Yosemite National Park is known for its incredible natural beauty, giant sequoia trees, iconic vistas, gushing waterfalls, green meadows and the towering granite giants of El Capitan and Half Dome cliffs. Set within California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range a day exploring Yosemite was our next stop after Monterey Bay. A visit that I’d been looking forward to since we first started planning our US road trip. Yosemite is a place that needs to be seen first-hand to be truly appreciated. Soak up nature’s glory, breathe deep the pine-scented air and feel very small amid the grandeur of Yosemite’s great outdoors.
How to see the best of Yosemite in one day
Of course, just one day is nowhere near long enough to explore almost 1200 square miles of Yosemite National Park, in fact it only scratches the surface, but it was that or nothing so we spent our time wisely and took one of the ranger-led tours. The Yosemite Valley Floor Tour is a two-hour tour and although the valley is only a small part of the park there are some spectacular views during its 26-mile route. It’s the perfect tour if you don’t have much time or if it’s your first visit and want to get your bearings before exploring Yosemite in depth. Here are my tips for visiting Yosemite in just one day together with some of my favourite Yosemite pictures.
Best Time to Visit Yosemite
Yosemite is one of the most visited national parks in America and is open 365 days a year welcoming over 3.7m tourists annually. Summer is peak season meaning Yosemite will be heaving with visitors from late May to early September. We were savvy and waited until 18th September when the kids were back to school and the crowds had died down at bit – although at this time of year the waterfalls, as well as the crowds, have dwindled. The best time to visit for the falls is late April and early May when the water’s roaring and the weather is fair. During the winter any snowfall means that many roads are impassable.
Exploring Yosemite Valley
As we were visiting in September our ranger tour of Yosemite Valley departed in an open-top tram – perfect for getting some fabulous views and photos of Half Dome and El Capitan. In autumn and winter, a heated coach is used. We booked at the visitor centre in the valley and paid $25 each which goes towards the upkeep of the park. You can also book online or by phone.
Our guide was Kate Kinsella who been a ranger for two years and ‘loves nothing better than cruising backwards predicting scenery’ (she sat facing us at the front of the tram). Kate kept an ongoing commentary throughout peppered with fascinating facts about the history of the park, the geology of the rock formations and the wildlife within the park.
I was captivated throughout the tour both by the commentary and the views. We passed beneath towering monoliths of pale granite and journeyed alongside sparkling streams under the shade of thousand-year-old trees. We stopped at many of the breathtaking viewpoints en-route for photos.
The scale of El Capitan was quite incredible. To give you an idea you can just see a climber, wearing blue, in the right-hand shot to the right of the two small shadows. Look closely at the full picture and you can see the larger shadow right in the centre of the rock face. Puts things into perspective doesn’t it! Climbers have been scaling El Capitan since 1958 – the fastest ascent so far was 2 hours, 23 minutes and 26 seconds. I was happy just to gaze up at it.
After you’ve taken the tour you can choose to take another one-hour tour up to Glacier Point – a perfect sunset vantage point. If the water’s flowing check out the waterfalls – Bridalveil falls were a mere trickle when we were here but are quite stunning during Spring. You can stop off at Bridalveil falls on arrival after entering from the south or west gates. Mariposa Grove is packed with Giant Sequoia Trees – this was closed when we were there for maintenance work but there are two other groves of majestic Sequoia trees in the valley. All of this should fill your day at Yosemite nicely and with time for lunch.
Where to stay when visiting Yosemite
If you plan to stay in Yosemite park itself you’ll need to book months ahead. We decided to stay nearby in Oakhurst and we had no trouble booking rooms at Comfort Inn over the phone the day before. Basic but roomy and with everything we needed. To get to Yosemite from Oakhurst we took Highway 41 to the South Gate. The drive to Tunnel View took just over an hour and then another half an hour to the valley floor itself. Check out accommodation in Oakhurst and Yosemite.
Bears in Yosemite
If you camp within the park you’ll need to be ‘Bear Aware’ – do not bring food with you unless you remember to store it in one of the bear-safe lockers located around the site. The bears have an excellent sense of smell and will sniff out the smallest morsel. Even the rubbish has to be locked away in bear-safe bins for your own safety and that of the bears. The bears break into around 100 cars every year in their search for a bite to eat.
Getting around Yosemite
On arrival head for the visitor centre where there’s plenty of day-long parking. From here it’s a short walk to the centre where there are free shuttle buses which you can hop on and off to get around Yosemite Valley. Other buses go to Tuolumne Meadows or Glacier Point. Here’s the Yosemite Valley Shuttle Bus Route Map which includes the extended El Capitan loop, available June through September or download the complete Yosemite park map.
Well, that’s just scratching the surface of what to see in Yosemite in a day but if that’s all the time you’ve got you can still see many of the awesome sights. I hope you’ve found some useful tips to get the most out of your day. Have you visited? Share your tips for visiting Yosemite in the comments below…
Next stop on our road trip was Lone Pine and crossing Death Valley with temperatures going up to 106 degrees. From there we visited Las Vegas, Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon West Rim. We got our Route 66 kicks and kitsch in Seligman and hunted for vortexes on our final stop in Sedona
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Suzanne Jones is creator, writer and photographer at The Travelbunny. When she’s not indulging her wanderlust you’ll most likely find her enjoying coastal walks in her home county of East Sussex, UK.
Suzanne co-writes Sussex Bloggers which showcases the best of East & West Sussex.