It can be extremely intimidating to try to plan one day in Yosemite National Park.
In fact, It is impossible to see all of Yosemite National Park in a single day yet the reality is that almost all visitors only spend a single day in this incredible park.
I personally know this from first-hand experience as my first trip to Yosemite was for one day. I came ill-prepared and felt like we ended up on a whirlwind experience where we missed many of the highlights of the park! I felt like kicking myself for not being ready to make the most of my trip to Yosemite.
I would also advise anyone to spend more than one day in Yosemite National Park but realize this is not possible for many people. I do, however, feel that you can have an epic one-day in Yosemite Itinerary that will hit many of the park's highlights and provide an unforgettable trip to Yosemite National Park.
The positive side of my first trip to Yosemite is that I completely fell in love with the park! Since that first trip, I have now been back to Yosemite numerous times and have visited Yosemite seven times in 2019 alone!
Yosemite Day Trip Guide and Itinerary
I typically start my trip to Yosemite National Park by flying into Fresno, California, the closest airport to the park. I then rent a car and take a short 1-hour drive to the south end of the park through Oakhurst, part of the Southern Gateway to Yosemite.
The best piece of advice I can give anyone is to plan on getting to the park super early. This way you beat the large lines and waiting for a parking space sometimes exceeding two hours. If you are visiting on a weekend, a holiday or the summer you will want to plan to get there earlier than you really want to.
Most of the recommendations say to be in the park before 9 am if you want to visit Yosemite Valley or Tunnel View. We would honestly suggest being in the park around 7 to 8 am. The earlier you can get into the park the better! This does not mean speeding in the park!
There are many tourists that are so busy paying attention to the views and not traffic. There are also black bears in Yosemite. Make sure to take the time to enjoy viewing the bears and not accidentally hitting them. Numerous bears are killed each year by drivers who speed.
Nothing ruins a day at the park quicker than a motor vehicle collision or receiving a ticket from a Law Enforcement Park Ranger.
The hard thing is deciding which area you want to get to first and why. Photographers may want a certain shot at sunrise/sunset as opposed to the intense sun in the middle of the day.
Once you have made it to the main part of Yosemite Village, try parking in the main parking lot and take the free Yosemite shuttle (YARTS) to explore the park including Yosemite Falls, the park visitor center, Curry Village or take a hike to Mirror Lake.
The shuttle buses will take you to all of the main highlights in the valley without having to move your car. You will want to have a day pack with a reusable water bottle or two and snacks with you.
All of the food options are near the Visitor Center. Grab some snacks at the Yosemite Valley grocery store or Degnan's Cafe if you don't have time to stop in Oakhurst or a surrounding town before getting to the park.
There is a food court at the Yosemite Valley Lodge that has a Starbucks
One day in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park was established on October 1, 1890, and declared a World Heritage site in 1984. The park is a 761,267-acre (308,074-hectare) area of great natural beauty. Situated in the mountain range of the Sierra Nevada in California, the park has varied landscapes - ice field, glacial lake, forest, alpine meadow, and waterfall and river.
Prominent features of the park include Yosemite Falls, the highest measured waterfall in North America; Yosemite Valley, famous for its natural granite monoliths; Half Dome, perhaps the most familiar rock formation in the park; Mount Lyell, the highest point in the park; and of course, the Grizzly Giant, one of the largest existing Sequoias in the world.
The Mariposa Grove is a gem within Yosemite National Park and something not to miss!
Mariposa Grove has Yosemite's largest grove of Giant Sequoias trees. During the summer you will need to park at the visitor center and take the free shuttle to the grove.
Heading in from Oakhurst this is the first thing you will run into in the park. If you are arriving early in the morning I would continue into the park and hit the Mariposa Grove later in the day on your way out of the park.
During the summer the free shuttle bus runs from 8 am to 8 pm so you have time to get back to Mariposa Grove. The new welcome center features 300 parking spots so you can normally grab a spot pretty quickly.
If you are arriving later in the day I would go ahead and visit the Mariposa Grove especially if there is parking available.
Tunnel View is perhaps one of the most iconic views of the U.S. National Parks and something that every visitor to Yosemite National Park should see. This viewpoint gives visitors an epic view of BridalVeil Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan.
If you are driving in from the Southern entrance of the park, you will first pass through a mile-long tunnel all of a sudden you are greeted with an epic view of Yosemite Valley. There is a small parking lot on either side of the road that you will want to make sure and stop at.
One thing to know is there are no bathrooms at the viewpoint.
Make sure and walk up and down the viewpoint to get different angles of Yosemite Valley. Bridalveil Falls will be on the right and El Capitan will be on your left with Half Dome right in the middle.
