valley on sunrise

valley on sunrise

Shaka Guide's Yosemite National Park Itinerary


Introduction to Yosemite National Park

yosemite national park tour map

Yosemite National Park is a spectacular and popular destination, a true American gem. The grandeur of Yosemite Valley, with some of the continent’s tallest waterfalls and granite monoliths like El Capitan and Half Dome rising thousands of feet above the valley floor, is an absolute wonder to behold. So welcome to a truly astonishing place!

Of course, there’s more to Yosemite than its famous valley. Witness over 500 sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove, hike in the high Sierra country on a trail along Tioga Road, sunbathe on a sand beach at Tenaya Lake, or explore Yosemite’s early pioneer and tourist history at Wawona. And did you know there’s another entire valley in the park?

Shaka Guide Yosemite Tour

Hetch Hetchy Valley is nearly as impressive as its more famous cousin, Yosemite Valley, with a fraction of the visitors. Exploring the park’s lesser-known attractions beyond Yosemite Valley is a rewarding way to beat some of the crowds. So, we here at Shaka Guide have prepared an incredible tour that will take you anywhere you want to go in this famous national park. 

cellphone mounted inside the car

With over 30 stops and more than 160 points of narration, this tour is not designed to be completed in one day. To reach every tour stop and return to your entrance would take more than 7 hours of driving, and that doesn’t include time spent hiking or in general enjoying the stops you’ve made.

Instead, we invite you to do this tour over the span of a few days. Along with directions, we provide options throughout the whole tour and help you make informed decisions based on your priorities. So even if you only have one day, you’ll be sure to see something amazing.

Important Information

There are four starting points for the tour, one for each entry into Yosemite. Starting points, going clockwise, are: 

1. Yosemite Forks just north of Oakhurst

2. CA-140 by Yosemite Cedar Lodge

3. CA-120 by Yosemite Westgate Lodge

4. CA-120/Tioga Pass east of the park outside the town of Lee Vining. 

Yosemite Tour Itinerary

With four starting points and a countless number of ways you can take the tour, we’ve organized the tour stops by the four primary sections of the park: 

Because of the park’s size and popularity, we highly recommend you leave your accommodation to reach a park entrance gate by 9:00 a.m. at the absolute latest, with 8:00 a.m. more ideal. Start later and you'll likely find a long line of cars at the entrance gate and full parking lots once inside. So set a timer on your coffeemaker and hit the road early! It’s going to be a full, but wonderful day.


1. Tunnel View

valley with forest belowShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

Exit the mile-long Wawona Tunnel and park at this stunning scenic viewpoint of the entire Yosemite Valley. El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall frame the view to the left and right respectively, with Half Dome hanging out in the background. This is a popular stop, so don’t be surprised if you need to wait for a parking spot, but people don’t tend to linger long.

2. Bridalveil Fall

Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, California - a majestic waterfall surrounded by natural beauty.Shutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 30 minutes

A paved, 0.5-mile trail is all it takes to reach the base of Bridalveil Fall. This 620-ft waterfall is one of the few in Yosemite not reliant on snowmelt, so it flows reliably year-round.

The trail is known to get wet, especially during the spring, so prepare to enter the splash zone and watch your step. If the parking lot by the trailhead is full, there’s additional parking along Southside Drive and additional trailheads that connect back to the main trail to the waterfall.

3. Cathedral Beach Picnic Area

green river with trees and mountain aboveShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

Stop by this small picnic area for a quick peek at El Capitan from the sandy banks of the Merced River. El Capitan looms mightily over the spot, which is a decent place to avoid crowds or enjoy the river.

4. Swinging Bridge Picnic Area

picnic area with trees and mountainsShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

Though the bridge doesn’t swing, the footbridge over the Merced River at this picnic area features a fabulous view of Yosemite Fall. Like Cathedral Beach, this is another good spot to enjoy the Merced River’s waters for a swim. Plenty of picnic tables also make this a scenic spot for a packed lunch.

5. Curry Village

white tents in a forestImage from Flickr by 

Approximate Time: 15 minutes

We have an optional stop at Curry Village on our tour. There aren’t any attractions here, but it’s a handy place to park the car. Here, you can hop on the free shuttle either to Yosemite Village or over to trailheads for the Mist and Mirror Lake trails.

While you’re here, you can grab a bite to eat at the Curry Village Dining Pavilion. You can even rent a bike at the kiosk by the parking lot and get around on two wheels for the next few hours.

6. Yosemite Village

brown village store with people hanging outside

Approximate Time: 60 minutes

If you wanted a long break from hiking or driving, you could spend hours in Yosemite Village. The Valley Visitor Center, Yosemite Museum, and Ansel Adams Gallery provide a mix of educational and cultural amenities on this largely outdoorsy tour. You can also do some grocery or souvenir shopping at the Village Store or grab a bite to eat at Degnan’s Deli.

