Your Ultimate Weekend Guide Out of LA and into Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley is one of the grandest National Parks due to it’s vast array of landscape and beauty. From the lush green forestry to the stony cliff sides surrounding it, the valley captures the heart of all who enter.
Yosemite National Park, spanning across approximately 1,200 square miles of the Sierra Nevada’s mountainous terrain, is open year round to visitors. You may drive a car into and around the valley, but a shuttle is encouraged for some areas (and totally free!). Road closures are frequent from about November – May due to snow.
The nearest airport is the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, which is 80 miles (49km) away from Mariposa County. To rent a car from this airport and drive to Yosemite would take about 1.46 hours. From San Francisco International Airport, the drive would cover 200 miles (124km) and take about 3.31 hours. From Los Angeles International Airport, the drive is 300 miles (186km) and takes roughly 5.25 hours.
Fresno International airport
Driving to Yosemite IS an option. During the snow season, you can take YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transit System) from any stop along the State Highway 140 beginning in Merced if you’d rather avoid winter driving. Again, there is a free shuttle bus in the valley once you arrive that has stops throughout the valley floor For the busy summer months, it’s best to arrive before 10am or after 4pm to avoid the heavier traffic times.
If driving, please follow all speed signs. On average, a dozen or more black bears are killed or injured each year by vehicles passing through; Yosemite National Park has “Red Bear – Dead Bear” signs marking 18 points where collisions in the park occurred. It is everyone’s responsibility to help protect and preserve the park and it’s natural inhabitants, including the American black bear.
When To Go //
Waterfalls are best: Late May – Early June
For hiking/backpacking: June – September
To avoid Crowds: December – March
Hiking is one of the main activities when visiting the Yosemite Valley. There are numerous trails and waterfalls to explore. With so many different options, you’re sure to find an amazing trail no matter what your physical condition or time frame is.
These trails are not strenuous and offer well maintained paths for greater accessibility. Unless specified, do not assume the trails are wheelchair friendly.
Bridaveil Falls Trail, 0.5 miles (0.8km), incline of 80ft (24m)
This is the easiest falls hike in the valley, and it’s also the first waterfall you’ll see upon entrance to Yosemite Valley. This trail is available year round, and you may get wet from its spray during its spring peak and in early summer. During winter, it can get icy so be precautious when on the trail.
Lower Yosemite Falls, 1 mile (1.6km), incline of 50ft (15m)
This is the lower portion of one of North America’s tallest waterfalls. From this trail, you’ll have views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, which peaks in volume in spring and early summer. Lower Yosemite Falls is a 320ft (98m) drop of flowing water.
Mirror Lake Loop, to the lake and back = 2mi (3.2km)/entire loop = 5mi (8km), 100ft incline to lake/ 200ft incline loop
If you’re taking advantage of the valley’s free shuttle system, this hike can be found at stop #17. The lake can be dry towards the end of the year, when it’s sometimes called Mirror Meadow, so it’s best to visit during spring and early summer. When the water is calm, you see the reflection of the surrounding mountains, giving it the name of Mirror Lake.
Taft Point (Pohono Trail), 2.2 mile (3.5km), incline of 200ft (20m)
This hike offers dramatic vistas of Yosemite Valley, especially of El Capitan. This hike is similar to Glacier Point, but it doesn’t have guardrails, so you may find yourself answering the unsettling question of how fearful you are of heights as you peer down 7,500 ft (2,285m) below.
View from Glacier Point
Glacier Point is an overlook with panoramic views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Yosemite’s high country. This point is accessible by car and is not an actual hike, but it’s only accessible by car from late May through October or November. Skiers can view it from mid-December to March.
These trails are for those who are somewhat experienced hikers with higher endurance and ability level. These trails may be lengthy or have higher inclines.
