A First-Timer’s Guide to Yosemite National Park

July 1, 2016 by Alexandra Gregg

‘The mountains are calling, and I must go’. Gaze across Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, and you’ll see why US National Park-founder John Muir uttered these memorable words over a century ago. Half Dome and El Capitan rise from the granite-scattered landscape like giant, misshapen molars, irresistibly wild and emitting a plea that only the intrepid can hear and none can resist. Your first visit to such an overwhelmingly beautiful wonder can be daunting and, like me when I spent two full days in Yosemite last month, you may not know where to begin.

That’s where my first-timer’s guide to Yosemite comes in. Follow these tips and you’ll experience the best of this glacier-sculpted park in the time you have available:

Alex and fiancé Brad at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Alexandra and fiancé Brad at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Arrive early

As painful as it is when you’ve been driving cross-country and are still a bit jetlagged, getting an early start in Yosemite is crucial for making the most of your visit. For starters, parking in the Valley itself can be a bit of a nightmare. Spaces are limited, and you won’t be the only person looking for one. We got lucky (twice), but some were not so fortunate. The ideal scenario is to spend your time in the park walking the trails and gazing up in awe at the sights – not staring at them glumly through the windscreen.

An early start also means you can hit some of the more challenging trails earlier in the day, before they get busy and – in the summer – before the weather gets too warm.

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Learn the history

Before rushing straight off to the first trailhead, stop at the Valley Visitor’s Centre to get a snapshot of how the park was formed and who its inhabitants are and were (that includes wildlife). This is not only fascinating but, when you’re out walking, can make you look like you really know your stuff. For example: “Oh Fred, look at that intrusive igneous rock.”

Stop at the viewpoints

Yosemite Valley may be where most of the action is, but if it’s incredible vistas you’re after, make time to visit some of the park’s best viewpoints too. I don’t often use the word ‘breathtaking’ but if I did then Glacier Point and the aforementioned Tunnel View would fit the bill. The latter is easy to visit – you’ll see it as you drive into the Valley; just pull over to the left after going through the tunnel and join the fellow view-seekers looking across the emerald trees, thundering waterfalls and lofty peaks.

View from Glacier Point (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

View from Glacier Point (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Glacier Point is more of a detour. At an elevation of 2,199 metres, it towers above the Valley and is about an hour’s drive from the Visitor’s Centre. It’s worth the trip though: from here you’ll get unsurpassed 270-degree panoramic views of the entire park – the ultimate picnic lunch spot and undoubtedly my favourite part of our entire visit.

Use the shuttle to access the best trails

Ditch the car; the Yosemite Valley shuttle will transport you to the best trails around the park. We ticked off a fair few, but my favourites were the very wet and moderately challenging Mist Trail (stop #16 – a three to seven-mile round trip), for up-close views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, as well as the comparatively flat Mirror Lake/Meadow route (stop #17 – 2.4-mile round trip) and the short trail to Lower Yosemite Falls (stop #6 – 0.5-mile round trip).

Mirror Lake, Yosemite (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Mirror Lake, Yosemite (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Take the Valley Floor Tour

This open-air tram tour through the Valley is ideal if you’re short on time – so for those with only a day to spare, this is the perfect way to see the park’s best bits. It condenses Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Tunnel View and more into a two-hour segment. Tickets cost US$25pp and tours depart at 10am, 11am, midday, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm in the summer.

There's plenty of trail choice (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

There’s plenty of trail choice (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Challenge yourself

For those with a bit more time and a lot more gusto, there are plenty of challenges to be had. You can apply to undertake the infamous Half Dome Hike – a 10-12 hour trek to the summit of the park’s focal peak – via a National Park Service lottery, which allows around 300 people on the trail each day. If this sounds a bit too strenuous or if you’re unsuccessful in the lottery, opt for the Panorama Trail instead. This 8.5-mile one-way trip from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley takes you past hidden gems like Panorama Point and Illilouette Falls, before joining the Mist Trail to incorporate Nevada and Vernal Falls too.

Nevada Falls in the distance (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Nevada Falls in the distance (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Those who prefer to get on the water can float down the Merced River. Use the shuttle to reach stop #13a or #20 in Half Dome Village, home to the Recreation Rentals, and from here drift between Stoneman Bridge and the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area. For a white-water encounter, you’ll need to go just outside the park, where the Merced offers Class III-IV rapids.

A deer near Lower Yosemite Falls (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

A mule deer near Lower Yosemite Falls (Image: Alexandra Gregg)

Look out for wildlife

Chance encounters with wildlife in Yosemite do happen – we were lucky enough to spot chipmunk, abundant ground squirrels and even a mule deer when we visited. You can also look out for bighorn sheep, porcupines, pikas, raccoons, mountain lions, coyotes and black bears. Bird-life thrives here too: my favourites were the quiff-headed Steller’s jays.

Tenaya Lodge at dusk

Tenaya Lodge at dusk

Give yourself time to relax

Spending the day hiking (or biking – there are plenty of cycle trails too!) around Yosemite can be pretty exhausting. And when your legs need a rest for the evening, I heartily recommend retiring to an accommodation just outside the park entrance: Tenaya Lodge. This Four Diamond resort not only offers a peaceful enclave on the edge of the park, but also provides five diverse dining options, indoor and outdoor pools, a range of activities – from archery to tackling a climbing wall – and the first-class Ascent Spa: a collection of 12 treatment rooms, plus steam rooms and saunas. What better way to rejuvenate?

Tenaya Lodge lobby

Tenaya Lodge lobby

For those who really can’t get enough of hiking – even in the evenings – talk to the Tenaya concierge about taking the hotel’s ‘Flashlight Hike’. Equipped with torches and a sense of adventure, you’ll be led through the woods around Tenaya to learn all about the trees and wildlife that make up the forest. The skies are blissfully unpolluted here too, so this is a great opportunity for some stargazing.


Alexandra explored Yosemite on a tailor-made version of our California & Canyons Journey. Speak to one of our Travel Experts about planning your bespoke road trip around the USA’s mighty west.


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About Alexandra Gregg

Once a roving local news reporter and now a travel-obsessed writer/sub, I'm head-over-heels for nature, wildlife and the ocean. When I'm not underwater or deploying a snorkel, I'm seeking out the sets of my favourite TV shows around the world. Tweet me @wonderg1rl