According to National Geographic, Yosemite National Park is the 6th most visited US National Park, with over 4 Million visitors in 2018. And US News | Travel ranks it the #1 best national park in the world! You might even still have the view of El Capitan on the macOS screen embedded in your memory forever, because there are not many other sightings you’ll see in your lifetime that can beat that! Well, although extremely popular, Yosemite Village is actually quite small. The commercialization of the park is very limited to allow the ecosystems to thrive in the valley. I mean, if we had wide roads and many hotels populating the place, Yosemite wouldn’t be Yosemite anymore.
Here’s everything you need to know when visiting Yosemite National Park for two days!
Disclaimer: My experience in Yosemite precedes the pandemic and this travel guide is not inclusive of visiting the national park during COVID-19 travel restrictions. Please visit the US National Parks Service site for further guidelines on how you can visit Yosemite during this time.
How to Get There
When visiting any national park, it’s recommended to drive in with your own vehicle because it’s the best way to experience the sites. But you can check out other means of getting to and from the park (e.g. bus and train) here! The park passes are for a seven-day or annual period only, so the longer you get to stay, the better! For non-commercial vehicles, you’re looking at $35US which is actually quite reasonable for a week-long park fee! But guess what? The annual pass to Yosemite is $70US for 12 months from the date of purchase. Want something even better? The annual pass for ALL national parks and federal recreational lands (America the Beautiful) is only $80US! Might as well get this one if you see yourself visiting more than two US parks in the span of one year. Check out your other park pass options!
Arriving From International Airports
Yosemite is a decent distance from any international airport because, well, how many nature reserves do you know that are near any commercial patch of land? Fresno Yosemite (FAT) is the closest one to the national park if you’re planning your trip around Yosemite. However, there are a number of other international airports in the Bay Area you can fly into and drive from to get to the park!
- Fresno Yosemite (FAT), 65 miles, 1.5 hours to park entrance via CA-41
- Sacramento (SMF), 155 miles, 3 hours to park entrance via CA-120
- Oakland (OAK), 150 miles, 3.25 hours to park entrance via CA-120
- San Francisco (SFO), 170 miles, 3.75 hours to park entrance via CA-120
- Norman Y. Mineta San Jose (SJC), 183 miles, 3.75 hours to park entrance via CA-41
Driving in from the south/west is the most common way to get to Yosemite and you have three entrance stations:
- Big Oak Flat Entrance on Highway 120
- Arch Rock Entrance on Highway 140
- South Entrance on Highway 41
Driving from the east from Lee Vining and Mono Lake, there is one entrance: the Tioga Pass Entrance on Highway 120. Be aware that Tioga Pass is closed in the winter, historically between November and May/June, so this might not be a viable option for you! It was still closed when we were there in late June 2019 (opened on July 1st), so we weren’t able to drive through here on our way out of the park. It’s near impossible to predict when the road will be ready to be open, but you can keep yourself updated on their opening/closure dates here.
There is one, more secluded, entrance from the north that grants access to and from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and that would be the Hetch Hetchy Entrance.
All five entrances are unique and tourist attractions in and of themselves. If you have time in your itinerary to check them all out, definitely do so! Here’s more info on the sites and activities you’ll get to see and do!
When to Visit
Yosemite National Park is known to many. As we saw before, it’s in the top 10 most visited parks in all of the US! And the Yosemite Village is incredibly small – the entire park limit is only 1,169 mile2, can you believe?! This means that travelling here during peak season might make your visit a tad difficult. BUT if you ARE planning a visit June-August, do not fret! We were there the last weekend of June, Friday to Sunday, and though it was hectic, it was still unbelievably spectacular and manageable!
To make life a little easier on yourself, visiting Yosemite in the shoulder months, i.e. May and September, will alleviate some of the worry of crowds and high pricing on accommodations. One of the advantages of a Californian national park is the extended summer weather, and peak waterfall season ranges from April to June! But no matter what month you decide to travel to Yosemite, you’ll have an abundance of pros and very few cons to list off.
One thing to note is that there are certain road closures during the winter from November to May/June due to snowfall, so be weary of this when you book your trip, as some notable viewpoints might only be accessible by foot in the winter!
Need to know: cellphone service is next to zilch in the park so prepare for being disconnected from the world and enjoy it! As such, you’ll need to plan ahead and make sure you have what you need (screenshots of itineraries, etc.) prior to heading for Yosemite. Getting hard copy maps from the Visitor Centre and talking to the park guides will help you get around the valley. Some accommodations will provide wifi for a fee but don’t depend on it: the internet connections are not reliable!
Where to Stay
One of the best tips or lessons learned I can give you is: BOOK YOUR STAY INSIDE THE PARK! When we booked our trip – which was a few months in advance, by the way – we could only manage to get a hotel room all the way in Incline, a good 40+ minute drive from the centre of Yosemite Valley. My biggest suggestion to you, if you prefer to stay in a hotel or Airbnb, is to book at least six months prior. Aim for Yosemite Valley and if that’s all booked up, work your way outwards towards Yosemite West.
