How to Spend Your First Weekend in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous and beautiful National Parks in America, but it can be a bit daunting to determine how to maximize your first trip there. We just recently did this ourselves, and have recommendations on camping, hiking and how to beat some of the crowds!

By: Kyle Reader + Save to a List

One of the most famous natural sites in the world, Yosemite National Park draws casual travelers and veteran adventurers alike. My fiancée and I are currently living in California and simultaneously endeavoring to visit all National Parks, so it wasn’t going to be long before we visited Yosemite. Our recent weekend camping in Yosemite Valley will undoubtedly be the first of many trips. Read on for some of our favorite places and activities!

Camping in Yosemite Valley

Situated between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park is known for its granite rock formations, sequoia groves, towering waterfalls, and glacier meadows. The idyllic scene you’re envisioning is likely Yosemite Valley, a 7 square mile stretch of land that accounts for only 1% of the park but contains such classic sites as Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls. Indeed, Yosemite Valley hosts the lion’s share of visitors to the park, nearly 75% from May to October. While its crowded nature can be a turn off for some travelers, Yosemite Valley is a must-see for any first-time visitor to the park.

There are a handful of campsites available in Yosemite Valley – but beware, reservations go quickly! The best way to get a reservation is to sign up for Yosemite campground updates here. It's a bit of luck and timing with the high demand, but these emails will help you know when reservations become available. You can find an overview of the Yosemite campgrounds at this link. We enjoyed a prime campsite in Lower Pines just a few steps away from the Merced River, enabling us to watch the sun set on Half Dome from the comfort of our campfire. 

A Weekend for Active Adventurers

Immediately after we set up camp, Rachel and I took on Upper Yosemite Falls. The 7.5 mile hike climbs over 2,000 feet and gives you some of the most beautiful views of the Valley. The best time to hike this trail is in the spring when the falls are strongest, but the Upper Falls still had a great amount of water flowing at the end of July due to the heavy snowfall this year. To get to Upper Yosemite Falls, catch the trailhead near Camp 4, and be sure to bring plenty of water!

The hike to Upper Yosemite Falls is rivaled only by the climb to Glacier Point in both elevation gain and panoramic views. To get to the top we took Four Mile Trail, and fortunately handled most of the switchbacks in reasonably cool weather since we woke early and hiked in the dark to catch the sunrise. You can also drive about an hour from the valley to enjoy the famous lookout.

We spent most of our time hiking, but there are a plethora of activities for the intrepid adventurer, including rock climbing, rafting along the Merced River, and bike riding. If you don’t bring your own gear for these activities, you do have the option to rent.

A Weekend for Beginning Travelers

If you’re new to opting outside, congratulations and welcome to the community! Don’t let your limited experience outdoors scare you away from camping in Yosemite, as the valley is incredibly accessible and family-friendly. There are a number of lodging options available to those who might not favor tent camping, including hotel amenities at the Ahwahnee or Yosemite Valley Lodge and cabin-like options in Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp.

After two 7.5 mile hikes, Rachel and I enjoyed some of the less vigorous activities Yosemite Valley has to offer, and highly recommend them to those who may not be interested in 5,000 cumulative feet of elevation gain. We soaked our sore feet in the refreshingly cool water at Lower Yosemite Falls, less than a mile from its trailhead. We walked (a shuttle is also available, so leave your car at the campsite!) to the Visitor Center and Ansel Adams Gallery to learn more about the history of the park. We explored some of the meadows along the valley floor, taking in views and photos of El Capitan and Three Brothers. And of course we relaxed with our friends as we cooked great food and played some games.

Outside of Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley made for an excellent first visit to this national park, but there remains so much more to explore! We’re already gearing up for future visits to Hetch Hetchy and Tuolumne Meadows to explore some of the remaining 700,000 acres of designated wilderness.

Exploring Responsibly

No matter what activities you choose for your weekend in Yosemite, you’ll capture stunning photographs. You never need to leave a designated trail to get the perfect shot, so please be sure to respect the signs to prevent erosion and support ecological conservation. In addition, take advantage of the sustainable amenities the park offers, from a shuttle bus to limit auto emissions to water stations for refillable bottles to educational programming with Park Rangers. With over 4 million visitors each year, it’s important that all visitors practice Leave No Trace principles so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of this incredible park.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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