A Yosemite travel guide for first-timers

Updated: Jun 14, 2019


Yosemite Valley at sunset

Yosemite National Park is perfect for families, hikers and photographers, with plenty of options for everyone. It’s one of the most beautiful national parks in the USA year-round, and the best sights are highly accessible. There are world-famous trails throughout the park that offer endless views and photo ops, ranging from easy, paved trails to the famous Half Dome summit. Being centrally located in California, Yosemite is a great long-weekend destination for most CA residents, and is just as pretty in summer as it is in winter. In all, Yosemite is pretty much the best place ever, and you need to go immediately.

So, here is a quick breakdown of what any first-timer should know before visiting Yosemite.

Important websites:

Official website with current conditions, alerts, and trail closures

Live web cams throughout the park

Location:

300 miles and 6 hours from LA

200 miles and 4 hours from SF

When to go: Year round! The only time of year I’d consider not ideal is the few weeks between the fall colors and winter snow, when trees are barren and foliage is brown--around late November to mid December. Peak season is summer, so lodging prices and park traffic goes up... like, really up. If crowds are a big deterrent, consider that when planning your trip.

Fall (September to October) - Much of the park is covered in evergreens, so from above there’s not much fall color to see. But down in the valley there are plenty of trees turning bright orange and gold. Beware of fire season air pollution or closures, as this can be the driest time of year.

Winter (late December to February) - Yosemite is pure magic in winter. Seeing it blanketed in snow with the pink granite glowing at sunset is my favorite way to see the park. The main road down to the valley is plowed and accessible, although chains may be required. Glacier Point Road is closed, so you can only access Glacier Point by trail.

Spring (April to June) - The valley floor explodes in bright green as the vibrance of the meadows and trees return. Weather is mild and cool. As summer gets closer and the snowpack melts, the waterfalls dial up to full force. There’s still plenty of snow in higher elevations, so bring crampons if you’re hiking.

Summer (June to August) - The wildflowers are in full swing, and it's the best time for hiking! The valley floor is lush and weather is mostly sunny and warm. Glacier Point is accessible by end of spring, and snow is mostly gone at all elevations--perfect time for summiting Half Dome.

Where to stay:

There are several options based on your budget and needs.

Camp in the park ($) - Whether it's in the campgrounds or in the backcountry (wilderness permits are free), this puts you in the middle of the action. Read more here at the NPS page.

Rent an Airbnb ($$) - This means staying outside the park gates, but there are a lot of cute mountain homes that can make your trip extra mountain-y. I've found it's usually cheaper than a hotel and has more space and privacy.

Get a hotel ($$$) - Most of the reasonably priced hotels will be located in Oakhurst about 25 minutes south of the park gates.

Get a fancy hotel in the park ($$$$) - There are a few options for hotels in the park, but if you want to stay somewhere extra special, the Magestic Yosemite Hotel or Tenaya Lodge are popular choices.

Amount of time required:

The best sights can be seen in a full day, but a visit can easily stretch up to a week. If you want to hike several trails, allow one day per trail since they’re mostly several-hour routes. Also know that from the park entrance to the valley or Glacier Point, is a winding, 35-mile, single lane road that takes about an hour to complete. If you’re driving into the park each day, plan that trek into your itinerary.

Favorite sights:

There are some incredible points of interest that are as easy to access as they are beautiful.

Tunnel View - Before you descend into the valley, stop here for the best view of the park. Sunrise and sunset is spectacular here, and especially sunset when the pink hue of the dimming sun famously paints the tips of Half Dome and El Capitan.

Bridal Veil Falls - You have a great view of this massive waterfall from Tunnel View, which sits to the right of the valley. It’s the first waterfall you pass on your right. You park along the side of the road, and it’s a short walk to the base of the falls.

Valley Floor Loop Trails - While you can park anywhere along the road and find a trail, I like to start at the central Sentinel Beach. There’s a bathroom and small parking lot, and from here you can find a handful of paved and unpaved trails that take you around the meadows and across a bridge over the Merced River. There are some incredible views of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome at every turn. Lots of deer roam throughout the valley.

Yosemite Falls - This is the 2nd major waterfall you’ll see to the left of the Tunnel View lookout. There is a pretty little trail that takes you around the foot of the falls that’s paved and has a restroom. There is a trailhead here that takes you to the lower and upper falls lookouts as well, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Glacier Point - This view rivals the Tunnel View, taking you to a much higher vantage directly across from Half Dome and the expansive backcountry. From Wawona Rd. before the Tunnel, take Glacier Point Road 17 miles up the mountain (about 40 min) to a parking lot at the end (there's also restrooms here). This is an absolute must-see, with very easy, paved trails offering expansive mountain-top views with major wow factor.

Top hikes:

Doing a hike in Yosemite is a must. Even if you aren't experienced or have a young family, there are short and easy trails for hikers of all ages and skills. Also, see the provided AllTrails.com links for a thorough summary and map of each trail (I reco to download the app and bookmark each trail in the app to have a reliable map when offline).

Yosemite Falls (Upper, Lower) [AllTrails]- This is an ass-kicker. A straight-up trail of wide-set stairs and steep inclines that take you to the top of the lower and upper falls. At just 3 miles to the very top, the elevation gain is a whopping 3,100 feet. So bring LOTS of water and enjoy the awesome valley views.

Vernal Falls & Nevada Falls [AllTrails]- This is a moderately strenuous 9-mile out and back trail that takes you past Vernal Falls with a terminus at the top of Nevada Falls. Incredible views and manageable for hikers of most levels.

Sentinel Dome [AllTrails]- Short trail with incredible payoff of 360 degree views of the park. At just over 2 miles roundtrip, this moderate hike takes you to the top of Sentinel Dome adjacent to Half Dome. The trailhead is off Glacier Point Road, and is shared with the equally short and impressive Taft Point trail.

Taft Point [AllTrails]- You’ve probably seen photos of this terminus, a lookout atop a massive cliff hanging over the valley. It’s famous for sunset views and easy for hikers of all levels.

Half Dome [AllTrails]- Requiring 12+ hours and covering almost 16 miles roundtrip, this strenuous hike is certainly the most famous trail in the park and one of the most famous in the USA. You need a permit, which is obtained via a competitive process--50 passes awarded daily (first come, first serve) and 225 awarded in a “pre-season” lottery each March. The cables that line the back of the dome are only up June through September, with higher likelihood for a permit on weekdays, especially later in August.

Additional notes:

  • There is one gas station in the park, in Wawona halfway to the Valley.

  • There is a large market in the valley called Half Dome Grocery, and it has a massive offering of food, camping gear and souvenirs - they even have GT’s kombucha :)

  • Summer in the park is INSANE with congestion on roads and trails. While it may take 15 minutes to circle the valley floor, in peak conditions it could take an hour. There is often no parking on weekends in summer which can result in required shuttle access only, so check the official NPS site for alerts beforehand.

Yosemite never disappoints. Regardless of how long you're visiting, if it's for adventure or leisure, during summer or winter, it is always a good time to visit.

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