It would take more than a lifetime to see it all, but you can discover much of Yosemite’s iconic scenery even in a short visit.
Yosemite is so close to San Francisco that it’s a must-see part of any Northern California trip, and the perfect complement to San Francisco’s urban offerings. Roughly the same size as the state of Rhode Island, Yosemite holds more than enough to keep you exploring and discovering for a lifetime, but here are few of the must-see/must do items that you can take advantage of even on a brief trip.
How Far is Yosemite from San Francisco?
Yosemite National Park is a three-hour-and-42-minute drive away from San Francisco, approximately 165 miles (266 km) via I-580 East and CA-120 East.
Tours and Sightseeing
Yosemite’s iconic landmarks are astonishingly accessible. A quick drive through Yosemite Valley reveals astonishing waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls, one of the country’s tallest, takes you right next to the base of the imposing granite cliff, El Capitan, and provides excellent views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome.
One of the best ways to get oriented to Yosemite Valley in the warmer months is the Valley Floor Tour, a two-hour tour on an open-air tram led by a National Park Service Ranger. Not only will your ranger point out the main sights, vistas and Yosemite’s major icons, you’ll also have an opportunity to hear stories that connect the landmarks together and shed light on the colorful characters that made this place what it is. Plus, an open air tram gives you a clear view of the towering features so that you won’t have to crane your head to see them out your car windows, and more importantly, you won’t have to designate a driver who will be forced to keep his/her eyes on the road instead of being able to relax and enjoy the scenery. If you have a little more time, longer Yosemite tours are available which include other regions of the park, such as Glacier Point, where you can get a bird’s-eye view of the Valley from the rim, and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, where the most massive trees in the world are sure to fill you with a sense of timelessness and wonder.
For a fun guided option, Extranomical Tours offers unique small-size sightseeing excursions from San Francisco in their Total Yosemite Experience tour. This is the only tour from San Francisco that includes all the main stops on the valley floor, as well as a visit to the Giant Sequoia trees in a one-day tour, as well as offering audio guides in eight different languages.
If you have the time and energy, possibly the best way to see Yosemite Valley is by bicycle. A 12-mile (19 km) bike path gives you an opportunity to enjoy Yosemite’s sights at your own pace and allows you to stop and admire stunning scenery or observe Yosemite’s wildlife without worrying about finding parking or disrupting traffic. Bike rentals in a wide variety of sizes (including trailers for young children) are available from the Yosemite Valley Lodge and Half Dome Village.
Hiking and other Activities
Of course, everything that you do in Yosemite provides a new perspective on the majesty and beauty in the park, however, to see Yosemite up close and personal, nothing is quite like leaving the pavement behind and venturing out onto the trails.
A wide range of hiking trails suit all interests, from a short one-mile (1.6 km) loop to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, to the all-day epic trek to the summit of Half Dome and everything in between. Various Yosemite maps are available for those who wish to explore on their own, or you can join a group hike to have a local guide from Yosemite’s Mountaineering School show you around. Custom hikes are also available.
Of course, strapping on a pair of hiking boots isn’t the only way to see the park. There are also opportunities to explore while sitting in the saddle. There are three stables located in different areas of the park for those that prefer to explore on a mule- or horseback ride.
The river also provides a unique perspective on the park. Float down the Merced River past Yosemite’s landmarks for a relaxing afternoon that will keep you cool on a hot summer’s day. If you can’t bring your own, raft rentals are available at Half Dome Village.
If you’re adventurous, there’s no view in Yosemite like the one from part-way up a granite cliff. Yosemite draws famous climbers from around the world to its clean white granite and convenient climbing routes. Beginners and experienced climbers alike will find something challenging here. Climbing classes go out daily at 8:30 a.m. from the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service based in Half Dome Village. Experienced climbers can also hire a climbing guide for bigger adventures, including multi-day ascents of Yosemite’s iconic features.