Have you ever planned something perfectly only to have it fall apart at the last minute?

That’s exactly how we found ourselves visiting Yosemite National Park a few months ago.

Last September, we had a trip planned back east to the Carolina’s to visit Tiffany’s family and John’s dad and spend a week at the beach.

However, as life sometimes happens, we were thrown a giant curveball.

Hurricane Florence was headed for the east coast – with estimations that she would maintain a Cat 3 or 4 strength at landfall. And, her eye was predicted to hit right where we were supposed to be.

We anxiously watched for updates, hoping she would shift and we would still get to have our beach vacation with the fam. However, a couple of days before Flo hit land, we received notification from our airline that our flights had already been canceled.

The storm shifted and was downgraded before actual landfall, as often happens, but since our means of transportation were no longer available, we had to move to Plan B. 🤷🏻‍♀️


man with beard and brown hair and woman with brown curly hair in ponytail both wearing sunglasses and taking a selfie in front of Half Dome
Sometimes you just need a selfie!

Although we were disappointed that we didn’t get to spend the week with our family, Plan B turned out to be an Epic 11 Day California Road Trip that we planned in all of two days! One of the stops we knew we HAD to include was Yosemite National Park.

After visiting, we wished we could have spent at least a week in the park. However, we realize life doesn’t always give us (or maybe you) that luxury, so here we have our best tips for seeing Yosemite National Park in one day.

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No matter how sophisticated you may be, a huge granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.

Ansel Adams

Yosemite National Park: What to See in One Day

Where to Stay

When we left on our trip, we packed up the essentials for camping just in case we decided to pitch a tent at some point on the trip. However, mostly due to the fires that were burning all over Cali during our trip, we ended up in hotels instead. But, we were prepared! With so many options available within the park, finding a spot shouldn’t be too difficult. Most locations have a portion of sites available with online registration, but you’ll want to book early if you plan to camp as they fill up fast! In addition, many have sites that are first come first serve so if you arrive early, you may get lucky. Camp Trend has some excellent tips on camping in Yosemite without reservations here. In addition, you can find the details for lodging within the park here. If there hadn’t been so many fires, we definitely would have taken the camping option.

Instead, we found ourselves spending the night at the Yosemite Southgate Hotel before we ventured into the park. Located just 14 miles away, it was an easy drive to the south gate entrance. The hotel was nicely appointed, our room was spacious and everyone slept well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the pool, hot tub, or any of their other amenities as we arrived late and headed out early. However, we would totally recommend checking them out if you are looking for a comfy hotel close to the park!

view up towards geology hut at glacier point in Yosemite with boy standing at top looking down
Look at me, mom!

Glacier Point

While researching, we read that it was best to visit Glacier Point early in the morning to avoid the crowds (ALWAYS our mission). So, we checked out of the Yosemite Southgate Hotel around 7 am. Located just 14 miles away, it was an easy drive to the south gate entrance. Obviously, we could have started our day even earlier, but we opted to wait until we could grab a quick bite from the free continental breakfast.

Being the geniuses that we are, we failed to realize until we arrived at the park entrance that we were there on National Public Lands Day….meaning that it was also a fee-free day. So, not only did we end up there on a Saturday, it was a free Saturday – which means the crowds were out! Always as planned, right?! It would not have changed our plans, due to our driving schedule. But, we do recommend going on a day that is not fee-free, if your budget allows.

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Needless to say, we were thankful for our early start! We headed directly up to Glacier Point via the Glacier Point Road (typically open late May through October or November). The drive itself was beautiful and took about an hour and a half. After a short walk to the viewpoint, our early wake-up was rewarded with stunning views of Half Dome, the Yosemite Valley, and even a couple of waterfalls. Although, due to the dry weather, the falls were much smaller than you would see in the spring. Not only were the views stunning, but there were only a handful of other visitors when we first arrived. We had time to explore and enjoy the areas we wished, essentially on our own. However, by the time we left mid-morning, we were sharing the view with quite a few more friends.

sign with viewpoints at Glacier Point looking out over those landmarks for comparison
View of Half Dome and surrounding landmarks from Glacier Point.

Bridalveil Fall

Next, we headed into the valley, where our first stop was Bridalveil Fall. The trail was a short 0.5-mile round trip. Here, it was definitely more crowded than Glacier Point. However, the view was worth it. The falls plunge 620 ft and are known to be massive during the spring. Although, when we visited, due to the lack of rain, it was made up of wispy streams blown about by the wind.

whispy waterfall against backdrop of rocky mountain and green plants in bottom right corner of image
Whispy falls being blown by the wind at Bridalveil Fall.

Yosemite Valley

After Bridalveil Fall, we headed into the heart of Yosemite Valley to explore the Visitors Center and the Ansel Adams Gallery. John and I have always loved his work and seeing it in the gallery is simply amazing…we only wish the kids would have been willing to browse for hours!

view of Yosemite Valley from the top of glacier point
3214 feet down to the valley floor!

Additional Things to Do in Yosemite

Unfortunately, our schedule required that we get on the road mid-afternoon, so we started our trek out of the Valley. As the crowds began to disperse, we came across an area with stunning views and pull-offs along Hwy 120 East. So, we decided to pick one and had a private picnic lunch with views of the park.

blue skies, valley in the distance and green trees
Where we decided to stop for a picnic!

We also came across a viewpoint which we fail to remember the name of. However, our advice on your way out of the park is this: when you see a viewpoint, STOP! Even if you only have a few moments! It gives everyone a chance to stretch their legs and it is always worth it. We have never regretted stopping for a killer view.

Rocky mountains with evergreen trees dotted along them under blue sunny skies
An excellent spot to stop for the view.

Have More Time in Yosemite National Park?

If you have a little more time to spend, here are a few other stops and hikes that we wish we had been able to explore during our day. As we can’t speak to them personally, we have included names and locations below.

Taft Point

Only 2.2 miles round-trip, the hike at Taft Point looks to have stunning views similar to what you see at Glacier Point. We totally would love to do this hike.

Upper Yosemite Falls

Categorized as hard, this hike is just over 7 miles. We would venture to guess we would need the entire day in order to do this with the boys. Hopefully we can make it work on another trip when we are able to visit for more than a day.

Tenaya Lake 

Located off Tioga Road, this easy 2.5 mile loop around the lake looks gorgeous!

Tuolomne Meadows

Also off Tioga Road, this trail through a sub-alpine meadow is approximately 2 miles, depending on how much you want to explore.

Mist Trail to Vernal Fall

Honestly, this is probably the hike that we hate we couldn’t do the most. The Mist Trail to Vernal Fall is approximately 3 miles roundtrip of what looks to be spectacular views. It is on our must-do list for our next visit. 

Mariposa Grove

The largest sequoia grove in Yosemite, the Mariposa Grove is a great way to see some of California’s giant sequoias. However, we had just come from Sequoia National Park, so we felt our time would be better spent elsewhere.

For inspiration when you have more time, check out these 3 Bucketlist Trips to Yosemite Road Trips.

Final Thoughts on One Day in Yosemite National Park

No matter how you choose to spend your time in Yosemite National Park, you are sure to leave humbled by the vastness of nature. More importantly, you will come away with a greater appreciation of the diversity of our Country’s landscape. And, if you’re anything like us, you’ll already be planning your return!

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