Looking for a complete travel guide to Yosemite National Park? When to go, how long to stay, and where to stay in Yosemite NP!
My husband and I spent two full days in Yosemite National Park last December (2021). And can I just say – any time you get the chance to spend time in America’s third national park – you should do it!
This was our third time visiting Yosemite.
Our first was with all three of our kids the summer we started our family national park obsession (i.e. 2005).
How about that oldie above???!!
Our second visit was in spring 2014 without our oldest daughter as she was away at college already…
And as I said above, our last was just my husband and I for a winter 2021 visit ;).
I will go into more details as to what time of year I enjoyed my visit the most (but you can probably guess it was not with the very large summer crowds 🤪).
In a rush?
A Complete Travel Guide to Yosemite National Park
- When to Go and Park Entrance Fees
- How Long to Stay in Yosemite National Park
- Where to Stay in Yosemite NP
- Where to Eat in Yosemite National Park
- What to Do in Yosemite National Park
- Places to See Outside of the Park
- Best Photography Spots in Yosemite National Park
- Our Full Eight Day Winter 2021 Road Trip Itinerary
When to Go and Park Entrance Fees
As I mentioned above, I have been to Yosemite in winter, spring, and summer. And with 100% certainty can tell you if you can avoid the June-August crowds – DO IT!
In fact, with the Covid Pandemic that started in 2020, Yosemite National Park has gained an incredible amount of popularity (and it was already a popular park to begin with!).
With that said – I would love to visit Yosemite National Park in late September or October to round out an all seasons experience in my home state’s biggest park.
Early April has perfect ‘t-shirt and yoga pants’ hiking weather and the waterfalls are just about peaking at that time.
In fact, spring temperatures are my favorite for hiking ;). Even if you get a tad overheated with some elevation gain – you will quickly cool off once you are in the shade!
And December had temps in the upper 30’s to 40’s. No waterfall hikes on that trip as the climb would have been too slippery for my taste (plus I am pretty sure the park closed most of those hikes for safety reasons anyway!).
But there are sooo many less risky hikes in Yosemite Valley that taking out the big waterfall hikes just made me venture to “new to me” hikes without the inherent risks.
If you are a regular blog follower of mine – you know that Christmas is my favorite time of year (check out my Christmas in London and Christmas in Vienna posts if you need more proof of said obsession…). So needless to say – seeing the Ahwahnee all dressed up for the holidays was a Christmas dream come true :).
Park entrance fees for 2022 are as follows:
- $35 per vehicle with less than 15 passengers for a seven day pass
- $20 per person for vehicles with more than 15 passengers
- $30 per motorcycle
- $20 per person if walking or bicycling into the park
You can also get an annual Yosemite pass for $70 or the annual National Park pass for $80 ($20 for anyone older than 62).
Military and their family members get free entrance to all National Parks.
AND all 4th graders get free entrance to all national parks as well – use this link for more info!
How Long to Stay in Yosemite National Park
Unless you are planning a full 7-10 days in the park, you just won’t see it all.
And that is okay.
I have yet to see the Tuolumne Meadows region of Yosemite National Park (but that is not to say I do not want to!).
While it is only a 1.5-2 hour drive from the Valley, the majority of the visitor activities are actually in Yosemite Valley.
Maybe on my fall return visit someday?
Nonetheless, you should allow a minimum of 3-4 days in Yosemite Valley for your first visit.
However if you don’t think you will ever get the chance to come back to this park – I would most certainly recommend at least 5-6 days in the Valley to truly experience all that the park has to offer (and not at a high-strung too fast pace ;)).
Where to Stay in Yosemite NP
This would be my very first suggestion on where to stay! It takes over an hour to get from any of the entrance towns to the Valley (which is where pretty much EVERYTHING you are going to want to see in the park is).
So staying IN the Valley is undeniably helpful to minimize your time in the car driving into the park.
The car line to actually get in to the park can also be quite lengthy – so you kind of want to only have to do that once.
That said – MAKE YOUR RESERVATIONS EARLY!!!
Like 12 months early!!! Although I did get my midweek December reservation two weeks before my stay at the Ahwahnee 🤷♀️.
Yosemite Campgrounds only become available 5 months in advance though – and honestly – if you get a campsite in the summer in this park – you might as well celebrate like you just won the lottery ;).
As I mentioned above, we stayed in the majestic Ahwahnee at Christmas time. It is pricey. But in my book, an experience you should try to have if you can swallow the price tag ;).
The beds are extremely comfortable and the bathroom is quite pretty.
But the wifi is quite spotty. That is kinda why you are in the park anyway though – isn’t it? To escape the real world?
We stayed at this property for our spring 2014 visit. It is a very comfortable and relatively reasonably priced accommodation.
Again – you are all about the location for your visit to Yosemite and this motel-like lodge gets 5 stars for that aspect!
I personally have never stayed in either of these options. My husband has stayed in a Curry Village tent cabin with his friends on one of his guys’ hiking trips and said they are quite comfortable.
