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It’s easy to fall in love with Autumn in Yosemite. Cooler temperatures and fewer people make exploring easier and more comfortable. There’s no better season for hiking and other outdoor activities. The maples and dogwoods put on their fall colors, and prices fall with the temperatures meaning that this is a great season to look for deals on lodging and more.

If you’re thinking of making a trip in autumn (you should), take a look at this amazing four-day Yosemite itinerary. You can easily fill four days and still wish you had more time in this amazing place.

Day 1: Take in Yosemite Valley

You can’t possibly visit Mariposa County without spending at least one full day in Yosemite Valley. There is so much to see and do here that one day will barely skim the surface, so plan an early start.

Yosemite’s icons are so accessible that simply making the drive into Yosemite Valley is an incredible experience on its own as a tunnel of golden maples and dogwoods greet you as you enter the hallowed valley. Coming around the corner to the first sight of El Capitan, Leaning Tower and Bridalveil Fall is enough to make even weathered Yosemite locals get a little teary-eyed. El Capitan’s enormous façade towers above. And Bridalveil Fall is still strikingly beautiful even if it’s not at its peak flow.

Fall foliage along the Merced River

Strolling through Yosemite Valley provides many scenic views filled with fall foliage during the autumn season.
Photo: Doug Shaw

Make sure to spend some time out of the car and walk some of the Valley Loop Trail with a camera in hand. Big Leaf maples provide a bright yellow canopy. Dogwood leaves range from a light peach to a deep red or even purple. For the best fall photography, visit in roughly in mid-to late-October for peak color.

Many of the most famous trails start in Yosemite Valley and rise steeply up out of the valley. You won’t get drenched on the Mist Trail the way you might in the spring, but it’s still an incredible walk past two waterfalls that flow year-round. The Upper Yosemite Falls Trail may be more “Yosemite Walls” after the long dry season, but the views of the Valley are stunning and the hike will be warmer on a cold day since it’s on the Valley’s sun-soaked side.

Fall is also big wall climbing season in Yosemite. The cooler temperatures draw famous climbers to Yosemite from all over the world. Keep your eyes open for the stars of recent films like “Free Solo” and “Dawn Wall” roaming the valley on their bikes. Take time to stop beneath El Capitan and try to spot the climbers. Hint: they will look smaller than you think they should because as immense as it seems, El Capitan is still bigger than most people think. Binoculars come in handy.

Cap off the day at Glacier Point for the famous sunset view to witness the red and orange light reflected across Half Dome. If you’re lucky, a few rosey clouds will grace your view as well.

Take an extra day and hike to the rim of Yosemite Valley to turn this side trip into a full day in its own right. Trails to Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, or Dewey Point are less steep than those that start in Yosemite Valley, but still feature incredible views of the valley below.

Day 2: Wawona, The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, and other southern destinations

Faithful Couple trees at the Mariposa Grove

Explore the massive trees in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The Faithful Couple trees have grown into a single tree at the base.
Photo: Theresa Ho

Get up early again to see more of the amazing sights of the greater Yosemite National Park area. This time we’re headed south toward Wawona and the nearby Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.

Standing in the shadows of the most massive trees in the world is simply profound. These stately trees have weathered a millennia or more of storms, fires, and whatever else nature could throw at them. You can practically feel their patience and wisdom surrounding you.

Get the crew into the car early enough to arrive at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias by 7:30 a.m., you can drive up to the small parking lot in the Lower Grove. Of course, this is easier if you’re staying nearby in either Wawona at the Wawona Hotel (closed for the 2020 season) or a The Redwoods in Yosemite cabin, or in Fish Camp at the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite. If 7:30 is just too early, you can take the shuttle bus from the welcome station when they are running. Alternatively, plan to enjoy the beautiful 2-mile walk along the Washburn Trail from the welcome center to the Lower Grove.

The Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree are only a mile from the shuttle stop in the Lower Grove.

The trees in the Upper Grove are even more spectacular than the Lower Grove, but there are a lot of other things to do in this area as well.

Steam engine at Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

Hop aboard an authentic narrow gauge steam train at Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad near the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy: Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

After your time with Yosemite’s giants, step back in time with a horse ride. Yosemite Trails is a locally owned and operated stable just outside the park close to Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite. Get to know your American Quarter Horse with a short riding lesson. Then ride out through tall sweetly scented pines and across brisk mountain streams. Just inside the park, you can also enjoy a 2-hour ride leaving from the Wawona Stables. This ride explores a historic wagon road around Wawona’s meadow area on a horse or sure-footed mule.

Wawona is such a beautiful place, you wouldn’t be blamed if you wanted to relax by the river for a few hours with a book, or wander through the Pioneer History Center’s historic buildings. However, if you are in search of another quintessentially Western experience, go for a ride on the Yosemite Sugar Pine Mountain Railroad. You can take a 1-hour tour, or for an extra special experience, sign up for the Moonlight Special complete with dinner and campfire songs.

