Planning your first trip to Yosemite National Park in California? My family just returned from Yosemite, and we learned a lot about this beautiful park.
I visited Yosemite for about three days in mid-October with my husband, two teen children (ages 13 and 16), and my parents (ages 70+). Our group had a variety of needs and interests, and we planned an itinerary that would allow everyone to enjoy the best attractions in the park.
We live in Utah and have visited Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Zion, and other national parks in recent years. We know and love the national parks, and it was exciting to learn what makes Yosemite unique.
In this guide, I'm answering common questions about the park and sharing my best tips for making your first trip to Yosemite a success.
How much time do you need?
Your pass to Yosemite National Park is good for seven days. I recommend a minimum of three full days. Yosemite is a large park, and it often takes an hour to drive from one highlight to the next.
We stayed for three days and two nights. It was enough time to enjoy many of Yosemite's highlights, but not all. A longer visit will allow you to see and do everything on your wish list and let you take breaks in between high-energy hikes and long drives.
Can you visit Yosemite in one day? Yes, but you'll only get to sample what this large park has to offer. I recommend that you focus on Yosemite Valley if you have just one day. Click the link below to learn how one TFFT contributor spent one day in Yosemite with her family.
Related: One Day in Yosemite National Park
When is the best time to go?
Yosemite National Park is open all year. For most visitors, the best time to visit is May-September. The weather is warm (sometimes quite hot) and Yosemite's waterfalls are at their most beautiful in the spring and summer. These months are also the most crowded months of the year.
We visited in mid-October. The weather was sunny and warm (up to 90° F). It was a great time to visit, except that most of Yosemite's waterfalls are dry in the fall. There was nothing to see at Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls was just a trickle. Furthermore, California's wildfire season was still active and the nearby Creek Fire added a layer of smoke to most scenic views.
Snow closes some of Yosemite's most scenic mountain roads from November-April. This will limit what you can see and do in the park, but you'll also enjoy lighter crowds and reduced rates at local hotels. It's a great time to go cross country skiing or snowshoeing and see Yosemite in a whole new way.
Check the weather
I checked the weather and current conditions often as we planned our trip to Yosemite. That may be overkill for most summer visitors, but I was concerned about local wildfires and the possibility of snow in October.
Elevations range from 4,000 to 10,000 feet at Yosemite National Park. We packed summer shorts and winter coats for forecasts of 35-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Most summer visitors won't need winter coats. We didn't.
You may not be able to change the weather, but knowing what to expect and packing the right gear can make the difference between a great trip and a disappointing trip. Here are my go-to websites for watching the weather at Yosemite National Park.
- Official Yosemite website: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/conditions.htm
- Webcam footage of popular park views: http://www.halfdome.net/
- National Weather Service Forecast: https://forecast.weather.gov
- Current wildfire conditions: https://fires.airfire.org/outlooks/SanJoaquin-Yosemite
Best things to do in Yosemite
Yosemite is an amazing place! Here are some of the most popular things to do in Yosemite National Park.
- Visit Yosemite Valley
- Yosemite Falls
- Bridalveil Falls
- Mist Trail and Vernal Falls
- Mirror Lake
- Tunnel View
- Visitor Center/Yosemite Village
- Walk or bike Yosemite Loop Trail
- Drive Glacier Point Road (closed for improvement in 2021)
- Glacier Point
- Sentinel Dome hike
- Hike down to Yosemite Valley via Four Mile Trail
- Visit Mariposa Grove
- Drive Tioga Road
- Tuolumne Meadows
- Tenaya Lake
- Olmstead Point
- Tuolumne Grove of Sequoias
- Watch for wildlife
- We saw bears early one morning in Yosemite Valley
- We saw lots of deer
This list covers most major sections of the park and guarantees that you'll enjoy many of its most impressive sights. Some of these stops are hikes but many require only a short walk to enjoy the view.
Click the link below to read more about many of these stops.
How much does it cost to visit Yosemite?
It currently costs $35 per vehicle to visit Yosemite National Park. This fee includes everyone in your private vehicle (up to 15 seats) for 7 consecutive days.
Reservations were required for much of 2020, due to COVID-19. Reservations will no longer be required after November 1, 2020. However, check the official Yosemite website for updated information before your trip. If reservations are re-instated in the spring, they'll sell out quickly.
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
We visited during the COVID-19 pandemic when reservations were required and park shuttles were not running. Driving our own car was the only option, and it was convenient with lighter crowds.
However, I would seriously consider using a variety of public transportation options on a return trip in the peak season (May-September). Traffic jams and too few parking spaces are common problems for visitors to Yosemite National Park.
Steep, narrow, and winding mountain roads are another reason to use a shuttle or book a tour in Yosemite. Yosemite Valley is flat, but Glacier Point Road, Tioga Road, and some roads into the park require an experienced driver's full attention to navigate them safely.
