If you’ve never been to Yosemite National Park before, it can be hard to know where to start. It’s a big park with a lot to see. Most of the famous attractions you probably associate with Yosemite, such as El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, are in Yosemite Valley.
For a first-time trip, Yosemite Valley can’t be missed. It’s the best place to start to experience this awe-inspiring park. There’s also miles and miles of high-country worth seeing, too. It can be daunting to try to fit Yosemite into a quick trip, but it’s totally doable to have a fulfilling experience in just one day!
So, how do you spend a day in Yosemite?
- Arrive to Yosemite Valley (7:00 AM)
- Bus to Glacier Point (8:30 – 9:30 AM)
- Hike the Four Mile Trail down (9:30 AM – 12:30 PM)
- Return to Yosemite Village (12:30 – 1:30 PM)
- Drive through the high country on Highway 120 (1:30 – 3:00 PM)
- Check out Tuolumne Meadows (3:00 PM – 5:00 PM)
- Optional additional hiking at Tuolumne Meadows (+ 1 hour)
- Take the Tioga Pass down to Yosemite’s east side (5:00 – 5:30 PM)
What You Need to Know
You may have heard Four Mile Trail referred to as one of the hardest hikes in Yosemite just due to the elevation gain on its way up. You can cut out all of the uphill by taking the Glacier Point bus up to the top and hiking back down. You still get all of the amazing views, but you’ll slash your hiking time and the difficulty in half!
Yosemite’s concessionaire runs a bus to Glacier Point at 8:30 AM and 11:30 AM daily when the Glacier Point road is open. It’s $26 for a one-way ticket. Advanced reservations are highly recommended, as this bus does fill up during the peak season. You can call prior to your day of arrival to book tickets. For the sake of seeing as much as possible and hitting the trail early, you should go with the 8:30 AM option.
Keep in mind that this itinerary must be done in the summer months, when the Glacier Point road and the Tioga Pass are open. Generally, both will open after plowing has finished in mid-May and will close at the beginning of winter in October or November. Always check the conditions before you travel.
The Morning in Yosemite Valley
The first big attraction that you will see as you enter Yosemite Valley is the unmistakable El Capitan. You will be driving right past on your way into the valley. Take a stroll around the El Capitan meadow to stretch your legs after the long journey into Yosemite, but manage your time – there is still much to see!
Parking in Yosemite is a challenge. There are several day use parking lots, but they fill up extremely quickly. Arrive early to increase your chances of finding a parking spot. Remember that your bus leaves at 8:30, so plan accordingly.
Once you find a place to leave your car, the best way to get around the valley floor is using the free shuttle system. The shuttle runs from 7 AM to 10 PM daily and runs on a loop. Shuttle maps are available at any stop. You’ll be heading to stop #6.
If you’re hungry for breakfast, you can check out the newly-renovated food court in the Yosemite Lodge. They’re open early, serving traditional American breakfast food with a hiker-minded twist. This is a great way to fuel up before you set out on the trail.
After grabbing a bite, head over to the Lodge’s front desk building to pick up your bus tickets. The Tour and Activity Desk is located to the side of the hotel’s front desk. Grab your tickets here and exit to the tour loading area. Your bus will be picking you up directly in front. It leaves promptly at its departure time, so don’t wander too far.
Hop On The Glacier Point Bus
The Glacier Point bus isn’t just a way to get to the top. It’s actually a tour bus. Throughout your scenic drive up and out of the valley, your driver will be sharing many interesting facts about the landmarks you pass. Pay attention and you’ll learn some neat stuff about Yosemite’s history and ecology. It’s worth listening to (and you did pay for a tour, after all).
Once you reach the top, say goodbye to your bus driver and go check out the views. Glacier Point lends an iconic angle of Half Dome that you’ve probably seen in many pictures. It’s hard not to be struck by the expanse of Yosemite Valley stretching out beneath you. Take a long look, a few quick photos, and be on your way. It’s time to start your trek back down to the valley floor.
