First Timers Top 5’s Guide Yosemite: Amanda Edition
Disclaimer before you continue** I’ve only been to Yosemite once. This guide is intended for those who have never been to Yosemite and want some first-timer insight. It should also not be a replacement for any National Park Service recommendations in regards to safety.
Also: Check out the post I made while the trip here
I’m sorry it’s been a while. I’ve been less than inspired for the last little while. The post-vacation blues was absolutely real. BUT I’m back and with my first ever travel guide! This time I thought I’d cover my new favourite US National Park — YOSEMITE. I hope that this guide will give you a bit of insight on visiting Yosemite for the first time, or just some information on my experience at the parks. I hope I’ll get to visit again soon, but for now this mental throwback is going to have to do. I did the guide in “TOP 5” style, sprinkled with some photos in true Amanda style. Let me know what you all think! If you have your own tips or experiences, share them in the comments. I’d love to know what you all think of this natural wonder!
Top 5 Yosemite Tips:
1. Book early
It’s the only way to get a good hotel/camping reservation, if you’re planning on staying overnight. Yosemite is basically in the middle of nowhere. It’s several hours drive from any major (or even semi major) city in California via some pretty scary roads. I learned this the hard way. There are few hotels and lodges within Yosemite Valley, which fill up a few months in advance from my understanding. Camping is slightly easier to come by, but in the time I was there all I saw were “Campground full” signs. Now I’m not too familiar with the other entrances, but from the North-West “Big Oak Flat” (Hwy 120 from the Bay Area) entrance you’ll pass Groveland. Here you’ll find a few small motels and lodges which are likely slightly easier to get. They’re about an hour outside of the park entrance, but a worthwhile option as well. What a lot of people don’t realize (neither did I) is that most park entrances are at least an hour drive from the inside of Yosemite Valley. If you make the mistake like us of booking late, you’re going to end up relatively far from not only park but the major attractions. We ended up booking a hotel in Sonora, around 2.5 hours outside of the valley. Bad choice. We spent an absurd amount of time driving in and out of the parks.
2. Bring food
I didn’t buy any food inside the park for two days, except a popsicle. There are grocery stores and a few food vendors inside the park. However, they aren’t always open – particularly toward the beginning and the end of the season. You don’t necessarily need to bring in tons of food if you don’t want to, since it is available. However, I find it’s nice to have snacks and a few options to refuel myself in the car. If you’re anything like me and get hungry easily, it’s definitely a good option.
3. Know your limits
Don’t suddenly decide to take a 10 mile uphill hike if you’ve never gone hiking before or aren’t a very active individual. I know this seems trivial, but sometimes we all get a little excited! Plan to take several shorter hikes if you don’t think you can make a several hour hike. You’re still going to see lots of beautiful things. You’ll also enjoy yourself way more if you don’t feel like you’re about to collapse. Keep in mind the weather as well! Your physical limits can change depending on how hot it is out as well.
4. Don’t try and do everything
Yosemite is HUGE. Like HUGE. If you’re only going for a few days, don’t anticipate you’ll see everything. Frankly, a lot of places are quite a hike away – I think it would take a very dedicated individual and probably several trips to try and see the majority of the park. I highly suggest you make note of all the places you want to see during your visit and prioritize. If you’re going for the first time, the Valley is a good place to start! Lots to see and do within a (slightly) smaller radius. It can get crowded though on the weekends and on holidays from what I hear. If you want to be somewhere less crowded, or see somewhere a little less “Known” – up in the High Sierra is a good place to visit as well. See below for a few suggestions from yours truly.
5. Make a plan
Like I said, it’s a big park. Even driving between certain points can take hours. You want to avoid backtracking as much as possible, so make sure you don’t miss anything before leaving one area! We drove from Tuolumne Meadows to Glacier Point one afternoon and took us over 2 hours. Luckily, there’s lots to see as you drive around the park so driving isn’t the worst scenario. However, imagine all the time you’d be spending sitting in your car if you planned your route poorly!
Bonus Tip: Give yourself extra time
Nature is a unpredictable force. You may run into weather issues or if you’re me, you’ll move at a turtle pace to take photos of everything! That 2 hour drive can easily turn into a 3 hour drive with all the photo and viewpoint stops.
