A Weekend Exploring Yosemite & the Southern Sierras

When we start talking about National Parks in the United States one of the first few you’ll likely discuss is Yosemite National Park. There are many reasons for this but beyond any, it’s the breathtaking views that Yosemite Valley provides. From the top of Glacier Point to the waterfalls and meadows along the valley, there are so many reasons why you should spend some time exploring Yosemite and the areas around it.

While there is so much to explore in the area you can also get a taste of what the region has to offer in just a few days. If you’re based in California or looking to add it to a road trip through the region you’ll want to spend some time exploring Yosemite National Park and the South Sierra area around it.

Note: Thank you to the Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite for hosting my trip to the area. As always, all opinions remain my own. 

Why You Should Choose the Southern Entrance for Exploring Yosemite

No matter where you’re driving in from, the Southern Entrance of the Yosemite National Park offers a unique way to enjoy both the drive in and the park itself. When you enter the park you’ll quickly hit some of the highlights of the park, without having to add to your drive time.

First, you’ll find Mariposa Groves, which is about to reopen after some rehab, that is just a few miles from the Southern Park entrance. Here you can walk through the grandeur that are the giant sequoias.

Next, you have easy access to Glacier Point and all the trails that lead around this area. This is one of my favorite places I’ve visited in the park. Giving you long views of the valley and as soon as you step away from the main vista you’ll lose a lot of the crowds and get a chance to enjoy a little more peaceful of a setting.

A unique thing about driving in through the southern entrance when you’re exploring Yosemite is that as soon as you head into the valley you reach Tunnel View. This is where you see the quintessential view of Yosemite we all know. It’s the perfect way to start your journey into the park.Yosemite National Park from Tunnel View including Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.

The Can’t-Miss Spots in Yosemite National Park

There are so many ways to enjoy exploring Yosemite National Park. Whether you’ll spend your time driving and popping out at the sites or if you’re looking to get in some solid hiking. There isn’t really a wrong way to explore the park.

With a weekend, you might want to spend a morning with a good hike. I’d recommend around Glacier Point. And then spend the afternoon and next morning driving to many of the highlights. Finding a good vista for sunset or sunrise is also worth planning into your schedule. You can also get started nice and early and head all the way into the Tuolumne Meadows and the work your way back to the entrance. With a stop at Tunnel View on your way in.

Starting at the southern entrance and heading into the park, some of the spots you’ll want to make sure you get a chance to explore are:

Mariposa Groves

This is the best place to find the giant sequoias in the park. While you should also consider heading down to Sequoia National Park, you’ll get a good feel for how awe-inspiring these giants are. You’ll also find an easy and short trail to hike through the trees.

Glacier Point and the Trails Around It

The views from Glacier Point can only be beaten by hiking Half Dome, but here you only have to take a short walk from your car. You’ll also get a great view of Half Dome and across the valley. It’s a short walk to get a good view, but this area also has a wide variety of trails. You can even hike all the way down to the valley and then take the shuttle bus back up to your car.

If that’s more than you’re looking for, take the hike over to Seminal Dome for more unique views of the valley. If you’re hoping to escape some of the crowds, these trails tend to have fewer folks on them and you’ll have a chance to feel like you’ve escaped out in nature a little more than down in the valley.View of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point.

Tunnel View

You’ll want to stop here for a breathtaking view along the floor of the valley. It’s a perfect spot to grab a photo of yourself in the valley or just capture the breathtaking landscape. Also, keep an eye on your drive back. The light might be very different in the valley, especially if you’re leaving around the golden hour and it’s worth a second stop for a different take on the view.

Bridalveil Falls

You’ll find a variety of stunning falls when you’re down in the valley. While Bridalveil Falls is not the biggest it is the easiest to get to. It’s only a short walk out to get a great look at this fall. It’s definitely worth making the stop for.

Yosemite Falls

On the north side of the valley is Yosemite Falls. The walk here also gives you a chance to wander through the visitor center and some of the village, which is worth a quick stop. This trail tends to be rather busy if you’re just heading to the lower falls but you’ll get a great view.

