Spring through early autumn, Yosemite Mariposa County is pure outdoor joy. Days seem to last forever, the warm afternoon sun lights up miles of spectacular hiking trails, and sunsets can be glowing light shows well into twilight. Outdoor adventure and sightseeing opportunities keep on shining during Yosemite’s late day “Happy Hours” (when most day trippers are exiting rather than entering the Park). Our After-4 itinerary is perfect for times when Yosemite National Park has a reservation system in place, and the “ground rules” state you’ll need a reservation to drive into the Park from 5 am to 4 pm. Here’s a three-day itinerary that focuses on these late afternoon and early evening magic hours. 

Day 1: Yosemite Valley Loop

Classic Yosemite scenery at Tunnel View
Tunnel View

After checking in to your selected Yosemite Mariposa County lodging option, there’s no “Happier” place to spend your first hours than tripping around the titanic scenery of Yosemite Valley. The best place to set the stage for an epic afternoon is Tunnel View, the famed roadside turnout that offers a breathtaking wall-to-wall panorama that includes El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and everything in between. The vista is perspective-stretching. Framed by skyscraping granite walls and thundering waterfalls, Yosemite Valley validates the notion that we are all part of something bigger than us – in this case, quite literally!

Bridalveil Fall Yosemite
Bridalveil Fall Yosemite

Our next Yosemite Valley stop is Bridalveil Fall – look for the newly renovated trailhead and parking lot with restrooms. Park here, or if there are no spots available simply continue to Southside Drive and park along the side of the road. Either way, it’s an easy 20-minute walk to the viewing platform of the 620-foot cascade that flows like liquid lace year-round.

mirror lake in Yosemite valley
Mirror Lake

Next up, navigate to the eastern end of Yosemite Valley to visit the Happy Isles Nature Center. Park and set forth on foot for the Mirror Lake Trail (near Yosemite Valley Shuttle Stop #17) or the four Happy Isles trails: Forest, River, Talus, and Fern. From many points along these short, interpretive-signed paths, you’ll also get picture-perfect views of Half Dome looming above.

Lower Yosemite Fall
Lower Yosemite Fall

Late summer afternoon/early evening is a great time to visit Yosemite Falls and El Capitan. Northside Drive will take you there. Park in the lot across the street from Camp 4 (the famous rock climber’s haven) and walk to the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall for the iconic photo op.

The Ahwahnee hotel
The Ahwahnee hotel

Return to your vehicle and continue on Northside Drive toward El Capitan Meadow, where roadside parking should be plentiful this time of day. The grand immensity of El Capitan is even more formidable from up-close at sunset. If you decide to take a short walk to a viewing area on the edge of this golden meadow, do tread lightly and stay on the trails within this sensitive and protected habitat.

Refreshments and dinner? Loop back around to check out the restaurants and bars in and around Yosemite Village. Options: The Ahwahnee Bar for a signature Yosemite cocktail like the “El Capitini” or “The Eastside” mocktail; The Village Grill for sandwiches and burgers best enjoyed on the outdoor deck; or Degnan’s Kitchen for artisan sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and more. Happy Hours, indeed.

Day 2: Mariposa State of Mind

The beauty of your against-the-grain Happy Hours itinerary is that while most visitors are spending the first half of the day inside the Park, you have Yosemite Mariposa County’s marvelous gateway towns almost all to yourself. Another advantage? Skip the early wake-up call needed for early Park arrival and sleep in – relax, you’re on vacation!

Happy Goat outdoor seating
Happy Goat

Historic county seat and Gold Country hub, the town of Mariposa is a charming place to explore at your own pace. A bounty of breakfast, brunch, and lunch spots, too. Check out Happy Goat for farm to table goodness, Happy Burger Diner for, yep, amazing burgers, shakes, and salads, or 1850 Brewing Company & Restaurant for American bistro fare washed down with hoppy house brews like the Bridalveil Ale or Timberline West Coast IPA. Delicious house-brewed Sarsaparilla for the driver and kids, too.

Mom and daughter are amazed by the historic display at Mariposa Museum and History Center
Mariposa Museum and History Center

After your meal, tour the historic streets of Mariposa for treasure-hunt-level shopping and museum hopping. The best blocks for retail therapy are between 5th and 8th street, also known as “Historic Old Town,” with another cluster of options between 11th and 13th Streets. This is also where you can “hop” over to the fascinating Mariposa Museum and History Center, with exhibits focusing on Native American and Gold Rush legends and lore.

