One of the most well-known parks in the United States has to be Yosemite National Park, with iconic rock formations like El Capitan and Half Dome. This stunning national park can captivate days or weeks, but what do you do when you only have ONE day? You’ve come to the right place, because I have done just that and compiled my recommended itinerary.
*If your attention span is like MINE, you can instead watch this short 60 second video on my Tiktok that summarizes all 5 spots.
All big trips like this start with extensive research of the best spots to see, but it’s also necessary to assess the journey it takes to get there, in order to best optimize your limited time. It is extremely helpful, if not mandatory in my opinion, to talk to one of the local rangers at a visitors center when you arrive. No matter how well planned you think you are, they know best the local spots and current situations (such as potential weather, traffic, or closure considerations).
While Yosemite is a massive park to explore in one day, it can certainly be done. I’ll admit, I fully utilized the ENTIRE day starting DARK and early at 3am (very much optional for stargazing at Tunnel View). But regardless, to visit all of the places below I do recommend starting at sunrise and expect to be there until sunset.
You will get to see most of the iconic spots at Yosemite, including El Capital, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.
On a side note, this is just one of many stops I took during my Great Western American Road Trip. You can learn more about that full trip here for tips on other iconic parks like Death Valley, Redwoods, and Yellowstone:
Of all the national parks I have explored, I’ll admit that THIS one had the most hiking. Between Mirror Lake and Mist Trail below, you are gonna get a fair amount of steps in! Let’s get into it, shall we?
You can’t miss Tunnel View. No, literally, it would be very difficult to accidentally pass this by. The main entrance into the Valley goes through a one mile long tunnel which then immediately (and I do mean RIGHT away) has the parking lots to your left/right to enjoy Tunnel View.
It is an unusual experience parking your car within 100 feet of a view like this. This iconic view lets you enjoy all of the stunning formations in the valley. You can see El Capitan to the left, Half Dome in the distance, and Bridalveil Falls to the right, among others, of course.
This is the spot that inspired me to arrive at 3am. I had not been here before, so my first experience was taking a one hour drive in pitch darkness that winded extremely narrowly over cliff edges and, at one brief point, elevated high enough to start seeing snow! I then drove through the one mile long stone tunnel and parked at Tunnel View. It wasn’t until I got out and walked to the viewing area that I could, for the first time, be blown away by this stunning view with moonlight and stars overhead. I do think this location produced my best astrophotography to date, with a fully visible milky way and the valley gently lit up by moonlight from behind me.
That being said, I do recommend checking out this location when you first arrive because, well, it’s RIGHT there. You can always stop again later for different times of day (I found myself back again for daytime lighting and sunset light as well).
You can also drive down a bit further to Yosemite Valley View. This spot gives a similar view but it is down at ground level (so some things are cut off). It is a great alternative perspective to the entire valley.
Difficulty - 1/10 - Super easy, just park and walk like literally 20 feet with no elevation change. About as easy as anywhere here will get!
If you want to get up close and personal to Half Dome, this is the hike for you. BE WARNED - the trail is a bit confusing. There are two paths, one that goes on the west side of the river/lake, and one that goes on the east side. I felt it was important to be able to photograph Half Dome with the lake in front of it. As such, you have to go on the trail that goes to the west side. No, there is no quick way to “cross over” once you are there. In fact, I messed up and back tracked about a mile once I realized I was on the wrong side.
I will admit, I do think Half Dome is simply better viewed from a different angle. This view puts you STRAIGHT on to Half Dome. However, it is more iconic to be able to see the actual dome from an angle so you can see how it is “cut off”. That is something you can do more easily from other spots in the main valley.
I also found that I enjoyed the hike there nearly as much if not more than the destination. You walk along the river nearly the whole way and it is full of rapids, small cascading waterfalls, and boulders to photograph. I stopped probably a dozen times at least!
