Reduced crowds and gorgeous foliage? Get the most out of two days in Yosemite National Park in the fall!
Nestled within the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California is Yosemite National Park, the third USA national park founded in 1890 after Yellowstone (1872) and Sequoia (1890). Yosemite attracts 3.5 million visitors annually, who flock to the glacier-carved valley for its picturesque high granite summits, most notably Half Dome and El Capitan, cascading waterfalls, ancient sequoia groves, and diverse wilderness. Yosemite’s breathtaking landscapes and rich biodiversity offer a sanctuary for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. If you’re visiting San Francisco, Yosemite National Park is a 3.5 hour drive and driving is an absolute must if you only have short window of time.
Need a quick guide to San Francisco? Read my Top Five Things to Do in San Francisco.
Visiting Yosemite National Park was one of my bucket list items living in California. However, my only opportunity to plan a trip to Yosemite was during the pandemic when social distancing-friendly travel made the national parks extremely popular. So to avoid the surge of visitors, I decided to visit Yosemite National Park during the fall. To my surprise, visiting in November was an actual win for several reasons! Yosemite National Park in the fall offers colorful scenery, cooler temperatures, and fewer crowds compared to peak season (between March and October). The hotels were also significantly cheaper and reduced traffic around the park. There were some weather-related downsides to visiting in the fall including risk of snow closures and the famed Tioga Pass being closed early. And fair warning, the foliage isn’t as vibrant as you would think but it still looks incredible. If you’re considering visiting Yosemite National Park in the fall, here are my suggestions to inspire your two days in the great outdoors!
PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP TO YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
➡️ Yosemite National Park is open 24/7. During the fall, vehicles can enter the park via Hwy 120 W and 140 (West Entrance) or Hwy 41 (South Entrance). The cost is $35 per vehicle valid for 7 consecutive days.
➡️ Fall in Yosemite National Park is a head-turner but you will need to prepare for weather-related closures inside the park. Before your trip, tune into:
➡️ The temperatures in late fall range from highs of 72° to 57° F and lows of 41° to 32° F with little rainfall. Bring a waterproof down jacket and also a sweater to layer up with come nightfall. I brought a beanie, which was great for keeping warm, but a scarf and gloves were a bit much.
Pro-Tip: It’s not unusual for snow to be on the forecast starting November so be prepared! Always bring chains with you if you are driving throughout Yosemite National Park in the fall.
➡️ Here are the most major updates happening in the park in 2023 until 2024:
📍 Glacier Point Road is undergoing construction through winter 2024. Expect construction delays Monday-Friday from 6am-9pm.
📍 Tioga Pass Road is closed as of July 8, 2023 with no plans to reopen in 2023.
➡️ Wifi has limited bandwidth inside the park so plan accordingly.
➡️ I always like bringing along a physical guide and have been a huge fan of Lonely Planet’s travel guides. I highly recommend their newly updated National Parks guidebooks! Purchase a copy of the California & Southwest USA’s National Parks guide and flip to page 112 for all the essential information on Yosemite National Park.
WHERE TO STAY IN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
There are pros and cons staying inside the valley versus in the surrounding towns. I’ve always wanted to stay in a chalet so when I found out about The Pines Resort in Bass Lake, I knew I had to book it. The Pines Resort is Yosemite Area’s only lakeside resort featuring large cabins, lakeside suites, and cozy chalets. It’s pretty much a mini town complete with an on-site gas station, post office, pizza shop, and even boutiques and souvenir stores. Bass Lake is just 17 miles south of Yosemite (approximately 30 min).
There are 84 two-story chalets at The Pines Resort hilltop surrounded by pine forest. We booked the standard 1 King Bed Chalet, which was more than enough room for four people. It came with a fully equipped kitchen, a queen-sized pullout sofa, a log fireplace, and a private deck. There was even a loft inside the cabin that we treated as a reading nook. Chalets start at $389 per night in the fall.
