The Ultimate Yosemite Road Trip

Yosemite-Road-Trip-Valley-Waterfall-El-Capitan

Yosemite National Park Road Trip

Yosemite is arguably the most iconic of all the National Parks in America. John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Alex Honnold have solidified its fame into every generation since the Gold Rush. So how do you get to explore it? Road Trip! Read on to ignite your wanderlust and plan your ultimate road trip to Yosemite National Park. 

Yosemite National Park is an incredible library of the Sierra’s greatest hits. From Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan to Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. This beauty of a park has attracted nature lovers, adventure seekers, and anyone that just wants to be a part of something magnificent. 

If that sounds like a crazy good road trip destination, read on to get your itinerary in order for this part of the Ultimate California Road Trip. 

Essentials

  • The famous Firefall at Horsetail Falls occurs in mid to late February for a few minutes just before sunset. See the NPS page on Horesetail Falls to plan your shot of this rare phenomenon.
  • Winter weather causes some roads to be closed from November to May; Other roads may require snow chains
  • Waterfalls are water dependent; many stop flowing by late summer
  • There are bears in the park; plan accordingly when camping or backpacking
  • For camping inside the park, see details at the official NPS website.

Why Take a Road Trip to Yosemite National Park?

Things to see

  • Waterfalls
  • Giant Sequoias
  • Yosemite Valley
  • Half Dome
  • El Capitan

Things to do

  • Photography
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Backpacking
  • Rock Climbing

How to Explore Yosemite National Park

With so much to offer, it may seem overwhelming to plan your visit to Yosemite. Unless you decide to move there, you can’t do it all in one trip. 

But never fear, below we have outlined some of the highlights as well as a sample itinerary. 

Quick Summary

If you don’t want to read all of the details and just want a suggestion for the perfect itinerary, look no further. Here is the quick guide to visiting Yosemite:

 Yosemite Road Trip Itinerary 

Of course, you can go as long as you want. But here are the best ways to spend between 1 or 2 days in the park. 

Don’t miss our guide for road trips to Yosemite from nearby cities and other parks. In the meantime, here are the top things to do when you get there.

One Day in Yosemite

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    Ok, this is the toughest choice. Since you only have one day to spend in the park, you know you will have to make sacrifices. But once you’re inside the park, you realize you can’t go wrong no matter what you choose to do.

    Start early and pack your lunch. How you approach the park depends on which direction you’re coming from. 

    From San Francisco:

    Spend the morning in the Yosemite Valley. Stop by the visitor center to get acquainted with the park and take a hike or two. 

    In the afternoon, head toward Glacier Point. Stop at the breathtaking Tunnel View and don’t miss the Mariposa Grove, home to 3,000 year old Giant Grizzly. 

    Finally, watch the sunset at Glacier Point before heading back to San Francisco. If coming from Los Angeles, start at Glacier Point and Mariposa Grove in the morning and finish the day in Yosemite Valley before heading back.

    • Yosemite Falls
    • Tunnel View
    • Mariposa Grove
    • Glacier Point (Beware, the road closes in the winter and will be closed in 2022 for repairs;Hiking will be the only way to see it via one of 3 strenuous trails)

    2 Days in Yosemite

    If you have two days in Yosemite you have a better chance of seeing more of the sights without feeling like you missed something. 

    Take the 1 day itinerary and divide it in two. Spend the first day in Yosemite Valley. This will allow you time to explore more hikes and vistas. Try Pohono trail for a great overview of the valley.

     Find your way to El Capitan meadow. Then take a short hike to Mirror Lake. Or dip your toes in the Merced River. 

    • Stay the night at one of the park’s campgrounds. Or splurge and stay at the Yosemite Valley Lodge.
    • Get up early and spend the morning on the trails. Then spend the whole afternoon among the Giant Sequoias in Tuolumne and Mariposa Groves.
    • Finish off the day with a final peak at Taft Viewpoint or Glacier Point.

    Did you know?

    The famous Sequoia Giant Grizzly is nearly 3,000 years old? And at 209 feet is the 25th largest tree in the world? 

    WHERE TO STAY ON A YOSEMITE ROAD TRIP

    If you are going to stay for more than a day (which I highly recommend) you will need accommodations. 

