east sierras road trip yosemite california

East Sierras near Mono Lake

I may be living in Vietnam at the moment, but I’m a west coast girl at heart. Before the big move to Asia, I was lucky enough to cross a big one off my USA travel bucket list: Yosemite National Park in California. I saw as much as possible within two days, and learned the dos and don’ts of a quick weekend road trip. Follow this planning guide if you don’t want to take too much time off work to explore this gorgeous national park.

Step one: Prioritize

First off, sort out what nature experiences you enjoy most. For Yosemite, this includes the following:

  • Easy hikes (strolling, little elevation gain)—Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, Taft Point
  • Medium hikes (some elevation gain but relatively short in distance)—Tuolumne Grove, Mirror Lake, Mist Trail
  • Challenging hikes (quick elevation gain, long distance)—Gaylor Lakes, Cathedral Lakes
  • Watching wildlife—Tuolumne Meadows
  • Stupendous panoramic views of geological wonders—Tunnel View, Olmsted Point, Glacier Point
  • Taking photos of waterfalls—Mist Trail, Illilouhette Falls, Glacier Point, Washburn Point, and more.
  • Careening on the edge of a cliff—Taft Point
  • Watching the sun rise—Tunnel View
  • Watching the sun set—Glacier Point
  • Swimming—Mirror Lake, Tenaya Lake
  • Bicycling—Yosemite Valley
  • Camping—Many options

Now, figure out what is not seasonally available and what you’re less interested in. For example, my trip was in August 2016. During this time, Wawona Grove was closed, the waterfalls were mostly dried up, and I had to bypass the busy 150th Anniversary.

Step two: Create an itinerary

After I was done prioritizing, I ended up with a destination list somewhat like this, 1 being the top priority:

  1. Gaylor Lakes Trail—Difficult hike
  2. Tunnel View—Sunrise photos and timelapse
  3. South Tufa (Not in Yosemite, but near my hotel in Lee Vining)—Sunrise photos at Mono Lake
  4. Taft Point—Photos of the fissures in the rock
  5. Tuolumne Meadows—Easy hike, photos of Cathedral Peaks
  6. Swimming at Mirror Lake
  7. Swimming at Tenaya Lake
  8. Tuolumne Grove—Photo with big dead sequoia
  9. Glacier Point—Sunset photos

Next, I divided up everything according to area, time, and elevation. My goal was to allow enough time for driving, gas stops, bathroom breaks, swimming, and hiking. I recorded time length estimates and labeled certain attractions optional. This allowed me to be more flexible and move my schedule around if necessary.

As you can see from these snapshots of my spreadsheet itinerary, I took it easy the first day, spent the night in Lee Vining, and then hit the elevation hard the next day with a hike to Gaylor Lake. That’s because I had to allow myself time to adjust to the elevation gain, especially since I was coming from San Jose, which is at sea level.

By the way, I truly enjoyed my stay at the Yosemite Gateway Motel. In fact, the moment I entered to see my room for the first time, I regretted not staying longer. The room was high-quality and offered a great view to watch the sun set over Mono Lake.

tuolumne meadows deer wildlife yosemite california

Deer at Tuolumne Meadows

Step three: Plan how to get there

Here’s the thing guys: what I did was pretty much necessary, but still not the most convenient. I had flown in to San Jose on different business. My ticket from Seattle was round trip, which meant that I had to rent a car from San Jose, drive to Yosemite, and back. I did this all in exactly four days, including two full days in Yosemite.

Yes, your “weekend” getaway would be an extended one. But trust me, there’s too much to see in Yosemite! Even two days is not enough. Allowing for two full days in the park, plus two days travel, is actually quite economic.

I was able to drive from San Jose airport to my hotel in Mariposa, outside of Yosemite, in about 3 hours on a Sunday night. At the end of my second full day in Yosemite (Tuesday), I drove to my hotel in Madera, about halfway back to San Jose. Then I woke up early the next day and drove the rest of the way to make my flight at 10:30 AM.

sequoia tuolumne grove yosemite california

Dead sequoia at Tuolumne Grove

On the other hand, it would be much easier to fly in to Fresno and get your rental car there. Fresno is only 1.5 hours from Yosemite. The city is directly south of the park, though, so keep in mind that you’ll be driving much further to see the sights as long as the sequoia grove in Wawona is closed for restoration.

What I wish I didn’t do

Overall, Tioga Pass was my favorite region. Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point Road didn’t impress me as much.

  • Mirror Lake—The hike was boring and a waste of time, since Tenaya Creek was running very low.
  • Tuolumne Grove—I guess it was nice to get my giant sequoia picture, but the hike was very uninteresting and very hot. All in all, the experience was needlessly tiring.
  • Fly back home from San Jose in the morning—It was brutal to get up at 4 AM after arriving in Madera after 9 PM.

Melissa Dailey

Hi, I’m Melissa. I established this site to help you accomplish your goals in working for yourself to lead a free life. Even if you think you’re too busy or too lazy to succeed.