Ah, Yosemite! This is easily one of my all time favorite places to visit. Everytime I go, I find more reasons to go back and get even more excited when others tell me they’re going to visit for the first time. If you’re one of these people and need help planning it out, I’m sharing my go-to three-day itinerary for Spring and Summer. Feel free to use it as a guideline and to alter it in any way. Hope you love it there as much as I do! (PS. Scroll to the bottom if you just want the whole itinerary at a glance)
DAY ONE: BIKE AROUND YOSEMITE VALLEY
Yes, Yosemite Valley can get a bit over crowded but for good reason - it’s a one stop shop for all the classics: Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Half Dome, you name it. Even just a slow drive through the loop can put you in awe but nothing let’s you experience the valley like a good bike ride.
If you don’t have your own, there are two places you can rent: Yosemite Valley Lodge (Shuttle Bus Stop #8) or Curry/Half Dome Village (Shuttle Bus Stop #13), both at reasonable prices. Worried about finding parking in either of the two? Don’t fret. You can pretty much park your car in any lot and use the free shuttles to get around. You can also find rental rates and more information about the valley here. We rented our bikes for two hours but I recommend renting it for the full day so you have time to stop and explore each section.
When I last went, we started at Half Dome Village and made our way to the Mirror Lake trailhead. You can’t take your bike to the lake itself but there’s a designated spot you can park and walk the rest of the way. (We didn’t, fyi) Afterwards, we followed the bike path all the way to the Visitor Center. Depending on the season, this is where it definitely gets more crowded to the point that you’ll need to walk your bike. Even so, this is perfect place to grab a bite to eat, stock up on snacks at the store and stamp your National Park Passport. You’re also a quick bike ride away from the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.
It was extra crowded when we went so we skipped Lower Yosemite Falls and crossed the street to check out the meadows, ponds and walkways (many of which you don’t typically get to see from the main road). Make sure to bring a map so you don’t get lost (we did) as there are many forks on the path. We spent a good time exploring this area of the valley because there were countless opportunities to stop and take photos. In the spring, you’ll even get a great view of Upper Yosemite Falls.
Once your legs start to give up (or your time starts to run out), just bike to the other side and make your way back to Half Dome Village (completing your loop around the valley). By that time you may be hungry again so you can either stay and grab a bite to eat (there are so many options to choose from), take the shuttle to your parking lot or simply walk to camp. Just give yourself some time to rest for tomorrow.
DAY TWO: HIKE TO VERNAL & NEVADA FALLS
You’d think we’d get sick of this trail since we do it almost every time we visit but this is one of those trails that’s long and tough enough to keep you busy all day and is beautiful from start to finish. There are a variety of routes to take but we typically start at Happy Isles Bridge, climb up the John Muir Trail to the Mist Trail, continue up to the top of Vernal Falls, continue to the top of Nevada Falls then once we’ve rested and got our fix of the view, we take the John Muir Trail down and veer to the left when we reach Clark Point until we make it back to Happy Isles Bridge. This allows us to see the park and both waterfalls from all different angles . You can also refer to this google map of the trailhead and download it for reference while you’re there.
If you want to beat the crowds, I recommend getting to the valley no later than 6:30am so you can park in the Yosemite Valley Trailhead Lot. It’s a 15-20 minute walk to the actual trailhead but unless you’re camping at Upper Pines, it’s the closest lot you can use. If it’s full, just take the first spot you find pretty much anywhere in the valley and either walk or take the shuttle to Happy Isles Bridge.
I must warn you; this hike is not easy (there are stairs for dayyys) but I promise it’s worth it. When I first went, I was completely out of shape and had to take multiple breaks. The good news is that there’s a view to look at no matter where you are on the trail so take your time and enjoy the journey! Whether it takes 4 hours or 9 hours, you’ll feel accomplished and get some great pictures.
I recommend bringing lots of food (we carry at least two sandwiches each), snacks, 3L+ of water (hydration packs are the way to go here) and electrolytes (coconut water, gatorade, etc) to keep you energized. There’s typically a water filling station at the Mist Trail trailhead/bridge but last time I was there (July 2018), it was closed due to flood damage so please bring more than enough. I cannot stress how important that is. You cal also find more information on the trail here.
DAY THREE: EXPLORE AND/OR RELAX IN WAWONA
If you’ve been following our itinerary, you may be exhausted by this point (at least your legs may be). Thankfully, this day is a pretty relaxing one and within an area of the park that not many people typically go to, Wawona. We’ve stayed in this section of the park multiple times as most rentable cabins/homes can be found here (see below) but during most of those trips, we primarily used it as just a place to stay and drove out to hikes each morning. It wasn’t until an unexpected closure of the valley happened that we were able to truly explore the area.