If you’re planning on being closer to the park to maximize on time, I recommend Whimsy Soul’s “Where To Stay in Yosemite” guide.
YOUR TWO DAY FALL ITINERARY FOR YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
DAY 1 | MORNING (7:45 – 11 AM)
Location: Mariposa Grove (see on map)
Make your way to the South Entrance on Hwy 41 of the park and arrive before 8 AM to avoid congestion. The South Entrance is the closest to one of Yosemite’s key natural wonders, Mariposa Grove. Home to over 500 mature giant sequoias, including the 2,995-year-old “Grizzly Giant” and California Tunnel Tree, Mariposa Grove is the perfect starting point to your Yosemite adventure. After your walk, there’s a picnic area for a brunch if you to decide to pack snacks. Here are two trail suggestions given the short time in the park:
📍 Big Trees Loop Trail (Easy): See the Fallen Monarch. 1-2 Hours.
📍 Grizzly Giant Loop Trail (Moderate): See the Bachelor, Three Graces, Grizzly Giant, and California Tunnel Tree. 2-3 Hours.
Do you have accessibility needs? No problem! Grizzly Giant is wheelchair accessible provided you have a disability placard on your car. It will only take you as far as the Grizzly Giant parking area where the accessible trail begins.
Environmentalist John Muir shares his love of sequoia trees
DAY 1 | NOON (11:30 AM – 2 PM)
Location: Tunnel View and Bridalveil Fall (see on map)
The drive from Mariposa Grove to Tunnel View takes about 42 min (~roughly 23 miles) on Hwy 41, also known as Wawona Road. Keep your eyes open during this stunning cruise up Hwy 41 into the renowned valley. One of my favorite things to do was prepping my camera in the car to video the dramatic appearance of Yosemite Valley at the end of Wawona Tunnel.
Arguably the most iconic vista in the park, Tunnel View offers a breathtaking panorama of Yosemite Valley, featuring the famous landmarks of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. It’s actually a large parking lot and spaces are limited but you don’t need to wait too long to get a spot. Tunnel View was the inspiration for many Ansel Adams’ photographs. If you’re there for photographs, the best time to take a picture from Tunnel View is at sunset but due to weather concerns, we wanted to leave before nightfall. Make a quick pitstop near signpost V14 on the Southside Drive to get a closer look at Bridalveil Fall and The Leaning Tower.
After photographs, you’ve probably worked up at an appetite. We packed our lunch but heard great things about Curry Village Pizza Patio and Bar. I mean, who doesn’t want pizza for breakfast? It’s also just one of the better places to eat at the park if you’re looking for good food. For more dining options inside the park, click here.
DAY 1 | AFTERNOON TO DINNER (3 – 7 PM)
Location: Yosemite Falls and Ahwanee Hotel (see on map)
No trip to Yosemite is complete without a visit to Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America, with a total drop of 2,425 feet (739 meters). The falls consist of three sections: The Upper Falls, Middle Cascades, and The Lower Falls. Dur the fall season, the Lower Falls reduces to a trickle and the river completely dries up. Climbing the otherwise submerged boulders was one of the highlights of our trip. The Lower Falls is an easily accessible hike that can be completed in under an hour. En route to the beginning of the Lower Falls trailhead is the Village Store if you need to stock up on some snacks.
If your budget allows, treat yourself to a memorable dinner at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room. An alpine cathedral, candelabras hang from cross-beam ceilings that lead your eyes to floor-to-ceiling windows that offer an unadulterated view of the park’s best features. People book months in advance for dinner reservations at this American fine dining venue so make a reservation via Open Table asap. You can also call (209) 372-1489 to make reservations. Another dinner hotspot is Yosemite Valley Lodge, where you’ll find three dining options:
📍Mountain Room is another dinnertime splurge serving American classics. They seat their last guests at 8:30 pm.