Shuttles, buses, and tours will allow you to relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery. Here are a few links to help you plan.
- Official Yosemite Public Transportation: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/publictransportation.htm
- YARTS Bus into the park: https://yarts.com
- Bus tours inside the park: https://www.travelyosemite.com/things-to-do/guided-bus-tours
There are gas stations inside the park at Crane Flat and Wawona. Others can be found just outside the park boundaries in El Portal, Fish Camp, or Lee Vining. There is no gas station in Yosemite Village.
Bicycling is a great way to get around Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Valley is the heart of the park, and you can spend one or more full days here.
This part of the park is mostly flat. An 11-mile paved bicycle/pedestrian path accesses all of Yosemite Valley's most popular stops. Bike racks are available.
Bring your own bikes or rent bicycles inside the park. Learn more at https://www.travelyosemite.com/things-to-do/biking/.
Where to stay
Inside the park
My first instinct was to book a hotel outside the park. Lodging outside of national parks is usually much less expensive and easier to book than lodges inside the park – and not much less convenient.
However, we ultimately booked Yosemite Valley Lodge inside the park at $300+ per night and were glad we did. Staying in Yosemite Valley saved us 1-2 hours of drive time every day. Plus, we enjoyed the park's scenic views and ambiance around the clock.
Book early if you want to stay inside the park. Popular dates will sell out months in advance. Book park lodges up to a year in advance at https://www.travelyosemite.com/. Book campsites about five months in advance at https://www.recreation.gov.
Cancellations are common, so check back often if your preferred lodging is sold out.
There are many lodges and campgrounds inside Yosemite National Park. For a first trip, I'd book something inside Yosemite Valley, if possible. Look for:
- The Ahwahnee
- Yosemite Valley Lodge
- Curry Village
- Pines Campgrounds
- Camp 4
Outside the park
In our experience at Yosemite Valley Lodge and other national park lodges, we pay top dollar for location, not space and amenities. Our room was nice, but no-frills. You'll generally get more for your money if you stay outside the park.
Here are a few reputable hotels outside the park that we considered.
- Yosemite View Lodge (El Portal)
- Tenaya Lodge (Fish Camp)
- Evergreen Lodge (Groveland)
We also considered booking a vacation home on the southwest side of the park through Airbnb.com.
We entered the park from the east, near the town of Lee Vining. Our first idea was to book lodging there, but we ditched that plan once we realized that Yosemite Valley (the heart of the park) was 2.5 hours away, over a high mountain pass.
When you search for hotels, look for places in El Portal, Groveland, Fish Camp, Mariposa, or other westside locations. Use Google Maps to find out how much drive time to expect. I would avoid Lee Vining, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, or other eastside locations unless recreational activities in that area are your primary focus.
Click the button below to see rates and reviews for hotels near Yosemite National Park on TripAdvisor.com.
Where to eat
There are a dozen eateries inside Yosemite Valley and a handful more in other parts of the park – typically connected with park lodges. These range from full-service fine dining to casual box lunches.
We packed a cooler full of groceries and filled the mini-fridge in our room at Yosemite Valley Lodge. This made picnic lunches and quick in-room breakfasts easy and affordable. The mini-fridge in our room was smaller than most but adequate for our needs.
You can buy groceries at the Village Store in Yosemite Village. Even if you can't pack a cooler, I recommend that you plan a picnic or two. Some of Yosemite's roads have few dining options, and the park has so many gorgeous picnic areas!
We ate one lunch at The Ahwahnee Dining Room and it's one of our favorite memories from the trip. It's a grand, gorgeous restaurant in Yosemite's historic luxury lodge. Lunch was half the price of dinner, and it was not crowded.
We also ate at the Base Camp Eatery at Yosemite Valley Lodge. This cafeteria-style restaurant offers a variety of options – from meat and vegetables to burgers to pizza. For the price, we weren't wowed by the quality, but everyone easily found something they liked.
Phone, text, and data will be spotty at best inside Yosemite National Park. We had occasional service in Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point Road. We had almost no service on Tioga Road.
Yosemite Valley Lodge offered complimentary Wi-Fi to guests, but it was slow. My dad needed reliable service for work, so he brought his own mobile hotspot. Add walkie talkies to your packing list if you expect to be separated and want to stay in touch.
Our first trip to Yosemite National Park was wonderful, but I am excited to return to Yosemite at a time when the waterfalls are falling and there's no wildfire smoke. Early June is my target date because that's just after my kids get out of school, or it coincides with my wedding anniversary.
I would expect heavy crowds at that time, so I would book lodging in Yosemite Valley a year in advance and research shuttle and tour options to limit traffic and parking hassles.
That's hardly the only way to enjoy Yosemite National Park. The best way for your trip is your way!
I hope that our Yosemite experience helps your family plan a great trip. Do you have more tips for visiting Yosemite National Park? Please share them in the comments.