The Best of Yosemite in Three Days

The best of Yosemite spans guided valley tours, a pleasantly easy bike ride or two, stargazing, visiting at least one waterfall via a good hike, and some of the most amazing panoramic views in the world. If you have only three days to dedicate to this amazing park, here’s how to make the most of your visit.

Wooden walkway through Yosemite Valley with a waterfall in the distance.
Flat paths an paved roads make for easy walks (or bike rides) in Yosemite Valley. Photo © Sasha Buzko/iStock.

Day 1

Take a ride on an open-air tram through Yosemite Valley. The two-hour Valley Floor Tour is educational, interesting, and fun, and you can feel good about not destroying the ozone layer by driving your own car. Buy tickets and start the tour at Yosemite Valley Lodge. In the busy summer months, it is best to show up right after breakfast to see if you can get tickets for that day.

Nearly profile view of Half Dome at Yosemite's Glacier Point.
Experience amazing views of Yosemite at Glacier Point. Photo © MYDinga/iStock.

Afterward, rent bikes at Yosemite Valley Lodge or Curry Village and cruise around Yosemite Valley on its 12 miles (19.3 km) of paved bike paths. The Valley’s bike paths are so flat that the rental bikes don’t even have gears—you spend much of your time coasting. Make reservations in advance to spend the evening at the park’s Glacier Point Stargazing Tour. The tour bus leaves Yosemite Valley around 7pm and arrives at Glacier Point before darkness falls, so you have a chance to take in the spectacular view. After dark, enjoy a one-hour astronomy program before being chauffeured back down to the Valley.

Day 2

No visit to Yosemite is complete without hitting at least one trail. Shuttle stop 6 drops you at the short, 0.25-mile (0.4-km) trail to Lower Yosemite Fall; the falls roar in spring, but are nonexistent by midsummer. The Mist Trail to Vernal Fall won’t disappoint, though. The 3-mile (4.8-km) round-trip hike ascends a granite staircase to the top of Vernal Fall. If you want more, keep going to the top of Nevada Fall for a 6.8-mile (10.9-km) round-trip hike.

In the heat of summer, head for one of Yosemite’s great swimming holes. Relax in the soft sand alongside the Merced River at Sentinel Beach and gaze at Yosemite Valley’s spectacular scenery. At day’s end, head over to The Ahwahnee Bar—unlike the restaurant, there’s no dress code here.

Day 3

Take a drive or ride the tour bus to Glacier Point. This is world-class Sierra scenery that you’d expect to have to backpack for several days to find, but it’s completely accessible by car. Order an ice cream at the Glacier Point snack stand while you gaze at the view of Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls, and the crest of Yosemite’s high country. If you start in the morning, you can ride the bus to Glacier Point and then hike back to the Valley via the Panorama Trail. Shorter hikes from Glacier Point Road lead to spectacular viewpoints at Sentinel Dome and Taft Point.

View of the sun going down from the bare rock at Sentinal Dome in Yosemite park.
Sunset from Sentinal Dome in Yosemite National Park. Photo © Jonathan Baskin/123rf.

At the end of the day, head back to Yosemite Valley and attend the evening program at the Yosemite Valley Theater or Yosemite Valley Lodge Amphitheater.

If You Have More Time

Drive your own car or get tickets for the tour bus to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Wawona, the south part of the park. Afterward, stop by the historic Wawona Hotel for refreshing libations.

From Mariposa Grove, you’re in an ideal location to continue southward to Kings Canyon National Park. You’ll need about 2.5 hours to travel the 120 miles (193 km) to Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove Village. The Big Trees/Wuksachi Lodge area of Sequoia National Park is 45 minutes beyond Grant Grove.

Ann Marie Brown

About the Author

Ann Marie Brown made her first solo trip to Yosemite at age 22. Like many first-time visitors, she was immediately inspired by the Valley's sheer granite walls and shimmering waterfalls. Parking her car at the first trailhead she saw, she set off on the Four-Mile Trail. Carrying nothing but a water bottle, she intended to hike only a short distance but was so wowed by the scenery that she kept on walking. Two hours later she found herself at Glacier Point, considered by many to be the grandest viewpoint in the West. Scanning the scene, she noticed tourists dressed in everything from high heels to a nun's habit, and realized that she could have driven to Glacier Point instead of walking. Ann Marie vowed she'd never again go hiking without a map.

More than two decades later, Ann Marie has gained substantially more outdoor savvy and is a dedicated California outdoorswoman. She hikes, camps, and bikes more than 150 days each year. She is the author of 13 Moon guides, including several outdoors titles, like Moon 101 Great Hikes San Francisco Bay Area, and is the co-author of Moon California Hiking with Tom Stienstra. Her work has also appeared in Sunset, VIA, and California magazines.

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Wooden boardwalk through a grassy meadow in front of a waterfall. Pinterest graphic.