Planning a 3 day trip to Yosemite can be overwhelming when there’s so much to see and do. If you’re only spending 3 days in the park you want an itinerary that’s going to maximize your time and give you a little bit of everything Yosemite has to offer, espeically if this is your first visit!
Having some spontinatity is important in travel since it allows you to adjust based on how your feeling or how the day is going. That’s why this trip guide is going to break the park up into sections that you can visit on each day and then give you some options of things to do in each section of the park. That way you can pick and choose or mix and match as you see fit!
The sections of the park are: The Valley, The Rim, The North
Day 1: Yosemite Valley: Waterfalls!
This should be your entry/exit day, it doesn’t have to be the actual first day. I put this as “Day 1” since you’re probably going to be arriving in the park on this day so you won’t have enough time to do a full day hike. This is more of a half to three quarters day in the park which allows you time for driving in/out. Substitute “Day 2” if your first day is really a fully day in the park and save this for your last day when you need to allow for some travel time.
This day is entirely focused on the must-see places in Yosemite Valley. Most don’t require much hiking, which is why you can see all of them in a half day – the real time suck is going to be fighting the crowds, but no trip to Yosemite would be complete with out checking out these iconic locations.
Most of Yosemite Valley is connected via one big one-way loop road, so you can start at whichever point along this suggested path is closest to you and then just continue on with the rest of the loop.
These 4 stops will probably take roughly 4-5 hours if you’re taking time to enjoy everything and depending on traffic.
Stop 1: Tunnel View
The most iconic site in all of Yosemite and also one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring. Tunnel View is truly spectacular and is the absolute single biggest must see thing in the park. It’s beauty will take your breath away.
There are parking lots on both sides of the road making it very easy to pull over and take in the view. This area is always crowded and full of tour buses. Early mornings (like 5am) tend to have a little less traffic, but it’s also difficult to get a good photo at that time since the sun is rising at the other end of the valley, so you’re looking directly into the sun. Sunset is one of the most beautiful times here as the sun is setting behind you away from the view, but it also tends to be more crowded.
Tunnel View is also outside of the loop road that connects everything else in the Valley, so this is either a good place to start or end your day depending on how you entered the park (Tunnel View is just after an actual tunnel that goes through the mountain on the way from the South Entrance to the Valley).
Stop 2: Bridalveil Falls
One of the world’s most famous waterfalls and is the giant waterfall on the right that you’ve seen in any photo of Tunnel View. It’s 1.5mi From Tunnel View and is going to be one of your first available stops now that you’re driving into the Valley along the loop road (Southside Dr.) in the Valley. From the parking lot, it’s a short .5mi walk on a paved road to get to the base of the 620-ft waterfall.
If this parking lot is full (which happens often during the summer), there is another option for parking a few hundred feet down the road along with a second and slightly longer trail which leads back to the falls.
Prepare for it to be crowded, but also amazingly beautiful. People will often go past the end of the trail onto the rocks to get closer to the waterfall.
Stop 3: Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls
Up next are more giant and iconic waterfalls in The Valley – Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls: two amazing waterfalls stacked above each other. Together the falls are the tallest waterfall in North America standing at 2,400ft.
From Bridalveil, it’s a little over 5mi to get to the lower falls. The drive on Southside Dr. will give you grew views of El Capitan to your left. You’ll go past Yosemite Village (good place to stop and have lunch or grab snacks for a possible picnic later on) and will now be on the North side of the loop.
There’s no parking available at the trailhead to the falls, so your options are to either use the Yosemite Falls parking areas which are just past the falls and can fill up quickly, or to park in Yosemite village and then walk over to the falls. It’s about .5mi along a bike path from The Village to the trailhead. Especially if you’re already stopping in The Village for food, I’d go with this option as it’s a nice little walk.
From the trailhead, it’s .5mi to get to the Lower Falls. This is a loop trail, so in total it will be 1mi and again, there will be crowds. The view as you are walking towards the falls in incredible. The park has really done a good job with the design of this path as your walk is framed by tall sequoia trees with the towering falls cascading into each other directly in front of you.
If you have some extra time – hike to the Upper Falls, or at least part way. The full hike to the Upper Falls is a little over 3mi one way (7.6 total out and back) and is a nothing but a series of switchbacks which climbed 3,000ft… it’s a tough one will probably take at least 6hrs because of the difficulty of the elevation gain.
However, there’s a point roughly halfway around 1.75mi that will give you a great view of the Upper Falls without needing to climb to the top of them. The elevation gain to get here is roughly 1,000ft, provides a great view, and is not as strenuous as the rest of the hike to the top of the Upper Falls.
Stop 4: Meadows
After the falls, take a stroll into Cooks Meadow, which is directly across from the trailhead for the falls in the center of The Valley. If you combine this with Sentinel Meadow which is right next door, it’s a total of 2.25mi.
It’s a flat easy walk that is very relaxing and gives you great views of Half Dome and The Falls you just visited. The path will take you across the Merced River via the Sentinel and Swinging Bridges which are picturesque and a great place to be for sunset. This can also be a good place to stop for a picnic, just watch out for mosquitoes depending on the time of year.
