Yosemite National Park in California, designated a World Heritage Site, is one of the natural wonders of the world. It is known for its sheer granite cliffs, numerous waterfalls, giant sequoias, and inspiring scenic views. It became the very first national park protected by the federal government in 1864 and attracts millions of visitors annually to explore its rugged wilderness. You could certainly spend days here exploring all that Yosemite has to offer. But sometimes a day will have to do. Luckily, even if you only have one day in Yosemite to take in all its beauty, if you follow our special Yosemite itinerary, you will be able to enjoy all the highlights.
This itinerary that will allow you to spend a full day in Yosemite is based on my family of 5’s trip that we took in July a few years ago. Everything we explain is able to be accomplished in a day. It would certainly be more pleasant if you can spread it out over two to three days, but if one day is all you have you better get an early morning start because, depending on the time of year you go, the valley floor of Yosemite can get quite crowded. It takes a lot of time to get from one place to the next.
Yosemite is about three hours from San Francisco. Most people arriving from out of state will probably start their journey there. We were visiting family in central California so our drive from San Luis Obispo was approximately 6 hours which took us through Fresno. Regardless of where you are coming from, you are probably going to need a place to stay nearby. Getting to Yosemite is not exactly a day trip. Even if you just spend one day in Yosemite, it is unlikely that after a long day of hiking and seeing the sites that you are going to want to drive back from wherever you came from without getting at least one full night’s rest. Luckily there are plenty of Yosemite hotels to choose from.
In peak season, especially during the summer months, the hotel or lodge you stay at may require a 2 to 3 night stay so make sure to check that out. Of course there are plenty of places nearby that you can simply pitch a tent to spend the night but again, regardless of where you stay, make sure to check out length of stay policies in advance for the time of year you go.
Rush Creek Lodge
The best option for our family was Rush Creek Lodge. This beautiful, scenic lodge offered a large pool, brand new rooms with incredible tree lined views, a pretty good restaurant on site, and plenty of activities to keep my family of five entertained when we weren’t out in the valley. This was a great place for our family to use as home base while we explored the area. We went in early July and were required to book a 3 night stay though we only spent one day in Yosemite taking in the sights. During our second full day, we were able to sit back, relax, and enjoy all the resort had to offer.
We swam in the pool, lounged around on hammocks, explored the interesting grounds, played some shuffleboard and pool and pretty much just enjoyed being on vacation. I’m a big one for resort days so wherever you stay, make sure to take some time to enjoy your lodgings.
Get a guide
On your first trip to Yosemite, I HIGHLY recommend hiring a guide to take you and your family on a guided tour. There is simply so much to see and so many hidden gems to uncover that Yosemite can be quite overwhelming if you don’t know what you are doing or where you are going. Your guide will make sure to take the best way, show you the most scenic routes, and generally will make sure you see the best sights.
We booked a private guide from our resort, Rush Creek Lodge. Prices for guides vary based on the hotel you are staying at, whether you join a group guided tour or book a private guide like we did. Check with your lodging to get their advice for what you are looking for before you arrive.
I can unequivocally say that our one day in Yosemite was so much fun and so fulfilling BECAUSE we used a guide. I know that if we had tried to manage it on our own, we would have had a day of frustrations trying to tackle the vast wilderness that is Yosemite.
Get an early start
The best way to have enough time to see everything is to get up early! Trust me, there is SO much to see during your one day in Yosemite that you are going to want to get an early start. Your first day in Yosemite is going to be packed, so grab some sack lunches and plenty of granola bars and water and get up and on your way early! Later in the day there are more tourists so as they say; “The early bird gets the worm” really applies to making the most of one day in Yosemite.
Go to the Sequoias
Some of the best things to see in the Yosemite area are the giant sequoias. There are a few different groves of giant sequoias around the Yosemite Valley.
The largest and most legendary is the Mariposa Grove. Here you will find approximately 500 mature giant Sequoias. Some of these are quite famous including “The Bachelor and the Three Graces” and the “Grizzly Giant”. There are several different hikes you can take through this area, some of which are quite strenuous hikes.
With the different trail loops, you could spend anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 to 4 hours on these trails. Since you only have 1 day in Yosemite, be careful about spending too much time here because there is plenty more to see.