Photos courtesy of TravelYosemite.com
And one of my good friends used to stay at Housekeeping Camp every year with her family. So certainly an option if you are wanting something a little more campy and rustic than the Lodge and Hotel give ;).
Photos courtesy of TravelYosemite.com
There are many many campground options in Yosemite National Park.
HOWEVER, like I mentioned above – you are one lucky person if you get a spot in the peak summer months.
That said – we got a spot back in 2005 at Lower Pines Campground. It is the biggest campground in the park.
And of course – very very perfectly located!! In the summer months, there are many shuttle stops that allow for you to park your car at your campsite and not use it again until you leave ;).
With this option – you are pretty much at the entrance to the park and at least an hour of driving distance from Yosemite Valley.
But if you aren’t lucky enough to get a spot anyplace in the Valley – you can try your luck at this park lodging. Disclaimer – I have never stayed here so I have no idea if it is worth the price!
On our first visit to Yosemite NP, we used the South Entrance and visited the Mariposa Grove of Sequoia trees which is close to this lodging option. We actually wanted to stop for lunch at this lovely historic Victorian hotel but still had an hour drive ahead of us with a tent to be pitched so we opted to pass on by…
Photos courtesy of TravelYosemite.com
Options Outside of the Park
If you are going to stay outside of the park (or couldn’t get a reservation in the Valley) – then I would 100% recommend this lodge located right outside the South Entrance to the park.
We stayed here for one night back in 2005 and loved it. Many of my friends have since stayed here and honestly – I think it has gotten even nicer since our stay!
Again – it is over an hour drive to the Valley from this hotel PLUS the potential for a long car line to actually get IN to the park. But it is a great option if those facts don’t bother you!
Photos courtesy of TenayaLodge.com and Delaware North
Again – an option about an hour from Yosemite Valley. But also – a FUN one!
AutoCamp is an entire camp of Airstream trailers and cabins to give you a very unique experience.
We stayed here for two nights during our December 2021 visit to the park but didn’t actually go into the park while staying here (see below for what to do outside the park!).
There were plenty of families staying at this lodging option and honestly – I have never slept in a trailer before and can say it was quite enjoyable.
I mean – they kinda did do all the work I guess with set up, stocking it, and then clean up but still…
Where to Eat in Yosemite National Park
The time of year you are visiting will be the deciding factor for what is open for dining options.
There is an extremely well stocked (and large for a national park) market in Yosemite Village that is open year round (and where we got the makings for sandwiches before a hike we took during our last winter visit).
We have eaten in all of the options in Yosemite Lodge and the Ahwahnee. Pretty decent food (but if you have read my San Diego restaurant post then you know – I have become a bit of a food snob…).
Take that as you may – the Ahwahnee Dining Room should absolutely be on your list for at least one meal!! In fact, we had Sunday brunch on my birthday during our summer 2005 visit ;). And since we were tent camping on that trip – I can absolutely tell you that was the best food I had that entire week!!
Our second night while staying at the Ahwahnee, we opted to get food from the bar and eat in the gorgeous great room (where there are multiple seating options!).
Options Outside the Park
Sugar Pine Cafe in Mariposa
While staying at AutoCamp in Mariposa as mentioned above, we did all of our dining in that small mountain town. While I cannot say any of those restaurants are up to snuff with any of our San Diego restaurants – we did find a super cute breakfast cafe that we would 100% go back to!
There are literally over 700 miles of hiking trails in Yosemite NP. So clearly I am not going to list them all.
In fact, I have only been to the Valley and Wawona so I will only be listing my personal favorites.
However, a full list of all the trails available in Yosemite can be found here.
Here are my favorites:
LOWER YOSEMITE FALL
This easy 1 mile round trip path is flat, paved, and handicap accessible and the views are why you are in Yosemite to begin with ;).
COOK’S MEADOW LOOP
Another easy 1 mile flat path. The view from Sentinel Bridge is famous because of Ansel Adams photography ;).
Park at the Yosemite Chapel and make your way across the meadow to see some of the most stunning views in all of the park!
TOP OF VERNAL FALL VIA MIST TRAIL
In the Happy Isles region of the Valley, this 3 mile, 1000 foot elevation gain is considered a strenuous hike in the park. My kids were 4, 7, and 9 when we did it the summer of 2005.
And they were waaaayyy faster than me 😂.
The views at the top of this hike are honestly some of the most beautiful in the entire USA (ie – totally worth the strenuous effort you have to put in!).
The name “Mist Trail” is not just for no reason btw – you will get wet on this hike! This is a great hot summer months trail to do (and most certainly NOT a trail to do in the slippery winter months!!).
VERNAL FALL FOOTBRIDGE
Another trail in the Happy Isles portion of the Valley, this trail is 1.4 miles roundtrip with a 400 foot elevation gain. Not nearly as difficult as the Mist Trail but still with beautiful views of the Merced River.
Start this trail near the North Pines Campground (and if you are camping – this is an easy walk for you!). This is a 2 mile round trip easy trail that can also be a 5 mile loop around the lake (still flat).