Of if you’re looking for a slight change of scenery, there’s another meadow just below El Capitan, which is another great picnic or sunset spot. This meadow is about 2.5mi further down the road. You can park in the parking lot at the base of El Capitan which is clearly marked.
Have Extra Time?
If you’ve done the all of the above, it’s probably taken you 4-5hrs (not including hiking Upper Yosemite Falls), but if you still have some extra time, there are a few more things you could pack into this day:
– Mariposa Grove – The most famous grove of Giant Sequoia trees in the park. Mariposa Grove is at the Southern entrance to the park. Driving from Tunnel View to Mariposa Grove will take you 30-45mins one way depending on traffic, so make sure to consider that if you want to add this to your itinerary. There will be other giant sequoia tress included in “Day 3”.
There are several hiking trails in this area that give you great experiences with the trees. One of the best is Lower Mariposa Grove hike, It’s 2.2mi and includes some of the areas biggest trees in the area: Grizzly Giant (the world’s oldest sequoia at 2,700 years) and the California Tunnel Tree (which you can walk through).
– Ansel Adams Gallery – Located in Yosemite Village, Ansel Adams is probably the most well known Yosemite photographer. The gallery features his works of the park along with several others dating back to the early 1900s.
– Rent bikes – you can rent bikes at the Yosemite Lodge in The Village April through November. There’s a bike path that goes around pretty much the entire Valley following the main road. If you have the time to bike instead of drive, it’s another great way to relax and take in the views as you go from place to place.
Day 2: The Rim: Incredible Views!
Now that you’ve explored the valley, it’s time to get away from the crowds! At least somewhat… This is going to be a big hiking day, so make sure to stock up on some snacks at Curry Village General Store before heading out – you’re going to need the extra calories!
If you’re really ambitious and in for a full day of hiking, I would suggest: The Mist Trail to The Panorama Trail, to The 4 Mile Trail. This loop is about 19mi and will take you all day: sunrise to sunset and show you basically everything around The Valley that you haven’t seen yet (don’t worry I have other options if this would be too intense).
The Mist trail is always on everyone’s list – and for good reason, it’s absolutely beautiful. But this beauty comes with a price: crowds – it’s one of the most popular trails in the park.
The Mist Trail travels right along side Nevada and Vernal Falls – two 600ft and 318ft waterfalls that you can’t see from The Valley. It’s 1.5mi to the top of Vernal and 3.5mi to the top of Nevada. There is no parking at the trailhead, so you would need to park at Curry Village and take the free shuttle bus to the Happy Isles stop which is right near the trailhead.
It’s a climb straight up via stone stairs that have been carved into the rock. The best part of this hike is the climb up as you are facing the falls in front of you, but the climb down is rather anticlimactic and a little stressful as it’s a narrow stone staircase full of people.
If you’ve never done The Mist Trail, you really should do it, but rather than going down the same way you can up – instead take The Panorama Trail.
The Panorama Trail is an 8.5mi trail that goes from Vernal Falls to Glacier Point. Glacier Point is also another “must see” in Yosemite, so why not combine both into one hike? It has some of the most amazing views of the entire valley and especially of Half Dome. The trail is really beautiful, has fairly low traffic, and has great spots to stop of lunch. You’ll also cross Illilouette Falls which you really don’t get from anywhere else in the park.
Once you get to Glacier Point and have taken in the view, if you’ve planned it well, you could possibly take a bus back to The Valley. There’s no regular shuttle to The Valley, but there is a tour bus that goes between the two, but you need to have pre-purchased tickets from Yosemite Valley Lodge. If not taking the bus, then The Four Mile Trail is going to be the fastest way back.
The Four Mile Trail goes from Glacier Point to The Valley floor as directly as possible – straight down. It’s an almost 6mi trail (don’t let the name fool you) of nothing but switchbacks down the 3,200ft mountain. Since you’re now on the other side of Glacier Point, you’ll have views of Yosemite Falls and the entire valley.
Just as a note: I have done this loop, only I did it backwards, starting with The Panorama Trail to The Mist Trail, then up The Four Mile Trail. I would never recommend anyone go up The Four Mile trail (especially after already hiking 12mi+ when you’re losing daylight) – it’s unnecessarily brutal and awful. Going down The Four Mile Trail however at the end of the day is totally do-able and has some great views of The Valley.
Once you’re back down The Valley, you can then take the reliable shuttle bus back to where you’re staying.
Other Hiking Options Around The Rim:
If 18-19mi is too much for you, there are some other options. For all of these, after the hike I’d also recommend driving to Glacier Point afterwards so that you can see that view – beautiful but also crowded at sunset. Glacier Point is also about half way to Mariposa Grove, so you could possibly try to squeeze that in as well.
