When you think about the National Parks in America, what comes to mind? The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone. Noble Denali standing above the Alaskan Tundra in Denali National Park. The sunset beyond the dramatic landscape of the Grand Canyon. And Yosemite: the eventual National Park that inspired Preservationist John Muir to fight so hard to help create the National Park Service we have today.
Yosemite National Park is the crown jewel of the nine National Parks in California; it draws an average 4 million visitors per year and has received over 205 million people since the park was established in 1890. To say it’s one of the most popular National Parks in the U.S. is an understatement.
Though I lived in California for four years, I have actually only visited Yosemite once, early in my time there. It left a huge impression on me, and I’m still eager to get back someday to explore more of the sweeping valleys, passes, and meadows, admire the epic views, and – of course – do a good bit of stargazing.
In this post, I’ll share my tips on how to spend two days in Yosemite National Park, based on my first, way too short trip. Whether you only have a weekend and need to get back home after just a few days or are visiting other parts of California too (such as on a National Parks road trip), this post will help you make the most of the short time you have. Just don’t be surprised if it leaves you wanting to make a return trip too!
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Numu (Northern Paiute) and Me-Wuk (Southern Sierra Miwok) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning Your Visit to Yosemite National Park
Before getting into this 2 day Yosemite itinerary, I want to talk about the logistics of the trip. I find that answering these questions beforehand allows you to have a hiccup-free adventure.
Different Parts of Yosemite National Park
Since Yosemite National Park covers quite a large area, it’s split into several different sections. These include the following parts:
- Tuolumne Meadows
- Yosemite Valley
- Bridalveil Creek
- Mariposa Grove and Wawona
- Glacier Point
- Hetch Hetchy
Given that there are half a dozen sections of the park, it’s simply not feasible to see all of these parts during your two days in Yosemite. That said, I did try to include as many of these sections as possible. But if you’d like to spend more time in each section of the park, consider checking out my 3 days in Yosemite itinerary instead.
Yosemite National Park Entrance Fees
Since Yosemite National Park is part of the National Park Service, you’ll either have to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee, good for 7 days, is $35.
- You can walk or bike into the park for $20 per person. This is also good for 7 days. While this can save you some money if you’re a solo traveler, I still wouldn’t recommend this option. Yosemite Valley is very long, so you’ll end up spending a large chunk of your two days in Yosemite just walking or biking from one part of the park to another, even with the park’s free shuttle.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park in the United States, as well as all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is still accurate – on the Yosemite NPS website.
Driving & Parking in Yosemite National Park
Technically, there are a few main roads that wind their way through Yosemite National Park. But since you’ll only have two days in Yosemite, you don’t need to concern yourself with all of them.
For day one, you’ll hang out in Yosemite Valley. While there, you’ll only need to pay attention to Southside Drive and Northside Drive, which makes a loop that conveniently winds its way to most of the stops on the first day of this Yosemite two-day itinerary.
For day two, you only need to concern yourself with Wawona Road, Big Oak Flat Road, Tioga Road. These three interconnected streets will take you to all of your Day Two stops.
Parking is where it actually gets complicated. As one of the most popular national parks in the United States, thousands of people visit this national park every single day. For that reason, parking can be quite a challenge.
If you want to easily secure a parking spot, I highly recommend trying to arrive as early as possible – ideally before 9 a.m., even on weekdays. There are three parking lots in Yosemite Valley: Yosemite Village, Curry Village, and Yosemite Falls. Once you find a coveted space, you can simply leave your car there all day and take the park’s free shuttle to follow this itinerary. (Note: The free shuttle is not running in 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic.)
Where to Stay for a Weekend in Yosemite
If you want to stay inside Yosemite National Park, your options are a bit limited. Also depending on when you visit Yosemite during the year, your accommodation options will differ. But here are your options for where to stay during a weekend in Yosemite.
The main options you have are hotels, including the Ahwahnee Hotel, the Yosemite Valley Lodge, or the historic Wawona Hotel and White Wolf Lodge. The Glacier Point Ski Hut is open only in the winter if you’re keen to be in the heart of it while skiing in Yosemite. For canvas tent camping options, you can stay at Housekeeping Camp, Curry Village, or Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Lastly, there are over a dozen more traditional campgrounds managed by the National Park Service.
If you’re open to staying outside the park and driving a bit more, there are plenty of fantastic options. South of the park, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite offers luxury at a good price. North of the park, I stayed at The Groveland Hotel on my first trip to Yosemite and it’s undergone a change of ownership and big upgrade since I visited. A great close option is Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal, right near the edge of the park.
Obviously, it’s all a matter of what you’re willing to spend and how close to the park you want to stay. Whether it’s the historic charm of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel in the heart of the park, camping in one of the alpine meadows, or the mod Groveland Hotel north of the park border, there’s a wide range of options for any budget.
