Half Dome! Yosemite National Park. California

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How Many Days to Spend in Yosemite

We decided to spend spring break in Yosemite which fell at the end of March/early April. To avoid as many crowds as possible, we traveled during the week (arriving on Monday and leaving on Friday) which gave us essentially three days in Yosemite. It’s possible to see Yosemite in one day, over a weekend, or even spend a week exploring the park. Three days was a perfect amount of time to see some highlights, explore a few areas a little deeper, and not feel too rushed.

Things to Know

Here are some things you should know when planning a trip to Yosemite.

Day-Use Permit

Important!! Check to see if a Day-Use permit is required when you want to visit. These are put in place to control the number of visitors in the park at any given time. Permits were NOT required when we went in the spring, but are typically required during the busier months (May – September). Permits go quickly once they are released so check here for great tips on securing a permit. NOTE: Even if you have an annual America the Beautiful or lifetime pass you still need a day-use permit to enter!

How to Visit the Park Without a Permit

There are a few ways to visit the park without a day-use permit.

  • If you stay at lodging within Yosemite you do not need a permit.
  • If you book a day trip through a tour operator this will most likely include your entrance to the park.
  • If you already have a wilderness reservation (for backpacking) or a permit for Half Dome, you do not need a separate Day Use permit.

Seasonal Closures

If you are traveling to Yosemite in the winter or spring, be aware that there are some seasonal trail, road & activity closures. I read a lot of recent reviews of the hikes we planned to do so I could assess whether they were doable for my 11-year-old and me. I like Alltrails, but there are a lot of review sites out there. Many of the hikes, especially at higher elevations, had snow on the trails even in early April. Some were open to use with caution and others were closed.

I had really wanted to stop at Glacier Point, but learned the road leading there is only open for a few months a year (usually late May to October or November depending on conditions). Additionally certain activities are not available until late-May/June like bike rentals, rock climbing classes, rafting, etc.

Parks Pass

If you plan to visit a National Park more than 3 times in one year, then consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Annual Pass which is currently $80 (as of May 2021) and good for one year. There is a discount for Seniors and active US Military personnel are free. The pass is good for more than 2,000 federal recreation sites including national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Additionally, if you have a 4th grader, they are eligible for a free annual pass through the Every Kid in a Park program. I missed this for all 3 of my kids. And this year 5th graders are also eligible (through August 2021) since they missed out on most of last year. Our pass expires in June and I will take advantage of this offer for 2 months!

How to Spend 3 Days in Yosemite

Below is our 3-day Yosemite itinerary. We balanced our time between seeing a lot of sites in Yosemite Valley and then doing some more off-the-beaten-path hikes to see Yosemite a bit deeper. I recommend choosing some hikes or activities where you may only see one small area of Yosemite, but you see it closely and truly experience it. This is how we came up with our Yosemite plan and it’s typically how we travel everywhere. Our itinerary was created around seeing waterfalls. The great thing about visiting Yosemite in March and April is the waterfalls are generally at their fullest! Even if you just plan to view the falls from a distance they are spectacular. Up close, they are even better!

Day 1: Hike to Wapama Falls in Hetch Hetchy Valley

On the other side of the tunnel! Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Yosemite National Park
Admiring the Hetch Hetchy Valley and Wapama Falls in the distance

About Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy is a lesser known area of Yosemite National Park and has fewer crowds than Yosemite Valley. The hike to Wapama Falls is spectacular and absolutely worth a visit. Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valley are similar as they were both formed by the same sequence of geological activity. The Tuolomne River, which runs through this valley, was dammed in 1923 to create a reliable water source for the San Francisco Bay Area. The surface of the reservoir hides 300 feet of granite cliffs and a valley floor that once was home to bears, bobcats, eagles, flowered meadows, and ancient forests. This is why Hetch Hetchy is often referred to as “Lost Yosemite”.

Hike Details

  • Distance: 5 miles
  • Elevation: 200’ gain
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • No dogs; no strollers
  • Parking: Free
  • Restrooms: Yes
  • Location: trailhead begins at the O’Shaughnessy Dam
  • Be Aware: Hetch Hetchy Road has operating hours and the trailhead is inaccessible when the road is closed. Check here for details.

The hike starts across the top of O’Shaughnessy Dam, through a tunnel, and then along the edge of the reservoir until you reach Wapama Falls. The views of the reservoir, towering granite cliffs, and waterfalls along the way are truly spectacular.

