Everyone told us it was the worst time of the year to visit Yosemite National Park. In July it would be crowded, temperatures scorching, and the waterfalls dried up. But it was our third visit to California and we still hadn’t made it to the famous park. We didn’t want to miss another opportunity so we went anyway and hoped that the awe-inspiring beauty that everyone raves about would overcome the negatives.
We’re so glad we did. Visiting Yosemite in the summer had some downsides, but it was absolutely worth it and we never regretted our decision for a minute. We spent three days hiking through alpine meadows and giant sequoia groves, gazing at spectacular granite peaks, and admiring one magnificent vista after another. Despite our fears the heat wasn’t too bad, we had plenty of tranquil moments, saw some waterfalls, and benefited from all roads being open in the summer.
We had three full days in Yosemite arriving on Wednesday night and spending Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the park. It was noticeably quieter midweek so avoid the weekends if you can or plan to visit the less visited areas.
We wanted to do some hiking but not hardcore full day hikes and found the Yosemite Hikes site invaluable in our planning—we’ve linked to their hike descriptions throughout this post.
Yosemite 3-Day Itinerary Contents
- Arriving in Yosemite & Accommodation
- Day 1 (9.30am to 9pm) - Cooks Meadow Loop, Taft Point, Sentinel Dome, Glacier Point & Tunnel View
- Day 2 (6am to 5pm) - Mist Trail & Mariposa Grove
- Day 3 (7am to 3pm) - Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, Gaylor Lakes
- Extending Your Trip - Mono Lake & Bodie
- Resources for Planning a Trip to Yosemite
Arriving in Yosemite & Accommodation
Yosemite Bug Hostel Review
Accommodation inside the park is very expensive so we stayed at Yosemite Bug, a hostel 26 miles from Yosemite Valley near Midpines. They have a range of accommodation from dorm beds to private cabins. We went for the least expensive private option, a tent cabin with a proper bed, electricity and shared bathroom. At $60 a night it was good value for the area.
We liked the forest setting, having access to a kitchen to make packed lunches, and the comfy sofas in the cafe, but it had some issues. The car park, kitchen and showers were really busy if we got back too late, the food in the cafe wasn’t great with limited vegetarian options, and we really would have appreciated air conditioning at that time of year (available in the more expensive cabins).
Our biggest regret was staying so far out of the park. The drive takes an hour or more each way and as we were getting started early the days were really long and we were too exhausted to stay out for sunset. It would have been great to have a break in the middle of the day but it was too far to travel.
Other Yosemite Accommodation
If you can afford it, definitely splurge on accommodation in the park (ideally Yosemite Valley)—it’s what we’ll do next time. Make sure you book far in advance for the summer—the best rooms sell out a year ahead. The Majestic Yosemite Lodge is the most luxurious hotel in the park and the Yosemite Valley Lodge (probably my choice for next time) is more affordable and has a great location close to Yosemite Falls. You could also camp at a number of campsites. See the Yosemite National Park website for the full range of options.
If you can’t afford Yosemite Valley accommodation or it’s already fully booked, I recommend looking for hotels in El Portal, which is the nearest town to the Valley. Yosemite View Lodge looks like a good option—rooms have mountain views and kitchenettes, there are indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and it’s only a 20-minute drive to Yosemite Village.
It’s also worth looking on Airbnb for holiday homes in Yosemite as they can be cheaper than hotels and you have the benefit of your own kitchen.
Arriving in Yosemite
We arrived at the hostel late afternoon on Wednesday from Sonoma. We knew Midpines was very small so we stopped in Merced for groceries on the way, and promptly wished we’d done so in foodie heaven Sonoma where everything is local and organic, not like the processed stuff in an average American supermarket.
We’d planned to go into the park for sunset at Artist Point but were too exhausted after the long drive—another reason to stay in the park as you can maximise your time there.
Day 1 (9.30am to 9pm) – Cooks Meadow Loop, Taft Point, Sentinel Dome, Glacier Point & Tunnel View
Cooks Meadow Loop
We had every intention of making an early start but we were tired after the drive and didn’t make it into the park until 10.30am. We entered at the entrance on Highway 140 and bought our ticket ($30 per car valid for seven days). It wasn’t as crowded as we expected and we got parked easily at Sentinel Bridge for the Cooks Meadow Loop hike (2.25 miles) around the Yosemite Valley. It was the perfect introduction to the park—easy and flat, not too busy, and with stunning views.
We walked through lush green meadows and along the river, with views of Half Dome and granite cliffs soaring above. Usually there are views of Yosemite Falls but in the summer it had completely dried up, and the side trip to the falls wasn’t worth it. We also took a side trip to Yosemite Village to pick up a hiking map and visit the Ansel Adams gallery. There’s also a shop and restaurants here.