There are very limited accommodations in Yosemite National Park (with only two options in the Valley: The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Valley Lodge), so if you’re planning to show up during peak season, try to make your reservations way in advance. The rates will be higher the more central you are, but low competition for accommodations in the area push the rates up even on the outside of the park limits. You might as well try to save yourself the time and gas getting in and out of the park each day!
Camping is one of the most traditional methods of staying in Yosemite. Though during 2020 due to COVID-19 health guidelines the showers are not available, in normal circumstances they are only present in Yosemite Valley at Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp. For a list of campgrounds, further camping regulations and to make a reservation, click here!
Getting Around Yosemite
There are only two visitor parking lots in the village and weekends will notably be the toughest to guarantee a spot for your vehicle. Tip for you: try to arrive early around 8am (9am the latest), do your activities/hikes for which the trailheads are in the valley, and visit the further viewpoints/hike trailheads in the off-hours.
When driving in the valley, the road is a one-way, two-laner. Going east is the Southside Drive and the road crosses over the Merced River at three different locations to change course to Northside Drive going west:
- El Capitan Drive at Cathedral Beach Picnic Area
- Sentinel Drive at the visitor parking lots, near the Visitor Centre in Yosemite Village
- the end of Southside Drive at Curry Village
There’s usually a lot of traffic on weekends so as I mentioned before, aim to drive into the valley early in the morning!
Though you could walk the Yosemite Loop Trail just fine in a day, use the public transportation to your advantage! The Yosemite Valley Shuttle runs 7am to 10pm daily and stops every 20-30 minutes at all major, vistapoints, trailheads, stores/eateries and overnight stays in the valley. And it’s completely FREE! Hop on/hop off anywhere and anytime you like to alleviate the effort to get to your different destinations and be able to leave your car at the parking lot for as long as you need in the day. Learn more about the other shuttles, operating dates & times and much more on Yosemite’s public transportation!
Another way of getting around is by using the bike paths. Fortunately, there are bike rental shops in the valley: Yosemite Valley Lodge Bike Rental and Curry Village Bike Rental. Using a bike would be super advantageous if you don’t want to wait in line for the bus, want to stop at any location and not have to worry about the 20-30 minute wait for the shuttle!
Okay! Now that you know how to get to Yosemite, where to book your overnight accommodations, and how to get around the valley, let’s dive into some of the major bucket list items of the national park with your two-day itinerary!
Driving into Yosemite National Park might be an utter mess on a Friday afternoon, and finding parking could be an impossible mission (we know from experience!). So my one suggestion – again, because I gotta repeat this! – is to avoid rush hour times and try arriving to the park entrance either at the start of the day or at the tail end and enjoy some sunset views before your night in. For the purpose of getting the most out of your two days, let’s give you a heads start!
7am – Tunnel View
The two most iconic, must-visit lookouts in the park that are accessible by car are Tunnel View and Glacier Point. These two locations were definite “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments! To make your first-time experiences all the more worthwhile would be to catch a beautiful sunrise over the valley from these too vistas. Arriving before sunrise is prime time for photographers so you’ll catch the view that even the professionals are seeking. For day 1, make the drive up Wawona Road (Highway 41) till you reach Wawona Tunnel and enjoy your first breathtaking sight of Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall.
7:30am – Bridalveil Fall
Driving back east towards Yosemite Valley, you’ll spot the parking lot for Bridalveil Fall on your right prior to where Wawona Road merges onto Southside Drive. Park here for a short walk across Bridalveil Creek to the base of the 620-ft waterfall you spotted at the top of Tunnel View. Be cautious stepping on the boulders as they do get wet and slippery! The mist might from the fall be very strong and could drench you in water during peak waterfall months.
8am – El Capitan Meadow
As you continue driving towards the village along Southside Drive, you’ll be able to spot El Capitan in full strength from the side of the road. It feels close enough to touch it, and although you might not be able to, at least you may be able to spot rock climbers in the day like tiny little specs making their way up the sheer granite face!
8:30am – Park & Morning Coffee
With the limited parking space for the millions of Yosemite visitors each year, you’ll want to get to the visitor parking as soon as you can to guarantee a spot in the valley. Grab a coffee and/or morning snack at Degnan’s Kitchen and head out for your day of walks and hikes. Utilize the Yosemite Valley Shuttle where convenient and get a hard copy map from the Visitor Centre to help you get acquainted with the different trailhead and bus stop locations.
9:15am – Sentinel Meadow and Cook’s Meadow Loop
The meadow loop in Yosemite Valley is a walk in the park. It’ll only take you about an hour to complete with a slow pace and is best to do in the morning or evening to avoid strong sun exposure. It can definitely get very hot in the valley as there is little to no wind! Enjoy the panoramic view of the surrounding granite peaks, domes and waterfalls as your first acquaintance with the centre of Yosemite Valley! Be sure to stay the course and not go off the path so as to not destroy the vegetation.