Top 5 Must-Brings:
1. Water Bottle:
DUH! Again, this seems obvious BUT you’d be surprised. There isn’t all that many places to buy water at Yosemite so having a refillable bottle would be beneficial. There are a few fountains around, but if you plan on going on any longer hikes – I’d make sure you have enough water first! It can get HOT HOT HOT at Yosemite. Stay hydrated friends.
2. Snacks/ Food:
For the same reasons listed above in my tips. There isn’t a ton of places to buy food inside the park. This way you will always have fuel for any hiking your doing or if you get hungry you won’t have to run around looking for food. If anything, keep it in a cooler in your car just in case! Be mindful of bears and wildlife if you keep your food on you though!
Again, DUH. It’s a forest, but there’s lot of areas that aren’t covered by shade. You will want to make sure you don’t burn. It is California after all, it will get sunny and hot out.
Some may debate this one, because a place as beautiful as Yosemite should just be experienced in the flesh. You simply can’t replicate it through photos. However, I think you should at least bring something (even a phone camera) to capture some of your memories. It would be a shame not to document it at all. Then again, this could be my inner photographer speaking. Hey, if anything you’ll get some fabulous new instagram material!
5. Comfy Shoes:
You can see a lot from your car at Yosemite, but more than likely you’re gonna have to walk. You’re not gonna enjoy the experience much if your feet hurt! If you’re not doing any strenuous hikes, running shoes will suffice – if you plan on hiking bring (broken in) hiking boots. I kept a pair of flip-flops inside the car to rest my feet between hikes and for those simple walks to viewpoints.
Top 5 Must See Spots:
In no particular order
1. Tunnel View
A commanding view of the valley. Seriously, you have to stop here and take the iconic photograph. Aptly named, the lookout is right beside the tunnel on Wawona road right outside of the valley. It’s a good spot to take photos of in the late afternoon or evening. We caught the beginning of the sunset and I have to say it was beautiful. If you’re a photography loving human like me and have time to spare, hang out here for a few hours and watch the sun come down over the valley. I wish I had more time to set myself up here and take a few more photos under different light. I highly recommend stopping by. No hiking or anything. Parking is right next to the viewpoint, so it’s not going to be a long stop on your itinerary!
2. Valley View
This is kinda the same kinda deal as valley view. Right off the road right outside of the valley on El Portal Rd. However, this time this is where you get the stunning views with the water too! I would also definitely recommend coming and having a quick peak here (at the very least). I stopped by on the way out in the evening. It’s definitely a lower view, but a great spot to take in the wonder that is Yosemite Valley.
3. Vernal Falls
Along the mist trail is this beautiful waterfall called Vernal Falls. I like this spot because you can either take the trail up to the footbridge, or the top of the falls. You can pick! More on the hike below. However, I love how beautifully framed the views of the falls are from the footbridge. To me it just feels like so much more than water falling over a cliff. I only made it as far as the footbridge, but I would definitely recommend heading up here if you can!
4. Glacier Point
I realized Glacier Point is way further from the Valley than I thought. I’d say maybe about half an hour to an hour drive? However, it is 100% worth it. This is the best place to view Half Dome guaranteed. Half Dome is obscured in many areas inside the valley and viewable from a much farther distance at other points in the park (ie. on the way to Tuolumne Meadows). Hence the popularity of this point! This is also great spot because you can hike up here (via 4 Mile Trail) or drive for those who would rather experience the view with slightly less physical activity.
5. Tuolumne Meadows
“Tuolumne Meadows” technically covers a large portion of the High Sierra region. There’s lots of hikes and things to see here! However, this area of the park might be one of my favourite spots that I visited. About 2 hours away from the Valley, it’s a much quieter section of the park. If you have an extra day to head out here and escape the crowds, I definitely would. There are easy hikes along pathways and more challenging ones. Simply walking a little past the parking lots gives stunning views of the meadows lined with rivers and mountains! Without going very far, you can catch views of the Cathedral Peaks and surrounding domes. Enchanting is the word I would use to describe it. The drive in from the park entrance was worth it alone. It took us way longer than it should have to get to the meadows, simply cause of all the beautiful stops along the way. Oh yeah, did I mention the bear that ran in front of my car on the way back?