We try to stop every time we drive by the parking lots because the view is always changing with the clouds and light on El Capitan and Half Dome.
Right after you leave Tunnel View and head down into the valley the parking lot for Bridalveil Falls is on the right side.
This is a great short walk to the base of a 620-foot tall waterfall. If you visit in spring or early summer you will want to be prepared to get wet. The mist coming off of the falls can be crazy.
When you pull into the parking lot make sure you look up and take photos out of the car window. One of the best views of the falls is when you pull into the parking lot.
There is a bathroom located in the parking lot. I highly suggest using it before heading out to the waterfall. We always get distracted taking pics of the waterfall and have to hurry back for the bathroom.
Yosemite Valley is the epicenter of Yosemite National Park. If you are planning on driving around Yosemite Valley you will want to be in the valley before 9 am. The parking lots get packed quickly.
Once you have a parking spot you will want to take everything with you that you need for your one day in Yosemite and take the free Yosemite shuttle. This is the easiest way to get around the park without wanting to lose your mind driving around finding a parking spot.
Sentinel Bridge Yosemite
You will eventually run into a stop sign on the road in Yosemite Valley. If you go straight it will take you to the campgrounds and Curry Village and if you take a left it will take you to the main parking lot, the visitor center, the Ahwahnee Hotel, and Yosemite Falls. Take the left and you will immediately cross the Sentinel Bridge.
Park in the parking lot just past the bridge. You will get a great look at Yosemite Falls from the parking lot! Now go back to the bridge and just admire the view of Half Dome!
This is the spot of one of Ansel Adams's best photos and the photo that aspired me to becoming a park ranger.
Park Ranger John Pro Tip:
Show up to this location in the early morning before the sun has risen above the canyon walls. There will be a beautiful glow making for an EPIC photograph of Half Dome and the Merced River.
It doesn't matter the time of year either as the winter snow makes an awe-inspiring black and white photograph while the fall leaves will make a jaw-dropping picture that will have everyone wanting a copy!
Yosemite Valley Visitor Center
The visitor center is extremely popular. The parking lot is a great place to park and grab the YARTS Shuttle. It does fill early in the morning. (Do you see a common thread of getting to the park early!)
The movie Spirit of Yosemite plays in the theater behind the visitor center. The movie does a great job detailing the history of the park along with what you don't want to miss.
Yosemite Conservancy has a great bookstore and gift shop that is great for picking up souvenirs and information.
You can also pick up a Junior Ranger program, park brochures, and more.
One thing to know about the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center is it feels like it is hidden away. The parking lot is a 5 to 10-minute walk from the visitor center. Tucked back away in the trees the visitor center
Yosemite Valley Museum
Located next door to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center the Yosemite Valley Museum is a great way to learn about early inhabitants of the valley. Check out the amazing priceless Native American baskets.
One cool thing about the Yosemite Museum is it was the first building built to be a museum in a National Park. It was completed in 1925 by architect Herbert Maier.
This building was the first example of the National Park Service Rustic Style that would continue into many National Park lodges.
Indian Village of the Ahwahnee
Behind the Yosemite Valley Museum is the Indian Village of the Ahwahnee. You can see different versions of Miwok houses including bark houses, Miwok cabin, the Chiefs House, and a sweat lodge.
There are interpretive pamphlets available that explain how the Miwok lived in Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Falls is a must-see! Having said this, Yosemite Falls is also a seasonal waterfall and can be dried up in summer/fall so if you have your heart set on seeing waterfalls I suggest that you go to the park in the spring when the waterfalls are the most impressive.
If you want to park near Yosemite Falls you will want to be there EARLY!!!
There are two paths that lead up to the falls. The path to the right is a little easier and has less of a hill than the one on the left.
The views in either direction are amazing. We have seen black bears along the trail walking up to the falls.
For an epic view make sure and turn around on the left trail to get a photo looking up showing the entire falls.
Glacier Point is a must-see! Having said this, Glacier Point is located at over 7200' in elevation and closes each year due to snowfall. The road typically opens in April to May and typically closes in November. Of course, we cannot predict the weather but you can keep a look at the road conditions here.
Glacier Point offers epic views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. From Glacier Point, you are looking down 3,200 feet down into the valley.
You can either drive up to Glacier Point on your way in or out of the park. It really depends on what time you are getting to the park.
If you plan on taking the Yosemite shuttle in the valley the biggest thing is finding a place to park.
If you are visiting during the summer the road up to Glacier Point can get packed especially on the weekends. The park starts to hold cars below the parking lot and let them up in small batches while it is packed.
Plan to take a short hike to Glacier Point from the parking lot. You will be rewarded with epic views of Vernal Fall and Nevada Falls along with the Merced River. You can peer down on the Ahwahnee hotel and Yosemite Village.
