Yosemite: A 4 day travel & hiking guide

This write-up has been a LONG time coming…  I got halfway through a few months back, then my laptop died and I lost the draft. But now: second time lucky!

Here’s a quick round-up for how to do a long weekend in Yosemite – 4 days is perfect.  We went in July 2019. It was very hot, and quite busy with tourists on the easy hikes and in the Village – but as soon as you start hiking, you don’t see so many people, as most tourists are just there to take photos from the carpark!


Itinerary overview:

Day 1: Arrive, do a short hike (Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome & Taft Point), check in to accommodation
Day 2: Big day – El Capitan
Day 3: Light day – El Capitan Meadows & Tunnel View
Day 4: Big day – Half Dome


WHERE TO STAY

Although there are plenty of options for more basic accommodation / camping within the park, I’ve selected my 3 favourite design-led options – a bit more upmarket, but still with bags of charm!

Far Meadow A-frame cabins

Stay in one of Far Meadow’s beautiful A-frame cabins, complete with air conditioning, barbecue, utter tranquility, and adorable interiors.  These cabins have been featured on Boutique Homes, so you can be sure they’re very aesthetically pleasing!  This is where we stayed and absolutely loved it – it was perfect for what we wanted, and such a joy to come back to after a hard day’s hiking.

Note that Far Meadow is located outside the park; it’s a 30 minute drive to the South Entrance – and then a further 30-60 within the park to reach the main hiking trails (Yosemite NP is just massive).

Far Meadow A-frame cabins, Boutique Homes | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Far Meadow A-frame cabins, Boutique Homes | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Far Meadow A-frame cabins, Boutique Homes | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California

Wawona Hotel

Located inside the park (near the South Entrance), the Wawona Hotel (formerly Big Trees Lodge) is super old school.  It’s been around since 1856, and has been lovingly maintained and restored. You’ll appreciate the authentic wraparound porches, pool, dining room and location within the park.

Wawona Hotel | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Wawona Hotel | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California

Autocamp Yosemite glamping

Located 30 minutes drive from the Arch Rock Entrance to the park, Autocamp is the top choice for glampers, as all suites are set inside modified Airstream caravans – complete with barbecue area, spa-style bathroom and Malin + Goetz products, plus a clubhouse and pool.

Autocamp Airstream glamping | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Autocamp Airstream glamping | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Autocamp Airstream glamping | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Autocamp Airstream glamping | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Autocamp Airstream glamping | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California

WHERE TO HIKE

Glacier Point

(Medium difficulty: 5 mile loop, up to 2400m, half day)

Glacier Point is the number one spot to visit on the tourists’ To Do list – but it’s easy to see why, with stunning views of Half Dome and El Capitan that you can drive right up to (literally, the viewing point is 3 minutes from the carpark, along a paved path!).  

From Glacier Point I’d recommend a moderate hiking loop up to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point.  The top of Sentinel Dome is only about 1 mile from the Glacier Point carpark, and gives serious bang for your buck – the views are incredible (height: 2400m), and it was amazingly un-busy when we went.  And then Taft Point is one of the most famous photo spots, so it deserves to be seen – just know you won’t be alone!

Glacier Point | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Glacier Point
Sentinel Dome hike | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Sentinel Dome hike
Taft Point | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Taft Point, by @amrinprasad

El Capitan

(Hard: 17 miles out & back, up to 2300m, full day)

When driving through Yosemite Village, you’ll have seen El Capitan looming over you – the vertical face is about 3000 feet tall, and it’s the subject of the climbing documentaries Free Solo and The Dawn Wall (both must-sees before you go!).  

To summit El Capitan you don’t have to be a rock climber – thankfully you can also hike it!  At the top, you’re 2300m above sea level, and the hike is about 17 miles. We set off (late) at 09:30, and were back down at 17:30 (I’d recommend starting earlier than we did, particularly in summer; also take lots of water – way more than you think you need – as there’s nowhere to fill up en route).

We took the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail from the village – this part isn’t the most exciting, it’s just switchbacks going up, up and up…  We then followed Snow Creek Trail (optional out and back to Eagle Peak – I hear the views are incredible, however we decided the hike was long enough without that additional stop!), finally topping out on El Capitan.  Once you reach the top, it’s almost a mile walking on the flat until you get to the edge, overlooking the valley. There are trees at the top for shade, and the views are just incredible.

Don’t hang out too long at the top though – you’re going back down the way you came up, totaling 17 miles.