Quirky thing about the 2 mile version of this trail is – you can walk on either a paved road on one side of the river or a gorgeous wooded path on the other side (which is what we did in December). However, if you go on the woodsy side of the trail – you will not see the reflection of Half Dome in the lake!!
So just be aware of that – as the reason why this trial is called Mirror Lake is because the lake really does reflect the surroundings ;).
If you do the full 5 mile trail – you will be able to see reflections from both sides. Which we did not do this last December but did during our summer 2005 trip with the kids ;).
When we were there in summer 2005, it was quite hot so the lake was filled with swimmers and thus no mirroring happened then for us…🤷♀️
UPPER YOSEMITE FALL TRAIL TO COLUMBIA ROCK
Across from Yosemite Valley Lodge, this trail is a 2 mile, 1000 foot elevation gain strenuous hike.
But what’s the saying – no pain no gain? Well I guess I would change it in this instance to be – no pain, no view…
This was a spring 2014 hike for us – and that was perfect timing! Plenty of shade to keep us cooler in our tees and yoga pants! Actually, my teenage son had shorts on for that early spring trip!!
TUOLUMNE GROVE OF GIANT SEQUOIAS
This trail is actually not in the Valley… it is located on Tioga Road just east of the Crane Flat area of the park. This portion of the road is open year round – but the road actually closes in the winter right after the parking lot for this trail.
The trail is 2.5 miles round trip with a 500 foot elevation loss to the grove (and then obviously back up on the flip side!).
We did this hike in December when it was covered in snow – and boy oh boy was it incredibly peaceful and mind clearing!
My husband and I both decided it was a highlight of our Yosemite visit this time around ;).
GRIZZLY GIANT LOOP TRAIL
In the Mariposa Grove region of the park near the south entrance (this portion of the park can sometimes be closed due to snow so be sure to check!).
This trail is a 2 mile, 300 foot elevation gain trail that will bring you through a grove of sequoias that will blow your mind with their sheer size!!
Other Options of Activities in Yosemite National Park
While most people come to Yosemite for the hiking, camping, and sights, there are plenty more things to do in the park.
Use this link to learn about the many other possibilities like fishing, art classes, photography lessons, horseback riding, and more!
Places to See Outside of the Park
As I mentioned above in the lodging outside of the park section, we stayed at AutoCamp for two nights on our last visit in December.
From our house in San Diego to Yosemite Valley, it is an eight hour drive so this was the perfect stopover for us before heading in to the park ;).
Because it is over an hour from Mariposa to Yosemite Valley, we decided to stay in this mountain town for our one full day there and do some exploring.
We did a nice hike around a reservoir, checked out the cute main street, visited the town jail and museum, and had a pleasant dinner at a supper club.
I also mentioned the delicious breakfast cafe above that we found in this small rural town!
Best Photography Spots in Yosemite National Park
Obviously everywhere you turn in Yosemite is going to be scenic but there are a quite a few spots in the park that are kinda do not miss:
- Tunnel View will be your first view of the Valley right after the tunnel on Highway 41 if you enter via the South Entrance. It is most certainly one of the most famous views of the park. We found that if you actually go to the other side of the street where there is another parking lot past the first one you come to – you will have a view of Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall.
- Sentinel Bridge – be sure to walk the river shore for just a bit so that you can get the bridge in the photo!!
- The once yearly Firefall Occurrence – usually in February – it is expected to be around Feb 10th-28th in 2022.
- El Capitan Meadow
- Lower Yosemite Falls
- Merced River and Three Brothers Peak from Cathedral Beach
- Mirror Lake
- Half Dome from Big Oak Flat Road
- Glacier Point – normally open from May – early November but road is closed ALL OF 2022
- Taft Point – Glacier Point Road is closed for ALL OF 2022
- Mariposa Grove
Our Full Eight Day Winter 2021 Road Trip Itinerary
As mentioned earlier – it is just under an 8 hour drive from our home to Yosemite Valley. So we broke up that drive with a two night stop in Mariposa (chosen because of the novelty of AutoCamp also mentioned above!).
After an additional two nights in Yosemite at the Ahwahnee, we continued our winter road trip adventures with three nights in Carmel (post coming soon!).
- Drove from San Diego to AutoCamp in Mariposa, California (6.5 hours)
- Mariposa – Explored area while staying at AutoCamp Yosemite
- Yosemite – Drove to Valley (1 hour) – stayed at Ahwahnee – did Mirror Lake hike before checking in
- Yosemite – Tuolumne Grove hike – stayed at Ahwahnee
- Drove to Carmel, California (4 hours) – stayed at La Playa Carmel
- Carmel, CA
- Carmel, CA
- Drove home to San Diego (7 hours)
I hope you found this complete guide to Yosemite National Park helpful in planning your adventures to this magical place. As you can see, it holds a very special place in my heart.
There is actually an entire section in this post dedicated to national parks if you are looking for even more inspiration than those two posts! You can explore more of that here.
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Have a wonderful day my friend! I hope something makes you smile today ;).