Yosemite 2 Day Itinerary: Perfect for First Visit

Yosemite National Park covers nearly 1,200 square miles (over 3,100 square kilometres) of mountainous terrain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and abundant areas of natural beauty in all of the United States. 

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Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural importance and beauty, this iconic region has been on our travel wish list for years and for good reason! 

Often considered to be one of the must-visit national parks in the United States, it attracts millions of visitors every year. The park offers a plethora of sights and attractions with many hikes, scenic drives, and lookouts. 

There is enough to do in Yosemite National Park to spend a few weeks exploring every corner of this beautiful region (ah, if only we had that much time!). Instead, many first-time visitors, us included, spend just one or two days in Yosemite Park, focusing primarily on the Yosemite Valley Floor. 

Following our own visit earlier this year, with careful planning, many hours of research, and help from knowledgeable guides, we put together the ultimate Yosemite 2-day itinerary to help you plan the best weekend in Yosemite National Park. 

At Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park at sunset
Enjoying the views at Yosemite National Park
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We can’t wait to share this awesome itinerary with you, but before we dive in, let’s cover a few essential travel questions. 

Best Time to Visit Yosemite National Park

You can visit Yosemite Park at any time of the year, but the best season depends on what you plan to do in the area. There are some distinct pros and cons to each time of the year, so it’s worth taking these into consideration when planning your trip. 

Spring (March-May)

For waterfall chasers, spring is undoubtedly the best time to plan your Yosemite itinerary. Yes, the weather can be a bit variable, with rainy days and even occasional snow during the Spring months. On the bright side, the days can be warm and beautiful. You’ll find waterfalls gushing after rain and snowmelt, with the famous falls like Yosemite Falls at their most impressive. 

This is also an excellent time to enjoy wildflowers, which begin to bloom in Spring, particularly at lower elevations and in surrounding areas. 

The only real downside to spring is that depending on the year, some parts of the park may remain closed. Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible all year, but Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road are often closed in the Spring due to snow. Mariposa Grove Road also usually opens sometime in late Spring/early Summer. 

Admiring the gushing Yosemite Falls from a car window
Admiring the gushing Yosemite Falls

Summer (June-August)

The warmest months are definitely the most popular time to visit Yosemite. It can get very busy in the park, as all sections and roads are typically open by June, allowing access to different parts of Yosemite National Park, including the more remote Tioga Road and Tenaya Lake. 

The waterfalls can still be flowing at the beginning of summer, although it’s not uncommon to see them dry up by August. Wildflowers are in full bloom in the park’s higher elevations. 

Summer crowds can be intense, and accommodation can be hard to find. If you’re planning a Yosemite itinerary for summer, definitely book in advance and arrive at the park entrance before mid-morning, especially on weekends, to avoid the queues.

days in yosemite itinerary

Fall (September-November)

If you want to escape the crowds, Fall is a great time to visit Yosemite. The summer crowds are gone by September, and all areas of the park usually remain open through October and sometimes into November, depending on early snowfall. 

Waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls, tend to dry up by Fall, so you won’t be able to see those flowing at their best. The fall foliage makes up for it though, and creates beautiful colours for photographers looking to capture the landscape.

Winter (December-February)

Winter in Yosemite is a magical time of the year. Just keep in mind that only Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible throughout these months, with most other parts closed from October onwards. 

Days are frosty, with snow blanketing the park. Expect temperatures between 53°F (12°C) and 28°F (-2°C). However, once snow and rain have started to fall, and the waterfalls begin to flow again in late winter. 

Badger Pass Ski Area off Glacier Point Road is open from mid-December through mid-March. It offers a range of winter sports, including cross-country skiing, backcountry ski tours, snowboarding and snow tubing of all levels. 

While winter is usually incredibly quiet, during the winter holidays, traffic congestion and limited parking can be a problem. The annual Yosemite Firefall takes place in February. This is a special event in the park, when the angle of the sun causes the seasonally-occurring Horsetail Falls to become lit with orange light. The phenomenon attracts large crowds to the park and is particularly popular with photographers. So much like in the summer, weekends in February can be incredibly crowded and congested in Yosemite Park. 

