One day in Yosemite is not enough time to see everything, but then again, no amount of time would ever be enough! Still, first-time visitors to America’s favorite national park will be thrilled by how many beautiful, iconic sights they can experience in such a short period… if they have the right Yosemite day trip itinerary!
Photography is always front-of-mind when we visit a place. This means not only seeing the best sights, but being there at the best time! While this is not quite as achievable in just a day trip, we were still careful to arrange your itinerary to ensure you are at our favorite locations for sunrise and sunset.
On that note, we highly recommend you begin your day taking in sunrise and leave after sunset. This provides the most time possible while also allowing you to experience the park during the most magical times of day.
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Other Guides to Yosemite & Northern California
Before you read on, you may want to queue up these other guides to Yosemite National Park in a new tab to provide even more inspiration for your trip:
- Best Photography Locations in Yosemite National Park
- ULTIMATE Guide to Yosemite Firefall
- Best Things to do on a Northern California Roadtrip
- Photographers Guide to Shasta-Trinity National Forest
- Ultimate Guide to Burney Falls
Yosemite Day Trip Itinerary Overview
Visiting Yosemite is easily one of the best things to do in California. But with only one day in Yosemite available, it is important to spend your time wisely. This means knowing where to spend the majority of your time and understanding the layout of the park.
While the national park border spans a large area and includes sister destinations, this Yosemite day trip itinerary focuses on the area that provides the highest saturation of scenic destinations: the Yosemite Valley.
There are two things you really should be aware of when planning your visit:
- The first is that the majority of the popular features, hikes, and vistas are located in the Yosemite Valley loop.
- The second is that this loop is long and mostly one-way, so if you can’t find parking or accidentally pass your stop, you will not be able to turn back!
It is also worth noting that you will have access to any necessary services in the Yosemite Valley, including food, gas (at a high price!), and even Starbucks!
Since one day in Yosemite is not going to allow much time, we recommend packing a lunch and anything else you need to avoid the zoo that is Yosemite Village.
Yosemite Day Trip Itinerary Map
It may help to get better acquainted with the layout of the Yosemite Valley, as well as with the stops our Yosemite day trip itinerary recommends.
As mentioned, the North and South River Roads are one-way with very limited crossover points. This means you will have to do a long, slow loop to get back to a place once you’ve passed it!
The map below shows our recommended stops in the order that you should visit them, and assumes your arrival from either Hwy 140 or Hwy 120 (the two most common access points).
Click here or on the map below to open the driving directions in Google Maps in a new tab.
*Those traveling via Wawona Road will have to adjust appropriately.
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Yosemite Day Trip Itinerary
Our itinerary is designed to allow visitors with only one day in Yosemite to at least catch a glimpse of everything there is to see in the Yosemite Valley.
We have also endeavored to arrange it in a way that is time and fuel efficient. What’s more, we’ve got you scheduled with sunrise and sunset at the most special places in the park!
Be sure to follow the order we have presented! As mentioned above, if you pass a the parking area you will not be able to turn around.
Sunrise at Tunnel View
In case you were still debating whether or not to begin your day trip to Yosemite so early, hopefully this picture will settle it. Tunnel View is the most iconic vista of any US national park, and sunrise is a magical time to be there!
Not only is the light spectacular at sunrise, but the crowds are as small as they will be all day, and parking is still easy to find in most of the park. Having said that, the one place it may be full so early is at Tunnel View.
Check to see what time sunrise will be as this obviously varies throughout the year. If possible, begin your day in Yosemite watching the valley come to life from this incredible viewpoint.
The first waterfall you will see upon entering Yosemite National Park is Bridalveil Fall. In fact, assuming you started your day trip at Tunnel View as recommended, you’ve already been seeing it!
The trail to the falls is a very short half-mile hike roundtrip. If budgeting your time, you can be parked, soaked by its spray, and back at your car all within 20 minutes. That doesn’t mean you should, but you could!
Your next stop will be at the Cathedral Beach picnic area for views of the famous “El Capitan” rock formation. This is also a great place to have breakfast if you have not yet eaten as picnic tables are available.
If the morning is still, consider spending a moment on the beach itself capturing some morning reflections off the Merced River.
Four Mile Trail
Do not be scared by the name! While the four mile trail is a rough climb, I do not recommend doing more than a mile or so on a one day trip to Yosemite.
Within a short distance, you will already be high enough to appreciate panoramic views of the Yosemite Valley. Even in the winter, the Four Mile Trail is easily accessible for the first mile or so.
Admittedly, my favorite light for the scene is in the evening golden hour. It is still spectacular in the morning though, especially after the sun has cleared the ridge line.
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Your first opportunity of the day to use a restroom will be in the Swinging Bridge parking area. This also tends to fill up quickly, so I may suggest simply walking there from wherever you parked to begin the Four Mile Hike.
In fact, it might be best to park here in the first place, then walk the extra couple hundred yards to the Four Mile trailhead.
From the bridge, you will enjoy your first glorious view of Yosemite Falls. With any luck, you may see double the beauty as the Merced River often projects a perfect reflection.
Yosemite Falls Viewpoint
If you couldn’t find parking at the Swinging Bridge, you will find a long stretch of parking on the left-hand side just as you pass it. Snag one of these spaces and enjoy a wide open view of the Yosemite Valley field, while Yosemite Falls plunges from above.
With any luck, you may get a coyote sighting as they often hunt for mice in this field!
If you need a moment of internet service for any reason, this tends to be the most reliable signal you will find in the park.
You have completed the South River Road section of our Yosemite day trip itinerary! As you near the end of the road, you will cross over the Sentinel Bridge and be greeted with a postcard-worthy view of Half Dome!
