Yosemite is Disneyland for you nature-lovers, with so many incredible adventures that will keep you busy for hours. It’s a beautiful spot where granite walls stretch up to the sky and water falls down to the valley floor. If you have a free day while exploring California, make it a Yosemite day.
The Big Oak Flat entrance on the west side of Yosemite National Park is about three hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, but the views, food and nature-embracing accommodation that await make the drive worth it.
Before you enter the park proper, this is a breakfast restaurant you must visit. Priest Station Café is a perfect spot hidden in the hills. It’s owned by world-class climber Conrad Anker, who was part of the three-person team that made a gripping 2015 documentary about ascending Meru Peak in the Himalayas. Order the steak and eggs if you plan on having a strenuous day in the park. If you plan on having an easy day, you should still order the steak and eggs anyway. They’re that good.
See Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan and other natural splendors
After grabbing breakfast, finish up the last stretch of your drive. Try and get to Yosemite as early as possible if you’re going on a weekend. You don’t want to spend the beginning of your day in nature waiting in a line of SUVs. Once you make it through the gate, drive into Yosemite Valley and make the full loop. Stop wherever you find an eye-grabbing view. Pull out a lawn chair and look up at Bridalveil Falls, El Capitan, or any of the amazing sights in Yosemite National Park.
Dine and shop at Curry Village
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Curry Village | Courtesy of Curry Village / Expedia
After the loop, head to Curry Village, a lodging area filled with shops and food spots. Go into the cafeteria and grab a pizza for your family or friends – or even just for yourself. Sit back and enjoy your meal in a cozy lobby area, where you’re surrounded by the rest of your fellow Yosemite adventurers.
Once you’ve done your sightseeing and grabbed some fuel, go for a hike. At only 7mi (11km) long, Mist Trail is perfect for a beginner, and has great views along the entire way. You can keep the walk short and stop at 1mi (1.6km), or you can keep powering to the top of the waterfall for about 5mi (8km). Either way, the breathtaking views will make you forget about your burning calves. Plus, Mist Trail isn’t just a fun or catchy name; it’s so close to the waterfall that, during the spring and summer, the trail is literally misty. Walking on a hot day is much easier when you’re constantly being freshened by water, but be careful; it can get slippery.
After you’ve worked off your lunch, head on over to the classy Ahwahnee Hotel. When the President of the United States feels like visiting Yosemite National Park, they stay here – and you can too if you’re in the mood to treat yourself. The bar and grill serve up a mean pulled-pork sandwich with some great fries. Order an ice-cold beer to complete that lovely moment in this world-class stay.
Your lunch was relaxing, but now it’s time for some more nature. Head up to Glacier Point for the best view in the park. It’s 4,000ft (1,200m) above the Yosemite Valley floor, and you can see the entire stretch of the park, including trees, granite and waterfalls. After wrapping your head around that splendor, head south to Mariposa Grove, home of the sequoia trees. Whether they’re blanketed with snow, or blocking the sun, they’re bound to wow you.
Watch the sunset in the isolation of Hetch Hetchy Valley
The sun is setting soon, so it’s time to find a good spot to sit down and relax. Head out of the park and into Hetch Hetchy Valley. It’s outside the gates of Yosemite, but technically still part of the park. It may seem like the little sibling of Yosemite Valley, but it’s possibly prettier. Park your car in the lot, and walk down the ¼mi (402m) road. It will lead you to a dam, and a stunning view to boot. Embrace the separation from all the hustle and bustle – there isn’t even any cell service out here. Throw down your chairs and enjoy the sight of the sunset in the valley.
These recommendations were updated on September 22, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.