Four Mile Trail – Views of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Yosemite Falls
The modern day Four Mile Trail is technically just under five miles, having been rerouted and changed slightly since its completion in 1872. Making its way from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley (or vice versa, if you reverse the bus trip), it passes by viewpoints of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Yosemite Falls.
Prepare yourself for plenty of switchbacks and a steep descent. Going downhill makes this hike a lot easier, but it may be difficult for hikers with knee concerns. The trail has remnants of asphalt from an attempt to pave it back in the day, mixed with loose rock and sand. Pay attention to where you put your feet because it can be slippery.
The one-way hike should take you roughly 2-4 hours to complete. Don’t rush it – the views are worth stopping for occasionally to really take everything in. You will get to see an incredible full view of Yosemite Falls, including the upper fall, lower fall, and the middle cascades.
Once you make it back down to the valley floor, you can pick up the El Capitan shuttle at the trailhead. You will want to take it back to the Visitor Center, where it connects with the regular Yosemite Valley shuttle system.
There’s Still More to See – Tuolumne Meadows and Lembert Dome
You should be arriving back to Yosemite Village around lunchtime. The Lodge food court also serves lunch, you can hit up the Yosemite Village Grill, or the Meadow Grill in Curry Village (temporarily known as Half Dome Village). The Village Store also has plenty of grab-and-go options, as the closest thing to a real grocery store in the park.
Fuel up on food now, because it’s time to head out of Yosemite Valley and get a little taste for the rest of the park. Pack up your things, say goodbye to your coveted parking spot (it will most likely be taken within 30 seconds of your departure) and hit the road.
As you exit the valley, make sure that you follow the signs for Highway 120. Highway 120 climbs out of Yosemite Valley and eventually meets a crossroad at the Crane Flat gas station (quick tip – fill up here if you need to, because the next gas isn’t for another 56 miles). You will be heading east at this point, following signs for Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass. It’s roughly 40 miles to Tuolumne Meadows, your next stop.
The Tuolumne area is a sub-alpine meadow surrounded by granite domes. You’ll definitely want to get out and walk around. Parking here is a little easier than Yosemite Valley, but there are no large parking lots. Generally, you can park along the side of the road, or there’s also parking at the Tuolumne Store.
If you’re feeling up for another short hike, the trail to Lembert Dome is nearby. It’s a 2.8 mile round trip up the side of a small granite dome. This is one of the most popular hikes in the Tuolumne area due to its accessibility. It is a little steep and slippery, so if you’re tired from the Four Mile Trail, you can also just wander around the meadows.
Experiencing the East Side – Tioga Pass and Mono Lake
After you’ve taken in the peace of Tuolumne, hop back in the car for your final descent out of Yosemite’s high country. You will be exiting Yosemite National Park and entering into the Inyo National Forest as you head further east. Don’t be fooled driving past the park’s gates, however – the “east side” is a quintessential part of the Yosemite experience.
The highway climbs up another 1,000 feet or so to an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet before it winds its way down the side of cliffs lining a canyon below. It’s the highest paved road in California’s highway system. Known as Tioga Pass, this part of the drive may stir a fear of heights in you, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s an absolutely beautiful and unique place.
As you make your way down, you’ll be surrounded by tall peaks and alpine lakes. On the horizon, you’ll catch a glimpse of Mono Lake, a special salt lake at the base of the Sierra. If you have another day to spend in the area, it’s worth checking out Mono Lake’s surreal South Tufa. It’s an amazing sunrise spot and only takes an hour or so to experience. The Mono Lake Committee runs a fantastic information center about this area down in the town of Lee Vining that I highly recommend checking out. It’s open until 9 PM in the summer months.
Dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli
By now, it’ll be dinner time. Right off of Highway 120 is the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil. They’re open until 9 PM and serve gourmet food (don’t miss out on the world-famous fish tacos) with amazing views of the Sierra Crest and Mono Lake. Grab a meal, sit down, relax and reflect on the day – and maybe start planning a second Yosemite trip.
Related Content: Is Hiking Half Dome Dangerous?