Headed to Yosemite for the first time?
I just got back from my very first visit EVER to the park…and now I keep wishing that I hadn’t waited to long to see it! Yosemite is a true natural jewel, and there’s so much to see that you could spend months taking in everything that the park has to offer. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have months to spend there…so I have boiled down all of my favorite sites into the perfect three day Yosemite itinerary!
This itinerary has a moderate level of activity, and you can adjust it to accommodate to adjust for your desired activity level. Most of the hikes I’ve included are 3 miles or less, and relatively flat – with the exception of the Mist trail which is a hefty incline (but worth it in views!). Want to go a little more hardcore? I’ve also included some a couple of alternative options for hikes that are geared for visitors who want a bit more of a workout!
Finally – a quick note – this itinerary assumes you’re entering the park from the south or west sides, which is most likely, but if you’re entering Yosemite from the east on Tioga Pass, just adjust Day 1 accordingly.
Day 1: Welcome to Yosemite!
As you drive in to the park, your first stop should be Tunnel View for a classic view of Yosemite Valley, and two of Yosemite’s beauties: El Capitan and Half Dome. It’s well-marked and easy to pull in to. No place to park? Don’t worry, you can always pop in again another day (Day 3 would be a great alternative).
Just past Tunnel View, a bit further along your way into the valley, you’ll see signs on your right for Bridalveil Fall, one of Yosemite’s most impressive (and misty!) waterfalls. It’s a quick walk up the pathway to see the falls – but you’ll start to feel them before you even get there.
It’s no joke – you’ll want to bring a poncho or rain gear for this quick walk, or else risk getting completely soaked from the spray that comes off of the waterfall! When I visited, I was only able to sneak in this one quick photo, because I was worried about getting my new camera lens wet! There’s another great photo spot for Bridalveil Fall which you’ll hit up on Day 3, just in case you need an alternative.
After you’ve seen the falls up close, you can wander a bit further down the short trail and over to the main road for an impressive view of El Capitan right in front of you!
Next, head over to your accommodation for the evening, and once you’re settled in, get your comfy shoes on for an easy afternoon hike that will take you through some of the highlights of the valley. The Cook’s Meadow Trail is the perfect 2 mile loop that will take you past beautiful views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and Glacier Point.
You can also take a side trip up to the base of Yosemite Falls either before or after the loop, which is another mile round-trip – and prepare to get wet! Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America and it has the spray to prove it!
For dinner, check out The Mountain Room at the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Make sure that you have a reservation, as most of the Yosemite restaurants book up quickly! Then get a good night’s sleep for an active day the following day.
Day 2: The Mist Trail and Mirror Lake
Start off your second day in the park by checking out the Mist Trail, one of Yosemite’s most popular hiking trails, and also the start of the 15 mile hike up to the top of Half Dome. Today’s hike is a bit of a choose your own adventure in the sense that you can hike as far as you’d like, and your hike will still be beautiful and memorable.
Most tourists hike up the steep incline and make it as far as the Vernal Falls footbridge, which is a total distance of about 1.5 miles. The footbridge has an amazing view of Vernal Falls, and the surrounding river. If you hike a little further, you can get to the top of Vernal Falls – which would be a total hike of about 3 miles.
Wanna keep going? You can hike the next 2 miles to the top of Nevada Falls. Hiking to Nevada Falls and back would be a total of 7 miles. The trail continues all the way up to the top of Half Dome, so you can continue your hike if you’re ambitious, but keep in mind that you need to have a permit in advance if you want to go all the way up to the tippy-top.
No matter how far you hike on the Mist Trail, you will definitely be ready for some lunch afterwards! The pizza restaurant in nearby Half Dome Village is a great option for a post-hike fill-up.
From Half Dome Village, you can rent bikes for the afternoon, and ride the easy 1.5 miles on a paved pathway to Mirror Lake. The pathway leading up to the lake is gorgeous, and walking a bit around the lake will give you a unique view of Half Dome.
Dinner tonight is a special treat: the Dining Room at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee). I recommend arriving for your dinner reservation on the early side so that you can explore the hotel, and have a glass of wine at the bar or on the outdoor patio, which has a perfect view of Yosemite Valley’s beauty.
The dining room itself is a sight to be seen – I won’t spoil any surprises! Make sure that you have a reservation in advance, and that you’ve packed for the restaurant’s dress code. (Basically – don’t show up in your hiking gear). Be on the lookout during dinner for animals in the meadow that surround the dining room. Especially the bear who loves the nearby apple tree!
After dinner, you can hit up the Sweet Shop at the hotel, and head outside for some nighttime stargazing! The lack of light pollution in the valley makes for perfect viewing.
Day 3: Glacier Point, Taft Point, and Sentinel Dome
After spending your first two days exploring Yosemite Valley, it’s time to see it from up above. Today, you’re headed up to Glacier Point for an incredible view of many of Yosemite’s iconic sights from the very top of the valley.
It’s about a 45 minute drive from the valley to the trailhead for today’s day hikes. But first, on your way out of the valley, you’ll see a turnout on the left-hand side, which has a picture-perfect view of Bridalveil Fall from across a meadow. Remember the alternative photo spot I mentioned on Day 1? This is it! If you got soaked getting up close to the falls, this is another great spot to admire the beauty of the waterfall without having to wield a raincoat.
Continue on up to Glacier Point road, and once you reach the trailhead for Sentinel Dome and Taft Point, you’ll see that two separate hikes go from the trailhead to each viewpoint, and are each about 2 miles round-trip. There’s a trail that connect the two, but (in my opinion) it’s less scenic, and going back to the trailhead in between will allow you to hit up the restroom.
After the hikes, continue on down Glacier Point Road for another 10 minutes until you reach Glacier Point, where there’s a large parking lot and THE MOST INCREDIBLE views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls, and El Capitan. It’s jaw-dropping. There’s an outdoor amphitheater which is a great spot for a picnic lunch, and there’s a small shop that sells gifts and some limited food items – good for snacks, but probably not for a full-fledged lunch since you’ll be hungry from your morning hike! I’d recommend packing in your own food.
If you want to opt for a longer, more strenuous hike, you can buy a ticket to take a shuttle one-way up to Glacier Point, and then hike down to the bottom of the valley via either the Four Mile Trail (you guessed it….four miles long) or the Panorama Trail (8.5 miles).
If you have a few hours left in the afternoon, a great way to cool off is with a float trip down the Merced river. You can rent a raft at the tourist kiosks in Half Dome Village or in Yosemite Valley Village. You can also use your own raft and buy a one-way shuttle ticket that will take you back to Half Dome Village.
For dinner, check out one of the many casual dining options in Yosemite Valley Village.
If You Have More Time in Yosemite…
This itinerary is a great introduction to Yosemite, but if you have more than three days to spend in Yosemite, I would recommend adding a day in the Tuolumne Meadows area, on the eastern side of the park. The scenery is entirely unique and different from that of the Valley, and there are a ton of picturesque day hikes which you can check out here.
There You Have it – The Perfect Yosemite Itinerary!
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