📍The Mountain Room Lounge has cocktails and smaller bites. You can keep cozy with their Swedish-style fireplace. Last call for hot food is 7:30 pm.
📍Base Camp Eatery is more affordable, cafeteria-style dining with freshly cooked food on the go. It’s open until 9 pm.
DAY 2 | MORNING (8 AM – 11:30 AM)
Location: Ducey’s on the Lake, El Capitan, Cathedral Beach, Three Brothers, Sentinel Beach, and the Ansel Adams Gallery (see on map)
Start your day with a hearty breakfast at Ducey’s on the Lake at the Pines Resort. Preview the full breakfast menu here. Then make your way back to Yosemite Valley where El Capitan awaits. El Capitan is unmissable feature in the valley, clocking in at a staggering 3200-feet. One of the world’s largest granite monoliths, “El Cap” has captured the imaginations of rock climbing enthusiasts for years. In fact, I was introduced to Yosemite National Park after watching the National Geographic documentary, Free Solo, documenting free soloist Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb El Capitan without a rope.
If you want to skip breakfast entirely for some sunrise moments in the park, I highly suggest setting up camp at Cathedral Beach 30 minutes before sunrise. The pebble beach on the shores of the Merced River is the prime spot to watch the first light of day hit El Capitan around 20 minutes after “official” sunrise. Cathedral Beach is also particularly stunning in the fall, which is why I had to add it to this fall in Yosemite itinerary. The changing leaves of the surrounding maple, dogwood, and oak trees set against the evergreen paints the valley in otherworldly hues.
If you follow the river 5 minutes north, you’ll find a fantastic spot to photograph the Three Brothers rock formation in the distance. Legend has it that the trio of granite peaks north of El Capitan were named after the three sons of Chief Tenaya of the local Ahwahneechee tribe. It is said that that his three sons were captured near the base of this rock formation. If you like being along the Merced, scope out Sentinel Beach, a secluded stretch of sand surrounding Sentinel Park.
Post “beach” visits, head to the Village Mall to check out the Ansel Adams Gallery. Here, you can view the original black and white hyper-focused photographs of world renowned photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams.
DAY 2 | LUNCH (12 PM – 3 PM)
Location: Mirror Lake (see on map)
Lunchtime is a perfect time for a leisurely hike to Mirror Lake. This is a relatively easy trail at only 2.5 miles round trip and mostly paved with little elevation gain. Plus, the fall foliage along the trail enhances the walk. During the summer, the lake (more of a pond really) tends to dry up, meaning you can walk out onto the lake bed once fall rolls in. But sometimes there’s just enough water to capture the reflections of Half Dome and the surrounding cliffs on the water’s surface aka the “mirror” effect. Plan ahead and pack a picnic lunch. Just don’t forget a blanket to lay down as you won’t find any benches in this area.
DAY 2 | LATE AFTERNOON (3:30 PM – 7 PM)
Location: Cook’s Meadow Loop OR Artist’s Point for sunset (see on map)
Finish the second day with two lesser-known sunset spots in the park’s interior. The first option is touring around the grassy expanse of the Cook’s Meadow Loop. Take a relaxed walk on the Cook’s Meadow Loop through a pair of meadows, which offers picturesque views of Yosemite Falls & Half Dome. I loved catching the sunset here as the indirect sunset against Half Dome made for an epic light show across the meadow and you could see the fall foliage in the shadow of Half Dome.
If you prefer a sunset-tinged panoramic view, I highly suggest Artist Point, a hidden gem of Yosemite Valley. The Artist Point out-and-back trail begins at the Tunnel View parking and affords the patient hiker a superior vista view. It’s pretty much a replica of the tunnel view, just more overhead. This is a moderately challenged hike with the first part of the trail on the steeper side and rocky. Also nearer to November, it might be a little slippery but the journey is worth it. The spot is not clearly marked so use this All Trails map as your guide.
Map of all Yosemite National Park locations 🗺️
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