Another grove of giant sequoias is at Tuolumne grove. It is a pretty easy hike to get to this grove since it is all downhill. There are only a couple dozen sequoias here but the time to see them is quite manageable. All the pictures of sequoias in this post are from my family trip to Tuolumne Grove, including the tunnel tree. (it’s obviously dead, but still quite neat.)
It is amazing to stand amongst these giant Sequoias knowing that they have been growing for literally thousands of years. The hardest part of visiting Tuolumne Grove was the hike back, which is all uphill. You will climb 400 feet up the mountain on the way back! But, it is such a great place with such incredible trees to see that it is worth it!
For spectacular views, the best way to see Yosemite is by the famous “Tunnel View“, a view that was made famous by Ansel Adams photography. With this view you will see iconic features of Yosemite like the sheer granite cliff of El Capitan on the left, the incredible monolith Half Dome in the right background, and the famous Bridal Veil Falls on the right. It truly is magnificent to see. It is a great idea to see this view right away and then go to see all the marvels close up. Our guide parked us in the right spot and then we took a short walk up to get these incredible shots.
Rising 3,000 feet from base to summit, El Capitan is a sheer granite monolith that towers above Yosemite valley. There are almost always some rock climbers on the face of Yosemite and guides would be able to take you to the best view from which to see these climbers. They literally look like ants against the magnificent granite wall.
When we visited in July of 2017, Alex Honnold had just completed the first free solo climb of the giant monolith in a record 3 hours and 56 minutes. You can see that incredible climb by watching the documentary “Free Solo”. Later on during that same year, an enormous rock fall on El Capitan killed a climber. Regardless of the danger, the sheer vertical face of El Capitan seems to draw climbers from around the world.
One of the most iconic monoliths in Yosemite is the rounded top of Half Dome. Approximately 50,000 hikers attempt the strenuous hike to the rounded summit. This cable route is done between two cables and is rated a class 3 hike. You must get a permit to participate in this hike.
The ashes of Ansel Adams, whose photographs made Half Dome famous, were scattered across Half Dome after his death in 1984.
Yosemite is known for some very impressive waterfalls. The best time of year to visit Yosemite to see these waterfalls is late spring or early summer while the waterfalls are at their peak due to the melting snow in the mountains.
Bridal Veil Falls is one of the most recognizable as it flows all year, is beautiful to see and is easily seen from Tunnel View. You can park and take an easy walk to the base of the falls where you may even get sprayed.
Yosemite Falls is one of the highest in North America and is amazing to see as the water cascades nearly 1/2 a mile down. You can often see a rainbow from the upper Yosemite Falls. Your best bet to see this impressive water fall in the spring or early summer since by August it will mostly dry up.
Nevada Falls is also an impressive water fall and flows all year and is easily identified by its curved shape and cascading mist.
I won’t name all the waterfalls that Yosemite has to offer since there are literally thousands in the area. If you have a guide and they take you down Big Oak Flat Road or any of the roads in Yosemite, you will come across many. Especially in the spring.
Even if you don’t have much time, it is fun to go cool off in one of the numerous swimming holes around the Yosemite Valley after a full day of exploring. Your hotel or guide can recommend some of the best spots. In the summer, these little swimming holes can be quite crowded but they are still worth it to take some time to visit.
Yosemite National Park has some great history behind it and this can be seen all over the area. Native Americans inhabited the land for thousands of years. The Gold Rush in California then brought over 90,000 European- Americans to the land causing conflict with the Native people. Later on, in 1864 Abraham Lincoln set up the Yosemite Grant. This was the first time land had been set aside for preservation by the US government.
Later on John Muir would be instrumental in helping to persuade President Teddy Roosevelt to set aside the land for Yosemite National Park . This helped preserve this area of natural wonder for future generations. Ansel Adams would go on to inspire the nation with his incredible photography.
Yosemite National Park is one of the most amazing natural treasures in the United States. You could easily spend several days here and still find a new area to explore. But even if you only have one day in Yosemite, it is sure to be amazing if you follow our advice.
Have you ever been to Yosemite? Which of our recommendations have you done? Which of our recommendations are you going to try? Do you disagree with any of our suggestions? What are we missing? Join the conversation and share any tips, questions or additional thoughts in the comments!
For more travel ideas be sure to check out our other posts!