Difficulty - 4/10 - It is a nice and easy paved trail going nearly all the way there. Uphill pretty much the entire way. If you hike the west side and back, it is about 2 miles round trip. You CAN do a full loop around the entire lake (covering east/west sides) but that is a full 5 miles round trip. Depending on seasons, be aware the shuttles may be limited. There seem to be dozens to shuttle you all over, but when I was there (April) there were only 2 open, and so I did have some extra hiking to do just to get TO the trailhead.
Here is another one where I found the hike more fascinating than the destination. That is, in part, to only having a day and limiting how far I hiked. This trail goes pretty far - taking you up Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. Going all the way to the end (Nevada Falls) is a 7 mile round trip hike. Just to Vernal Falls is a 3 mile round trip hike. I chose to simply go to the Vernal Falls Bridge (not quite to the falls).
The trail is one of the most stunning trails I have been on! It is a paved path carved into the mountainside, winding up slowly and giving you amazing views of the entire valley as you keep going. The path itself is lined with beautiful mossy boulders and you are bound to see some critters along the way.
You can see about half of Vernal Falls from the bridge, and if you do have more time, I would recommend working your way further to the Vernal Falls themselves.
It’s worth noting that you can tackle Mist Trail and Mirror Lake’s trail together (ish). Their trailheads are both VERY close together (maybe about 0.5mi apart). So after doing one, you can pretty much just immediately walk to the other one.
Difficulty - 7/10 - This will be the most strenuous hike on my list. It is legit uphill nearly the entire way to Vernal Falls Bridge. Note you CAN keep going, of course, to Vernal Falls (3 miles round trip), but I found with my limited time that I had to turn back at Vernal Falls Bridge.
I love waterfalls, if you haven’t noticed, so this might have been one of my favorite hikes. What was most fascinating for me being here in April was that it felt like spring and yet clearly it was very snowy in the mountains. The result of this was that the river of Yosemite Falls was the consistency of a blue slushie. It was half frozen slush with a beautiful turquoise hue. This also resulted in frosty-looking boulders and some very fascinating ice formations between the rocks.
This was my first hike and so it was just after sunrise and I was able to see a rainbow under the falls as well. I should clarify that I walked to the Lower Falls. Similar to Mist Trail, this is a great case of limited time and so there is flexibility if you have time to hike further to the Upper Falls. You can, however, see BOTH falls when you are at a further distance (as you can see in the images below). In fact, the hike there presents a fantastic spot to stop and photograph them both between the trees. When I say “spot”, I almost quite literally mean a very specific spot to stand. In fact, a line of photographers seems to form just to stand at that one spot because even just a couple feet left/right/forward/back from that spot and the trees are in the way.
Difficulty - 3/10 - This is a relatively flat hike that was just a one mile round trip journey.
Last, but not even remotely least is simply being in the valley itself. The entire valley is extremely flat and has a paved road you can drive around with plenty of spots to pull over at and enjoy the sights, as well as do some short walks.
Most popular of all is the stunning El Capitan cliffs, as well as, in my opinion, views of the Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls. So, relax and drive around this entire area and pull over if you see something you want to explore a bit more!
Difficulty - 1/10 - You are either just driving and pulling over to enjoy views from your car, or doing short walks that are about as flat as they can get.
Overall, the above should leave you feeling like you explored Yosemite well and that you saw the main spots in the park. Of all the national parks from my latest trips, this is the ONLY one that I 100% would come back to and spend more time at. That is simply because I felt there were more places I would want to explore (such as Bridalveil Falls, which was closed when I was there, as well as going further into the Yosemite Falls and Mist Trail).
Doing all of those would simply require more time to finish the hiking, even if just coming back for 2 or 3 days.
Have you been to Yosemite, or is it on your bucket list? If so, what was your favorite spot or where are you most excited to see? Let me know in the comments below!
Founder and visual artist, specializing in all aspects of a businesses presence from imagery and video to graphics and web. A graduate of IPFW with a Bachelor in Fine Arts, Concentration Photography as well as an Associates Degree in Business. His personal photography works are focused on landscape, travel, and aerial photography.