If this is your first visit to Yosemite and you are not sure what to do, spend a day on the GrandTour and let someone else do the driving and the guiding. This is a good way to visit the major points of interest and to help you make plans for the rest of your stay.
The Grand Tour combines several smaller tours and includes the Valley Floor, Giant Sequoia Trees at Mariposa Grove, a trip to Glacier Point, and Wawona hotel and village (Big Trees Lodge).
The reserve this tour or any of the smaller ones you can call the official Yosemite Tour operator at (209) 372-4FUN. You can find more information about the tour and make online reservations at YosemitePark.com.
The tour guides are friendly and well-informed. They will point out the major attractions, tell you a bit of Yosemite lore and they will give plenty of reminders and warnings about respecting wildlife. If anyone on the tour spots bears or other animals the driver will stop and let you take pictures. On our tour, we spotted a momma bear and 2 cubs. They were close enough for great photos.
The tour includes a stop for lunch at Big Trees Lodge. You can include lunch with your reservation or you can buy lunch when you get there. Since this is a full-day trip, bring a lot of water and some snacks with you.
At Big Trees Lodge, you will get the chance to visit the Pioneer Yosemite History Center – a historic village on the Merced River banks. The pioneer center showcases some old cottages and stagecoaches. You will also get to cross a covered wooden bridge.
All bus tours depart in front of the Yosemite Lodge (Yosemite Valley Lodge) lobby. This one starts at 8:45 am and returns around 5 pm. The tour costs around $82 (or $95 with lunch) – with discounts for seniors and children.
Glacier Point offers a commanding view of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls, Half Dome, and the high country – from a height of 7200 feet. This is one of the stops on the Grand Tour, but you can get to it on one of the Yosemite tour buses or by car. The round trip takes about 4 hours, but you can book a one-way ticket if you are planning on hiking back down to the valley (a 5-mile hike). Alternatively, you can forget about the bus ride and hike up to the top.
If you are going by car watch out for road closures due to wintry conditions. Once you are at the top you will walk a short distance to a large and exhilarating viewing area. You can get to one of the railing-protected terraces or you can climb on top of the rock outcroppings for a better view.
If you time your trip right you can witness the changing light on Half Dome during sunset or you can spend your time gazing at the stars and the Milkyway.
Tip: the short trail from the parking lots to the viewing area is wheelchair accessible.
From 1872 to 1968 visitors to Yosemite could witness a glowing Fire Fall dropping from the top of Glacier Point to the valley floor. This was caused by owners of the Glacier Point Hotel throwing hot embers from a height of around 3000 feet. The attraction was eventually closed by park service due to the huge crowds it attracted and due to fire risk.
Giant Sequoia Trees at Mariposa Grove
Although you can drive to the Grove it is highly recommended that you hop on one of the free shuttles. The parking lot usually gets full by 10 am. If you are planning on taking the Grand Tour (mentioned above), then the Mariposa Grove is one of the main stops.
Once you get to the main entrance you can either hike or take the tram. The best way to experience those trees and to understand the sheer size and magnificence of those giants is to walk amongst them. So take a hike through the grove. You can make it a short walk through the lower part or you can spend half a day hiking to the Upper Grove and back.
If you don’t feel like hiking, you can ride the tram. The tram tour is about 1 hour long and costs around $26 (the cost is included in the Grand Tour). The tour is narrated with a lot of information about the notable trees and their history. The tram will pause along the way for better viewing and for pictures.
Some of the trees you will encounter on this tour are Grizzly Giant; California Tunnel Tree; Faithful Couple; Telescope Tree.
One of the most sought-after giant trees is the California Tunnel Tree. It is the last standing Sequoia with a tunnel through it. The tunnel was cut into it in 1895 to allow stagecoaches to drive through. You can find this tree in the lower grove and you can actually walk through it. The tunnel is so wide and deep that a whole group of people can walk through at the same time.
Do you feel like hiking – but not too far? You can take the tram to the top (Upper Grove) then hike back down to the parking lot. The hike from the upper grove to the main entrance is mostly downhill.
The view from this point is stunning. You can see the whole valley and surrounding iconic landmarks like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall.
During my visit, I arrived at Vista Point in the evening and was rewarded with a most amazing view. The whole waterfall turned into a cascading rainbow. This effect lasted for around 30 minutes and provided the backdrop for many stunning photos.
From the parking lot, you can take a hike to Inspiration Point for a better and less crowded view of the valley. The hike will take you from 1 to 2 hours and it has an elevation gain of around 990 feet.
Important Warning: This is Bear country. It is almost guaranteed you will encounter a bear during your visit. So to make it a peaceful encounter, you must follow certain rules. First, make sure you totally empty your vehicle. No trash, no gum packets, nothing that may have a smell should be left in the car. And at camp you must put all your food and drinks in special metal lockers – no exceptions. If you don’t, you will come face to face with a hungry bear who is trying to break into your car or tent to find the nice smelly stuff. Close to Camp-4 you will see an old SUV with the door ripped open as a reminder of what bears can and did do.