We just got back from 2-1/2 days exploring Yosemite National Park in northern California. By popular request, I’ll share our entire itinerary and tips for you, plus a few important caveats.
Yosemite is a huge park, with various recreation areas some 90 minutes or more apart from each other. Most people think of Yosemite Valley as the park, and that’s certainly the most popular place to sightsee and recreate, with the most facilities. But there are other outlying areas that are less crowded and spectacularly beautiful.’
Note, you need a reservation to visit Yosemite throughout the peak season. (The reservation requirements for 2021 ran from mid-May through September 30, so we didn’t need one.)
There are very few roads through the park, and they’re extremely seasonal.
- Tioga Pass Road leads up to Tuolumne Meadows (where you’ll find the popular Cathedral Lakes and Clouds Rest hikes). This one is closed from November through May, but may close earlier or sporadically in spring and fall due to weather.
- Glacier Road leads to Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point, popular overlooks. These are closed from November through May, but may close earlier due to weather. Note that Glacier Point Road will be closed for repairs for all of 2022, and likely into 2023.
- Big Oak Road takes you out to Hetch Hetchy, but note that Hetch Hetchy is only open 8 AM – 5 PM. (And when I say “closed,” I mean “giant gates padlocked closed.” You’re not getting up there if the gates are locked, so don’t try to game the system.)
The NPS website is the most accurate way to determine if and when the roads are open. We navigated around closures on the first two days of our trip. The roads through the Valley, Hetch Hetchy, and Mariposa Grove are open year-round for visits.
Also note the gorgeous waterfalls for which the park is known are seasonal as well. By our visit, all but two in the park had stopped running, and those were very much a trickle. Falls are at their peak in late spring/early summer.
Plan on zero cell phone reception, unless you’re in a more densely populated part of the valley (like Yosemite Village). We had to download all of our maps from AllTrails and the NPS app ahead of time, and relied heavily on the paper maps from all of the visitor’s centers as we explored.
Finally, if you’re planning a visit now (from November through March), there’s a good chance they’ll require chains on your tires inside the park—even if you’re in a 4WD vehicle or rental car.
Flight: We flew into Fresno (FAT), which is 2 hours from the southern edge of Yosemite. (The Wawona/Mariposa Grove entrance.) FAT is a tiny airport with rental cars right on-site. We rented a 4WD Jeep, because snow was predicted for the day we arrived.
Airbnb: We stayed in Yosemite West, at an Airbnb inside the park. The benefit was we never waited in line to get in and out of the park, which can cut down on a ton of traffic, and (had we visited earlier) it would have eliminated the need for a park reservation, as one is automatically provided with your lodging reservation. Yosemite West is about 40 minutes north of Wawona and Mariposa Grove, about 30-40 minutes to Yosemite Valley, only 5 minutes from the entrance to Glacier Road, and 90 minutes to both Hetch Hetchy and Tuolumne Meadows. It’s also way quieter and far more private than staying anywhere in the valley.
We had a full fridge and freezer, microwave, coffee maker, kettle, and propane grill, which made it much easier to feed ourselves.
Prep: We stopped at a Vons in Fresno and bought sandwich fixings, snacks, and water. (I also packed a ton of meat sticks, RXBARS, and other trail food, and I packed a few frozen Fresh n Lean meals to microwave for dinner.) The store in Yosemite Village is very well stocked, but it was more cost-effective to get most of our provisions outside the park. There are very few convenient restaurants (we only passed two on our entire trip) and this is off-season, so we planned on feeding ourselves.
While there are some stunning and incredibly challenging hikes in Yosemite (I will be back for those), we kept this trip mellow. Our goal was to see as much of the park as possible, and explore areas where Brandon hadn’t been.
Day 1, Yosemite Valley and El Capitan Meadows: We got to our Airbnb at 4 PM and immediately headed into the valley to explore. We parked in the meadows in front of El Cap and wandered around the meadows and the trail circling the giant rock face, taking a rock climber’s trail right up to the base and climbing up a little bit for the views. This golden hour was magical—everything sparkled and the light and temps were just perfect.
Day 2, Hetch Hetchy and Glacier Road: We woke up at 5:30 AM to get some sunrise views as we drove out towards Hetch Hetchy. This morning, Tioga Road and Glacier Road were both closed due to weather, so we drove out to the reservoir and hiked along the body of water. While the two falls weren’t running, the views were gorgeous and we saw virtually nobody all morning. We did about 4.5 miles hiking parallel to the reservoir.
We drove back, took a short break, then headed back up Glacier Road, as it was just opened and rumor had it that it would close again the next day. We drove up and hiked Sentinel Dome (about 2.5 miles RT) for gorgeous views of Half Dome. We then drove all the way up to Glacier Point and explored there, capturing more sunset views.
Day 3, Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows: Tioga Road finally re-opened, so we spend the entire day exploring the Meadows. The drive up was stunning. (Every drive here is stunning.) Our first hike was May Lake, firmly in the back country. First, we had snow! We crunched our way across an inch or so on the trail. The views were completely different from the other parts of Yosemite, with an incredible view of Half Dome about ¾ up the trail. We saw zero persons for the first hour at the lake, and walked the entire length down to this unexpected beachy area. It was a super easy family-friendly trail that I’m betting is busy AF in summer, but with the snow on the shores and the stillness of the lake and nobody around but us it was a really special morning. (We did around 3.5 miles RT.)
Then we drove 15 minutes to Tenaya Lake, which is right off the road. Also gorgeous, also with a trail running alongside the lake across the back side. We saw lots of people on the shore but virtually no one on the trail, and the lake was beautiful.
We drove the rest of the length of Tioga Pass Road, stopping near Lembert Dome for a picnic lunch in the meadows. We drove back and caught one more short “locals” hike in the valley, with great views of Half Dome. (I promised I would not share the location—this one really isn’t on any map.) By the time we were done, we’d had a 12-hour day and were ready for some food and (sadly) packing up for our morning flight.
There were SO many hikes that I have bookmarked for another trip, most in the 8-14 mile range. (That wasn’t in the cards for us this trip.) But this is perhaps the most seasonal-specific park I’ve visited so far. Timing the roads being open, the waterfalls running (which would have been amazing—another reason to come back) and the crowds and reservations is tricky. Still, there is something for every season for everyone here, and I can’t wait to visit again