    Whether you prefer sleeping outside with sparse amenities or inside with the most luxurious options, Yosemite has you covered. 

    YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK CAMPING

    There are 13 campgrounds in the park itself. While a few of them are first-come, first-serve, most of them require reservations 5 months in advance. They fill up quickly, so follow the guidelines on the Yosemite National Park website.

    Better yet, download the Yosemite app on ios or android.

    Backpacking/ Wilderness Camping in Yosemite

    Ok, this may be the best option if you’re up for it. Follow the footsteps of John Muir and US presidents that have spent time roughing it in this amazing park.

    The Outbound has 12 different trail descriptions. As you will see Yosemite spoils you with choices. 

    Note: Be sure to check trail conditions and closures. For the latest, see the Yosemite Backpacking Information Page

    Rules for backcountry camping

    As always, be respectful of nature. Practice leave no trace. Be prepared for wildlife including bear. Make sure you keep your food protected and always cook away from where you sleep. For more information see the NPS guide to backpacking in Yosemite. 

    Free Camping Near Yosemite

    Oftentimes National Park campgrounds fill up fast. But even if you aren’t able to make a reservation, there are still options.

    While you may sacrifice some of the amenities and conveniences of a park campsite, there are free options. 

    Here are 5 free campsites near Yosemite.

    Lodging in Yosemite

    So, here’s the best part. There are so many options for lodging. From lodging in one of Yosemite’s lodges to a vacation rental, you will find something suitable for whatever size group you may be traveling with.

    We always recommend combining a trip with some camping and some creature comforts. 

    Glamping Near Yosemite

    So, this may be the best combination of luxury and the outdoors. Here are 8 glamorous options for glamping near Yosemite.

    How to get to Yosemite National Park

    Getting to Yosemite is half of the fun. Any road trip in California has so much to offer. Chances are, you are flying into one of the major airports in California or Nevada. 

    Below are some logistics to plan your getaway.

    Closest Airports to Yosemite

    • Fresno Yosemite Airport 129 miles (2-½ hours)
    • San Francisco Airport 169 miles (3 hours)
    • Reno-Tahoe International Airport 224 miles (4-½ hours)
    • Los Angeles International Airport 345 miles (6 hours)
    • McCarren Airport, Las Vegas 513 miles (8 hours)

    Flying Into San Francisco

    San Francisco is probably the most viable option. It’s reasonably close to the park and will generally have more flights available. 

    The best choice is to rent a car and drive. This allows the freedom to stop and enjoy the trip. Alternatively you can rent an RV and make a nice long road trip out of it.

    WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO TO X

    Weather/tourist chart

    Yosemite in Spring

    Pros: More rain means the waterfalls are running at capacity.

    Cons: Not all roads are open at higher elevations. 

    Yosemite in Summer

    Pros: All roads and trails are generally open.

    Cons: Naturally the park is the most crowded

    Yosemite in Fall

    Pros: The cooler weather makes hiking much more enjoyable.

    Cons: Lower rainfall leads to dry waterfalls and high fire risks.

    Yosemite in Winter

    Pros: Beautiful scenery with the lowest crowds

    Cons: Many of the higher elevations are inaccessible due to road closures

    GEAR UP!

    No matter which season you choose to go, make sure you have the gear and clothes you need. 

    US Outdoor is an excellent choice for camping and backpacking.

    Yosemite: HOW MANY DAYS SHOULD YOU SPEND?

    While it’s certainly possible to explore the park in a day or two, spend at least 3 days. You can hit all of the highlights and still have time to see some of the hidden gems most tourists miss on a short trip.

    ARE YOU READY FOR YOUR YOSEMITE ROAD TRIP?

    So, hopefully this overview got you primed for your next Yosemite Road Trip. We will be breaking down some of the best hikes, camping, and lodging in future posts. 

    If you have been to Yosemite, what is your one recommendation that everyone must do on this road trip? Leave a comment below.

    Box: In a Nutshell

    Best time to go: Late Spring – waterfalls and alpine flowers make for some amazing photos.

    What to do: Hike at least one of the trails overlooking Yosemite Valley.

    How to get there: Fly into San Francisco and drive.

    How many days: 3 days. Just enough time to see the highlights without feeling rushed.

    Where to stay: Camp in the park, stay at one of the lodges, or vacation rental.

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