I really wish I had stumbled upon a blog that laid out pretty clearly what to expect and where to go and how long things take when planning our Yosemite trip. So I will attempt to do that here and over the next few days I will share more info on each hike we did with photos, etc.
When originally planning this trip a few months ago I started doing research on when the best time to go would be. Everything I read and all the info I found on the park said springtime is the ideal season. In the spring you have the waterfalls at their peak and crowds aren't a problem. Summer is the busiest time of year for Yosemite Park and everything I read said to avoid that time. We are talking bumper to bumper cars just to get IN to the park, and then you're elbow to elbow with people on the hikes/walks. Also, bugs are everywhere in the summer and some of the waterfalls dry up as well. Fall is okay, but again some of the waterfalls are dry, but at least crowds aren't quite as big of an issue. Winter is ok, but then you take the risk of roads being closed and not being able to get IN to the park at all. But ultimately, families take trips when they have the time and ability to take them. We had some flexibility since we didn't live too far away.
So after all of this it was pretty clear to me that spring break was when we would go.
Where to stay? I didn't really know how long it would take to get there and I read such varying lengths of time everywhere. I can assure you it's closer than it seems to Los Angeles. We stayed in Fish Camp, which is 3 miles from the south gate entrance to the park. It was perfect. To get there from Los Angeles it took me 4.5 hours to get to Fish Camp, including one gas/potty stop. We didn't have any traffic but we did have rain and fog through the grapevine, so coming home we shaved even a little bit off that time.
You can stay IN Yosemite Park at a few limited options. First, there's the gorgeous and historic Ahwahnee Hotel. We stopped for lunch here one day. It's more expensive than any of the other surrounding lodges, but it's still not outrageous by any means. If it was $180 to stay somewhere else, it was $320 to stay in Ahwahnee. If you are planning on spending several straight days in the park I would highly recommend checking this hotel out. And even if you don't stay here, definitely have lunch in their beautiful, and I mean BEAUTIFUL dining room. The food was incredible, and be sure to order their homemade Italian sodas. IN the park itself you can also camp at several campgrounds like Wawona or Curry Village, or there is also Wawona Hotel and Yosemite Lodge which are more rustic but not as much 'roughing it' as camping. The only thing with staying it Wawona is that it's a few minutes inside the gate, but that still leaves you a long chunk of driving time to get into Yosemite Valley.
We stayed at Tenaya Lodge in Fish Camp. They have a main hotel, and then cottages a short drive/walk away. This hotel was great for us, no Four Seasons I assure you, but definitely comfortable. The hotel has a lot of amenities too. They have a small food store/deli where you can grab food to go, a bar where you can eat as well, and then a sit down restaurant as well. They also have an indoor pool and an ice skating rink at the hotel. I was pretty bummed that we didn't have time to ice skate, but I figure we can ice skate anywhere back home, but you can't hike through the Sequoias anywhere. I stumbled upon a great Gilt Groupe deal for Tenaya Lodge and we pounced on it. We stayed in the cottages, but I don't think there is much difference in rooms between a cottage and a main hotel room other than the scenery of being nestled among the trees was nice.
From the hotel it took us a few minutes and we were at the South entrance to Yosemite. It cost $20 per vehicle to enter, and you get a receipt that is good for a week to come and go in the park, so it's not $20 every time you enter the park, unless of course you lose your receipt. Now once you enter the park you can head to the right where it's 2 miles to the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias, or you can head left and it's 35 miles to Yosemite Valley. We decided to spend 2 days in the park, one very long day where we went from 9:30 am to 6 pm and one half day from 9:30 am to 1 pm. The first day we headed straight to Yosemite Valley, be sure you warn everyone that it gets pretty curvy on the drive. Once you go through the tunnel you will want to pull over to the left as soon as you exit. This is the Tunnel View, it's a nice break to the drive and it is where you see the most amazing view possibly in all the world (see photo at top). I mean stunning. From this spot you see Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls and the Valley itself. S T U N N I N G! It's a great picture taking spot and one you don't want to miss!
After that it's a few minutes into the park and you can start taking in all the sites and making your stops. One of the attractions we didn't get to see was Glacier Point. I hear this can be a day all of itself. It snowed on Saturday so the road to Glacier Point was closed. But it takes you up overlooking Half Dome and they have hikes you can do on the upper rim of the park and they have a little store and shop there as well. I hear it's about another half hour once you pass Tunnel View, so expect over an hour from the entrance of the park to Glacier Point. The falls were definitely flowing this time of year, none of them disappointed.
We saw/hiked/walked to:
Sentinel Meadow and Cook's Meadow Loops
Each of the hikes/falls I've broken down each with photos and details in the links above. But just to give you an idea of time, we were able to see Bridalveil Falls, hike the Meadow and Lower Yosemite Falls all before lunch. We had a late lunch around 1:30 at Ahwahnee and then did Vernal Falls. This took awhile since you have to walk about a half mile just to get to the trailhead and it was our most challenging hike. We finished around 5pm and headed out the park with another quick stop at Tunnel View to photograph it with the sun shining into the park before it set. We were back at our hotel a little after 6pm for dinner.
The key to entering the park is go as early as you can. We had no wait to get into the park, but we heard that as the day wears on the line of cars increases. I cannot imagine what it's like in the summer time. The second day we got an early head start and entered the South Gate again, and this time we headed right to the Mariposa Grove. It was a good thing we went early because the parking is pretty limited. If you don't get a spot early they will close the 2 mile road and make you park at the base of it, and walk the 2 miles just to get to the trailhead. You don't want to do that. On our way back we saw families doing that with little kids, and you are walking on a main road, and it's a walk let me tell you. So you're probably beat before you even get to the Grove. We parked and immediately started our hike which was 2.5 hours. It was probably my favorite hike of the trip. Just gorgeous. However, I have heard if you go during summer, they have shuttles that drive back and forth because of all the crowds, so the walk wouldn't be an issue.
What to pack? I would pack and be prepared for everything if you go in spring time. We expected it to rain one day because of the forecast, but that quickly turned to snow after a few minutes. On several of the hikes we did around Fish Camp and then in the Mariposa Grove you are hiking on snow. In the Valley it melted pretty fast. But since you never know, pack snow boots, and lots of layers, gloves, scarves, and hats. It ranged in temperature from 20 degrees to 60 degrees during our trip. So layers were ideal.
Where else to visit? Since the snow on Saturday made us pretty sure the roads would be closed or hard to navigate, on Sunday we decided to head south a little bit to Bass Lake. We walked along the lake and it was beautiful, we stopped for lunch there and then did a local hike in Bass Lake in the afternoon.
Phew, that's a lot of info. I hope this helps someone who stumbles upon it in planning their own trip to Yosemite!