Honorable Mention: Lower & Upper Yosemite Falls
It’s not top 5, simply because you can see it along the road or via the Lower Yosemite Trail. However, it’s a great spot for a 2-in-1. Not far from the road you’ll get a beautiful view of both the falls – See hike info below.
Top 5 (Day) Hikes:
1. Mist Trail – Vernal Falls & Nevada Falls
I got as far as the Vernal Falls footbridge. This hike is basically all uphill and you gain quite a bit of elevation . BUT there are fantastic views along the way and you are easily rewarded with the breathtaking views of Vernal Falls & Nevada Falls. These are both quite heavy flowing falls and you can get relatively close to them. This is supposedly one of the most popular hikes – I don’t question why at all. The best part about this hike, is you can do it in less than one day and see both falls! This is also the first portion of the Half Dome hike. However, if you’re on a time crunch (like me) you can simply head to Vernal Falls and head back. The trailhead for this hike is near Happy Isles. There’s a shuttle access here, if you’re not in the mood to walk to the trailhead!
Vernal Falls Footbridge: 1.6mi Roundtrip
Top of Vernal Falls: 2.4mi Roundtrip
Top of Nevada Falls: 5.4mi Roundtrip
2. Four Mile Trail – Sentinel Rock to Glacier Point
I didn’t get a chance to do this hike, but it seems absolutely awesome. It’s definitely on my Yosemite to-do list. One of the guys who worked at the shop on Glacier Point, was telling me about how beautiful this trail is. Supposedly, it’s a great way to view all of the valley. You can start up at Glacier Point or in the Valley and go either way. Doesn’t seem like the “easiest” hike as it is quite steep, but it’s a great way to explore Glacier Point too! Personally, I would probably take the concessioner bus to the top of Glacier Point and hike down from there. But that’s just me! This is definitely at the top of my to-do list. I believe the round-trip is do-able in one day, if that interests you.
Four Mile Trail: 4.8mi One Way
3. Bridalveil Falls
This is an easy one. One of the first water falls you’ll see in the valley! It’s an easy hike. About half a mile round trip, you can easily do this one in half an hour to an hour. It’s a great waterfall alternative for those who don’t want to conquer a longer hike. It’s such a pretty and light waterfall (aptly named) that I’d recommend everyone check it out,
Bridalveill Falls: 0.5mi Roundtrip
4. Lower Yosemite Falls
This is a can’t miss, simply because it is an easy stroll and there’s so much to see. We even saw some deer on our hike! You can walk around the trail and see both Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls from different vantage points. I entered the trail from one entrance and ended at another entrance further down the road. It’s a great option for a short hike during the day and to get a view of this very long waterfall. Also, on a hot day who doesn’t enjoy getting splashed by waterfall water?
Lower Yosemite Falls: 1mi Roundtrip
5. Soda Springs:
This is a short hike located in Tuolumne Meadows (Not in the valley). Bubbling water is cool! Ok to be honest, I was more impressed by the surrounding views of the meadow and the river than I was by the murky bubbling water in the ground. I mean it was cool and all, but it doesn’t photograph well and is also surrounded by a log cabin. From the path here you can get a breathtaking view of the meadows with Cathedral Peaks and surrounding domes in the distance. I can’t explain it well, but the view is phenomenal – I’m pretty much running out of adjectives to describe it haha. You’ll be able to see a fair bit of wildlife here as well. If you’re interested in some history, there is a Lodge here that I believe offers some exhibits. The hike is also relatively easy as it’s on flat ground. There’s also a bridge that crosses the river that gives you a great perspective of the meadow. There’s a ton of great hikes in this area I would love to check out as well but if you’re looking for one easy hike to sum up Tuolumne, this is it! This trail starts at the Lembert Dome parking lot
Soda Springs & Parsons Lodge Trail: 1.5mi Roundtrip
To be honest, I could probably go on forever about all the wonderful places of interest in Yosemite – I didn’t even get a chance to make the smallest dent in the park on my trip this year. Hopefully one of these days I’ll get to take that hike up to Half Dome, cables and all. It seems AWESOME.
The NPS site has some great info about the parks. I highly recommend you check it out for more comprehensive information if you’re planning on heading to Yosemite. You can find it here! This is where I pulled all the mileage info for the hikes 🙂
Hope everyone enjoyed, and I should be back soon with more fun information! YAY