When we planned our Californian road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, we knew that Yosemite National Park was a must-see stop on our U.S.A. travel itinerary.
Yosemite’s incredible outdoor playground was formed by glaciers over a million years ago and is famous for spectacular waterfalls. Adrenaline junkies can ride white-water rapids and climb the formidable Half Dome rock face and El Capitan, the world’s largest granite monolith.
At the same time, hikers can explore the fantastic landscape on spectacular Yosemite hikes that all add up to making Yosemite National Park a U.S.A bucket-list destination.
We wanted to experience the best of California during our trip. From the hustle and bustle of L.A. and Las Vegas to Yosemite, the third oldest national park in the U.S., and on to the oceanside setting of San Francisco. But with all that to pack into a 7-day California West Coast itinerary, could we see the best of Yosemite in just one day?
The answer is yes, of course, we could! We researched the best things to do in Yosemite and decided to experience Yosemite by spending a night in a tent, followed by a day of exploring a few of Yosemite’s easily accessible waterfall walks.
This post will highlight what we did with our 24 hours in Yosemite, plus some helpful travel tips. I hope it inspires you to visit one of the United States’ best south-western national parks yourself.
This article may contain affiliate links – read the full disclaimer here.
Need to arrange travel insurance, car hire or accommodation? Check out my resources page to help you plan your trip.
Best Time to Visit Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a year-round destination, although, in winter between November and May, parts of the park are inaccessible due to snow and falling rocks, and snow chains on car tyres may be required to get around. For those reasons, the best time to visit Yosemite National Park for most visitors is from May to October.
We travelled to Yosemite in May and found the Yosemite weather pleasant (although cold at night. The cascading waterfalls were at peak flow, and the wildflower meadows were coming into bloom. For us, it was the perfect time to visit Yosemite and enjoy all the delights that spring brings with it.
When are the Yosemite Waterfalls Most Spectacular?
In spring, the snow melts and winds its way down the Sierra Nevada mountains and into the 750,000 acres of the Yosemite valley. The volume of water travelling down across the giant granite rock faces causes the waterfalls to come alive after a dry winter, and visitors get to witness them in peak flow.
When do the waterfalls in Yosemite dry up?
After the spectacular displays in spring and early summer, several waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls, will have dried up by August. There will still be other waterfalls to see, but not at the magnitude of those in springtime.
Yosemite Directions from Las Vegas
It is a long drive from Las Vegas to Yosemite, so be prepared with provisions in the car. The fastest and most popular route is the U.S. 95 highway to State Route 266, then from Mammoth Lakes pick up the 395. Our drive from Las Vegas to Yosemite took eight hours, including two convenience breaks.
On our route from Las Vegas to Yosemite, we discovered quite a bit of snow in the Sierra Mountains. We stopped the car to watch snowboarders and skiers enjoying the winter weather while we were dressed in t-shirts and shorts. Unbeknown to them, we had come from the hot temperatures of Las Vegas, and we hadn’t realised we would come across thick snow. We certainly got a few strange looks as we stretched our pale (and cold) legs!
We entered Yosemite via the east along the Tioga pass (only open from late May and November), which is the best entrance to Yosemite.
If arriving at other times in the year, the drive will be longer as you will have to skirt around the Sierra Nevada mountain range and cut through most of central California.
Yosemite Wilderness Passes
Please remember that park passes are required to enter the national Yosemite park. There are park rangers on checkpoints to assist you in purchasing one.
A seven-day pass costs approx $35 per vehicle (2022)
Yosemite camping in tented accommodation
We opted for an authentic outdoor experience at Curry Village for our one night in Yosemite and chose a pre-erected canvas tent in Camp Curry. The tents slept four of us and comprised a double and two single beds.
There are communal showers and clean toilet facilities, and the water is hot!
Yosemite cabins and standard rooms are also available at Camp Curry if the thought of bears prowling by the tents at night has you all a flutter!
As we were staying in spring, the electric heaters in the tents should have all been off. Luckily because of a particularly cold snap, the heaters were left on. After arriving on a dark rainy night after a long drive from Las Vegas, this was absolute bliss!
Camp Curry has a great American wilderness feel about it. The central hub of the camp is a wooden lodge that is home to a couple of Yosemite restaurants; Meadow Grill and Curry Village Pizza Deck. There is a convenience store for snacks, outdoor accessories and souvenirs, and a swimming pool for the warmer weather, everything you could want for a great stay in Yosemite.
If you want to stay in Curry Village during the high season (May- October) you will need to book your Yosemite reservations months in advance due to its popularity.
Are you looking for an alternative to camping? The best hotel accommodation in Yosemite is at Ahwahnee Hotel.
Ahwahnee, meaning ‘gaping mouth’, was the name given to Yosemite by the Indians who once lived in the area.
Our first night in Yosemite
It was dark in Yosemite by the time we arrived, mainly because the drive from Las Vegas was longer than anticipated, and all we wanted to do was eat and sleep.