10:30am – Lower Yosemite Falls Hike
You can’t visit Yosemite without seeing the eponymous falls! This is an extremely popular “hike” (definitely more of a walk) to reach the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, the last 320-ft drop of the tallest waterfall in North America. The crowds might have already trickled in at this point but it’s still a great time to enjoy this path as it’s shaded by the trees. The trailhead is at bus stop #6 and makes for a 1 mile loop. Easy, right?
If you’re looking for a challenge, make some time for the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. The trailhead is at bus stop #7 and you can hike up to Columbia Rock to get a sweeping view of Yosemite Valley. It’s a steep one (1,000 ft in elevation gain) but short (2 miles) and will only take you about 2-3 hours!
Option 2 for Upper Yosemite Falls Trail: pack a lunch and skip the next hike if you want to go ALL THE WAY. The top of Upper Falls takes 6-8 hours roundtrip and is a strenuous hike but one of the most well-known and accomplishing hikes in the valley. To reach the top, you continue from Columbia Rock to make a total of 2,700 ft of elevation gain and 7.2 mile in distance from the main trailhead. Sound fun?
12pm – Lunch
There aren’t many options for food in the valley and the food is… overpriced and just not very good. For a sit-down meal, Pizza Patio in Curry Village, Village Grill or the Loft at Degnan’s in Yosemite Village are your slightly better options. Degnan’s Kitchen is a quick counter-order cafe but it gets quite busy around this time. For food court, self-serve style you can check out the Base Camp Eatery at Yosemite Lodge but again: I hate to tell you, but overpriced and bland food! I guess when you’re busy hiking all day though, all food tastes good!
2pm – Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome & Taft Point
If you didn’t continue to do Upper Falls, grab your car and head up Wawona Road, past Tunnel View, till you hit Glacier Point Road Junction and make a left here. Past the Badger Pass Ski Area on the right, Glacier Point Road becomes a narrow, cliff-side, one-lane road that’s closed in the winters, so unfortunately you can only access this lookout by car in the summer! To reach Glacier Point in the winter, you’d need to hike Four Mile Trail which is quite a long one (9.6 miles roundtrip, 3,200 ft in elevation gain)!
But in the summer months, once you get to Glacier Point, you’ll want to take on Sentinel Dome and Taft Point Loop (5.1 miles roundtrip, 1,120 ft in elevation gain) and catch a gorgeous sunset at Taft Point. It’s the perfect moderate hike to end the day!
7am – Glacier Point (optional)
You can’t go wrong with a sunset over at Glacier Point! This one’s optional if you got to enjoy it the day before, but you photographers out there would know that taking photos at 2pm will not give very successful results. So a sunrise here will be a great way to experience the view without the sun glare and crowds.
8am – Park & Morning Coffee
Same as day 1, aim to park your car in the valley as early as possible if you’re not fortunate enough to have been able to stay in the valley, and grab some breakfast in the village if your hotel doesn’t offer one!
9am – Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake is a popular, short and easy hike great for families. There’s a trail on both sides of the Tenaya Creek but the Mirror Lake Trail goes up with the creek on your left. You’ll be cut short if you take the trail on the other side of the creek, however, you’ll still manage to get to Mirror Lake and to the base of Half Dome! The hike is only 2.4 miles roundtrip from the trailhead (bus stop #17) to Mirror Lake, with washrooms along the trail, and continuing on to the end of the trail in Tenaya Canyon and looping back will make it 4 miles roundtrip. Low elevation gain and a nice warmup for the day ahead!
12pm – Lunch
Grab a quick bite at Base Camp Eatery before heading to the final hike of the day.
1pm – Vernal Falls & Clark Point via the Mist Trail & John Muir Loop
The Mist Trail is one of Yosemite’s signature hikes and is, as its name suggests, very misty in the waterfall season! You’ll be more drench than after a log ride if you’re here between April and June, but you might just need it on a hot summer’s day hiking straight up those steps on the side of the cliff. Hiking along the Mist Trail is not for the faint of heart. You’ll be climbing up these narrow and wet steps as traffic of people will be coming down beside you. But arriving to the top of Vernal Falls is well worth the scare on the way up! Continue on to Nevada Falls for a longer (6-7 hour) hike or circle your way around and back down via the John Muir Loop to avoid going down the Mist Trail again. Going around in this clockwise direction is much longer with further incline but much less stressful. You’ll even get this gorgeous view of Vernal Falls near Clark Point!
Though this itinerary is jam-packed and will give you as good of a Yosemite experience you can get in two days, you will absolutely, 100% want to make the trip back here! Whether it’s to see Tuolumne Meadows, Cathedral Lakes, Mono Pass… You could spend years here and never run out of paths to take.