"Lost Yosemite" - Wapama Falls Hike. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Some call this “Lost Yosemite” as these massive granite rocks would be even more impressive and a lush valley would be revealed without the reservoir.

Wapama Falls

The falls are an impressive 1080 feet tall and were roaring when we were there in late March. We stopped and had lunch while admiring the falls and then turned back around. The trail continues on to Rancheria Falls which would add another 7 miles roundtrip to the hike. While this part of the trail is said to have an amazing wildflower display in spring, it can be impassable during the winter/early spring with water & snow so we did not even attempt to go past Wapama Falls. Would be a great option for the summer months though!

Looking at Wapama Falls from the bridge. Yosemite National Park. Hetch Hetchy.
Looking at Wapama Falls from the bridge
Wapama Falls gushing! Yosemite National Park. Hetch Hetchy.
Wapama Falls gushing!

Our Rating:

My 11-year-old and I loved this hike. I loved learning about the history of the area and was amazed by the beauty of the area. This trail hugs the edge of the reservoir and has unobstructed views of the valley the entire way. The granite cliffs and massive waterfall left me feeling very small! My 11-year-old loved the rocky trail for hopping, climbing, and testing his parkour skills. In spring, there were lots of small waterfalls along the way, many of which ran across the trail. He also loved testing his “water resistant” hiking boots by walking through puddles and streams. We both rated this hike 10/10.

More details on our hike to Wapama Falls here.

Day 2: Yosemite Valley

Hiking the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail. California.
Hiking the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail

Our plan was originally to break up two hiking days with bike riding through Yosemite Valley. My son was SO looking forward to this, but unfortunately, even with lots of planning, I failed to confirm that bike rentals would be available when we were there (See Seasonal Closures Above – lol!). Other options to view the valley are by walking or driving.

Bike Yosemite Valley

I think biking is the best way to get around Yosemite Valley – you can cover more ground faster than walking, you’re outside, and everyone gets exercise! Bike rentals are typically available beginning in early April at Curry Village or Yosemite Village. Of course, you can bring your own too. In hindsight, I wish we had brought our own bikes as we had driven from the Bay Area and could have easily brought them with us. We will do this next time!

We spotted a bear along the river! Yosemite National Park. California
We spotted a bear along the river!

Hike Yosemite Loop Trail

  • Distance: 11.5 miles (full loop); 7.2 miles (half-loop)
  • Elevation: Mostly Flat
  • Difficulty: Moderate (because of the length – minimal elevation gain/loss)
  • Trailhead: We started at Yosemite Village though it’s recommended to start at Lower Yosemite Falls (shuttle stop #6)

This trail starts along the road, but veers into the meadow, along the Merced River, and to the base of El Capitan. We started at Yosemite Village and spent the first mile and a half walking along the road, through parking lots and lots of crowds which turned us off at the beginning. Starting at Lower Yosemite Falls will cut some of this out. My son was already upset we weren’t biking and had decided he didn’t like this hike before we started. I wish we had done the full half-loop like we had planned, but we turned around before we got to El Cap. Once we veered into the meadow, the crowds dissipated and we saw very few people – we even saw a bear along the river (see above!). We ate lunch on the bank of the Merced River with El Cap in the background. Although it wasn’t the day we planned it was still a great way to see Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and experience the tranquility of the Merced River.

Yosemite Valley Loop Trail. California
Yosemite Valley Loop Trail.

Drive Through Yosemite Valley

There is one main road that goes through Yosemite Valley and it is one way. One option is to mark the spots with good viewing areas and then drive and park at each location. The problem is that if there is no parking available, or you miss the spot you have to keep going because it’s one way and you can’t turn around. The idea of doing this caused me great anxiety – I would much prefer to walk or bike and not deal with the hassle of repeatedly finding parking. In hindsight, the Valley was not that crowded in March/April and this likely would have been a feasible option. I would never try it in the summer.

Another option that I would consider is joining a small tour group for a day. While I would prefer to be outside walking or biking, I wouldn’t mind riding around in a small van where someone else had to deal with parking. I do think this would be a great way to get an overview of the park, see the sites, learn some history & background, and then decide which areas to explore further on future days. Joining a group like this is also a great way to get around not having a day-use permit.

Day 3: The Mist Trail to Vernal & Nevada Falls

This was our must-do hike of the trip. Seriously, if you do one hike in Yosemite make it this one! I had hiked to Vernal Falls as a kid and then had taken the Mist Trail past Nevada Falls to Half Dome in high school. I had vague memories of the trail, but vividly remembered hiking up steep stone steps alongside a waterfall. And I remembered it being hard!

