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Headed to Yosemite and only have 3 days? Check out this epic itinerary to see all the hot spots with this Yosemite National Park in 3 days guide.
The variety of landscapes and geography in the United States always awes me. Even in just the state of California, you can see deserts, hot springs, mountains, valleys, and beautiful beaches. Seeing Yosemite for the first time is no exception to this awe and wonder! I vividly remember driving through the gates of the park and it’s just a lot of pine trees and valleys… which I thought no way this turns into the incredible scene I’ve seen in millions of pictures? And then you drive through the tunnel… and THERE IT IS. Yosemite in all its glory. Amazing rock formations that are otherworldly, sweeping valleys, and gigantic waterfalls. It’s truly magic.
Our 3 days in Yosemite was so, so good for the soul. Beautiful sites, weather, great hiking, and wildlife sightings made for an adventure packed itinerary but so worth it! We wanted to pack everything we could into 3 days and I think we got a good feel for what Yosemite has to offer. I’m always afraid we missed something big while we were hopping from one park to another on our 7 week road trip, but I like to tell myself these initial visits are just an appetizer!
We hit a lot of the big hot spots, which is great to share here for other travelers with limited PTO and tight schedules. But we also (God willing) have plenty of time to go back and explore at a slower pace. My husband joked at one point that our road trip was just “to figure out what we wanted to come back to,” and I think that about sums it up.
Anyways, I digress. If you are headed to Yosemite National Park for 3 days but don’t know where to start, this is the post for you! This post will outline a 3 day itinerary and the major stops to see in the park. Perfect for first time visitors, this itinerary will take you to all the picturesque spots and provide you with some great hikes. During Summer 2021, Yosemite instituted a reservation pass system due to COVID-19, so we actually felt like the park wasn’t super crowded. However, in 2022, reservations are not required so I would prepare for large crowds again.
A 3 day guide to Yosemite National Park
The Short Version:
- Start off with a photo op at Tunnel View
- Head into Yosemite Valley and walk Lower Yosemite Falls Loop
- Explore the village and hit the gift shop
- Hike the Mist Trail, Bridalveil Falls, OR bike around the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail
This day is allll about getting a good feel for the park. You’ll spend a majority of the day in Yosemite Valley and see many of the places you always see pictures of! From the gate, it’ll take you some time to get to the heart of the valley so plan accordingly. Also, expect long lines at the entrance gate.
Let’s start this day off with a bang, shall we? Head over to Tunnel View for your first taste of Yosemite. Tunnel View is on the east side of the Wawona Tunnel on Highway 41. You will 100% know when you’ve gotten to tunnel view. As soon as you get out of the tunnel, you’ll see all the major landmarks of Yosemite National Park. Half dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Falls. Take some time at the pull out to enjoy the view and snap a pic for your Instagram. If you’re trying to get a more moody shot, head here at sunrise.
When all your pictures are taken, it’s time to head into the valley. Once you get here, your jaw will drop at the amazing waterfalls and rock formations but let’s get a closer look! Take a short hike/walk on Lower Yosemite Falls Loop. It’s dog friendly, paved, and because of this it’s slightly crowded but a must see nonetheless.
Lower Yosemite Falls Loop takes you on an easy walk to see the bottom half of the tallest waterfall in North America. Because it’s easy and family friendly, you’ll definitely encounter more crowds but don’t let that deter you. It’s still a must-see when at Yosemite! We also loved this trail because we could take our dog, Benny. Most *paved* trails in the park are dog friendly, but be sure to consult a map or All Trails. And keep your eyes peeled! After a bathroom stop just off the trail, we saw a baby bear!
It’s been a full morning, so while you’re in the valley head to the Gift Shop. Some may think gift shops are for the last day of the trip, but the gift shop is located so close to Lower Yosemite Falls Loop trail. It’s just convenient! And when you are trying to pack as much as you can into a 3 day trip, you want to be strategic. Besides—as soon as you see Tunnel View you’ll have a good idea if this park is worth splurging on a souvenir. Enjoy some lunch while you’re over here too. There’s a few cafes/restaurants but as you know, we always like to pack our handy (and cheap) PB&Js on park days.