How to Explore Yosemite in 2 Days
Now that I’ve covered the logistics, I can move on to how to explore Yosemite in 2 days. From sunrise to sunset (and afterward!), this guide ensures that you’ll get the most out of your time in this wonderful national park.
Day 1: Explore the Yosemite Valley
You’ll start your two days in Yosemite itinerary bright and early by catching the sunrise at Valley View. This is one of the most popular sunrise spots in the park – and for good reason! In addition to seeing the golden glow of sunrise, you’ll also get to see El Capitan and the Twin Cathedral Rocks and Spires.
Next up is the Tunnel View scenic pullout. This is arguably the most famous viewpoint in all of Yosemite National Park. Take in the stunning views of Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall.
After a few minutes gazing at Yosemite’s beautiful landscape, you can move on to the next part of your itinerary: a lovely scenic drive! There’s no official scenic drive in Yosemite National Park, but if you drive on Southside Drive and then loop back around onto Northside Drive, you can make one! And this circle is filled with some of Yosemite National Park’s most amazing sites.
Now, it’s time to get your blood pumping with the Bridalveil Fall Hike. This short and sweet trail ends in a breathtaking, 620-foot waterfall!
After enjoying a picnic lunch at Sentinel Beach, it’s time for the second hike of the day: Cook Meadow’s Loop. Despite the fact that it’s just one mile long, you’ll still get a glimpse of many of Yosemite’s most well-known sites, including Half Dome, Lower Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, and Sentinel Rock.
To give yourself a break from all of that hiking, your next stop is the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. While there, you can learn about the flora and fauna of the park, ask all of the questions you may have, and even get your passport stamp.
If you have the time and energy for another hike, I highly recommend checking out the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point. But if you don’t feel up for a third hike of the day (which is completely understandable), you can drive to Glacier Point instead. By that time of day, the sun will likely be setting, and you’ll get to admire it from one of the best spots in the park.
Despite the fact that the sun has set, your day isn’t over just yet! You still have time to do a little stargazing. Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, and Tunnel View are all fantastic options. If you’d like more information, you can check out my Yosemite stargazing guide.
Day 2: Discover Other Parts of the Park
For day two of this Yosemite two-day itinerary, you won’t have to wake up quite as early. After all, you’ll need some rest after your previous jam-packed day. But don’t sleep in too long! You still want to head out early enough to snag a parking space.
First up on day two is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, usually shortened to Mariposa Grove. This natural landscape is filled with 500 massive sequoia trees. Some of these trees are over 200 feet tall!
To get the best view of these towering sequoias, you can hike the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail. This moderate, two-mile hike takes you past many of the most noteworthy spots in the grove, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant and the California Tree Tunnel.
Once you’ve finished up your fantastic morning hike, you can then head to Wawona. This part of Yosemite National Park boasts both history and nature. In the 1800s, Wawona was actually home to many pioneers, one of which set up the building blocks to make Yosemite a national park.
As for the nature of Wawona, there’s no better place to experience it than on the Swinging Bridge Trail. This 1.5-mile path takes you past blooming wildflowers, cascading rivers, and towering trees. And at the end, you’ll be rewarded with the historic Wawona Swinging Bridge, as well as a few natural pools that are perfect for swimming. There’s even a cool natural waterslide that you should definitely take the time to enjoy.
After you dry off and have a picnic lunch at the Wawona Picnic Area, you’ll have quite a drive ahead of you. Your next activity is a two-and-a-half-hour drive to and through Tioga Pass.
Before you reach Tioga Pass, there’s so much to see. After all, you’ll want to stretch your legs a few times on that long journey anyways. Enjoy the sparkling blue waters of Tenaya Lake, check out the views from Olmsted Point, and watch the rock climbers on Lembert Dome.
But the scenery becomes even more spectacular once you reach the famed Tioga Pass. This road is actually the highest highway pass in California! With snow-capped mountains, sheer cliffs, and thriving greenery, Tioga Pass is absolutely picture-perfect. If you like, you can even hang out until sunset and watch the pastel colors paint the sky.
It is important to note that the Tioga Pass is only open from late May to October, due to weather conditions.
Don’t worry! I didn’t use up all of the fun on the drive to Tioga Pass. On the way back, you can stop at the wonderful Tuolumne Meadows. If it’s still light out when you reach Tuolumne Meadows, you can watch for wildlife, hike the Soda Springs Trail, or explore the Gaylor Lakes. And if the sun has already set, you can do a little stargazing instead.
Just like that, you’ve filled two jam-packed days in Yosemite – the weekend (or weekdays) have flown by! Head back to your accommodation for the night before driving out of the Sierras tomorrow.
Have any questions about how to spend your two days in Yosemite National Park? Let me know in the comments!