– The Mist Trail by itself. 7mi round trip. It’s beautiful to see the falls, but you’re going to lose out on some of the views from The Rim. You could also start with The Mist Trail and then continue further on to Half Dome (16mi round trip hike) where you will get some of the amazing views from the rim. You just can’t hike the cables on Half Dome without getting a permit first, which requires some planning since they’re highly competitive
– Taft Point to Sentinel Dome – a 5mi loop hike along the rim over The Valley. The hike is pretty flat and easy, but Taft Point and the view is pretty spectacular with views of Yosemite Falls. Then from there you’ll continue on to Sentinel Dome which is a high point in the park giving you an almost 360 degree view.
– McGurk Meadow to Dewey Point – a 7.8mi out and back hike through a meadow to the edge of the rim. This is a really nice hike, moderate with lots of interesting landscapes. The Mcgurk Meadow is usually full of wildflowers and Dewey Point provides great views of The Valley and Yosemite Falls. You also have the option of continuing on to Crocker Point & Stanford Point if you’re looking for a little extra.
Day 3: Northern Park: Tuolumne Meadows, Sequoias, Lakes & Mountains
After the Valley and the Rim, the only thing you’re still missing to get the full Yosemite experience is the northern part of the park: Tuolumne Meadows, giant sequoia trees, and some mountain lakes.
This area of the park is completely separate from The Valley and exists along Tioga Road (Rt. 120). Note that Tioga Rd is closed during the Winter and is usually open June-Nov (ish), so make sure to check before heading out. You can either drive all the way to the end (Tuolumne Meadows) and work your way back towards The Valley, or start with the closest stops and work your way towards Tuolumne. It’s about 1.5hrs by car (27mi) to get to Tuolumne Meadows from The Valley.
Bring some snacks for lunch as there aren’t as many options in this area of the park as in The Valley. If you’d rather stay in The Valley, you can instead do anything from the above that you haven’t done yet (all of the Rim trails are great), or I’ve also listed some other nearby attractions below too.
Stop 1: Hike May Lake & Mt. Hoffmann
I prefer to start hiking early in the day, so I’d start with the hiking part of this itinerary. About 3/4 of the way down Tioga Road is the trailhead for the hike to May Lake. This is one of the most picturesque lakes in Yosemite. It’s short hike at 2.5mi round trip. It gets a little more interesting since you’re starting at a relatively high elevation (around 8,000ft) and the trail to get to the lake climbs steadily ascending roughly 600 ft in elevation.
The lake is nestled in the basin of the surrounding granite mountains and is a mirror reflection of its surroundings. You can not only see the other side of Half Dome, but also Clouds Rest and Tenaya Lake.
If you have some extra time and are little for a bit more of a challenge, you can continue on hiking to the top of Mt. Hoffmann, which will give you even more spectacular views. This is more of a full day event as it’s almost 10mi round trip and a total elevation gain of 2,000 ft.
Stop 2: Tenaya Lake
After your hike in the morning where you got a view of Tenaya Lake, it’s time to take a look at the lake up close. Shortly down the road pasted Lake May is Tenaya Lake. There’s a trailhead on the right just before the lake. There’s a short, flat 2.5mi loop trail that goes around the entire lake. It’s really pretty and peaceful and a great way to relax.
If you’re looking for another hike that’s slightly more difficult, I’d recommend Sunrise Lakes as an alternative, which is 6.5mi round trip and also right in this area.
Stop 3: Tuolumne Meadows
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite from all that hiking, it’s time for a picnic in Tuolumne Meadows. This is a huge beautiful high elevation meadow and is one of the more well known locations in the park. There are lots of available areas to sit in the grass and enjoy your snacks while taking in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. It’s hard to believe that the mountains keep going up when you’re already at 8,600ft!
If you still haven’t had enough hiking yet and are looking to explore this area a little more, there are a variety of levels of hiking available around the meadow. Find out more on NPS.gov.
Stop 4: Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias
After the above, you will have probably been in the northern area of the park for roughly 4-5 hours. Time to start heading back, or heading out if this is your last day. Once you’ve enjoyed the Meadows and a few of the mountain lakes, all that’s left are the Giant Sequoias.
There’s a short, flat 3mi hike back near the intersection of Big Oak Flat Road (which would be how you got here from The Valley) that goes through Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias. It will take you about an hour to get here from Tuolumne Meadows. Since this is a flat and relatively easy walk through the woods, it’s a great place to be as the sun sets and the light coming through the trees is really magical. Just make sure you’re out of the grove before it’s all the way down. Walking through these giant old trees really puts into perspective our place in this world as these living things will be there long after us.
By now you’ve had a full day in the northern part of the park and it’s time to either head back to The Valley if you’re spending another night, or to be on your way home by exiting the park via Big Oaks Flat.
Other Nearby Attractions
Bodie Ghost Town – an old Gold mining town roughly 2 hours Northeast of the park.
Jackass Lake – 8mi round trip beautiful hike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, roughly 30mins outside the park. This area was once part of Yosemite, as is just as beautiful, but because it’s no longer officially part of the park, there are very few visitors.
Tuolumne River Rafting – rafting down the Tuolumne river just outside Yosemite. 18mi of class IV rapids.