There's a lifetime's worth of wonders waiting inside Yosemite National Park, but don't worry: you've got time to see all the highlights, even on a short vacation. With just a day or two to spend in the park, concentrate on the Yosemite Valley and take a drive up to Glacier Point for a bird's-eye view of the Sierra Nevada.
With more time to spare, venture south to Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, where some of the largest living trees on earth grow. Then take a drive along the breathtakingly high-elevation Tioga Road past Tuolumne Meadows and over Tioga Pass down to the shores of Mono Lake before heading back to the valley again.
Some of Yosemite's attractions, including museums and visitor centers, are only open during limited hours, which vary depending on the time of year. Similarly, schedules of free ranger-guided programs and activities, such as nature walks and campfire talks, also vary seasonally. Be sure to pick up a free copy of the park's newspaper, the Yosemite Guide, for current schedules. It's freely available at park entrance stations and inside visitor centers.
The Yosemite Valley is the busiest place for sightseeing in the park. You can ride free shuttle buses between all of the attractions, or join a guided bus tour instead. A fun way to see the valley is while riding cruiser bikes with your family or travel buddies. A paved 12-mile recreational path open to hikers and cyclists loops around the valley floor, stopping at waterfalls, meadows, nature centers, and other points of interest.
Approaching the Yosemite Valley, your first stop is at Tunnel View. At the valley's west entrance, this postcard-worthy vista point frames the hulking granite rock formation of El Capitan to the left and Bridalveil Fall cascading off the cliffs to your right, with the curved tooth of Half Dome captured in the background. It's a short drive farther on to Bridalveil Fall, where it's a half-mile round-trip walk to the base of the falls.
Farther east along the valley floor, you'll pass by landmark granite rock formations. Look for the Cathedral Spires reaching heavenward on your right. Across the Merced River, on the north side of the road, sits mighty El Capitan and its neighboring Three Brothers, dominated by Eagle Peak.
If you want to stop and stretch your legs, park near the Swinging Bridge, where you can walk out over the Merced River. You might be able to glimpse Yosemite Falls over on the valley's north side. If you want to walk right up to the thundering falls themselves, drive west of Yosemite Village.
Before leaving the valley, don't miss El Capitan Meadow, from where you can have a picnic and use binoculars to spot adrenaline-fueled rock climbers dangling on the face of the park's most famous wall. Another stop farther along the exit road, Valley View offers a painterly panorama of the Merced River flanked by El Capitan.
Along Glacier Point and Tioga Roads
Glacier Point is the park's most famous viewpoint. About an hour's drive from the valley, here you'll be awed by sheer natural beauty. Dominating the view of craggy high Sierra Nevada peaks is Half Dome, below which drop Vernal and Nevada Falls.
The viewpoint is so close to the edge of the cliffs, it feels as if you could step right off into the clouds. Note that Glacier Point Road is usually closed beyond the Badger Pass ski area from November until late May or early June, depending on that year's weather.
Leading up from the valley, Tioga Road is another great way to go sightseeing through the park. Every bend in this high-elevation drive seems to reveal more stunning scenery.
The most famous sightseeing stops are at Olmsted Point, which lets you peer down into Yosemite Valley and across the tops of the Sierra Nevada at Half Dome. Keep driving east through the mountainous high country past glacier-carved Tenaya Lake, stopping off for a walk around Tuolumne Meadows come in early summer to see a cinematic profusion of wildflowers.
It's a short walk around the meadows to Soda Springs, a natural curiosity where reddish carbonated waters bubble up out of the ground to form small pools. If you have extra time, it's worth driving east over Tioga Pass and outside the park boundaries to Mono Lake, where otherworldly tufa formations and ancient volcanic islands poke up above the surface.