Vernal and Nevada Fall Trails, 1.6-8miles (2.5-13km), incline of 400-2000 feet (120-600m)
These trails have different stopping points and ways to arrive at the falls. All begin at shuttle stop #16, Happy Isles. GetOutofLA HIGHLY recommends you take the Mist Trail over the John Muir Trail. On the Mist Trail, you have the life-changing experience of climbing up steps in the natural granite stone as you’re showered by refreshing mist from the falls. Keep in mind, this can be slippery and is recommended for only those prepared to take on over 600 steps. The scenery is well worth it though, as you can often see a rainbow in the mist. From John Muir trail, you will have a bit longer hike and great views of Liberty Cap. Both trails offer beautiful views of the both the Vernal Fall and the Nevada Fall though, so you’re only difference is in the journey upward! GetOutofLA also recommends taking the trail to the top of Vernal Falls. You will have an amazing view that overlooks a large portion of the park, as well as the 317ft waterfall drop; you may call it a jaw-dropping view!
Yosemite Falls Trail, 2.0-7.2miles (3.2-11.6km), 1000-2700ft incline (328-825m)
If taking the shuttle, this trail begins between shuttle stop #7. This trail will take you to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall. At 2,425ft (739m) above the Yosemite Valley floor, you will have a priceless view of Yosemite Valley, Half-Done, and Sentinel Rock from just one mile up the trail to Columbia Rock. If you continue just another half mile (0.8km) you will experience more beauty, as you overlook Upper Yosemite Fall; in fact, mist from the falls is sometimes felt depending on the season.
These trails are intended only for those who are well-experienced hikers that can recognize the possible risks of trails as well as how to avoid or address any safety hazards. These hikers should also ensure they have proper gear and adequate water for the hike’s length or difficulty.
Half-Dome Trail, 14-16.4miles (22.4-26.2km), incline of 4800ft (1475m)
This trail rises nearly 5,000 feet above the valley and is iconic to the area.
Please note this trail is only for those who are prepared and in good shape. This hike takes an average of 10-12 hours for a full loop, and it often requires leaving at sunrise or earlier to ensure you have sufficient time. Make sure you bring a flashlight and extra batteries just in case you return during dark. Also ensure you have a topographic map and compass.
Yosemite has various birds that migrate, breed, or are transient in the area, making it a great location for birdwatching. It’s home to over 165 species, with an additional 100 vagrant species recorded so far. Common birds that are spotted include Steller’s jay, American robin, acorn woodpecker, common raven, and the mountain chickadee. The more popular birds in the area include the great gray owl, spotted owl, peregrine falcon, pileated woodpecker, and the northern goshawk.
Due to Yosemite’s vast grounds, the park is miles away from any city lights allowing for a very dark night sky. These conditions are ideal for stargazing. From June to August, telescopes are often set up at Glacier Point and astronomy walks are offered in the Valley, as well as in Tuolumne Meadows, and Wawona.
Check out Megan’s blog post on nebular photographs if you’re looking for advice on catching the perfect starry sky shot.
Partake in Water Activities
Swimming, boating, and rafting are all fun water activities to experience in Yosemite. GetOutofLA encourages you to step away from the outdoor pools and swim in the natural bodies of water in the park. One great place to go swimming here is in the Merced River. Please note certain areas prohibit swimming. You can check out any exception online here.
Merced River isn’t just great for cooling off in the summer heat. Rafts are available for rent between June and July, or you can bring your own!
Hit the Slopes
During the winter season (mid-december – March), Yosemite Hospitality offers lessons, equipment rentals, and lift tickets. You can go skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, or even snowshoeing here! From mid-November – mid-March, an outdoor ice-skating rink is open in Yosemite Valley in Half Dome Village. After skiing 10.5 miles, cross-country skiers can experience the Glacier Point view from mid-December through March.
Horse-Drawn Sleigh Rides
Celebrate the holidays in Yosemite this winter with a horse drawn sleigh ride by Yosemite Trail’s Saddle & Sleigh Company. Belgian Draft horses will whisk you away on an authentic sleigh ride experience, complete with jingle bells. The 45 minute ride along Jackson Road will end at Skidders Camp, where you will be greeted by hot apple cider and a warm fire – perfect for roasting marshmallows. OOLA encourages you to try a cup of “cowboy coffee” during your stay.