Valley Floor Tour
If you want to leave the driving to someone else but have access to a Park Ranger the Valley Floor Tour is a perfect choice.
This two-hour tour takes you around Yosemite Valley on a ranger-guided tour. The tour takes you to the highlights of the valley without having to deal with parking or driving with the crowds.
During the summer on a few nights surrounding the full moon, the park offers a Full Moon Valley Floor Tour at night. This is a great way to see the park after dark.
Bonus stops if you have time:
The meadows near El Capitan are the perfect place to enjoy a picnic lunch. You can look for rock climbers scaling El Capitan while relaxing in the fields. There is a fair amount of parking along the side of the road.
Tuolumne Meadows can be found off of Tioga Road. This portion of the park is only open a small portion of the year depending on snow levels and weather.
It can take over an hour to reach Tuolumne Meadows from Yosemite Valley if not longer.
This part of the park is gorgeous but can take a lot of time if you are only in the park for one day. We would suggest doing Glacier Point over Tuolumne Meadows but it all really depends on what parts of the park you want to see.
If you are looking for a gorgeous hike Mirror Lake takes about 2-3 hours round trip and only has 100 feet of elevation gain. The trail follows along Tenaya Creek. Spring and early summer are the best time to see water in Mirror Lake.
There is no parking by the trailhead. The closest parking area is at Curry Village or by taking the YARTS public transportation shuttle bus to shuttle stop #17.
Any day in Yosemite is a great day! It can be a bit overwhelming when you look at all of the options of things to see and do but know that even if you only get to a portion of them you will have seen epic views.
It can easily take 6 to 8 hours to go to all of the sites within the park plus have time to do a few small hikes. If you are hoping to do a longer hike in the park you may have to adjust your schedule.
I know it can be stressful to try to get to everything in one day in Yosemite! My biggest suggestion is to have a goal list for what you have to see and then figure out the bonus sites you would also love to see.
What to pack
Layers - One thing to remember is Yosemite Valley is at 4,000 feet elevation. The temperature can change a lot during the day. Depending on the time of year you are visiting you will want extra layers including gloves and a hat. It can get downright chilly taking pics in the early morning.
Water Bottle - There are a ton of water bottle filling stations around the park. It is easy to keep your bottle filled and lower the amount of plastic use in the park.
Camera Cover - If you are visiting in the Spring we highly suggest bringing a camera rain cover to help protect your camera from the mist from the waterfalls.
Sunscreen - It is very easy to get a sunburn while out and about exploring the park. Make sure and bring sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses for your visit.
You will want to make sure your camera batteries and phone are fully charged before starting your one day in Yosemite adventure. Trust me you are going to take a lot more photos than you think you will.
Where to stay in Yosemite
Yosemite Valley Lodge - Yosemite Valley Lodge is located in the heart of Yosemite Valley right across from Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite Camping - This post breaks down each of the Yosemite Campgrounds. Where they are located, if you need a reservation, and what to expect along with site photos.
Wawona Hotel - Formerly known as the Big Trees Lodge the Wawona Hotel is located south of Yosemite Valley near the Mariposa Grove
Curry Village Cabins - These cabins are a great way to stay in the park. We had the best nights sleep in these cabins.
Housekeeping Camp - If you are looking for a fun Yosemite experience check out Housekeeping Camp. Housekeeping Camp features three-sided concrete structures and a canvas flap at the front. There are roofs and privacy curtains.
Chateau du Sureau - 5 star luxury near Oakhurst and the southern entrance of Yosemite. The Chateau offers fine dining at Erna's Elderberry House and a true 5-star experience.
Where to Eat
We try to pack a car picnic with us to help save time instead of stopping for lunch in the park. If you don't have a chance to pack lunch we really enjoy the Basecamp Eatery at the Yosemite Valley Lodge.
They offer a variety of food options including pizza, burgers and an international station. You can also get lunch at the Ahwahnee.
We tried lunch at the Ahwahnee Bar during one of our last visits and it was good but pretty spicy. If you are not a fan of spice make sure and let them know when you order your food.
Oakhurst Restaurants - If you are staying in or passing through Oakhurst these are our favorite restaurants in town. There is a huge variety of restaurants available.
What else to do near Yosemite
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad - The YMSPR runs from April through October and is a great family activity.
Sierra Vista Scenic Byway - If you love wide-open vistas and taking the road less traveled you will love the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway.
Hopefully spending one day in Yosemite will make you fall in love with the park just like we have. Our 1st trip was such a whirlwind of trying to fit things in that we instantly knew we needed to plan additional trips to the park.
We are ambassadors for Yosemite Madera County. All opinions expressed are our own.