Tenaya Resort at Yosemite
Winter in Yosemite

How to Get in/around Yosemite

You can get in and around Yosemite National Park either by driving yourself or using public transport. 

Driving to and around Yosemite 

The easiest and most convenient way to get to and around Yosemite National Park is by car. During the summer months, when the whole park is accessible, there are four entrances to Yosemite National Park: Highways 120 West (Big Oak Flat Entrance), 140 (via the famous Arch Rock Entrance), 41 (South Entrance via Fish Camp) and 120 East/Tioga Road. 

From San Francisco and the Bay Area to the west, it’s about a 3.5-hour drive to reach the park. From Los Angeles to the south, it’s about a 6-hour drive or just a 1.5-hour drive from Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

In off-peak times, having your own vehicle allows the ultimate freedom to explore the park at your own leisure. This is ideal if you want to plan a very flexible Yosemite 2-day itinerary. 

However, in peak times in summer and on weekends, parking can be very limited and driving around will be slowed considerably.

EV charging in Yosemite
Charging our rented Tesla at Yosemite National Park

Public Transport to Yosemite National Park

Bus services are available to Yosemite Valley throughout the year from many cities around California and the rest of the country. Amtrak and Greyhound operate long-distance buses to get to Merced. 

From Merced, the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS bus service) provides buses to get to Yosemite Valley. YARTS also provides limited services to Crane Flat, White Wolf, and Tuolumne Meadows daily during July and August (weekends only during June and September).

Free yosemite shuttle, yosemite 2 day itinerary
Free Yosemite shuttle

Free Shuttle Around Yosemite National Park

Once you’re in Yosemite Valley, take advantage of the free Yosemite Valley shuttle system that provides convenient access around the valley. This is incredibly convenient in high season, when parking your own vehicle in the park can be difficult. 

There are two routes within the valley:

  • Valleywide shuttle: This route serves nearly 20 stops in Yosemite Valley, including Valley Visitor Center, Lower Yosemite Falls, El Capitan Picnic Area and Mirror Lake. Buses arrive every 12 to 22 minutes from 7 am to 10 pm.
  • East Valley shuttle: This route is limited to the Yosemite Village, Curry Village, Pines campgrounds, and trailheads in eastern Yosemite Valley. Buses arrive every 8 to 12 minutes from 7 am to 10 pm.

There’s also a free shuttle service from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza (near South Entrance) to the Mariposa Grove. The shuttle operates from April until November, but dates vary from year to year, especially in Spring (due to conditions).

Yosemite National Park Shuttle map
Yosemite National Park Shuttle map

How Much Time do you Need in Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National Park is not a place for a whirlwind trip. The expansive wilderness area needs at least a couple of days to explore. We don’t recommend opting for just a day trip, as there wouldn’t be enough time to appreciate it.

Two days is a nice amount of time for a quick visit or first time, especially for those planning a Yosemite weekend trip. This will give you enough time to visit some of the main attractions and short walks like the Lower Yosemite Falls, as well as maybe one decent hike.

If you have three days or longer, you’ll be able to enjoy more walks, viewpoints and explore a little deeper in the park. You could schedule a longer day hike, plus extra time to enjoy the Merced River and add on a trip to Tuolumne Meadows, Hetch Hetchy, and Tioga Pass Road, or Grizzly Giant Loop Trail to see the giant sequoias in Wawona.

