Yosemite: First Time Visitor; When to Go How To Plan

While the PNW has many wonderful fantastic locations to enjoy, I feel like I would like to visit Yosemite for the first time. This will be with my wife and if possible with our dog (which I know brings up some challenges). We are just beginning the planning process and really aren’t sure where to begin and what season we should choose. While photography will be a significant part of the trip for myself, my wife will be more interested in the non-photographic aspects of the park. Any thoughts you can share would be greatly appreciated!

Hi Pat,

Well, that’s about the biggest soft ball I’ve ever responded to! Problem is, I might not know when to stop with the reply… Please feel free to message me directly.

First, First, Timing. When are you going? If not set yet and keeping in mind first time visitor, I would recommend #1. Spring Mid April thru 1st week of May. Biggest reason is that you get to see and experience one of the primary reasons for visiting Yosmite - the Waterfalls. So many options off of that as well from the Lwr Yosemite Falls walk, experience of being showered by Bridal Veil Falls, and then there’s the Mist trail hike to Vernal/Nevada falls. Colors are beautiful with trees leafing out to spring, dogwood blossoms, etc. etc. Easily the BEST time to visit. ONLY CON: go too late, like around Mother’s Day or later - and the crowds will be starting to come in. At some point they have been enforcing “registration” and permits even for daily use between Memorial and Labor day weeks.

Next is FALL - Late October. While Yosemite valley isn’t known for fall color per se, there is color and it’s a beautiful time in the Valley. CON: No water.

SUMMER - f’getta 'bout it. WINTER - is a WONDERLAND after fresh snow - “clearing storms” make for phenomenal photo ops. BUT, scheduling a winer trip is a crap shoot. I’ve “scheduled” trips in Jan, Feb, in “hopes” of getting great conditions, only to be greeted by rain, dirty snow, roads, dormant vegetation, etc. etc.

Where are you staying, mode of travel? Camping, Hotel/Motel? Many options of course. If you can get a room at Yosemite Valley Lodge, that is the best in-park option, if you’re not camping. Current rates are like $280/night.

There are many lodging options outside the park. Options below in order if my preferences and why: #1 El Portal on Highway 140. this is the most direct route to the valley and is a wonderful drive between Mariposa and the Valley - most of the way along the Merced river. Lodging, there is the Yosemite view Lodge, which is the closest to the 140 Arch Rock Entrance. There is also the Cedar Lodge which is about 5miles further west than Yosemite View. Pretty good rates, lots of rooms and a restaurant. CONs: limited services, only 2 restaurants and a couple stores. I love and recommend an RIVER View room at Yosemite View Lodge - nothing like the ROAR of the Merced to put y ou to sleep.
#2 Out of Oakhurst, Highway 41, including Wawona. Lot’s or BNB, VRBO, hotel/motel lodging options in 41, which is access from Fresno. a popular route if coming from Southern Cal, LA.
Scenic, and you get the spectacular Tunnel View overlook which is the very first grand view you come to when going this route. Can’t go wrong!
CON: It’s mountainous, windy roads and about 40+min to the valley floor, depending on how far out you stay.
#3 Highway 120 through Groveland. A few lodging options along the way. A bit mountainous before reaching the valley. Often route taken by those coming in from the north like Tahoe or Sacramento. NOTE: Tioga Pass is also 120 and park can be reached from the East and Mono Lake area, but a crap shoot because it’s unknown when the pass will open. typically by end of May, but not likely end of April. This a wonderful option if you have the time, to go over the pass and visit Mono Lake, Bodie, etc.

An advantage of staying in the valley proper or even Yosemite View lodge in El Portal (this is how I operate with my non-photog wife…) is that I’ll rise well before sunrise and hit the valley, or wherever and photograph in the early morning hours… head back to hotel by 10 or so and then do the touring stuff around the valley while the sun is hot; walk the falls trails, etc.

Well, there’s just a primer for ya. MOre questions than answers, and again, send me a message if you have any other details. I know there are quite a few members here who frequent Yosemite, so hopefully others will chime in.


I don’t think bringing your dog (or not) should be a big factor in your decision. Yes, dogs must be on leash and are only allowed on paved trails - nothing off trail. But 90% of what you want to do and see are accessible from paved, established trails.

I’m not sure about “pet friendly” lodging that I mentioned above. You’ll need to check on that…


Thanks so much for a wonderful and information filled reply. This is really helpful and gives us lots of things to get us going. Again…thanks for taking the time to share!

I concur with everything that @Lon_Overacker has said. And, this park is so huge that only the tip of the iceberg has been touched. Most people never see anything other than the valley floor which is a shame because it only encompasses about 2 percent of the total park. I get it and you will too when you see the valley floor for the first time but if you visit when the roads have been cleared of snow, you won’t be disappointed by visiting the upper reaches of the park near Tuolumne Meadows and there is more room for your dog (less people). This is where a lot of backpackers go hiking for weeks at a time and where there are miles of John Muir trails. It’s at much higher elevation and it can be hard to breath the first couple of days but a hike or tow up here is totally worth while and you may get images that are truly yours while down in the valley you will tend to shoot what everyone else has shot to death, for good reason. It’s hard not to. Also, you will have quick access to Mono Lake, the ghost town of Bodie, and both Mammoth Mountain and the June Lake loop, all great photo opps.
I agree 100% with Lon about the best time of the year to visit with one caveat, If you can time a winter trip during a storm cold enough to produce snow while you are there, well, you’ve just hit the jackpot. You’ll have the valley floor mostly to yourself with card filling, epic photography. If you miss it by even a day or two, you will have barren vegetation, dirty snow, that make it anything but epic. Timing is critical. Also, in winter, you can shoot horsetail falls from about February 14th to about the 25th or so with somewhere around the 19-21st being the best dates to get the best color. If you don’t know what horsetail falls is just Google it. However, you’ll be fighting for a spot to shoot with thousands of your closest friends and the conditions have to be met to even have a waterfall at this time of the year. Another crapshoot and one I would stay clear of unless you have your heart set on getting that shot. In years past before the crowds started showing up, it was a lot of fun, Not so much anymore. Otherwise stick to Lon’s suggestions about best time to go unless you want to visit Tuolumne meadows which can only be done after snow removal (Almost always by June 1st unless there has been a very wet winter). It would be nice to know how long you plan to stay and what type of photography you are looking to shoot and also what type of non photography interests your wife has in mind. Hiking? Good old fashioned sight seeing? Relaxing? Happy to help with more ideas but could use more information, Pat.

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A snowfall in the Valley is absolutely magic. It’s good during the snowfall and perhaps a day or two after. Look for weather reports that predict snow showers down to at least 4000 feet.

David and Igor, all great input. It sounds as if Spring might be our best time period as we live far enough away that trying to time a good snow fall may be too difficult. Also we do want to do some hiking and more general sightseeing too. So going out in the early morning and late in the day for photography and then back to a nearby place to stay sounds best.