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What to do and see in Yosemite in just a few days

Yosemite is an A-lister of a national park, with glorious vistas and activities aplenty. Abra Dunsby finds out what to see and do if clients are short on time

Views of Yosemite national park
Views of Yosemite national park

From the Valley Floor to the newly reopened Mariposa Grove, we round up Yosemite's highlights for clients who are short on time

Sometimes, in life, it’s good to get some perspective. I find mine in Yosemite national park as I gaze up at the gargantuan granite monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome, feeling as small and insignificant as an ant.


Suddenly, from my spot on the Valley Floor, I spot more teeny-tiny “ants” dotted across El Capitan. “Rock climbers,” points our guide. “They’ll sleep up there tonight on their way to the summit.”


Four million people come to Yosemite each year to hike, climb, camp, or simply to soak up the sights. Experiencing the park’s sheer scale, and the superlative, larger-than-life natural icons found within its 761,266 acres of land, is truly humbling.


Yosemite has existed for aeons: Mariposa Grove’s giant sequoia trees are thousands of years old – some dating back to the times of Christ – while craggy-faced El Capitan is a mind-boggling 85 million years old.


It’s impossible not to walk around Yosemite without a sense of awe and reverence for the beauty and forces of nature. I leave the park feeling revitalised, refreshed, and with a profound respect for the planet on which we are lucky enough to live.

Getting here

There are five park entrances, four of which are located on Yosemite’s western side and one of which – the Tioga Pass – is on the more remote eastern side.


My boyfriend Joe and I arrive from South Lake Tahoe so we take the Tioga Pass, which meanders through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to an elevation of more than 3,000 metres.


The drive is hypnotic, with each twist and turn in the road offering another gasp-inducing surprise – thick clumps of forest give way to yawning crevasses, while mountains etched with deep scars and crags hang over the rippling, electric-blue Tenaya Lake. The journey from Tioga Pass to the Valley Floor takes around two hours, with time allowed for photo stops.


If clients are travelling in summer, tell them to set off early, as the routes can get crowded. Better still, encourage them to visit the park out of season, when the crowds disband and the Yosemite experience becomes even more unique.


Clients can ditch the car and use the Yosemite Area Regional Transit System (Yarts), a public transport service that runs year round on Highways 140 and 41. The service connects Merced, Fresno, Sonora and Mammoth Lakes to the park and picks up from various hotels (see for more information). Once inside Yosemite, clients can take a free hybrid bus shuttle service to get around.


Entrance to the park per car or RV costs $35 from April to October, and $30 from November to March. The pass is valid for unlimited entries to the park for seven days.

Valley Floor

Valley Floor

Most clients with only a day or two to spare will want to head straight to the Valley Floor, home to such big hitters as Half Dome, El Capitan and Mirror Lake.


Biking around the valley’s 12 miles of bike trails is a great way to see the sights, especially in busy summer months. Bikes can be rented from Half Dome Village Recreation Centre and at the Yosemite Valley Lodge bike stand.

For those who are tighter on time, have young children or mobility issues, the two-hour Yosemite Valley Floor Tour tram ride is another good option ($36.75 per adult and $26.75 per child). The tour is led by a park ranger who talks us through the valley’s main sites, geology and history, with photo stops along the way. A highlight is Tunnel View, which offers sweeping, ethereal panoramas of El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls.

Nature is alive in Yosemite – birds chirrup from teetering redwood treetops, waterfalls gush and the wind stirs wildflowers and meadow grasses. Even the rocks here feel alive, their shapes reminiscent of animals, faces or human forms.

Native Americans were inspired by the rock forms, and would tell stories about how they came to be. According to one legend, Half Dome and North Dome were once an Indian couple who argued while on a journey through the Sierra Nevada. God turned the pair to stone – she became Half Dome and he North Dome. Her tears formed Mirror Lake, and even today if you look at Half Dome you can see the dark marks of “tears” streaming across her upturned face.


The rock-strewn landscape is rendered even more lifelike at sunset, when the light washes across the rocks in brush strokes of gold, pink and blue. For life-affirming sunset views of the valley from above, tell clients to stop at Glacier Point – a 50-minute drive or bus ride from the Valley Floor, or a hike via the Four-Mile Trail.

Mariposa Grove

 Mariposa Grove

Located in the southernmost part of Yosemite, Mariposa Grove is home to 500 mature giant sequoias, some of which are the oldest living things on earth. The trees are also some
of the world’s largest, reaching dizzying heights of 72 metres, and more than nine metres in diameter.


Walking among these rust-coloured, skyscraper-sized trees is a surreal experience – I feel as though I’ve stepped into a fairy tale as I clamber inside the roots of one tree, and find myself wishing that the famed Grizzly Giant could tell me tales of its 2,700-year-old existence.


The grove reopened to visitors in June after a three-year restoration that has helped protect the trees from human damage by creating boardwalks.

There are several hikes through the grove; we opt for the six-and-a- half-mile Guardians Loop Trail, which takes in the fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree, in which countless visitors stop to take selfies, and the Telescope Tree, a hollowed-out survivor of past California wildfires.The grove opens from May to October each year.


To feel a sense of wonder in Yosemite – this land of giants – all you need to do is look up.

Top Yosemite travel tips from Discover North America’s Steven Donovan:

  • The best times to visit Yosemite are spring, autumn and winter. In spring, the waterfalls are at their peak, autumn offers great foliage and winter is beautiful and peaceful, offering fantastic cold- weather sports.
  • Tell clients to pack sturdy hiking boots, binoculars for watching bears, plus a sun hat, sunglasses and suncream.
  • One of the best ways to experience Yosemite is on foot. Hikes range from easy to strenuous – whether clients want to see waterfalls, meadows or scale Half Dome, there’s a trail to suit.

Where to stay

Tenaya Lodge

Family-friendly Tenaya Lodge offers a wide range of facilities and activities, including Yosemite tours, spa experiences and an on-site kids’ adventure course. New for spring 2019 are its standalone two-bedroom Explorer Cabins, with private decks, communal fire pit areas and a lounge. Rooms start from £152 per night in early December.

Big Trees Lodge
Located in Wawona, an hour from the Valley Floor and seven miles from Mariposa Grove’s giant sequoias, this characterful 19th-century inn features basic but cosy rooms, the cheapest of which have shared hallway bathrooms. The food is hearty, served in a traditional dining room, and a piano player tickles the ivories in the lounge each evening. Rooms start from £90 per night from mid-December.


From March 1, guests can bed down on this new site, located minutes from the town of Mariposa and a short drive from Yosemite. Accommodation comes in the form of 15 luxury tents complete with wood-burning stoves, three cabin suites and 80 deluxe Airstream trailers. Prices start from $240 per night.

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