Day 3: Revel in Historic Mountain Town Culture – with a spicy add on.

Fully operational stamp mill at the Mariposa Museum and History Center

The 5 Stamp Mill at the Mariposa Museum & History Center is one of the few stamp mills this is still fully operational.

Change up the outdoor adventuring for a bit of historic mountain town culture on day three.

Take a tour of history through the award-winning Mariposa Museum and History Center. Explore a variety of exhibits ranging from a collection of beautiful Miwuk basketry to an example of what a one-room miner’s cabin would look like. You can also see a working stamp mill and the 70+-year-old press and print shop of the Mariposa Gazette.

For even more information on mining history in California, stop by the California State Mining and Mineral Museum which is just around the corner (closed in 2020 due to COVID-19). The 13.8-pound piece of crystalline gold, the Fricot Nugget, is worth the stop all on its own. Plus, you’ll find free kids activities, and discover many more beautiful minerals and mining artifacts.

Go on a wine tasting tour at one of the local wineries. Alternatively, what could be more autumnal than a visit to the Sierra Cider Farm and Cidery to sample some of their hard apple ciders? Your taste buds will also thank you for a visit to CostaLivos to sample locally produced olive oils and imported balsamic vinegars.

OK, and if you just have to sneak in a bit of outdoor adventure, you’ll love the thrill of going skydiving with Skydive Yosemite. It’s a skydiving adventure and aerial tour in one – with amazing views of Half Dome and El Capitan from the air. Learn more about the founders of Skydive Yosemite in our video below.


 

Day 4: Choose Your Own Adventure

In a park the size of Rhode Island, it’s pretty clear that there is a lot to see and do. Take the fourth day of your trip to revisit some of the things that you missed earlier, or take our suggestions below for some more local activities to check out.

Fishing

You’ll find excellent fishing and flyfishing along the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers inside the park as well as in Lake McClure and Lake McSwain outside the park. If you haven’t tried flyfishing, you really should. Spend a few hours on the water with a fishing line arcing overhead, absorbing the sights and sounds of nature all around you. Local fishing guides can share information about where the fish are biting, and what flies to use, as well as providing the gear and teaching you how to cast a line your line.

Rock Climbing

Climbing really rocks in autumn. Sunshine, big granite walls, and cooler temperatures makes this an ideal time to explore Yosemite’s cliffs and ledges. If you haven’t done much outdoor climbing, hire a guide from Yosemite Mountaineering School (inside the park – closed for the 2020 season) or Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (along quiet cliffs in the southern Yosemite region). These passionate local guides teach you how to manage your safety as you challenge yourself on vertical landscapes.

Mountain Biking

View from the summit at Exchequer Mountain Bike Park overlooking Lake McClure

View from the summit, overlooking Lake McClure at Exchequer Mountain Bike Park. Photo by Grant Parker

While most trails inside Yosemite are closed to mountain biking, there are tons of amazing trails in the surrounding region worth a ride. If you decide to try fishing at Lake McClure, you can easily combine that with a trip to Exchequer Mountain Bike Park. This extensive bike-only trail system created specifically for mountain bikers includes fantastic views of Lake McClure and trails for all skill levels.

Stockton Creek Preserve in the town of Mariposa is another convenient and fun ride that you can combine with a meal in one of the amazing local restaurants, a tour of the historic downtown, or a bit of art and culture at one of the many local galleries.

Just south of Yosemite, you’ll also find bike-friendly trails behind Tenaya Lodge. Ride out to a swimming hole and waterfall, or up to Devil’s Peak with a gorgeous view of the Sierra.

Lodging Options

Staying inside the park in Yosemite Valley, Wawona, Foresta, or Yosemite West puts you right in the middle of the awe-inspiring nature of Yosemite Valley. These lodging options are hyper-competitive in the summer, but as things start to slow down, you’ll start to find availability and even some great deals on lodging.

Another option is to save yourself a little driving upfront and stop in one of the towns along the way for the night. If you spend the night in Mariposa or El Portal along Highway 140, you’ll minimize your driving on that first day, and still be in an exceptional location to explore what the region has to offer. Plus, lower elevation lodging means snow-free driving if you’re planning to visit later in the fall season.

Yosemite View Lodge is the closest hotel to Yosemite Valley on the Highway 140 corridor – only about a 30-minute drive to the Valley Visitor Center – and you’ll love having the Merced Wild and Scenic River flowing right by your door.

If the southern Yosemite activities appeal, also consider staying at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite or in the town of Wawona at the Wawona Hotel or at one of the vacation rental cabins there.

(Please note: Due to state and local restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact destinations mentioned in this story for current hours of operation.)

 

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