Just a few feet from the bridge is a large parking area. Take a moment to capture your next wallpaper with Half Dome mirrored in the Merced River.
*If parking is nightmarish, consider leaving your vehicle parked in the Yosemite Falls Viewpoint area and walking instead.
Depending on your pace, length of daylight, and your desire, you may have time to hike to the beautiful Vernal Falls. While I don’t recommend this for most people with only one day in Yosemite, those with the time should certainly consider it.
The drive will add about a 15 minute detour there and back. You should also allow about an hour for the hike and photos as well.
Park in the Happy Isles lot and take the Mist Trail. The distance is only 1.6 miles roundtrip, but there is a moderate ascent to consider as well.
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Yosemite Village Pit Stop
We recommend bringing lunch and supplies with you to make sure you see everything. With only one day in Yosemite, you will not want to spend your time in lines for bathrooms, parking, and food.
That said, not everyone is the “packed lunch” type of person. If you need to fuel up, the Yosemite Village has a grocery store, restaurant, and even a Starbucks.
Lower Yosemite Falls
You will inevitably have been staring at Yosemite Falls for much of your drive already. At certain moments, you may have noticed there is actually a lower tier as well.
This lower tier is the easily-accessible Lower Yosemite Fall. From the parking area, you will follow signs on a 1-mile loop that take you to the base of the falls.
Doing just the Lower Fall loop will only take you about 30 minutes total.
*Upper Yosemite Falls
It is possible to walk to the more-impressive Upper Yosemite Fall, but the trail is steep! Those who persevere will be rewarded with a unique vantage point.
I generally do not recommend trying to squeeze this into your one day Yosemite itinerary. While the hike is only 2 miles roundtrip, it is steep and will likely take at least 2 hours to complete.
If you are planning your Yosemite trip during the long summer days, you may have time to schedule this in. Otherwise, it is probably best to enjoy equally-fantastic views of Upper Yosemite Fall from many other places within the park and skip the hike.
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Sunset at Yosemite Valley View
The day concludes with sunset from our favorite viewpoint in Yosemite National Park!
Enter Yosemite Valley View into your GPS (or click here to find the location in Google Maps) so you know which parking lot you need as it will not be sign-posted.
There will also be one or two small pull-offs prior to the actual parking area with space for 2-3 cars on the left-hand side. If you see one of these open, you probably just want to take it. Parking can be a nightmare at Valley View and there is no turning back on the one-way road.
You will not see the actual sun set from anywhere in the Yosemite Valley as you are surrounded by the Sierra Mountains. However, the light that is cast onto El Capitan at the end of the day is wonderful. The vista often benefits from a colorful sky as well.
Yosemite NP General Information
Before packing up for your Yosemite day trip, it may be useful to understand a few things about the park for logistical purposes. Since time will be precious, it’s worth knowing now!
Best Gas Options
There are a couple gas stations within the park and plenty more on Hwy 120 & Hwy 140. However, it is VERY expensive. I suggest filling up on your way in if your tank will not see you through the day.
The cheapest option for those arriving via Hwy 120 is at the KWIK-SERVE just before Groveland.
The best option for those arriving via Hwy 140 is in Briceburg. Do NOT hold out for El Portal unless you don’t mind being massively price-gauged.
Note that there are no day-passes to Yosemite. There are too many options to list them all, but the most commonly-purchased tickets are:
7-Day Vehicle Pass: $35/ vehicle
7-Day Individual Pass: $20 (must be traveling by bike/bus/foot)
One Year Yosemite Pass: $70
One Year Interagency Pass: $80
We recommend EVERYONE get the One Year Interagency Pass. This will get you into EVERY National Park, Monument, and Recreation Area for a full year, and costs slightly more than double just a one-week pass. You can find up to date prices and more info on the NPS website.
They match your signature to your ID so it cannot be loaned to others, but there is space for TWO signatures if you want to share it with a friend.
As mentioned, the village and nearby towns will have everything you could possibly need. Since you will only have a day to explore the entire Yosemite Valley, we recommend bringing anything you will need as much as possible. Don’t worry if you need an afternoon coffee or snack though, it will not be tough to find.
Where to Stay at Yosemite
If you are planning on staying overnight, the best place near the park is the town of El Portal. You are not allowed to freedom camp, including vehicle camping, anywhere within the park.
El Portal is about 20 minutes down Hwy 140 and has multiple hotels, places to car-camp, and services.
If you want to stay within the park, be warned that most options are completely sold out 5-6 months in advance.
Click here to check current availability and prices for places to stay in and near Yosemite National Park.
Below you will find more regional guides that you might find useful:
- ULTIMATE Guide to Yosemite Firefall
- Best Things to Do on a Northern California Road Trip
- The Ultimate Guide to Burney Falls in NorCal
- Shasta-Trinity National Forest Photography Guide
- Southern Oregon Photography Locations
- Southern Oregon Coast Photography Guide
- Waterfalls of Southern Oregon
For those interested in photography, you may find our Learning Photography guides helpful too. We cover lots of different topics, from basics to advanced!
Finally, feel free to browse our Northern California professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration 🙂
Final Thoughts on How to Spend One Day in Yosemite
If I only had one day to spend in any national park, Yosemite would be the one I would choose to spend it in! I’ve been to most, and none quite offer so much striking and diverse scenery in such a small area.
We hope you found our Yosemite Day Trip Itinerary helpful in planning your big day at America’s favorite national park. As always, please let us know if you find anything is inaccurate, or if we skipped something you think deserves inclusion!