Admiring Vernal Falls from the Mist Trail. Yosemite National Park, California
Admiring Vernal Falls from the Mist Trail

Hike Details

  • Mileage: 8-9 miles to the top of Nevada Falls, depending on whether you take the John Muir Trail or winter routes back down.
  • Elevation: 2,000’ gain
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • No dogs; No strollers
  • Restrooms: Yes
  • Location: trailhead begins at Happy Isles
  • Parking: We parked at the day-use lot off Happy Isles Loop. There was plenty of parking available when we arrived at 9am in early April. When we left around 2pm the road to the lot was closed to traffic. So arrive early if you want to use this lot.

Vernal Falls

This is an absolutely amazing hike that I highly recommend, but everyone should know what they are getting into before hiking this one. The hike to Vernal Falls is pretty much an uphill climb the entire way and some parts are quite steep. It starts as an uphill path, but transitions to stairs about a mile in. Depending on the time of year, the stairs may be quite slippery from the mist from the falls or they may be covered in snow. We hiked this on April 1st and there was only minimal snow – and there was only one place where we actually had to hike through it.

Beginning the stairs to Vernal Falls. The Mist Trail. Yosemite National Park, California
Beginning the stairs to Vernal Falls

There are parts of the trail that are extremely steep and there is not always a guardrail (like above). As usual, we saw people getting extremely close to the edge (even posing their kids there) and it made me SO NERVOUS. Needless to say, we have no pictures like that. While we saw a lot of kids on this trail, I would only take kids who are experienced hikers, good listeners, and know to stay away from the edge. The trail hugs the edge overlooking the falls from this point of the trail to the top of Vernal Falls. It is spectacular and a good distraction from all the stairs. The trail is quite narrow in places and we had to pull over to let others pass in the other direction (partly to be nice and partly because it was a welcome break!)

Mist Trail to Vernal & Nevada Falls. Yosemite National Park, California
So. Many. Stairs. And, yes, it IS as steep as it looks!

There is a large area at the top to relax with a snack or picnic and enjoy the view of the falls.

Nevada Falls

We had decided we would play the hike by ear because we weren’t sure what the trail conditions would be like. We had heard from recent reviews that some hikers were turning around because of the snow. My son was ready to head back at the top of Vernal Falls – I wanted to go further because the trail was in good condition. This is where things got dicey.

Heading up the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls. Yosemite National Park, California
Heading up the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls

As I mentioned, this hike is tough and we were both pushing ourselves. My son was pushing himself farther than he ever had and doubted whether he could do it. I knew he could. There was a lot of back & forth about him being able to do hard things and when he got up from this rock below he decided he would make it to the top.

The Mist Trail to Nevada Falls. Yosemite National Park, California
Deciding whether he wanted to keep going or turn around

The trail to Nevada Falls starts as walking on rocky granite, transitions to a dirt path through the trees, and then the final stretch is more stairs that zigzag up to the top. We measured our progress by how far we had come up alongside the falls. It was also great because as we got closer, the people coming down would tell us we were almost there and it was SO worth it! That motivated us to the top.

Almost to the top of Nevada Falls! The Mist Trail. Yosemite National Park. California
Almost to the top of Nevada Falls!

Once we reached the “top” the trail veered left towards the top of Half Dome or right towards Nevada Falls. We walked the last flat stretch to the top of the falls!

Finally reached the top! Making our way over to Nevada Falls. Yosemite National Park, California. Mist Trail
Finally reached the top! Making our way over to the falls.

It was pretty amazing to be at the top!

Overlooking the top of Nevada Falls. Yosemite National Park. California. Mist Trail
Overlooking the top of Nevada Falls

We ate lunch overlooking the falls and enjoying the views. My son said he was so happy he went to the top and it was absolutely worth it!

View from the top! Yosemite National Park. California. The Mist Trail
View from the top!

The hike back down was much quicker, but by the time we got back to Vernal Falls my legs were done! In a way, I wished we were still climbing UP stairs and not down them. It was the most amazing feeling to complete the hike: challenging ourselves physically, enjoying the incredible views, and the sense of accomplishment!

Our Rating

This is another hike we both rated 10/10. It’s just stunning. The only negative was the number of people on the trail. Going up it wasn’t too bad. On the way back down from Vernal Falls it was extremely crowded especially with hikers coming up the trail. There were a lot of small kids and even people with dogs – I’m not sure why one would bring either on this trail? Getting an early start on this trail is best!