El Capitan | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
El Cap, shot from the valley by @alexandre_champagne
El Capitan | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Snow Creek Trail
El Capitan | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
On top of El Capitan
El Capitan | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Heading down from El Cap

El Capitan Meadows

(Easy: Flat, no set route, just a couple of hours)

After our hardcore day hiking El Cap, we decided to have an easy day, and opted for a gentle walk in Yosemite Valley.  The El Capitan Meadows are mostly flat, and you can wander along footpaths and alongside the river.

Be sure to stop at Tunnel View on the drive in or out, for expansive views of the valley.

El Capitan Meadows | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
El Capitan Meadows
El Capitan Meadows | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
El Capitan Meadows
Tunnel View | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Tunnel View, by @cassiefletcher

Half Dome

(Hard: 16 miles round trip, up to 2700m, full day)

Half Dome is the most famous feature in Yosemite, towering above the valley, right in the centre, and visible from most of the park.  To hike to the very top of it, you need a permit.  Permits can be obtained way in advance via the pre-season lottery, or two days in advance via the daily lottery.  You can get all the way to the bottom of the Sub Dome without a permit, and then be turned away by a ranger when you’re 90% of the way there – so I can’t stress enough the importance of entering the lottery and getting lucky!  (See the popularity graphs to help you decide on a good day to go – we got lucky on a Monday.)

The hike itself is no mean feat.  People tend to start before sunrise – we parked in the Yosemite Valley Trailhead parking area, and started hiking at 05:30.  We started on the Mist Trail (past some amazing waterfalls – the Mist Trail is a great standalone hike of medium difficulty if you want something for a half day, in fact) up to Vernal and Nevada Falls (prepare to get a little bit wet as you climb the steps alongside the waterfalls).

Then it’s up the Half Dome Trail (which varies between steep, stepped and flat) until you reach the Sub Dome (this is where the ranger will check permits – make sure you have printed or downloaded your permit in advance, as there’s no mobile signal).  The trail up the Sub Dome is stepped switchbacks carved into the rock. I actually found this bit the most tiring, however the views are amazing, and you can see the dome rising up ahead of you.

The reason Half Dome is permitted is because of the final section, which is so steep (45-55 degrees) it requires cables to pull yourself up.  Parallel steel cables, with wooden supports every 10 to 20 feet to rest, allow you to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment (although a lot of people wear gloves, and even clip in with a harness – we did neither and were fine, but if you’re nervous of heights it might be advisable).

Once you’ve hauled yourself to the top, you’ll literally be standing on top of the world.  360° views of Yosemite National Park. If you plan to break out the snacks, beware of the squirrels – they are so bold, and will take anything that you’re not holding onto.

Then the return journey:  Work your way back down the cables (going down was harder than going up, I found), down the steps of the Sub Dome, and down Half Dome Trail.  After this, I’d recommend taking the John Muir Trail back to the bottom – it has great views, and makes a change – and the Mist Trail can get very slippery, and the steps are hard on the knees.  The JMT is about 0.5 miles longer, but it’s not as steep.

Having set off at 05:30, we were back down by 14:30 (apparently this was pretty fast!).

Sentinel Dome hike | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Half Dome, as seen from Sentinel Dome Trail
Mist Trail to Half Dome | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Mist Trail by @ibackpackandstuff
Mist Trail to Half Dome | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Mist Trail by @yehray
The Sub Dome | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Sub Dome of Half Dome
Half Dome cables | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
The cables up to the very top of Half Dome
Half Dome | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Top of Half Dome
Half Dome cables | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Heading back down the Half Dome cables
John Muir Trail | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
John Muir Trail, looking at North Dome

MORE HIKES THAT ARE ON MY LIST FOR NEXT TIME

Cloud’s Rest (Hard: 18 miles out & back, with lots of elevation)

Clouds Rest | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Clouds Rest, by @shaohua0116

Tuolomne Meadows (Medium: 12 miles out & back, relatively flat)

Tuolomne Meadows | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Tuolomne Meadows, by @srberkman

Panorama Trail (Medium: 9 miles with some elevation)

Panorama Trail | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Panorama Trail, by @ssankeyphotography

Cathedral Lakes Trail (Medium: 8.5 miles with some elevation)

Cathedral Lakes | 4 days in Yosemite: Where to stay & hike in Yosemite National Park, California
Cathedral Lakes, by @wandering_woodworker