7. The Ahwahnee

ahwahnee hotel

Approximate Time: 20 minutes (longer if you eat in the dining room)

This is one of the grandest lodges in all the national parks, and you can enjoy some of its amenities without being a guest. Browse the gift shop, select a treat at the sweets shop, grab a drink at the bar, or just wander the public spaces like the airy Great Lounge.

Of course, the main attraction is the pricey but elegant Dining Room. Join for the breakfast buffet or get a bite to eat for lunch. Dinner requires reservations and a dress code that doesn’t include sweaty hiking clothes.

8. Lower Yosemite Falls

lower yosemite fall

Approximate Time: 30 minutes

It’s only an easy, paved, half mile hike to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, the tallest waterfall in North America. Walk the left side of the loop to get a full view of the falls as you approach. Reliant on rainfall and snowmelt, the waterfall largely dries up by mid-to-late summer.

9. Yosemite Fall Parking Lot

Approximate Time: 15 minutes

You’ll likely park somewhere else and walk to Lower Yosemite Fall from there, but like Curry Village, this is a handy spot. The trailhead for Lower Yosemite Fall is about 10 minutes away, and on the way you’ll pass Yosemite Valley Lodge where you can grab a bite to eat in the Base Camp Eatery or a coffee at Starbucks.

There’s also a bike rental kiosk by the pool. This parking lot is also next to the trailhead for the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail. This strenuous 7.2-mile hike takes you to the top of Yosemite Fall, and on the way, Columbia Rock for a magnificent view of the valley.

10. El Capitan Meadow

mountain with forest belowShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 20 minutes

One of the most awe-inspiring spots in Yosemite is El Capitan Meadow, sandwiched between two granite monoliths: El Capitan and Cathedral Rock.

Squint to find rock climbers ascending the 3,000-ft granite wall of El Capitan. Sunrise and sunset are especially good times to sit in the middle of the valley and allow yourself to become dumbstruck by nature’s craftsmanship.

11. Valley View

mountains on a cloudy skyShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

This small pull-off on the side of Northside Drive offers a similar view of Yosemite Valley as the Tunnel View scenic overlook, but from a lower vantage point along the banks of the Merced River. Again, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall frame the gorgeous panorama.

12. Southside Drive Pull-Off

signboard in yosemite national park

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

Heading into Yosemite Valley from the north takes you to this pull-off as Southside Drive crosses the valley to reach Wawona Road. The pull-off is a good teaser look at El Capitan, as well as an important historical spot. It was here that President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir camped and discussed the future of Yosemite.

13. Wawona Road Pull-Off

scenic overview of a valley with a car park beside

Approximate Time: 5 minutes

Can’t get enough granite? Stop at this pull-off just west of Wawona Tunnel and Tunnel View for a look at the mouth of Yosemite Valley, with tall, granite cliffs leading toward famous landmarks like El Capitan.

14. Yosemite Valley Vista Point

view of valley on a clear sky

Approximate Time: 5 minutes

Driving south toward the valley means you’ve likely been driving for some time. Stop at this small-pull off for a preview of Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome poking its head out far off.


1. Mariposa Grove

walkpath with trees around itShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: At least 90 minutes

Take a free shuttle from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Center to Yosemite’s largest and most impressive grove of sequoia trees. Hiking trails range from easy, short and paved to long and strenuous, so you decide how long you’d like to be here. We recommend at least going as far as the Grizzly Giant, one of the largest sequoia trees in the world.

2. Wawona

big white hotel with cars parked outside

Approximate Time: 30 minutes (longer if you eat at the hotel)

Wawona is a Victorian-era resort that predates the park itself and wasn’t added until the early 20th century. Here you’ll find the Yosemite History Center, with relocated pioneer buildings from around the park interpreting Yosemite’s history. You’ll also find the Wawona Hotel, still looking as Victorian as ever. The hotel’s dining room is a solid choice for lunch or dinner.

3. Taft Point Trailhead

Approximate Time: 2 to 4 hours

There are two trails to two terrific vantage points over Yosemite Valley from this trailhead. You can take them both out and back, or do them both in a loop. Taft Point is an easy to moderate, 2.2-mile hike to a stunning look at Yosemite Valley, including El Capitan and Yosemite Fall.

You’ll also pass the Fissures here, cracks in the granite cliff that drop more than 2,000 feet. The other choice is Sentinel Dome, a moderate, 1.8-mile hike to a 360-degree view of Yosemite. 