We checked in, found our tent, dumped our bags and headed to Camp Curry’s restaurant area. It’s amazing how good food tastes when everyone is tired and hungry, but I swear the pizza at Camp Curry was the best I had ever had! After eating, we headed back from the lodge to our tent for a night in the great outdoors.
As we walked back with our torches scanning the footpaths, we chatted about what to do if we saw a bear. Although we all know bears are dangerous animals, there was also a thrill factor in the thought that we may get a glimpse of one, and for my youngest son, this seemed like his ultimate dream.
The tents all have secure black bear lockers outside of them. What a novelty this was, as we had never seen or used a bear locker anywhere before. Strict instructions are given in Camp Curry that visitors should put all food in the bear lockers at all times. Bears have a great sense of smell and can seek out a half-eaten sandwich or chocolate bar from miles away; even our toiletries had to go in the box!
Armed with our instructions, we loaded in soggy sandwiches from the bottom of the rucksacks, half-full bottles of pop and the remains of a packet of biscuits into our designated bear locker and went to bed.
One Day In Yosemite – Waterfall Walks
After a chilly night (even with the heater on), we awoke to the sound of cascading water not far from our tent; this was how we thought sleeping outdoors in Yosemite would be.
After breakfast, we headed back to the tent and scooped up the bits we needed for our walk to Yosemite’s impressive waterfalls. At this point, as I was packing my youngest son’s bag, I found the remains of a sandwich at the bottom. I looked at him, he looked at me, and when I questioned why it hadn’t made its way into the bear locker, he replied that he wanted to see a bear, so he kept it in his bag!
We often think of what might have been if a black bear decided to force its way into the tent for that ham sandwich. At the time, the thought was terrifying; however, years later, it is one of those memories that make travelling with children so much fun!
In 1984, Yosemite became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Morning Walk to Bridal Veil Falls
Distance: 0.5-mile return walk
Time to Walk: 20 minutes
To reach Bridal Veil Falls was a quick 12-minute drive from Curry Camp. Once we had parked the car, we headed towards the trailhead to explore our first Yosemite waterfall. The walk was easy, and we passed through magnificent sequoia trees until we reached the impressive Bridal Veil Falls.
As we were there at the height of the cascades, we got pretty drenched from the spray coming off the falls as they tumbled down the rock face, and the cold air took our breath away. It was an exhilarating experience!
Because we were there first thing in the morning, it was pretty empty, but I can imagine it would get busy and maybe not so enjoyable later in the day.
Wear waterproof coats and shoes with grip, as the areas at the base of the waterfalls are wet and slippy.
On the way back, we kept an eye out for the wildlife in Yosemite. We spotted a few Californian ground squirrels, a deer and one American robin (which looked very different from our English ones). We were glad we did have some success with the wildlife. Unfortunately, there were still no bears for my son, even though park rangers estimate that between 300 and 500 black bears live in Yosemite park!
We enjoyed wandering through the wooded areas in Yosemite, they were lovely, and we discovered that the sequoias that were all around us are the largest trees in the world. You must head to Mariposa Grove, in the southernmost part of Yosemite, if you want to see the giant sequoias.
Giant sequoia trees can live up to 3000 years of age.
Relaxing in El Capitan Meadow
A picnic in El Capitan meadows is an excellent place to rest between Yosemite waterfall walks. The formidable Yosemite rock faces loom above you as you eat your sandwiches is quite something. We stayed awhile in the meadow, just soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the magical surroundings.
With the river Merced running through Yosemite, you can always be guaranteed spectacular sights in Yosemite National Park.
Afternoon Walk to Lower Yosemite Falls
Distance: 1.2-mile paved loop
Time to Hike: 30-40 minutes
The walk to see the famous Yosemite Falls is something we all wanted to do; after all, it is the highest waterfall in Yosemite and one of the most significant landmarks in the park. We loved this because it was an easy, family-friendly trail with just a slight elevation as we reached the base of the falls.
We enjoyed the scenery during our walk; it is magical, like being in a Hansel and Gretal fairytale. Ancient sequoia trees loom overhead, and the thundering falls get louder and louder the nearer you get to them – it’s all stimulating!
When you finally make it to the lower Yosemite Falls, you get to see why it is the tallest waterfall in the national park and one of the tallest waterfalls in North America; it is a powerful force of nature and a magnificent sight to behold.
A Final Farewell to Yosemite
After a perfect day in Yosemite, we headed back for a bite to eat at Camp Curry and grabbed ourselves three of the coveted rocking chairs that reside on the deck by the reception area. We all agreed that spending 24 hours in Yosemite was definitely doable and a bucket list destination we would never forget.
We jumped in the car, and with one last glance at the incredible granite rock faces in Yosemite National Park, we were off on the 4-hour drive to San Francisco for the final leg of our 7-day Californian road trip.
If you are staying in San Francisco as your base in California and want to experience the highlights of Yosemite in one day, there are several organised day trips you can book: