If you're planning a Yosemite vacation, we've been there more than a dozen times and have been answering visitor questions since 1998, so we put together these resources to help you plan your trip like a pro.
Yosemite National Park is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on the east side of California. Almost due east of San Francisco, it's a 4-hour drive from there and about 6 hours from Los Angeles. All the ways to get there are summarized in this guide to How to Get to Yosemite.
The elevation in the park varies from 2,127 to 13,114 feet (648 to 3,997 m).
What's Special About Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is centered on a glacier-carved valley, Soaring, granite monoliths, cliffs, and waterfalls surround you - and a river runs through the middle of it all. Mile for mile, it offers some of the most spectacular scenery you're likely to see anywhere.
Elsewhere, you'll find groves of giant sequoia trees, high mountain meadows and panoramic views of the mountains and valleys.
Why Go to Yosemite - How Long to Stay
Visitors go to Yosemite National Park for the natural beauty and outdoor recreation. You don't have to be a hyper-fit backpacker to enjoy it and there are plenty of things to see on short, easy hikes or even from the windows of your automobile. Families also enjoy taking the kids there.
You can get a nice look around in just one day. To make the most of such a short visit, use the guide to one day in Yosemite.
If you can stay for a weekend, try the Yosemite weekend getaway planner.
If you only plan to a few hikes and drive around to see the sights, 3 days is enough to see most everything. If you'd like to linger, you'll have time to enjoy more ranger-led activities, attend evening programs, take tours and just hang around enjoying the scenery.
The best way to get a sense of where things are located is to take a look at the Yosemite map. It shows all the lodging in the park, entrance stations, and major sights, but here's a summary:
- Yosemite Valley: Sights include El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls and the visitor center is here. You'll find two hotels here, a campground and tent cabins.
- Glacier Point: A viewpoint just above the Valley, giving a different perspective on its sights - along with sweeping views across the surrounding mountains
- Wawona and the Mariposa Grove: There's a classic hotel (now called the Big Trees Lodge) and the biggest and most easily accessible grove of giant sequoia trees is nearby.
- Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Road: A drive through the park going east on CA Hwy 120 takes you through a high mountain meadow and the Tioga Pass. You'll get some excellent views along the way at Olmstead Point and Tenaya Lake.
- Hetch Hetchy: Accessed by a separate entrance from the rest of the park, Hetch Hetchy's main feature is a lake, created as a water supply for the city of San Francisco.
When to Take a Yosemite Vacation
Yosemite National Park is one of the country's most-visited parks, especially busy in summer.
Many people like to visit in the spring instead, and that's our favorite time to go. The waterfalls will be flowing at their highest levels of the year, wildflowers and dogwoods trees will be in bloom and if you avoid the busy spring break season, the place will be less crowded. You can find more about the waterfalls in the Yosemite Waterfall Guide.
All the seasons have their advantages and depending on what you want to do, you may enjoy a different time of year more. Get the pros and cons of each season in these guides:
Things to Do at Yosemite National Park
Besides the obvious sightseeing and touring, you can do a lot of other things, too.
There's a full list at their website, but they include:
- Photography classes and art workshops
- Ranger-led walks and evening talks
- Horseback Riding
- Snow skiing
What Others Have to Say About Yosemite National Park
Fodors: "By merely standing in Yosemite Valley and turning in a circle, you can see more natural wonders in a minute than you could in a full day pretty much anywhere else. "
National Geographic: "Both the solitude of the alpine ridge and the throngs of the valley are part of the experience when you visit Yosemite National Park."
Lonely Planet: "Yosemite is the Taj Mahal of national parks and you’ll first encounter it with the same mixture of reverence and awe. It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site that packs in so much jaw-dropping beauty that it makes even Switzerland look like God’s practice run. "
Tripadvisor: Reviewers rate Glacier Point, Half Dome, Tunnel View and Sentinel Dome 5 out of 5 in hundreds of reviews. Yosemite Valley ranks slightly lower at 4.5. A few of their comments: "If you love nature Yosemite is a must see." "I can not wait to get back to Yosemite." "Yosemite was everything I was expecting it to be - so majestic."
The non-profit group Yosemite Conservancy restores trails and lookouts and protects habitat and wildlife. Get a membership before you go and you'll not only support their work, but you'll also get a bunch of discount coupons that will save you money on lodging, food, and activities. Visit their website to find out more.