Merced river, yosemite 2 day itinerary

Tips for Visiting Yosemite National Park

  • Don’t forget to check in with the Yosemite Visitor Center upon arrival in the park to double-check the status of all trails and roads in the park before you set off on your Yosemite itinerary.
  • The Yosemite National Park entry fee is $35 per vehicle and valid for seven consecutive days. You can also purchase an annual pass for the park for $70. Purchase tickets in advance to avoid waiting in lines on arrival. It’s also possible to purchase tickets from the National Park Service at the park’s entrance.
  • Book accommodation in advance if planning your 2-days in Yosemite during a weekend or high season. Lodging and camping can book out months in advance.
  • Become an early morning person. Exploring the park outside of the popular visiting hours of 9am to 5pm is ideal for enjoying some of the beauty with fewer crowds. The hours between 7am to 9am and 6pm to 8pm are best, especially for photographers.
  • Avoid taking your car into the park during the middle of the day. Parking can be a headache, so utilize the free shuttle service instead.
  • Be mindful of cell service. There’s minimal coverage across the park, so ensure you have all the information you need for your 2 days in Yosemite National Park. Some accommodations, such as the Yosemite Valley Lodge or Yosemite View Lodge offer free Wi-Fi, but even that can be patchy and slow. 
  • Never approach or feed any of the wildlife, especially bears and not even squirrels. For the safety of the animals and yourself, give wildlife plenty of room to move away safely. 
  • Stay on the marked trail. Going off trail can damage certain plant and animal species, as well as hurt surrounding ecosystems. 
  • Pack appropriate clothing for the season, including layers for warmth, a rain jacket, and good hiking boots for exploring the more rugged trails.

Two Days in Yosemite: Our Recommended Itinerary

If you’re looking for the ultimate Yosemite 2-day itinerary, this is how we recommend you spend your time in the park based on our experience. 

Day 1: Morning

Yosemite Valley Floor Tour

Start your Yosemite National Park itinerary with a two-hour Yosemite Valley Floor Tour. For us, this tour offered the perfect introduction to the history of the park and an excellent overview of the main attractions on the Yosemite Valley Floor. 

The tour is available all year round and costs just $40 per adult and $28 per child. In the warmer months, the tour takes place in an open-air tram, while in the colder months, it’s done using a heated bus. The tour is led by Park Rangers and naturalists and offers a lot of insightful commentaries and stories about the park. We loved our guide’s passion for the park. His stories went beyond facts and offered colourful accounts of historical events and significant milestones in the park. He made us laugh and listen and fueled our own desire to see more and experience more within the park. 

Tours depart daily from the Yosemite Valley Lodge and feature stops at El Capitan, Tunnel View, and Sentinel Bridge, as well as sightings of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls.

Day 1: Lunch

Lunchtime is not a fancy affair on Yosemite Valley Floor. We found a number of eateries in the valley with some good grab-and-go options but nothing too exciting. Base Camp Eatery or Degnan’s Deli in Yosemite Village are your best bets for cheap and cheerful lunch options. 

Base Camp Eatery 

Located in Yosemite Lodge, Base Camp Eatery, is the most basic food stop in the Valley. This food hall serves lunch from 11am onwards and offers a spacious informal dining room with a menu featuring daily soup, salad, sandwiches/wraps, and other basic dishes. The interior design honours the history of rock climbers in Yosemite, with some images and information on the sport’s history. There’s indoor and outdoor seating to suit whatever weather.

We’ll be honest, we found the food at Base Camp Eatery to be less than exciting. It’s a good option in a pinch but not the best food you will have in the Valley. Vegetarian options were also limited. 

Degnan’s Kitchen and Deli

Located in Yosemite Village, just walking distance down from the Visitor Center, Degnan’s Kitchen and Deli is set up like a deli-style diner and offers fresh sandwiches, artisan pizzas, as well as baked goods. Good vegan and vegetarian options are on offer. There is a new coffee shop on site as well, brewing up great coffees and excellent teas, including our personal favourite – a great Matcha Latte. 

Day 1: Afternoon

Hike to Mirror Lake

After fueling up, it’s time to hit some trails. While it’s easy to cruise around the Valley Floor, gawking at the main sights from the comfort of a vehicle, a visit would not be complete without hitting at least a few trails in the park. Not a big hiker? Don’t worry, it’s easy to squeeze in a couple of easy hikes into your Yosemite 2-day itinerary.

For your first afternoon, we recommend an easy trail like the Mirror Lake hike. It’s short, it’s easily accessible, and it allows you to see the Half Dome from a unique perspective (when visiting at the right time of the year). For us, it was the perfect taster of hiking in Yosemite National Park. 