When we’d finished the short hike things were getting busier and the nearby picnic spots were full. We drove to the base of El Capitan which is a bit further out so picnic tables were still available for our packed lunch (we bought a cool bag and ice blocks to keep our food and water cool during the day).
Taft Point & Sentinel Dome
After lunch we made our way out of the valley and up winding Glacier Point Rd. Most people come for the panoramic views at Glacier Point (an hour drive from the valley) but we stopped off for some hikes along the way.
We arrived at the trailhead to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point at about 3pm and spent three hours there—an hour for each hike and 30 minutes at the top of each. Both hikes are short, not too crowded or difficult (there are some steep parts but we hiked them in sports sandals), and have seriously spectacular views at the top.
It is possible to do a loop that combines the Taft Point and Sentinel Dome hikes but this actually takes longer (perhaps four hours total) and the trail is less obvious. Plus by returning to the trailhead between each hike we would use the toilet and get more water from our car.
The Taft Point hike (2.2 miles) started through the forest, with furry green moss glowing on the trees and deer getting surprisingly close. At the top we enjoyed the vertigo-inducing views as we tentatively peered over the edge of the rock fissures and down and down to the valley.
A couple of crazy guys were attempting to tightrope between two rocks, nothing but thousands of feet of air beneath them. The first one got half way across before he lost his footing and fell, his cries piercing the air as our hearts stopped. His harness caught him and he managed to get off unharmed but obviously shaken. It didn’t stop his friend who we watched holding our breath as he slowly made it all the way across.
We followed the trail back the way we came to the trailhead before continuing on to Sentinel Dome (2.2 miles). This was a bit steeper at the end as we ascended the rocky dome but still a fairly easy hike. The views at the top were even better with a 360-degree view of multiple peaks including Half Dome glowing in the late afternoon light.
Update 2017: There are now restrictions on driving on Glacier Point Rd from Mid-May to September between 10 am and 4.30 pm. If the Glacier Point parking lot is full you will have to park at Badger Pass and take the shuttle bus to Glacier Point (it also stops at the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point trailhead). See the NPS website for the latest details.
Our itinerary will still work if you arrive at 4.30pm and continue on to Glacier Point for sunset. Or you could start the day in the Glacier Point area and arrive at the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point parking area before 10 am. Instead of two separate hikes, you could hike along a section of the Pohono Trail from Taft Point to Sentinel Dome and on to Glacier Point. From there you can take the shuttle bus back to your car.
Glacier Point & Tunnel View
We continued on up to Glacier Point stopping along the way for more amazing views.
Glacier Point is rightly popular and was quite busy. The views are incredible and it’s the best place to get a sense of the scale and beauty of Yosemite. You can see the peaks of the high country, Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and right down to the verdant carpet of meadows and forest in the valley far below.
The cafe closed at 5pm so we were glad we had enough food for a picnic dinner. We’d have loved to have stayed for sunset but it was too late in summer (8.15pm) and we were now a two-hour drive from our hostel. So we headed back down to the valley hoping to catch sunset at the famous viewpoint Tunnel View. 30 minutes before sunset it was empty though as the sun was hidden behind mountains and I think we missed the best light. We were treated to a sky illuminated in pink and purple on the drive back.
Day 2 (6am to 5pm) – Mist Trail & Mariposa Grove
For our “big hike” we chose the Mist Trail (7 miles). We were worried that this popular hike would be very crowded and hot in the summer but by starting at 7am it was fine. There were other hikers but not too many, and we easily got parked at the trailhead despite hearing that it’s often full with early risers hiking up to Half Dome.
The steep trail, partly on stairs carved out of the rock, took us up past Vernal and Nevada Falls which even in summer had good flows (but not enough to get wet as you do in the spring).
At the top of Nevada Falls we chose to hike back down via the Muir Trail rather than retrace our steps. The trail was much quieter and there are fantastic views of Nevada Falls from afar. We were often alone and got a taste of the wilderness experience without having to hike too far.
Near the bottom we rejoined the trail to Vernal Falls and at 11am it was extremely busy with panting tourists struggling up to Vernal Bridge. An early start is definitely recommended.
We treated ourselves to pizza, coffee, and ice-cream at Curry Village for lunch.
After our 5am start and five-hour hike we were exhausted and really wished we were staying in the park for a nap. After a long lunch we made the effort and headed up to Mariposa Grove about an hour drive away. Unfortunately, we missed the sign saying the car park at the Grove was full so had to drive an extra four miles each way and come back to the visitor centre parking where we took the shuttle.
