California is a crazy place. In a single day you can go from the highest point in the continental US to the lowest. You can watch sunrise in the snow and sunset at the beach. You can spend a day walking amongst towering redwoods and the next in one of the most barren, hot places on the planet. And of course you can experience one of the most iconic and most photographed landscapes ever; Yosemite National Park.
Being a California native, I have been fortunate to go to Yosemite more times than I can remember. I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to hiking trails and activities in Yosemite, but I have gathered a list of favorites. Realistically, those who don't live so close aren't going to have the opportunity to return as many times as I have. With this in mind, I created a short list of what I would do in Yosemite with only 24 hours. I made this list putting myself in the mind of an out-of-stater who wants to cram in as much as they can with a limited window.
A few things to keep in mind with this list:
1) In order to do more, this list doesn't contain any really long hikes
2) These aren't necessarily my favorite things in Yosemite, just what I think is important to see with a limited window
3) This list will go from sunrise to sunset so it will be a very full day of activities.
4) Yosemite NP is very large but the main attractions mostly fall into one relatively small area. Most items here are there, in Yosemite Valley and not other parts of the park
5) The accompanying and similarly titled video does not match up to this list identically because some trails and roads are closed seasonally. Always check before going what trails and roads are open and safe.
Without further ado here are the things I would do with 24 hours in Yosemite!
1. Sunrise at Tunnel View
Rise and shine! We are getting up early! We only have so much time. Grab a coat and a camera and maybe something to make coffee. Check the night before for what time sunrise is and plan to be there about 30 minutes before. If you are entering the Valley via highway 41, you will pass through a tunnel and as soon as you exit you see your first real glimpse of the grandeur of Yosemite. This is one of the most popular vista points in Yosemite for a good reason. Not only do you get sweeping views of the valley, Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Halfdome in the distance, but you also get to share the space with a couple dozen photographers. But don't worry there is plenty of space for everyone.
What you see: El Capitan, Halfdome, Bridalveil Fall
How long it takes: 1 hour
2. Bridalveil Fall
Remember that impressive looking waterfall on the right when you were looking out at Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View? Remember thinking "I really wish I could get closer to that waterfall?" Well, lucky for you that waterfall is next on this list. As you exit the parking lot head downhill toward the valley. You will drive for about a half mile and then there will be a parking lot off to your right. The path to the waterfall is completely paved and has only a small gain in elevation, so it is suited for hikers of all types. The great thing about doing this hike right after sunrise is that you have a decent chance of getting the place to yourself depending on season. The last two times I went to Bridalveil Fall I was completely alone for the duration of the hike, granted that was once in winter and once in early spring. During the peak season you may not get so lucky. If you are going in the spring or early summer I would advise some rain gear as the viewpoint can get pretty misty from the spray of the fall.
What you see: Bridalveil Fall
How long it takes: 30-45 minutes
3. Vernal and Nevada Falls via Mist Trail
This may be a good point for you to pull into Degnan's Deli or the store and get some coffee or food. The next item on the list is the longest, most strenuous, and most time consuming item so be prepared to be out for a few hours on this one. If you complete the entire trail, it is about 6.5 miles and over 2000ft elevation gain, but the views are well worth the effort. Because we are starting this relatively early, we should have plenty of time, but be sure to bring sufficient water for your group and maybe pack some food. I would also highly advise bringing very sturdy waterproof hiking boots, a waterproof jacket or poncho, and a water resistant pack to put any valuables or electronics into. You probably are getting the idea by now; you are going to get wet on the mist trail. It's in the name. My final word of caution is to exercise extreme care and caution near ledges or swift moving water and respect barriers, guard rails, and park signage.
For this hike you are going to park in the Happy Isles parking lot. If you get there early enough you shouldn't have any issues getting a spot. If it is full you can always utilize the free valley shuttle. Walk along the road until you cross a bridge over a river and then make a sharp right onto the trail. Follow any signs for Vernal Fall or the Mist Trail. There are a couple good spots to turn around if you don't want to do the whole 6.5 miles. The first is the footbridge about 3/4 mile in. It offers a great spot to view Vernal Fall, use the restroom, or refill water. If you choose to continue on you will start heading into the Mist Trail that eventually ends at the top of Vernal Fall. There are some narrow parts of the trail along high cliffs but they are protected by hand rails. Just take it slow. At the top is lots of open space for picnicking or resting in the shade. Should you continue on you will continue up the trail along side of Nevada Fall and eventually reach the top. To get back down to the trailhead, you have a couple options. You can head back the same way you came through the Mist Trail, or you can hop onto the John Muir Trail for a few miles and meet back up with your original trail near the footbridge. That adds a little mileage to the trail but gives you some great views of the falls, Halfdome, and the Valley.
What you see: Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Mist Trail, back side of Halfdome, Illilouette Falls
How long it takes: Approx. 4 hours
4. Lower Yosemite Falls
I absolutely love the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail but it is so long and so strenuous that it doesn't lend itself to getting to do a wide variety of things in a short window in Yosemite. Lower Yosemite Falls, however, is very accessible and the trail is quite short. I will say that this trail is probably going to be the most crowded spot on this list. It is near to the lodge, near to the cafeteria, and accessible to even the most inexperienced of hikers. That is the perfect recipe for crowds. My advice to you is to remember that you aren't in the crowd, you ARE the crowd. You are all there for the same reason and as long as people are respecting their environment there is no reason that they cant be there too. When Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls are combined it is the tallest waterfall in North America, dropping 2,450 feet to the valley floor. As you do this short hike you will be able to see both upper and lower. As you approach the base of the falls, upper falls gets obscured but you can get pretty close to the bottom of lower Yosemite Falls.
What you see: Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls
How long it takes: 45 minutes
5. Sentinel Dome at Sunset
We should be well into the afternoon or evening at this point. Depending on how long you have until sunset, grab some dinner or take a little breather. From the Yosemite Falls Trail we probably have about an hour and a half of traveling to get to our next stop. Make sure to time it to get there about a half an hour before sunset actually happens. For this hike you will be driving up toward Glacier Point but stopping before you get there at the Sentinel Dome Trailhead. The hike from there is about a mile. Make sure to bring warm clothing and a headlamp or flashlight as you will be hiking back in the dark. Lots of people would suggest going to Glacier Point for sunset. Personally I prefer Sentinel Dome. From Glacier Point you are looking east at Halfdome but the view to your west is partially obstructed. Sentinel Dome, however, offers stunning 360 degree views of Yosemite including the Valley and the backcountry.
What you see: Halfdome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Yosemite backcountry, pretty much everything
How long it takes: with driving 2 hours or more.
Wow! What a full and fulfilling day! I hope you enjoyed this mad dash in Yosemite and that you got to see plenty for the short window you had.