(Last Updated On: May 1, 2023)

On a day trip to Yosemite National Park, one of the first things I see is the majestic blue-grey face of El Capitan, looming over the valley and solemnly watching over visitors to Yosemite National Park. Not far away, the Half Dome is visible and travellers clamber in the meadows to take the best shot of the vista in front of them.

Yosemite is a huge park. With two half days to explore, I was convinced I’d be able to see a lot of the park. On arrival, I very quickly realise how naive that is.

I pull my brand new hire car into Rush Creek Lodge after a spectacular drive into the Yosemite area from the Napa Valley. I’m a little dusty still from the wine I’ve consumed over the past couple of days in California wine country, but even nursing my slight headache I can see that this place is the stuff dreams are made of. There’s little wonder why it is one of the best National Parks in the world

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A granite cliff in the background and river in the foreground

The windy drive around the mountains, cruising amongst the tussocks and rock faces is, for want of a better word, stunning. I only have one dicey moment on the journey, and that is when I realise that I have no idea how to open up the petrol tank on my car and then subsequently how US petrol pumps work.

I stand at the bowser waiting for the gas to start pumping for a while before someone takes pity on me and tells me that I have to pay in advance. For the record, this seems like a really flawed system if you have no idea how much petrol you need to put in your car to fill it, but I guess it stops petrol theft.

Where to stay in Yosemite National Park?

Luckily, my room at the Rush Creek Lodge is ready and I’m able to check in and have a shower before venturing in to start my day trip to Yosemite National Park – that four hour drive from Napa has me feeling the need to freshen up. The Lodge is beautifully designed, with all the buildings made of logs and complete with it’s own general store, pool and hot tub.

They also did me a massive solid when I realised a few weeks out that I’d messed up my dates and booked the wrong night and changed me over free of charge. My room has a king sized bed and a cute little ground floor patio area where I can sit and take in the woods.

I would definitely recommend staying here. It’s right near the park entrance and it really feels like a quintessential Yosemite experience. 

How to get to Yosemite National Park

Take a day tour from San Francisco

Though it is recommended to spend more than a day in Yosemite National Park, if you are really pressed for time, you can take a day tour from San Francisco. The day tour option is a full day exploring all Yosemite’s main tourist sites, so it is a great option for those uncomfortable with a self-drive experience or who just want a guide to show them around.

Drive

A self-drive experience is the absolute best way to enjoy Yosemite at your own pace. A drive from San Francisco to Yosemite will take around three hours and from Los Angeles, it will take just under five hours. I included Napa Valley on my west coast adventure, starting in Los Angeles, flying to San Francisco and then driving to Napa Valley then to Yosemite and then back to LA. I did this all in the space of around ten days and it was truly a wild ride!  

A wooden path leading towards a mountain

What to see on a day trip to Yosemite National Park?

Bridal Veil Falls

When I finally get through the gates into the park, I am overwhelmed with the size of the place. On the road through towards Yosemite Village, there are plenty of areas to stop and snap photos of the Half Dome and El Capitan as they peek through the mountains and hordes of tourists enjoying the fine weather are out in force, wielding selfie sticks.

I follow the throngs as there is little to no reception in parts of the park and find myself at on of Yosemite’s many waterfalls, the Bridal Veil Falls.

These falls are one of the easiest to get to in the park, so its not surprising that this area is full of families, enjoying a weekend of sunshine out of the city. The walk itself from the car park is uphill but straightforward and not at a very steep incline.

At the end of the short walk lies a crowded vantage point at the base of the waterfall where kids clamber over slippery rocks to get closer to the rushing water.

Yosemite Valley

At this point I have no phone reception and no map, so flying blind, I follow the road signs to Yosemite Valley. This proves to be the right way to go because through the meadows and the fields I spy the famous blue rock faces whilst walking in meadows of long golden grass.

Sitting down in the fields, I find a quiet spot by a creek to eat my lunch and sit. I know this may seem strange in a park made for hikers, but in the glow of the afternoon sun, a moment to breathe and take it all in seems like the perfect decision. This is the last stop on my West Coast road trip before I fly to New York and I try to savour the moment and reflect quietly on what I’ve seen over the last three weeks.

From the valley, I can see Yosemite Falls lightly misting over the granite rock face. I’m sitting in full view of the sheer El Capitan and on my other side lies the curved hemisphere of the Half Dome. 

Keep an eye out for animals

As I walk slowly back to the road to watch the sunset from a bridge over the creek, there’s a hullabaloo. A black bear, small in stature, has found its way onto the road. Rangers are making loud noises to try and get the little bear to move on and people are yelling and pointing – half nervous and half excited that they’ve seen what can be a Yosemite rarity for visitors.

The bear is understandably freaked and quickly makes its escape through the meadow and down to the creek. From the bridge I’m standing on, I can see it, nervously waiting by the water to see if it’s been able to slip away unseen.

Day Trip To Yosemite National Park - Emma Jane Explores

Glacier Point

The following day, I have an epic drive ahead of me, but I’m determined to get to Glacier Point before I leave, so I extend my day trip to Yosemite and sneak out early to enjoy another crisp, clear morning drive into the park. Even in the early morning, this spot is popular. The price you pay for having perfect weather, I guess.

A few snaps later and a sandwich eaten looking at the Half Dome with my legs dangling over the side of the lookout and I am on my way. This is the longest and most unpleasant stretch of my journey as I trek back the 6 hours to LA to drop off my hire car and fly out the next morning.

I leave Yosemite feeling like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this amazing park. I also leave it feeling relaxed, at ease and absolutely certain that I will be back.

Other Californian National Parks to visit

California is a smorgasbord of amazing National Parks – the most in the United States. Whilst Yosemite will always be my favourite, here’s a few others you should definitely consider visiting next time you’re in the state:

  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Death Valley National Park
  • Sequoia National Park
  • Redwood National Park
  • Pinnacles National Park
  • Channel Islands National Park

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