USA – The best Yosemite itinerary for first time visitors (1 or 2 days)

USA - The best Yosemite itinerary for first time visitors (1 or 2 days)

Yosemite National Park is, in my opinion, one of the best national parks of the USA. When I made a West Coast road trip with my daughter I added two days to explore this park. I have already covered the Tioga Pass road and now it’s time to list the must-see places in the valley in this Yosemite itinerary if you have a day. It’s a very long day which I recommend starting at 8AM at Glacier Point. Then make your way counter clockwise through the valley as the road is one way. I will include some suggestions to extend it to two days. This Yosemite Valley itinerary takes you to the best spots and views. Every single view is magnificent so make sure to bring a camera with full battery and empty memory card. I’m sure you will enjoy Yosemite Valley.

Yostemite Valley: A bit of background information

Yosemite Valley is just a small part (1%) of the Yosemite National Park but it attracts most of the 4+ million visitors each year. The valley is just over 12 kilometers long and surrounded by granite walls of which some are around 1000 meters tall. All these geological formations were formed over a million year ago when the area was uplifted and eroded. Today you can admire these formations including cliffs, streams, and waterfalls but also wildlife. It’s a unique place and therefore a UNESCO World Heritage Site


Keep in mind that during November through May parts of the park are closed due to snow. It’s best visited during spring (waterfalls have water), summer or autumn. This Yosemite itinerary will take you first up for a view into the valley after which it will take you through the valley itself which is densely forested with pines.

Yosemite itinerary first stop: Glacier Point

I started early morning at 7AM from the Holiday Inn Express Merced and drove in 2 hours to Glacier Point. This was already to late as the road up to Glacier Point was already closed due to congestion, so I had to park and take the bus up. Try to arrive at Glacier Point earlier so that you can drive all the way up. It saves time.

Glacier Point is located on the south wall of Yosemite Valley and the best place to start a Yosemite National Park visit. The view down the valley at Glacier Point is amazing. You can see all the prominent geological formations on the northern side. From left to right: Yosemite Falls (if they have water), Half Dome (the eye-catcher here), Vernal and Nevada Falls and all the way to the right Clouds Rest. Try to finish the visit in about 60-80 minutes and then drive to the valley.

EXTEND YOUR VISIT BY A DAY: If you love hiking then hike up to Glacier Point over the Four Mile Trail (7.4 kilometers long). Then, hike down over the Panorama trail (13.2 kilometers long) which will take you down the valley passing the Nevada and Vernal Falls. These should have some water during summer months too.

Yosemite Valley itinerary: Tunnel view & Bridalveil Falls

If you drive back to the valley, you’ll pass the Wawona Tunnel after which you can admire Tunnel View. This is probably the most photographed, painted, and documented view of Yosemite Park. There is a parking lot to park your car. Cross the road to take in this magnificient view (see 2nd photo above). The view is eastwards with on the left El Capitan, Half Dome in the back and the Bridalveil Fall on the right. Unless you paint the view you should finish in 15 minutes. Now drive about a kilometer further down the road to the Bridalveil Fall parking lot and trailhead.

The trail to Bridalveil Fall is very short and worth a 30-minute hike up and down. Bridalveil Fall is 188 meters height and gets its water from Ostrander Lake. During summer, when water levels are low, it’s not really a waterfall but more a curtain of mist. The Yosemite Valley itinerary continues towards the end of the valley.

Yosemite National Park visit: to Mirror Lake

The next (short) stop is at the Cathedral Beach Picnic Area. If you’re taking it easy then, especially in summer, you can take lunch here. This is because the next stop at Mirror Lake can be skipped as doesn’t have much water and no mirrors. At the Cathedral Beach Picnic Area, you’ll have also a beautiful mirror in the Merced River. If you look towards El Capitan, you should see something like the photo below. Try to find a good spot, so that you’ll have enough reflection. If you don’t picknick you should be on your way to Mirror Lake just 15 minutes later.

Continue driving towards the end of the valley where the trailhead to Mirror Lake starts. You’ll pass the Yosemite Chapel where you might want to make a quick photo. Mirror Lake is what’s left of a lake that once filled all of Yosemite Valley. Only in spring it’s filled with water and gives beautiful reflections of Half Dome and North Dome. I visited in summer and although it was a beautiful hike it wasn’t worth it for the reflections. I normally don’t take lunch, just snacks, so it was worth adding the hike my Yosemite Valley itinerary.

SHORT ON TIME? If you’re short on time, then skip this short hike. If you have time, do it as it’s still a beautiful hike. If your Yosemite National Park visit is in spring I would highly recommend visiting Mirror Lake and possible skip the previous stop.

Yosemite Valley: Lower falls loop

The Lower Yosemite Fall trail is a very nice trail through dense pine forest. Park your car at the Sentinels/Cook’s Meadow Loop trailhead and go from there. Even though the Lower Yosemite Fall doesn’t have much water during summer it’s a must-do hike. You can spot lots of squirrels, Steller’s Jay birds and possible a deer too. At the base of the falls the Native Americans had their main village over 3000 years ago. The Yosemite Falls drop 739 meters from the upper falls to the base of the lower falls. The Lower Yosemite Fall trail is just 1.6 kilometers long and shouldn’t take a long time. After you finish the trail it’s a 150 meters walk back to your car.


Yosemite National Park: Sentinel Meadows

In summer the days are long so if you’re up to it you can wander through the Sentinel Meadows until you want to go back. If you make your Yosemite National Park visit a 2-day trip and stay overnight in the park you can do it also the next day. It’s a very nice place to walk in the afternoon as deer will come out of the pine forest into the open.

If you decide to leave then do make sure to stop at the Valley View Yosemite photo stop just before the Pohono Bridge. You can get a view as you can see in the 2nd photo below. My Yosemite Valley itinerary ended there and I drove back to Merced where I arrived around 10PM.

I have tried to include as much as possible on this Yosemite itinerary but of course it doesn’t include every single view point. It does include the must-see places on any Yosemite Valley itinerary. Although it’s easiest to drive yourself it’s also possible to take the park busses. Waiting time for a bus to arrive however will slow you down. If you have 2 days to explore Yosemite Valley, it’s easy to extend the trip. There are plenty of other short or longer hikes to do. I had to continue my West Coast road trip to Death Valley and beyond. I enjoyed my Yosemite National Park visit a lot as it’s such a unique place in the world.

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Did you visit Yosemite national park too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!

Gallery Yosemite itinerary

Check the gallery for more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.

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