4. Washburn Point

top of a mountain view of a valley on a sunny dayShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

The view at this scenic overlook is a teaser for what’s coming ahead at Glacier Point. Half Dome is the main focal point, with Nevada and Vernal Falls below. Beyond, the Sierra Nevada Mountains stretch for miles.

5. Glacier Point

hiker standing at the tip of a cliffShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 30 minutes

A brief walk from the parking lot takes you to one of the most astounding views in the United States, or even perhaps the world. Standing at Glacier Point puts you over 3,000 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Wonder at Yosemite Fall, Half Dome, and its fellow granite mountains of the Sierra Nevada from this amazing scenic overlook.


1. Tuolumne Grove

walkpath with trees beside

Approximate Time: 90 minutes

It’s a 2.5-mile hike round-trip to a small grove of 25 sequoia trees. Smaller and quieter than the more impressive Mariposa Grove in the south end of the park, this grove sits at the bottom of a hill and is accessed by hiking down a disused road.

2. Olmsted Point

rocky mountain with threes

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

Another sweeping look at the Sierra Nevada, the view from Olmsted Point is an unusual angle of Yosemite Valley, with the other side of Half Dome clearly visible. There’s plenty of open granite to walk around and explore different angles. To the left is a good view of Tenaya Lake.

3. West Tenaya Lake Picnic Area

Approximate Time: 20 minutes

We think this is the best view around crystal-clear Tenaya Lake. Stand on the granite lakeshore and enjoy the alpine view. If you decide to hike the easy Tenaya Lake Trail, which can be done as a loop or as an out and back, expect to spend another hour or two.

4. East Tenaya Lake Picnic Area

Approximate Time: 30 minutes

A sand beach? In the mountains? That’s right! While the view isn’t quite as spectacular as the west side of the lake, the east side has a sand beach that’s perfect for a break from the car. Grab your lawn chairs, find a spot, and enjoy the view. If you’re up to it, take a dip in the water, but it’s probably cold!

5. Pothole Dome

big rock with trees and grass

Approximate Time: 60 minutes

An hour at most is all it takes to get a stunning look of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains. This granite dome on the edge of the open meadow isn’t terribly tall or steep, so it only takes a few minutes to reach the top for the panoramic view.

6. Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center

Approximate Time: 15 minutes

Grab what information you need and learn about Tuolumne Meadows, one of the largest subalpine meadows in the Sierra Nevada, at Yosemite’s second largest visitor center. There’s a trailhead to tiny Soda Springs by the building. If you take this easy, flat, 1.6-mile round trip hike through the meadow, expect to spend another hour here.

7. Trailhead for Lembert Dome and Lyell Canyon

cone shaped rock mountainShutterstock Image

Approximate Time: 1.5 to 3 hours

There are two hikes to choose from at this trailhead. One 1.8-mile hike ascends Lembert Dome, another fabulous look at Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding granite domes of the Sierra Nevada. The other is a lengthy hike through Lyell Canyon, but we recommend just going about 30 minutes in for a scenic “twin bridges” area around Tuolumne River. 


1. Carlon Falls Trail

river falls with forest around

Approximate Time: 60-90 minutes

This 3-mile out-and-back trip is a mostly easy hike, minus an uphill climb to get to the falls themselves at the very end. The falls are small by Yosemite standards but you may enjoy playing in the pool at the base of the waterfall. Bonus: this trail in the woods is very shaded!

2. O’Shaughnessy Dam/Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

water dam

Approximate Time: 2 to 3 hours

Stand atop the over 400-ft tall O’Shaughnessy Dam and behold the Hetch Hetchy valley, a second Yosemite Valley to some, but with a deep reservoir of clean water. The highlight here is hiking the 5-mile trail to Wapama Falls, and getting to stand at the base of this impressive waterfall that’s over 1,000-ft tall. The spray from the falls is sublime relief from the California sun.

3. Yosemite National Park Sign

yosemite national park sign

Approximate Time: 5 minutes

Quick photo-opp time! There’s a large Yosemite National Park sign just before you reach the Big Oak Flat Entrance Gate. Hop out of the car and grab a pic for grandma.

4. Big Oak Flat Information Center

park center with cars parked outside

Approximate Time: 10 minutes

Located within the park just after the Big Oak Flat Entrance Gate, this small visitor center features some restrooms (probably much-needed at this juncture of a long drive) as well as a small bookstore. Park rangers are on hand to answer questions.

Map of Tour Stops in Yosemite National Park 

Ready to take the tour? Check out Shaka Guide's Yosemite National Park Tour!

We hope that we’ve given you all the information you need to make the most of your day. Your vacation is extremely important to us so if you have any questions feel free to reach out at aloha@shakaguide.com.

For more detailed information to help you plan, check out our Yosemite National Park Know Before You Go article.


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