In the afternoon, you have several different options depending on the vibe you’re going for. If you are up for a big adventure, continue to the end of Yosemite Valley and over to the Mist Trail. Here, you can complete a short-but-steep hike to Vernal Falls. SO worth it. However, if you’re hoping to keep along the trail and head all the way to the second waterfall on this trail, Nevada Falls, I’d save this for another day.
If you’re not up for a big adventure, you can head back towards Tunnel View/park exit and stop at Bridalveil Falls. Just from the parking lot, you get an amazing view! You also have the option to hike less than a mile up to the falls and enjoy the refreshing mist.
Finally, if you’re just not feeling a steep hike you can traverse around Yosemite Valley Loop Trail for awhile. The entire trail is 11.5 miles, so if you want to do the whole thing I’d bring or rent a bike. However if you only want to do a portion, there are plenty of pullouts and parking spots. Along the trail you can spot wildlife, see the waterfalls, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, and more. If you’re looking for a more chill or family friendly activity I highly recommend Yosemite Valley Loop trail!
The Short Version:
- Hike Mist Trail to Vernal Falls OR walk/bike Yosemite Valley Loop
- Hike Taft Point and Sentinel Dome
- Watch the sunset at Glacier Point
Now that we have a good feel for the park, let’s get into the hiking shall we?
Head into the park with your hiking gear in tow. I’d recommend a hike between 3-6 miles to make it about a half day. Start in the morning, have your lunch at the peak or after finishing, and then you have the afternoon to explore more! We hiked Mist Trail to Vernal Falls and it was the perfect way to spend the morning. Be sure to check out my post on the best hikes in Yosemite here. But if you did that the previous day, you can also take time now to explore the Yosemite Valley Loop. If your legs need a break, rent a bike and cruise around.
After having a hiking break and lunch, close to Mist Trail you’ll find Taft Point and Sentinel Dome. Two separate trails that loop together, you get two absolutely epic views in the price of one hike. I recommend starting down the Taft Point trail first, because Sentinel Dome is just the perfect way to end a day of hiking. The view was probably one of my favorite in Yosemite!
After a big day of hiking, I recommend heading over to Glacier Point: Another photo op! Glacier Point is a popular site because you can see many of the major landmarks. It also has a parking lot and is easily accessible, so tends to be more crowded. However, the overlook is big enough that you’ll find plenty of space for your photos! See Yosemite valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the high country on full display.
The Short Version:
- Drive Tioga Road
- Stop at Tuolumne Grove, Tenaya Lake, and Olmstead Point
Day two was a big day of hiking, and day three is a big day of driving. Tioga Road runs through the middle of Yosemite and runs a little over 60 miles long. We unfortunately didn’t get to drive down this pass because of timing, but I am hoping to do it on our next stop! Without stops, you can get to the end of the road in about 2.5 hours. You’d miss so much if you did that!
I recommend making it a fullllll day trip. Stop and see the sights, take short side hikes, and picnic. Some must sees: the sequoias at the Tuolumne Grove, Tuolumne Meadows, Olmstead Point, and Tenaya Lake. Keep in mind Tioga Road is closed in the winter due to snow. Plan your accommodations at the opposite side of your starting point on the pass or just remember you need to budget about 2 hours to get back to the park entrance.
A Bonus Day 4:
Have more than just 3 days to explore Yosemite National Park?
If you have an extra day or are willing to forego one of the 3 day itineraries listed above, I recommend a longer hike. We really wanted to do Cloud’s Rest but unfortunately, seeing more in just 3 days won out over an 11 mile hike. (Well, and we also didn’t want to leave our dog for that long!) The view from Cloud’s Rest is said to be out of this world! Another option is to vie for a permit to hike Half Dome—another one we considered, but I don’t think I could stomach climbing up the cables! You do need to apply for a permit to complete this hike. Both of these are full or multi-day hikes! Make sure you are very very prepared if you are going to take on one of these trails.
I truly feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of all Yosemite National Park has to offer. If you only have 3 days, I think this itinerary lets you see as much as you can… but also it’s just enough to leave you wanting more!
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