Arriving in Yosemite to huge mountains and towering cliffs, is surely one of the most humbling and awe-inspiring experiences. Everything seems larger than life - and it leaves one wondering how such a place exists at all, let alone just a few hours drive from San Francisco. Read on for a two-day guide to Yosemite National Park.
We visited Yosemite as part of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip and only had two and a half days in Yosemite itself (story of my life), so we really had to maximise on our time and plan wisely, deciding what we most wanted to see and do. Due to the short amount of time, we spent most of it in Yosemite Valley itself (and not the surrounding park).
Hotels get booked up well in advance and there are only two hotels/lodges in Yosemite Valley itself:
1) The Ahwahnee (luxurious 4-star hotel)
2) Yosemite Valley Lodge (3-star and more reasonably priced)
The Ahwahnee was a teensy bit out of our budget - and Yosemite Valley Lodge was all booked up (we went in August, so things get very busy, duh). We decided on Yosemite View Lodge - a 3-star hotel/lodge outside the Valley, lying just beside the Merced River. This was perfect for our needs and only a half hour drive from Yosemite Valley. The hotel has a convenience store as well, which was helpful for stocking up on basic food.
Upper Yosmite Falls Hike
Any trip to Yosemite is incomplete without a hike or two - so make sure to add one to your guide to Yosemite National Park! We wanted to do one proper hike in Yosemite and this seemed like a good option; it's less busy than other hikes (due to its crazy intensity), you get up-close to Yosemite Falls and it also offers magnificent panoramic views of the Valley. But do NOT underestimate this hike! It's a real killer, with an elevation of nearly 800 metres and 135 switchbacks to the summit - and it's about 11 kilometres to the top. In total, the hike took us 8.5 hours up and down (with a break for lunch at the summit). My level of fitness is good but this hike is one of the hardest I've ever done. So be prepared for a very intense day but the sensational views make it well worth it.
We left our hotel early the first morning to ensure a good parking spot and no traffic. We drove into Yosemite Valley and parked near the start of the hiking trail (on the road near to Camp 4), or you can take the free shuttle to Yosemite Valley Lodge and disembark at stop #7. Make sure to follow the signs to the Upper Yosemite Falls trail (NOT the Lower Falls trail as this is a completely separate trail and they don't connect).
After following the signs, we started the hike and were already out of breath about 20 minutes in! We took it slow and walked sensibly, stopping regularly for water breaks and photos. Despite starting the hike at 9am, the sun was already beating down and it was incredibly hot. I'd suggest taking a water bladder with, as this means you can drink on the go from the tube provided and not have to stop to get your bottle out. And please please take at least 2 litres of water with you! There isn't anywhere along the hike where you can fill up on water, and you will find yourself parched, especially in the height of summer.
You'll reach a glorious closeup view of Upper Yosemite Falls after a couple hours of hiking. By August, the waterfall had already slowed down but in the earlier summer months, the falls are super powerful. Some people only hike to this part of the Falls (Columbia Rock) and then turn back. But if you have the stamina I'd suggest carrying on as it is such a unique experience.
The switchbacks I mentioned earlier start after the view of the Falls, and this is where the hike gets really tough. It will test your physical and mental endurance, as you navigate sand and rocks and a seemingly never-ending path. But once you reach the top (a few hours later), you will be well-rewarded with insane views and an amazing feeling of accomplishment!
Once you've reached the top, there is a short trail and some scary staircases with great views over the top of the Falls. If you're not good with heights though, give this part a miss, as you'll be walking down some very exposed steps with only a railing on one side to hold onto.
You can hike further to Yosemite Point but we were hot and bothered and our muscles ached. We decided if we wanted to be able to use our legs the next day, we probably shouldn't go any further. So we began the descent, which was just as hard and the only thing that kept us going was promises of chocolate and chewy sweets. The way down was relentless and when we did finally reach the bottom, we sank to the ground and just lay down taking deep breaths 🥱 In summary: definitely do the hike but just be warned, it's not for the faint of heart.
After that very intense hike, we crawled back to our car and nipped off to the famed Tunnel View. It is an absolute must-see and deserves a spot on any guide to Yosemite National Park. Tunnel View feels a bit like you're looking at a photo, with Yosemite Valley framed before you - and you get to see all the big guns: El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall and more. And the best bit about it? No walking involved! 👏🏻 There are spaces to park your car right there (although it does get quite crowded) and it's just a few seconds stroll to the viewpoint.
As if we hadn't done enough that day, we then raced outside the Valley to Glacier Point in time to catch a glorious sunset. The view from Glacier Point is truly breathtaking and with the sun behind us, we watched as the last light of the day hit Half Dome. The turnout was strong and we sat with a couple hundred other people (and tripods - lots and lots of tripods; mine included) just gazing as night descended on the vastness that is Yosemite Valley. It is one of the most magical sights I have seen and worthy of a spot in any guide to Yosemite National Park.
My fellow tripod users were staying for a spot of stargazing; Glacier Point is known for being a spectacular place for this. But after the energetic day we had had, and with the long drive ahead of us, we decided to head back to our accommodation for dinner and bed.
We had to take things down a notch on the second day, after the intense hike the previous day. So we kept things more ground-level and headed to the bottom of Yosemite Falls to basically view what we had climbed the day before (and also see the rest of the Fall which we couldn't see from the top of Upper Yosemite Falls). It was quite amazing to see it from the bottom, knowing we had summitted it! This Falls and section of the park is particularly famous and often comes up top in any guide to Yosemite National Park. The Falls itself is nearly 740 metres tall, with three tiers to it - and you can reach Lower Fall from shuttle stop #6. We drove and parked nearby, and it was a pleasant short walk to the Falls. We even did a bit of rock scrambling to get closer to the water and dip our toes in.
We only had time to do one more thing in Yosemite, before we had to head off and continue our Pacific Coast Highway road trip, so we decided to head to Mirror Lake (we took the shuttle - partly because we wanted to take advantage of the free Yosemite shuttle but also because we wanted to avoid traffic in our car and not have to look for another parking spot). We boarded the shuttle at stop #6 and disembarked at stop #17, then walked the half hour over Tenaya Creek Bridge to Mirror Lake. The views were really lovely and just what we needed to finish off our Yosemite trip.
I would recommend using the free shuttle to get around Yosemite. You can just hop off at the stops that you want to see, and then hop back on the next shuttle and carry on your way. You can find more info here and plan your route in advance.
If you have more time: I would have liked to have seen another sunset - maybe Sentinel Dome or Taft Point. And it would have been nice to explore Tioga Road. No complaints though, just some notes for next time.
I hope you've enjoyed reading this guide to Yosemite National Park - and that it's given you a small insight into the massiveness that is Yosemite. Good luck planning your trip and let me know any questions/comments in the space below.