More details on our hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail here.

What to Pack for Yosemite in Spring

Wondering what to pack for Yosemite in the spring? We had cool mornings & nights in the 40s and warm days (75-80 degrees). It was unseasonably warm in California the week we were there, but spring temperatures can be unpredictable (it snowed the week after we were there!). So check the weather forecast before you travel and be prepared for warm, cold, snow & rain!

Here is what we packed for our Yosemite trip:

  • Layers:
    • Base Layer: Since we knew it would be hot, we hiked with a short sleeve shirt for my 11yo and a lycra/nylon tank
    • Then as needed, we added a non-cotton long-sleeve shirt
    • Fleece
    • Insulated jacket (we love these Nano Puff jackets from Patagonia)
    • Rain/waterproof jacket (we had no rain, but these came in handy hiking on The Mist Trail). I bought the Rainwall jacket from REI for my son right before our trip
  • Hiking pants – we have a variety from Columbia, REI & Prana
  • Hat: baseball hat, warm beanie
  • Hiking boots – A good pair of hiking boots is key. In spring the rocky trails can be wet & slippery or even covered in snow. Good traction and a waterproof/resistant material are key to keep from slipping and feet from getting cold/wet. We both hiked in Merrell. I’ve had mine for over 5 years and am due for a new pair because the traction is wearing. My son’s new Merrell Moabs stood up to the test of him walking through running water & deep puddles.
  • Wool socks
  • Gloves
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Hiking Poles – We don’t have any, and the Mist Trail was the first time I wished I had some!
  • Backpack & Water Bladder – Mike & I almost always carry our Camelbaks and when we go on long hikes we make the kids carry them too. I recommend at least 1.5 liter bladder for kids like this one and 2 liters for adults like this one.
  • Essentials: First Aid kit, Compass, Flashlight/Headlamps

Where to Stay

There are many lodging and camping options in Yosemite both in the park and outside of the park. Here are the places in Yosemite where we’ve either stayed or want to stay!

Rushcreek Lodge

Roasting s'mores at one of the many firepits around the property at Rushcreek Lodge. Yosemite National Park. California
Roasting s’mores at one of the many fire pits around the property at Rushcreek Lodge

For this trip, we stayed at Rushcreek Lodge just outside the main entrance to the park on Highway 120. Here’s what we loved about it:

  • Restaurant that offers 3 meals a day
  • General store that offers grab & go meals, snacks, drinks, and coffee (plus a gift shop)
  • A large heated pool plus two hot tubs 
  • A huge park area with 3 ziplines, a tall & fast slide, a large tire-rope swing, climbing area & a tunnel. PLUS bocce ball, horseshoes, enormous outdoor checkers & connect four boards.
  • Game area with pool, foosball, pinball, shuffleboard, and an indoor playhouse.
  • Nightly s’mores to roast around one of the many firepits.
  • Hiking trails right on the property
  • Activity Center for kids
  • Gym (this was closed when we were there)
  • Spa
  • Bike & equipment rentals 
  • Seasonal excursions to the Valley & surrounding areas for hiking, biking, rafting, snowshoeing, sight-seeing, etc.

Evergreen Lodge is the sister lodge to Rushcreek Lodge. We briefly drove by the property on our way to Hetch Hetchy and it looked like another good option with many of the same amenities & excursions available, as well as a frisbee golf course!

Other Yosemite Lodging Options

Ahwahnee Hotel

The Ahwahnee Hotel is located in Yosemite Valley – it was built in the 1920’s to attract well-to-do clientele and is simply stunning! Stay here if you can – it is a special experience. There are cottages and rooms in the main hotel. Don’t miss the spectacular Dining Room with 34 foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows! We stayed here for a friend’s wedding and had to book our room exactly one-year in advance.

Curry Village

In the park, there are quite a few campgrounds as well as Curry Village where I’ve stayed twice. They have heated & unheated tented cabins as well as wooden cabins. I’ve only stayed in the tented cabins which is basically like camping, in my opinion.

Tenaya Lodge

Another option outside the park is Tenaya Lodge. We haven’t stayed here (yet) but tried to book twice last year. The first time our reservation was canceled due to wildfires and the second time it was canceled due to shelter-in-place. Located near Yosemite’s south entrance, this is another great family friendly option. They have family cabins, a pool, a spa, kids adventure course, excursions, etc. It’s also Fido Friendly.

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