If you want more of a hike. Take the trip up to the Upper Yosemite Falls for an impressive sight of the falls.Yosemite Falls, water fall

Vernal Falls

If you’re looking for a solid hike down in the valley, heading your way out to Vernal Falls might be a good fit. It is only a 2.4 miles hike to the top of the falls but it is a steep and difficult hike along the Mist Trail. Or make it the 1.6 miles to the footbridge and you can nice view from the bottom of the falls.

Once you get through the valley keep driving North and you’ll head along route 120 that will take you to a few more spots worth visiting. If you’re driving back North it’s a great path to take on your way out of the park. Or head here first thing and then hit the valley in the afternoon. Either way, even in a weekend, you have a chance to explore this part of the Park as well.  

Olmsted Point

For another unique lookout over Yosemite, you’ll want to take the short walk out to Olmstead Point. Here you’ll get another angle on Half Dome and also be able to see along the Tenaya Valley.

Tenaya Lake

A perfect place to relax and have a picnic while you are exploring Yosemite. You’ll want to spend a little time wandering the area where you’ll get a different view from much of what the park has to offer.

Tuolumne Meadows

Much of Yosemite is breathtaking for it’s stark changes in elevation from the mountains to the valley. In many ways, Tuolumne Meadow’s beauty comes from the opposite, a beautiful flat landscape along a riverbed. You’ll also be able to get lost (in a good way) wandering the trails in the area without having to worry much about elevation change.

Adding A Little Luxury to Your Stay

While the nature that makes up the Yosemite National Park is wonderful to experience you also might want to come back to a place at the end of the day where you can relax a little and enjoy some luxury. There is nothing better than exploring Yosemite and all it has to offer and then being able to rest your feet with a nice soak in the hot tub and a delicious meal.View from the top of a sun lit hotel in the forest. Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite.

The Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite is the perfect place to spend your evenings after exploring the park. The property is surrounded by beautiful views and is right tucked up in the forest itself. You’ll also find a variety of top-notch dining experiences right on the property, which tends to be in short supply around the park. Staying at Tenaya for a weekend allows you to experience fine dining, a delicious breakfast buffet, and a casual chance to dine by a firepit.Meal at Tenaya Lodge of Pork Chop, vegetables, and berry sauce.

After a few days of hiking, you’ll want to spend some time at the Ascent Spa at Tenaya.  A relaxing massage and some time in the sauna is the perfect way to recover from hiking a few miles while exploring the park.

Exploring the Southern Sierras Beyond the Park

Using the southern entrance to explore Yosemite National Park not only allows you the opportunity to relax at Tenaya Lodge you’ll have the chance to explore more of what the Southern Sierras have to offer. While the national park itself is breathtaking many of the areas on national forest surrounding the park are just as worth exploring.

One of my favorite things to do in California is to explore the different wine regions and the Southern Sierras isn’t an exception. You’ll want to check out some of the wineries in the area including the Yosemite Sierra Wine Road.

If you’re looking to get out on the water or enjoy some waterfront dining you’ll want to head just 20 minutes from the Tenaya Lodge and visit Bass Lake. Within the national forest, it’s a great place to relax by the lake, take a boat ride, or get a chance to try some water sports.

That’s just the start of outdoor activities you’ll find outside of Yosemite in the Southern Sierras. They also offer the opportunity to try zip lining, fly fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and more.

The area is also rich in California history. If you’re looking to learn more about the area and have a little fun, consider trying out the Sugar Pine Railroad and a variety of museums in the area.

Or Stay Beyond the Weekend in the Southern Sierras

While a weekend is a great way to start exploring Yosemite and the Southern Sierras, as you can tell from above there is so much to explore. Think about making it a long weekend on your trip to find time to fit in a few extra activities or maybe an extra spa treatment at Tenaya.

If you have an entire week to explore the area you might want to visit two of my other favorite National Parks, the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. You’ll get a chance to walk within the giant sequoias and the second largest canyon in North America.

Whether it’s just for two nights or a dozen you’ll want to plan a trip exploring Yosemite and the Southern Sierras.

About Megan

Megan MacNee is the founder of Traveling Nine to Fiver. From nine to five she works in the non-profit world in California. She focuses on exploring the world from her own backyard to across the globe. You'll find her sharing about explorations through food, books, travel, and more.