Yosemite National Park is vast and seemingly endless. You could spend weeks in the park and still not see everything it has to offer. So what do you do if you only have one day in Yosemite National Park?
Yosemite National Park is one of the largest preserved areas of the Sierra Nevada ecosystems. It showcases a wide diversity of plants and animals. With its variety in elevation – from 2,000 feet above sea level to more than 13,000 feet – it showcases five major vegetation zones: chaparral, (a kind of shrubland) and oak woodlands, lower montane forest, upper montane forest, subalpine, and alpine.
But you are probably most familiar with Yosemite National Park’s geological features – glacier-carved mountainscape. Massive monoliths reach to the heavens above Yosemite Valley and remind you how small you are.
So with all this wonderful amazement, what do you do if you only have one day in Yosemite National Park?
Glacier Point Road
Because Yosemite National Park is so big and you only have one day to spend, driving around is a great way to explore the park. Glacier Point Road is a scenic drive that takes you to the top of the cliffs above Yosemite Valley.
The road will be closed to traffic in 2022 and there will be delays in 2023, so you’ll want to make plans accordingly. If your trip takes you to the national park while the road is closed you can hike to Glacier Point, the overlook at the end of the road, to see the sweeping vistas of the valley.
Glacier Point is the grand finale at the end of Glacier Point Road. A short paved, wheel-chair accessible walkway takes visitors to some of the most amazing views of the park. From Glacier Point, you can see most of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and parts of Yosemite’s high country.
From Glacier Point, you really get a sense of how vast and deep Yosemite Valley is. It made me want to grip the handrail a little more tightly when I peered over and looked down the 3,214 feet to the valley floor.
What visit to a national park isn’t complete without at least some hiking? If you only have one day to visit Yosemite National Park, hiking to Taft Point is a great way to get in a hike and still see the rest of the park.
Taft Point is a 2.2-mile, out-and-back hike from its trailhead on Glacier Point Road. My phone clocked me at 2.6 roundtrip, but I explored along the cliff edges a little more than most.
Like Glacier Point, Taft Point gives you vistas of Yosemite Valley as well as the palm-sweaty sheer drop to the bottom. It’s around a bend in the valley from Glacier Point, so you can see the parts of the valley you couldn’t from Glacier Point, like El Capitan, the famed monolith given notoriety by rock climbers like Alex Honold in the documentary “Free Solo.”
While I visited, several people were slacklining between the cliffs. It gave the hike a little bit of a theme park feel, but it was neat to see daredevils in action. And enough to convince me that watching them was all the thrill I needed.
From Glacier Point Road, I drove into Yosemite Valley. If you only have one day to spend in Yosemite National Park, you need to explore Yosemite Valley. I also loved being able to observe the beauty of the park from above and then drive down into the valley and see the towering cliffs from below. It really is a completely different perspective and interesting to compare the two.
But before you get to the valley floor, you will come to the Tunnel View. You can find this famous pullout just past the tunnel on El Portal Road as you drive into the valley. Here you can see views from some of the most famous photographs of Yosemite.
Because this is a popular and scenic pullout along the main route in Yosemite National Park, it can get crowded. I visited Yosemite during the Coronavirus epidemic this summer when entry tickets were limited. Even at limited capacity, I still had a hard time finding a parking spot or free spot to get a picture.
When you enter the valley floor El Portal Road divides into two one-way strips on either side of the Merced River. Shortly after you enter the Southside Drive, you can pull over and view, photograph, and simply awe over the famed El Capitan from below. It’s crazy to think people climb the towering granite rock, let alone without ropes! Alright, Alex Honold, I tip my hat to you.
I won’t be climbing it. I’ll just watch “Free Solo” and keep wiping my hand of their sweat!
Explore the Valley
From El Capitan, you can drive around and explore Yosemite Valley via the Southside and Northside Drives. One thing I was surprised about when I spent my one day in Yosemite Valley was how big it is, and to be honest, how urban it felt.
I will admit, I didn’t feel like I was in the wilderness while I was in the valley. But with that said, it’s still something to see and enjoy.
Lower Yosemite Fall Trail
If you only have one day to spend in Yosemite National Park, a short hike to lower Yosemite Falls is quite nice. I visited Yosemite just before Labor Day weekend and unfortunately, the falls did not include water. But it was nice to see the park from that perspective.
The falls drop more than 300 feet straight down in when they are flowing you can be sprayed by water. The eastern part of the loop is wheelchair-accessible in the warmer months (when not covered with snow and ice).
Valley View is a pullout on the Northside Drive in Yosemite Valley. It’s this lookout where you will find one of the most famous views of Yosemite Valley. Here you get a straight shot through the valley to some of its most famous cliffs and waterfalls. It’s a definite must-stop if you only have one day to explore Yosemite National Park.
To complete your tour of Yosemite National Park in one day, drive out of the park via the Tioga Road. This scenic drive takes you through Yosemite’s high country. It’s about 1:45 minutes to Tioga Pass from Yosemite Valley. This drive takes you through numerous scenic vistas. I really enjoyed driving through the granite landscape of the high country.
Along the Tioga Road, you find Tuolumne Meadows. The meadows are a large open subalpine treat that is accented by the Tuolumne River that meanders through. It’s a great place to see the wonderful Sierra Mountain meadows.
Yosemite App and Resources
Yosemite National Park has a wonderful website with a plethora of information. You can also check out the Moon or Falcon guide books. Like Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Yosemite National Park has an app with all the important information and maps.