“We wanted to go to Yosemite, but didn’t have time.” I’ve heard this refrain from several San Francisco visitors and they all have said it with regret. Yes, the reverent national park is outside of a short-drive comfort zone – it’s more of a weekend adventure than a wine country day trip. But with a little stamina and the right timing, a trip to Yosemite can be done in a weekend from San Francisco. The weekend won’t be all rush-rush or budget breaking either.
You can do this weekend getaway and see monumental sights like Half Dome, take relaxing walks and hikes, and get a taste of camping at Curry Village.
Day 1: Settle In to Curry Village and Tour the Valley Floor.
The four-hour drive from San Francisco will make you ready to see what Yosemite has to offer. Several miles in from the Park’s west entrance from Highway 120, there will be a view that will make you want to burst out of the rental car and sing the praises of your decision to visit Yosemite. Follow the cars to the “vista point” on Big Oak Flat Road for the first glimpse to the venerable Half Dome and El Capitan.
As you drive into the Park towards Yosemite Valley, follow the signs through the valley to Curry Village. Along the way, be sure to slow down, stop and join the other visitors in craning your neck to salute El Capitan, the monolith that juts into the Valley and demands respect.
Curry Village, named after the original 1899 owners, is a neighborhood of canvas tents and cabins, and an affordable option to stay right down in the Valley. The tents are more canvas-covered buildings. The come in heated and unheated and with a supply of linens. Curry Village has a campground feel with the tents among the pine trees and dirt paths to the bathrooms and showers. It’s a cozy and rustic way to experience Yosemite with a “we’re kind of roughing it, but not really” feeling. You can still get a latte or a pizza at one of the centrally- located cafeterias.
At check in, you will have to sign a waiver that says you are “Bear Aware” – this means no food in the tents for marauding black bears who have discovered long ago that campers = coolers of food. Don’t worry, each tent comes with a bear locker, you just have to bring the lock.
Meadow Walk to Awahnee Lodge
On the first day, nothing too strenuous…it’s been a big drive, you’re all settled in at Curry Village. An afternoon in the Valley is the relaxing way to begin to breathe in the magnificence and flow in the next 24 hours. Across the main road from Curry Village is the Awahnee Meadow. The golden grass is a soft carpet to the Valley floor. Skyscraper rock walls and pine trees confront the view in every direction – the Royal Arches crest high above and the granddaddy view of them all – Half Dome. Knowing that Half Dome is right there may cause you to pause and look back with awe every few steps.
Cross the meadow and head towards the Merced River. Stay on the boardwalk in the delicate meadowlands, but detour off on well-trodden paths into the pine trees and walk alongside the river. There, sit by the Sierra Nevada-traveled frigid water that streams past, winding through the Valley.
Join Awahnee Drive and walk along side it to the historic Awahnee Lodge. Built to give the rich and famous a spectacular place to stay in the Park, this timber and stone “lodge” is a decadent, yet accessible destination. At the entrance, you follow the cavern-like timber entrance into the lobby and to the backyard. There are tables for drinks and views for drinking in. After, you can catch one of the many shuttle buses back to Curry Village for a relaxing evening around the cabins.
Sunset on Half Dome
From Curry Village and the Yosemite Valley floor, all you have to do is look up to see Half Dome alight by the setting sun. It’s a blush at first and then a full on golden face.
Day 2: Hike to Inspiration Point and Saunter Through Sequoias
Morning comes to Yosemite subtly. You’re awakened by campers shuffling around, making their way to breakfast. The sun doesn’t make a bold appearance because it comes later to the Valley, the stone walls prevent a quick entrance. Go outside, smell the pine trees, and look up – it’s Half Dome, right where you left him, sitting regal over the Valley.
Hiking for the View
It’s time to check out of Curry Village and drive to the trailhead of Inspiration Point. With more energy on the second day, you’ll feel invigorated by scenery and ready to see what else Yosemite has to offer. Drive about 10 minutes on highway 41 to the Tunnel View parking lot. You won’t miss it, there’s a mass of parked cars because it’s THE place to get a complete picture of the Yosemite Valley. You’ll only stay briefly for a few pictures because above the crowds is Inspiration point. The trail is 1.3 miles uphill, but it’s not a strenuous hike. Wear good shoes and just go up – after all hiking is one of Yosemite’s top activities. At the top, you look down on the Valley – see Bridal Veil creek stream over Bridal Veil falls, notice the top of Half Dome, and understand why El Capitan, really is in charge of the whole operation.
After resting a little after the hike and breathing in the view, drive about 45 minutes towards the south entrance of the Park. You will see signs directing to Mariposa Grove – it’s time for a walk into the giant sequoias. Curve around the bend and two massive red trees welcome you to the park of ancient giants. There are two loops of hikes, the Lower Grove and the Upper Grove. The Lower Grove will award with several coniferous sites: the Fallen Monarch, the Bachelor and Three Graces, and the Grizzly Giant. It’s an easier, low-grade hike that takes you to these monuments and past fallen and burned trees, fires being a necessary part of forest management. The fallen mammoths look like shipwrecks along the path.
Whew! You did it – a weekend getaway in Yosemite that included camping, hiking, and views of Half Dome, El Capitan, and the giant sequoias. Now it’s a five-hour drive back to the city through the park’s South Entrance. Stop in Oakhurst on the way out of the park for a hearty late lunch and leave behind any regret for not visiting Yosemite during a San Francisco vacation.
“No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite… The grandest of all special temples of Nature.” – John Muir
- Yosemite National Park gets crazy crowded between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Therefore, this trip is only recommended after or before those times of the year. If you do go in the summer, then expect a lot more time in the car.
- For transportation, get a rental car in San Francisco.
- Make reservations online and ahead of time for Curry Village.
- Essential supplies are a flashlight, a water bottle, good shoes, and a padlock (for the bear locker).
- Bring a map of Northern California. A real-live map. In the mountains, you can’t count on GPS or mobile service.