If you have the energy, there are a couple trails we highly recommend: Chilnualna Falls and the Swinging Bridge - each quite different from the other. The Swinging Bridge trail is fairly flat and can be done in less than 2 hours while Chilnualna Falls has a bit of incline and can take roughly 5+ hours. If you’d like to cut the second one short, you can climb up the stairs to the first viewpoint of the falls and hike back down to keep it under an hour. Otherwise, we recommend relaxing by the Merced River if you want to give your legs a break.
WHERE TO STAY
Aside from what to do, ‘Where should I stay"?” is one of our most commonly asked questions. Of course, it’s really based on what you plan on doing when you visit but based on this itinerary, this is what we recommend:
CAMP IN YOSEMITE VALLEY
Upper pines, Lower pines and North pines are our go to campsites but unfortunately, they book ridiculously quick. If you want to camp here, you’ll need to plan months in advance and book the second they open online.
CAMP IN WAWONA
If you aren’t able to secure a spot within the valley (which happens to us almost every year), we recommend camping in Wawona. It’s a 45 minute drive out but this section of Yosemite is an underrated gem. The only con is that unless you arrive before 8am, you’ll have difficulty finding parking in Yosemite Valley.
CAMP IN CRANE FLAT
This site offers a much shorter drive to the valley than Wawona but the sites are quite close together that you’d be afraid to talk too loud because 6 other campsites could hear you. It’s a great spot though and you have a much higher chance of grabbing a site here than any other campground.
TIPS FOR BOOKING CAMPSITES
All sites can be found on recreation.gov and must be booked in advance (Ideally on the day registration opens for those dates
Sites typically become available 5 months in advance on the 15th of that month
Select your dates and be on a specific site’s before registration opens (ie. if you’re looking to book at Upper Pines, pick the actual site number and be on that page when registration opens)
Go for individual sites vs group sites
Utilize ‘week view’ if looking for a site after booking has already opened
More information on reservations can be found here.
CABIN IN WAWONA
Sometimes you want a warm and dry place to stay rather than staying in a tent and on those occassions, I always recommend one in Wawona. Our absolute go-to cabin belongs to a fellow named Garth and you can find his listings here. It’s a small place but you immediately feel at home and the river is just a short walk away. If he’s booked, there are plenty more on airbnb or VRBO.
ITINERARY AT A GLANCE
For those of you who want a simple play by play, here you go:
DAY ONE: BIKE AROUND YOSEMITE VALLEY
Sunrise- Drive to Tunnel View to catch the sunrise
08:00 am - Park at Half Dome Village and rent bikes
08:30 am - Bike to the Mirror Lake trailhead and explore the area (optional 6.8 mi hike to Mirror Lake itself)
10:00 am - Bike to the Lower Yosemite Falls trailhead and explore the area
12:00 pm - Bike to Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, grab a bite in the area and get your National Park Passport stamped
02:00 pm - Explore the center part of the valley by visiting the different meadows, ponds and bridges
05:00 pm - Return bikes and grab a bite at the Half Dome Village Pizza Patio
07:00 pm - Relax at camp or at your cabin
DAY TWO: HIKE TO VERNAL & NEVADA FALLS
06:30 am - Park at Yosemite Valley Trailhead Lot and walk to Happy Isles Bridge
07:00 am - Start John Muir trail to the Mist trail
07:30 am - Take photos at the bridge where the Mist Trail starts (you can see Vernal Falls from here)
07:45 am - Climb up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls (you’ll need a rain coat for this part)
08:30 am - Enjoy your first lunch at the top of Vernal Falls
09:00 am - Continue up the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls
10:30 am - Enjoy the view and your second lunch at the top of Vernal Falls (restrooms available)
12:30 pm - Start your hike down via the John Muir Trail
01:30 pm - Once you reach Clark Point, go left.
02:00 pm - Take your last break at the bridge where the Mist Trail starts
02:15 pm - Make you way back to Happy Isles Bridge
03:00 pm - Grab a bite from Half Dome Village to celebrate your accomplishment!
Sunset - Drive or take the shuttle to El Capitan before sunset to see this rock formation change to different tints of color.
DAY THREE: EXPLORE OR RELAX IN WAWONA
Sleep in - You deserve it.
10:00 am - Hike to the first viewpoint of Chilnualna Falls
12:30 pm - Hike to the Swinging Bridge and enjoy your packed lunch
03:00 pm - Relax by the Merced River and Jump Rock
04:00 pm - Visit the Wawona Visitor Center and for a different stamp in your National Park Passport.
Dinner - If you’re driving South along the 99, take a dinner break at Figaro's Mexican Grill and try their rolled tacos
Hope this helps! If you end up following any part of this itinerary, share it with us by tagging #makelifecountco. If you have suggestions on what we can add to our next itinerary, share it with us below. We’d love to hear it.