It’s true that a day in Yosemite National Park only gives you enough time to make a mere dent in the 750,000 acres of trails and waterfalls that propelled John Muir’s love affair with the park. But you might be surprised to find that time has a way of slowing down in these hills -- and a Saturday or Sunday in the woods may just be long enough to get that “gotten away” feeling.Before all else, stop by a grocery store to pick up a few snacks and fill up your water bottles for the day. Once you're stocked, start your morning in the western corner of the park, in Yosemite Valley. The visitors center offers a film about Yosemite’s history and layout -- a must to get your bearings if you're a first-timer. Bonus: It's completely free.
From there, whether you’re up for a paved path or a more rigorous trail, Yosemite Valley holds a lot of options for getting out and about. Vernal Falls is a popular route with steep sections -- but also a great waterfall payoff (you can even feel the mist from the trail). At a more moderate zero percent incline, Cook’s Meadow Loop is a one-mile course with Instagram-worthy views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.
After a leisurely walk or hike, cool down with an afternoon dip. Even if you’re not a champion swimmer, dipping your toes in El Merced river is a magical feeling. The river has great swimming holes, depending on the season, where the water doesn’t run too fast or deep. Find the perfect spot by driving west along El Portal Road and stopping at one of the several pullouts. Bring a book, a couple of beach towels, and a picnic.
After a sun-soaked afternoon outdoors, head back to the Ahwahnee Hotel for some air-conditioned respite. This cobblestoned fortress of a resort was built in 1927, for summering affluent bankers, railroad tycoons, and entrepreneurs. Today, it still boasts a well-heeled clientele, and while rooms start at $450, you don’t need to shell that out to take advantage of the amenities. Post-hike happy hour is classic here -- the Ahwahnee Bar is a great watering hole to decompress, zone out, and meet travelers from all over the world. The atmosphere is decidedly casual, much more so than the jacket-required dinner code at the hotel restaurant. The lawn by the bar boasts lounge chairs with perfect views of the surrounding cliffs.
If you’re feeling up to a quick adventure before dinner, hop in the car and drive up to Tunnel View at sunset. It boasts an epic panorama featuring El Capitan framed by other noteworthy peaks. You’ll find professional photographers and hordes of tourists camped out here, waiting for that magical moment when the sky turns pink and lavender.
Where to Stay:
While the aforementioned Ahwahnee Hotel certainly offers an unrivaled overnight experience, you don’t need to spend upwards of $500 to have a comfortable stay in the park. The tent cabins in Curry Village are a compromise for people who seek the rustic charm of camping without as much of the hassle. Cabins feature beds, electric lights, and, for those who are willing to spend a little more, private showers. There’s a great communal feel around the “Village,” as it’s known, especially in the summer, where it’s an international stomping ground for French backpackers, Japanese tourist groups, and Australian honeymooners alike. (Cabins start at $49 per night.)
There are also plentiful motels and hotels outside the park that might offer more savings, but the one hour-plus drive to the park’s borders can cut significantly into your trip, especially if you’re only staying for a day or two. If you can afford it, we recommend lodging inside Yosemite proper.
In the morning, grab some coffee and granola at the Ahwahnee Cafe and head towards Tuolumne Meadows to exit eastward out of the park. Note that the hilly 30-mile drive to the other end of Yosemite can actually take upwards of an hour and a half -- especially if you arrive in the middle of summertime construction. It’s worth it, however, to experience the unbelievably diverse landscape the park has to offer. It’ll be a challenge to not stop every couple of miles and snap a picture of rolling hills, intricate rock formations, or the verdant Tenaya lake.