Snowshoe in Yosemite
Tenaya Lodge offers snowshoeing in the Sierra with two different tour options. One option is to partake in a snowshoe nature hike on your own across acres of well-marked trails or go with a guide for a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike. The other is a little more GetOutofLA’s style: a snowshoe flashlight hike. This snowshoeing excursion is a guided 1.5 hour tour where you use your senses (and a flashlight) to experience the Sierra National Forest in a new way.
Where to Stay //
Economic Explorers $
Campgrounds, Yosemite Valley, CA
Since visiting Yosemite Valley is all about experiencing and appreciating Mother Earth’s beauty, camping is the best way to go for sleeping arrangements. You can literally camp out under the stars, which is a magical experience you don’t want to miss. There are 13 popular campgrounds in Yosemite National Park that operate on a first come first serve basis – so make reservations ASAP! Camping fees run from $12-$26/night.
Middle of the Roaders $$
Yosemite Pines RV Resort & Family Lodging
Yosemite Pines RV Resort & Family Lodging, Groveland, CA: prices vary based on selection
Yosemite Pines RV Resort & Family Lodging offers is just 22 miles away from the Western Gate of Yosemite National park and offers classic trailers ($119/night), cozy cabins ($149/night), and yurts ($59/night). The trailers sleep 2-4 and offer a full kitchen, beds, and one private bathroom. It also has an outdoor barbecue grill. The cozy cabins sleep 2-4 and also offer a full bath, as well as kitchen basics like a refrigerator and microwave. The yurts are suitable for 2-5 guests and includes the same kitchen basics as the cabins. The yurts are a convenient distance from the restroom and shower area.
Yosemite Pines Reserve Yurts & Cabins
Yosemite Pines Reserve Yurts, Groveland, CA: $79 (lowest of off-season) – $179 (highest of peak season)/per night, sleeps 5
Yosemite Pines Reserve is just 22 miles away from the Western Gate of Yosemite National Park. Yurts are wood frame based structures with fabric tarps covering them. They are fully furnished with bunk beds, a futon, and kitchen basics like a countertop refrigerator and microwave. Restroom and showers are within convenient walking distance.
Yosemite Pines Reserve Cabins, Groveland, CA: prices vary based on selection
Yosemite Pines Reserve is just 22 miles away from the Western Gate of Yosemite National Park. All cabins include fresh bed linens on the bed(s) and kitchen basics like a countertop refrigerator and microwave. Some cabins offer showers or full baths.
Splendor Seekers $$$
Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, Fishcamp, CA: $166-402 per night for standard room, varying per season
Tenaya Lodge is an all-season resort that sits adjacent to the south gate of Yosemite National Park. This resort offers a business center, fitness rooms, steam rooms, dry saunas, and access to the resort pools and spas. You can take advantage of the tour package they offer for Yosemite and sightsee from a tour bus, or you can explore on your own and they’ll supply two bottles of water daily!
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, Yosemite, CA: $469-838 per night for standard room, varying per season
This year-round hotel is the only AAA Four-Diamond hotel located in Yosemite and offers stunning views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point. Although the true value of this hotel comes from the atmosphere bringing the outdoors in, each room comes equipped with a bathtub, refrigerator, wifi, a hairdryer, and a flat screen TV, so you have every outlet available for your relaxation after your time adventuring in the great outdoors.
Where to eat and/or drink?
It’s suggested for most travelers to stock up on food from any local grocery store. This way you get the quality bonding of sitting around a picnic table or bonfire as you cook, grill, or prepare your daily meals.
Please keep in mind if you’re camping to secure all food and scented products (including toiletries and gum) in your bear locker. Failure to do so will cause in eviction from the site.
Sierra Restaurant at Tenaya Lodge
Yosemite offers few truly exceptional dining experiences, but at the Sierra Restaurant at Tenaya Lodge, you can indulge in a relaxing, family-friendly meal. They offer outdoor patio seating during summer months, so you can dine under the stars while being warmed by the fire pit. In addition to excellent menu selections for adults, there is also a special kids menu available. If you plan on having dinner out, this restaurant provides the rustic, mountain lodge ambiance you’ll be seeking.