I admit our enthusiasm was waning at this point and we decided just to do the short 1.2-mile hike to the 1800 year old Grizzly Tree. The giant red trees are impressive but at this time of year many were burnt (the burning is needed for restoration) and it was very hot and crowded—Friday afternoon definitely felt busier than Thursday. We much preferred our experience at Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve in Sonoma.
I think it’s only worth going up to Mariposa Grove for a longer hike to get away from the crowds, preferably early. It probably would have made more sense to combine the grove in the morning with Glacier Point in the afternoon and do the valley stuff in one day, but we didn’t get an early enough start on Day 1 to do that.
Day 3 (7am to 3pm) – Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, Gaylor Lakes
Our final day was a Saturday so we visited one of the quieter areas of the park high up along Tioga Rd (only accessible in the summer), a two hour drive from our hostel (one hour from the valley). We entered the park through the west 140 entrance as usual but left via the east Tioga Pass entrance and spent our last night in Lee Vining (details below).
Olmsted Point & Tenaya Lake
Our first quick stop was at Olmsted Point for yet another view of Half Dome, this time from far above, and as always stunning. We were sad to realise this would be our last glimpse of the valley.
A little further along is Tenaya Lake. It was quiet and beautiful, with reflections of the surrounding granite domes in the calm water, and only a couple of stand up paddleboarders around. We didn’t hike around the lake but it’s only 2.5 miles so it would be worthwhile.
After stocking up on food at the grill and shop we went back to the visitor centre for the flat, easy and surprisingly quiet 1.5 miles hike to Soda Springs. It was a gorgeous sunny day but cooler than the valley and far quieter even on a Saturday.
We walked through the green Tuolumne Meadows, along a winding crystal clear river with a backdrop of granite mountains and forest in the distance. Soda Springs is a small spring with carbonated water bubbling from the ground.
Our last hike Gaylor Lakes is just before the Tioga Pass park entrance at nearly 10,000 feet (3000 metres) altitude.
We felt the altitude on the short but steep climb at the beginning but it was worth it for the views down to the lakes and back to Dana Meadows and Mt Dana. From the pass we climbed down to Middle Gaylor Lake which, with only a few other people around, felt very remote, incredible considering how close we were to the car park. The changeable weather and craggy granite mountains surrounding the lake gave it a real alpine feel.
After walking around the middle lake we set off through the meadow of boulders and wildflowers towards Lower Gaylor Lake. We’d lost the trail as we didn’t have a map but it’s open and flat up here so it’s hard to get lost. It felt utterly secluded and peaceful, and even on a Saturday afternoon, there were only a few fishermen on the far side of the lower lake.
It took us three hours to visit the two lakes including a leisurely picnic, but you could spend as long as you like up here visiting the other lakes. We highly recommend this hike for a taste of high mountain scenery and seclusion without having to hike too far.
After Gaylor Lake we left the park at the Tioga Pass and drove along the narrow winding road on the edge of the dramatic Lee Vining Canyon.
Extending Your Trip – Mono Lake & Bodie
We were finished by 3pm on Day 3 and could have driven back to San Francisco but it’s a long drive (5 hours) and there are some fascinating attractions just outside the park.
We spent the night in Lee Vining, a tiny town a short drive outside of the park. We stayed at El Mono Motel which at $89 was the cheapest we found and had modern, nicely furnished rooms, a small garden, and onsite coffee shop.
We were there to visit the unusual tufa rock formations at Mono Lake at sunset and sunrise, just a 20-minute drive away. On our way back to San Francisco the next day we also stopped at the remote ghost town of Bodie. Both places are definitely worth a detour and adding an extra night to your Yosemite itinerary.
Resources for Planning a Trip to Yosemite
- The Yosemite National Park site has lots more information and downloadable maps to help you plan your trip.
- Yosemite Hikes has great hike descriptions.
- Search for accommodation on Booking.com or Airbnb.
- Find the best car rental deal on Rental Cars.
- All photos were taken with my Olympus OMD-EM5, a fantastic mirrorless camera that’s much smaller and lighter than an SLR.
- See our carry-on only packing list for what we packed for our trip.
- If you are visiting from outside the US, don’t forget travel insurance. We’ve used True Traveller for the last six years as they are the best value we’ve found for EU/UK citizens. World Nomads is another reliable option and is available worldwide.
- See our travel resources page for more resources and gear recommendations to help you plan your trip.
Yosemite exceeded all of our expectations. With some careful planning, the summer weather and crowds didn’t prevent us enjoying this spectacular place which has some of the best views and hikes we’ve ever experienced. We saw a lot in three days but still only a fraction of what the park has to offer. We know we’ll be back—at any time of year.
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Are you planning your travels for 2018? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip.