Nestled in the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains of California is Yosemite National Park. With an estimated 4 million annual visitors, it’s no wonder why Yosemite makes most travel enthusiasts bucket lists, including ours. It’s one of those special places that you can’t visit just once. Even if you managed to cover everything in your visit, it’s so beautiful you won’t be able to resist the urge to return again and again. However, if you’re determined to get the most out of your first visit to Yosemite, we’ve got you covered.
In this beginner’s guide, we provide an excellent overview to help make your trip a worthwhile experience that you’ll remember for years to come. There is so much to cover between the mountain ranges, green pastures, and raging falls and it can be extremely overwhelming for a first-timer. We help you strategize what to see and how to get the biggest bang for your proverbial buck so that your first trip is a monumental one.
And if you want to truly have a premium experience, stay right in the park, and be able to move from location to location with ease- then you need to navigate to our rental page and book yourfully-loaded converted campervan. With it, you’ll get premium features like unlimited miles, 24/7 roadside assistance, and all the trimmings of lodging that goes wherever you go! So pack up, book your rental, and get on with your epic Yosemite experience!
You might be surprised to hear this, but the ride into the park is one of the most beautiful you’ll ever see. Whether it’s your first time or your 50th, it will take your breath away every time you see it. But as unbelievable as the drive is, there is so much more to the park than what you can see from your car.
Our first recommendation is to enter through the Yosemite Valley entrance and stop off at the Valley Visitor Center. You’ll meet local rangers who can answer your questions and provide you with some tips and ideas for experiences that will suit your party. You can also take the opportunity to learn more about the history of the park which will orient you and give you a good foundation to begin your exploration.
You’re adventurous. We totally get it, but unless you’re an avid outdoorsman- we recommend you take it easy on your first trip. If you plan a super strenuous hike and end up overdoing it, it might spoil the rest of your trip. Have a blast, just remember to keep it simple your first time so you can see a lot. Also, I think this is a great time to mention that you should check in with the National Park Service for any weather and safety advisories so you’re prepared and plan well ahead of time.
There are plenty of shorter trails and falls that can be seen from the low ground without having to hike up steep paths to experience them. Another option, if you think you’re up for it, is to plan a hike that includes numerous sites in one.
For instance, the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point is a great way to take in a moderately difficult trail that runs the gamut of sites in Yosemite. From mossy boulders to blooming wildflowers near the bottom, to the first peaks at the falls that hide coyly behind trees and rocks. Not to mention an overview of several of the park’s highlights including Sentinel Rock, Tenaya Canyon, Clouds Rest, North Dome, and the Royal Arches.
Oh the Many Waterfalls
Waterfalls, waterfalls, oh the many waterfalls. We’ll be honest- you’re probably not going to see them all on your first trip. The important thing is to make sure to at least see one epic waterfall while you’re there. We’ll give you two options, one with an easy walk and one that is a bit more challenging, so you can pick which one works best for you.
For an easier walk, we recommend the Lower Yosemite Falls. If you’re traveling with little ones or people with limited fitness ability, this is a great option as it is an easy, quick walk on a paved walkway. Note that the flow typically only runs from November to July, with peak flow being in May.
Up for a challenge? We recommend Chilnualna Falls. This waterfall flows all year and peaks in May. It’s located in the Wawona area of the park. This is definitely a hiker’s waterfall as it’s impossible to see the entire fall from a single viewpoint. Meaning, if you want to see more, you’ll have to keep moving up the steep trail.
Sleep in the Park, Stay in the Park
The best way to get the most of your time is to cut out travel to and from the park and stay right within the park. Of course, this is completely viable and cost-effective when you rent a deluxe Travellers Autobarn campervan. Yosemite has numerous campgrounds throughout the park that you can utilize or perhaps boondock if that’s your thing.
With a Travellers Autobarn campervan, you can also transport yourself to all the sites you plan to visit. And while you’re in the Valley area, Yosemite offers a free shuttle service that runs every 15-30 minutes as an option as well.
Beginner Trails & Stops
Ok, now for the fun part! We’ve compiled a list of the best trails for beginners that you can use to plan your first-time trip to Yosemite National Park.
Cook’s Meadow Loop
Just beyond the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail (which is also an excellent beginner trail- we mentioned it in #3 on this list) is Cook’s Meadow Loop. It’s a one mile, flat loop. On this loop, you’ll get to see half-dome (Yosemite’s most challenging day hike) and Yosemite Falls.
Near to Cook’s Meadow Loop is the beautiful Mirror Lake. The hike to reach Mirror Lake is 2-5 miles long depending on whether you do the full loop around the lake. It has minimal elevation and the lake is one of the most popular swimming spots so feel free to take a dip and cool down at the end of your hike.
Bridalveil Falls Trail
This trail is a leisurely, half-mile round trip, with minimal elevation gain. Don’t let it’s mild nature fool you, this stroll takes you to the bottom of the falls which is an absolutely incredible sight to see. The full force of the falls is truly seen at the bottom where it crashes. I wouldn’t miss this one.
El Capitan & Cathedral Beach
Next to Bridalveil is Cathedral Beach- an excellent rest spot for a picnic. With shallow waters, you can dip your feet in to cool off too if you like.
The best part is the incredible views of El Capitan from this location. El Capitan is an icon of the park with its granite walls which stand out as a major feature of the west end of Yosemite Valley. At more than 3,000 feet high, it is 2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building, and more than 3 times as high as the tip of the Eiffel Tower.
We hope this gives you an excellent start in planning your first visit to Yosemite National Park. While you can’t possibly hope to see it all- unless you’re planning an extended stay- you can still make it very worthwhile and memorable. Always practice caution as a beginner. Familiarize yourself with the park’s advisories and speak to a ranger that can provide some guidance to make your trip a safe and happy one. Don’t forget to tell us all about it when you get back! Happy trails!
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