Since today’s Yosemite Happy Hours itinerary involves a scenic yet fairly lengthy drive, fuel up before leaving Mariposa and provision your crew with car snacks and drinks at High Country Health Foods & Café. It’s 32 miles (about 45 minutes) from Mariposa to Yosemite’s Arch Rock entrance. Try to time your arrival for right at 4 pm or slightly after (no early arrivals are permitted during reservation periods).

Sunset at Cathedral Lakes

After entering the Park navigate to Crane Flat and Highway 120/Tioga Road. You’re headed for some of California’s most stunning sub-alpine terrain studded with granite domes and peaks, wildflower-dotted meadows, and picturesque High Sierra lakes. Due to elevation ranging from 6,000 to 10,000 feet, Tioga Road is open seasonally from late spring to fall (perfect for your Happy Hours adventure).

Two top options: take Tioga Road to Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake. Olmsted Point is a famed scenic overlook to Yosemite Valley below, from where you’ll get magic light sunset pictures with a unique perspective on Half Dome. Tenaya Lake is a cerulean bowl of Sierra snowmelt with a sandy beach and picnic tables.

The distance from Crane Flat to Olmstead Point is about 30 miles or 45 minutes each way; the distance to Tenaya Lake from Olmsted Point is another 1.6 miles and well worth the add-on. Depending on daylight, drive to Tenaya Lake first and then double back down to catch the sunset at Olmsted Point before returning to your lodging for the night.

Person reading an interpretive sign in the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias

An alternative Day 2 Happy Hours option involves less driving and big tree grove-hopping along Highway 120. The Merced and Tuolumne groves of Giant Sequoia are about four miles and one mile, respectively, from Crane Flat along Highway 120, and both offer short but sweet hikes through stands of these massive titans.

Day 3: Yosemite Outside In

For your last day in Yosemite Mariposa County, we suggest going out with a bang by embarking on an action-packed day that starts with a half-day guided tour

3 people on e-bikes looking out over a scenic vista
Yosemite E-Biking Tour

What kind of tour is really up to your interest and imagination! There’s the popular fat tire option of Yosemite E-Biking, where you’ll zoom up and down scenic Sierra foothill fire roads on smooth-riding and eco-friendly electric bikes. Another breathtaking possibility is Yosemite Airways Scenic Air Tours with Airborrn Aviation Services from Mariposa-Yosemite Airport. Sleek Cessna aircraft soar above the Park’s landmarks offering photo ops right and left.

Woman exploring giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequioas

After your tour, finish off your Yosemite Happy Hours vacation with a quick trip to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, where you can walk among the oldest and largest living things on earth before exiting the Park’s South Gate to begin your homeward return via either Highway 41 or Highway 49 to 140. Roadhouse diners on the way back include Timberloft Pizzeria at Tenaya at Yosemite, El Cid Mexican Cuisine in Oakhurst, and the Oasis Taco Truck & Café in Catheys Valley.

Half Dome at sunrise from Glacier Point
Half Dome from Glacier Point

If heading home earlier in the day is your wheelhouse, early birds can flip the switch by entering the Park on the getaway day before vehicle reservations kick in at 5 am. Enter Yosemite at either Arch Rock or the South Gate entrance and make a beeline for higher ground along Glacier Point Road. You’ll be on track to arrive at the sunrise hour for the commanding Yosemite Valley overlook at Glacier Point.

Woman with arms raised looking at the view from Sentinel Dome
Sentinel Dome

In terms of miles and timing, it’s about 32 miles or one hour drive from the South Gate to Glacier Point; 12 miles and 30 minutes from Arch Rock. Bring a thermos of coffee or tea, and be sure to arrive at your preferred Yosemite entrance gate before 5 am! On your way back, there are standout short-hike opportunities including Sentinel Dome and Taft Point before driving home.

Timing is Everything

From the daylight savings switch through the autumnal equinox and beyond, it’s lights-cameras-action time in Yosemite National Park. Take advantage of that beautifully abundant light to illuminate your perspective on when’s the best time to play inside the Park gates – and outside across the rest of the expansive realm that is Yosemite Mariposa County.