The Mirror Lake trail is 2.4 miles round trip (3.8 km) and is a fairly flat and well-maintained path. The trail begins from Yosemite Valley Shuttle Stop #17 and follows a paved path almost all the way. The last few hundred metres of the path are uphill with a gentle incline. The path then snakes around the lake, offering a number of spots to relax, dip your toes in the water and admire the beautiful viewpoints of the lake. 

For us, the highlight of this hike was the chance to see a beautiful reflection of Half Dome in Mirror Lake. We snapped way too many photos and stayed for a while, taking in the beauty of the area. 

READ NEXT: 5 Easy Hikes in Yosemite (in and out of the Park)

yosemite 2 day itinerary
On the trail at Mirror Lake

It’s worth noting that Mirror Lake is a seasonal lake. During our visit, in the Spring, the “lake” was completely full, but in the warmer summer months, it tends to dry up and becomes more of a meadow. Not surprisingly, the trail to Mirror Lake was quite busy, with many parkgoers choosing to add a visit to Mirror Lake to their Yosemite itinerary. 

Day 1: Dinner & Sunset

Enjoy Dinner & Sunset at Ahwanee Hotel

There are a number of spots to enjoy dinner in the park, but we followed a less conventional plan of dining at the Ahwahnee Hotel, just outside of Yosemite Village. Many visitors assume that the hotel is off-limits to non-guests, but that’s actually not the case. Anyone can rock up to the hotel and enjoy a meal or drinks at their on-site bar and restaurant. 

This 4-star hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. The stylish hotel lobby, restaurant, and bar offer the perfect mountain escape, with stone walls and large open windows. The outdoor patio has been recently renovated to provide panoramic views of the park. 

While you can dine at the restaurant, we recommend a more casual option of dinner at the Ahwahnee Bar. The menu is limited but offers a number of locally and sustainably sourced options. We ordered a Burrata Salad and Pork Ribs with a glass of local wine and took our meals outside to be enjoyed on the patio by the fire. The food was fantastic, and the views – unbeatable! 

It’s the perfect spot to enjoy the sunset and raise a glass to a great first day in Yosemite National Park. 

Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park
Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park

Day 2: Morning

Spend the second day in Yosemite, hitting the trails and exploring a bit more of the Yosemite Valley Floor. You’ll want to start early to avoid the crowds because this morning, we suggest that you tackle two of the most popular hikes in the national park: Lower Yosemite Falls & Upper Yosemite Falls

Start with a short hike to Lower Yosemite Falls 

Take the Free Yosemite Valley Shuttle Bus and get off at Shuttle Bus Stop #6 or drive to the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead. 

This trail leads to the bottom of Yosemite Falls (hence the name Lower Falls), North America’s tallest waterfall, which drops 2,425 feet. This 1-mile (1.6 km) loop is a flat and fully paved trail, one of the easiest hikes in Yosemite National Park. 

Be prepared to share the trail with many others and brace yourself as you get closer to the falls, especially if you are visiting in the Spring like we did. You’ll feel the power of the gushing falls and be enveloped in the gentle kisses of the misty spray of Lower Yosemite Falls. 

Hike to Columbia Rock on Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

It’s then time to see the Upper Yosemite Falls! The complete Upper Yosemite Falls hike is 7.5 miles long and is rated as difficult, but if you are not up for an all-day hike, don’t be discouraged. There is an awesome shorter hike along Upper Yosemite Falls trail that we highly recommend. 

Simply follow the Upper Yosemite Trail about 2 miles (3.2 km) to Columbia Rock. This 2-mile hike should take about 2-3 hours and offers one of the best views in the entire Yosemite Valley. The trailhead for Columbia Rock starts at Camp 4. The easiest way to get there is to hop on the Free Shuttle and get off at Shuttle Stop #7 or park across the road at the Yosemite Valley Lodge.

After a steep climb of about 30-45 mins, you’ll reach Columbia Rock, which offers a viewing platform overlooking Yosemite Valley and Merced River Canyon, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock near Glacier Point and Eagle Peak (which appears similar to El Capitan). Continue past Columbia Rock for another 15 mins to reach the first viewpoint of Upper Yosemite Falls. You can then continue along the trail if you are doing the full hike or turn around and head back into town. 

Either way, this is a great hike and a nice alternative, offering views similar to those at Taft Point or Glacier Point.  

Admiring the views of Yosemite Valley Floor form Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
Admiring the views of Yosemite Valley Floor from Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

Day 2: Lunch

After your morning hikes, grab a late lunch at Curry Village Pizza Deck. It’s the best place for a wood-fired pizza on the Valley Floor. The restaurant is located in a different part of the Valley Floor, which offers a nice excuse to explore another corner of the valley. 

Curry Village Pizza Deck has a great outside deck, perfect for enjoying the mid-morning sun on a nice day. Alternatively, you can dine inside their spacious dining room.  

Day 2: Afternoon

Admire the Views on Cook’s Meadow Loop

Walk off your pizza by taking the short and easy Cook’s Meadow Loop for plenty of spectacular views. Beginning just near the Visitor Center, this 1-mile (1.6 km) loop hike is completely flat yet offers incredible perspectives of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point, and Sentinel Rock.

Then, head out and visit other attractions around Yosemite Valley. 

Check out El Capitan Meadow, a beautiful riverside meadow near the base of El Capitan that offers views of the famous rocky cliff. Then, continue to Bridalveil Falls Trailhead and walk half a mile to the viewpoint of these impressive falls, tumbling 620 feet (189 meters) down a granite escarpment. 

Hike the Mist Trail

Or, if you’re full of energy and want a tougher challenge to see a waterfall, try Mist Trail. This 3-mile return hike leads you to Vernal Fall via Vernal Fall Bridge. It is a bit steep, climbing 1,000 ft (300 m), but follows a well-made trail. If you visit in the Spring, you’ll be able to feel the mist of Vernal Fall. There’s also the option to continue to Nevada Fall, which is another 2 miles.

MCD 2172 2
Vernal Fall. Photo courtesy of Yosemite Mariposa County/Tony McDaniel

READ NEXT: 9 Best Things to do in Mariposa County, California

Explore Other Attractions on the Valley Floor

Visit the Ansel Adams Gallery to see the incredible work of renowned photographer Ansel Adams that brought fame and glory to the park. Let his iconic black-and-white images serve as inspiration for your own photos of the park. 

Pop into Yosemite Museum, located near the visitor center. The museum is dedicated to preserving and sharing the cultural history of Yosemite’s native people, the Ahwahneechee, their traditions, crafts, and the park’s significance to their community.

Or peruse the aisles of the Yosemite Village Store, an output offering Yosemite-themed souvenirs, books, maps, educational materials, as well as food, drinks and snacks. 

yosemite 2 day itinerary
Inspired by Ansel Adams

Day 2: Dinner & Sunset

Dinner at the Mountain Room

To finish this Yosemite 2-day itinerary with a bang, head to dinner at The Mountain Room in Yosemite Valley Lodge. This restaurant boasts striking views of the 2,424-foot-high Yosemite Falls and offers the perfect backdrop to your last meal. Much like the rest of the restaurants in the park, the menu at Mountain Room features local, organic and seasonal produce, including sustainable fish and seafood.

Sunset at Tunnel View

Then, skip dessert and head out for sunset at Tunnel View. Just a 15-minute drive away from the restaurant, Tunnel View is undoubtedly one of the most famous viewpoints in the park. 

It’s an incredible spot to watch the sunset over the park and our favourite spot to end the day at Yosemite. By sunset, the crowds at Tunnel View will have disappeared, leaving just a handful of photographers gathering to witness yet another stunning sunset at Yosemite. 

Finish your 2 day Yosemite itinerary overlooking the valley with views of  El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Clouds Rest, Half Dome and Sentinel Rock. 

Tunnel View at sunset, Yosemite National Park
Tunnel View at Sunset

Disclaimer: We visited Yosemite National Park as guests of Yosemite Mariposa County, but, as always, all opinions expressed int his article are our own. 

 

READ NEXT: On Wapama Falls Trail in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

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