a California-based travel writer from Singapore, discovered her love for hiking and camping during her studies in Los Angeles. Through her blog, she now shares detailed itineraries for adventures in California, Asia, and beyond. She also talks about gear recommendations and tips for beginners, hoping to inspire them to explore the great outdoors with confidence.

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