Your first drive into Yosemite Valley is an experience in and of itself; you will be seeing some of its wonders for the first time right from the road. This article will describe some of the places to stop and enjoy the scenery as you enter Yosemite Valley via either Highway 41, 140 or 120.

However, first, a warning: if you are driving into the valley on a busy holiday weekend, please don't bottleneck!  If you can not find an area to pull over and stop, then keep driving and ignore the instructions to follow!  Just head straight to the day use parking lot or to your hotel, and save the sightseeing for later.

1st Stop: Tunnel View / Inspiration Point: This spot will give you the world-famous overview of the whole valley, including El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall and Half Dome. It was the spot where the first non-native Americans "discovered" the valley and is a great place to "discover" the valley for yourself as well.

If you are entering the park on Highway 41, you will come upon this stop as you exit the tunnel that leads you into the valley area.

If you are driving in on Highway 140 or from Highway 120/Big Oak Flat Road, then you'll have to take a little detour to get there. After you take the right fork to cross the Pohono bridge over the Merced River, you will come across a pullout for Fern Spring. You can take a risk and stop to drink the (supposedly filtered) spring water, or continue on until you see a sign for 41/Fresno. Take that sharp right turn and head up the Hway 41 until you see a tunnel in front of  you. There are parking lots on both sides of the highway, so pull in from either side and park. Be sure to have your camera ready for this spot! 

Tunnel View 

2nd Stop: Bridalveil Fall: When you are done at the Tunnel View, head back down into the valley (not through the tunnel.) As you reach the valley floor, you will see the sign for the parking lot for Bridalveil Fall on your right. Pull in and park if you can- if you can't, you can actually get a decent look at the falls from the parking lot. There are also bathrooms there, in case you need a break after your long drive into the park. There is a paved walkway to hike up to the base of the falls, which is a short but often damp walk. It has a moderate grade that is OK for strollers but too much and too bumpy for a wheelchair. These falls are the ones that actually have a year-round flow, although they are at their best in the spring.

 

3rd stop: El Capitan View: One way to get  your first full viewing of El Capitan, the largest sheer face of granite in the world, is to stay parked in the Bridalveil Fall lot and walk along the path by the road (watch out for cars!!) until you catch sight of it. Even better, make a right turn out of the parking lot, and you'll soon see El Capitan and lots of road-side pull-outs to your left (the road is one-way at this point.) Again- don't bottleneck here!  If you can pull over and stop for a view and a picture, then this is your best bet. 

el Capital 

4th stop: Yosemite Falls View: Not long after you've left the El Cap area, continuing on the valley loop road, you'll see your first sight of Yosemite Falls. Again, there will be a pull-out to the left. This is a nice spot for a short walk along the wooden pathways to see the Merced River with the falls in the background. The walkways are in place to protect the meadows, so be sure to "keep off the grass."

Yosemite Falls View 

5th Stop: Yosemite Chapel /Yosemite Village: You may not actually want to stop at this spot, but it's an important landmark and the doors are always unlocked. The historic Yosemite Chapel, (built 1879) on the right side of the road, is all that is left of the original Yosemite Village, which was a small "town" in the valley in the late 19th century, 

At this point you'll also want to decide if you're ready to park and view the valley in more detail, or to check in to your lodgings. If staying at the Ahwahnee or the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. If you're ready to park or settle in, then make a left at the bridge here and follow the signs to either the Day Use Lot, the Ahwahnee, or the Yosemite Lodge. If  you are just visiting for the day, you can catch the free shuttle buses that circle the upper part of the valley from the Day Use Lot. 

OR: Continue along the Valley Floor Loop: If you're not ready to park quite yet, and want to do a bit more touring before you do so, or if you are staying in Curry VIllage or one of the campsites, then continue on past the Chapel along the road. You'll pass Housekeeping Camp on your left, then the Le Conte Memorial on your right (operated by the Sierra Club.) Soon you'll reach the Curry VIllage area, the oldest lodging facilities in the park, founded in 1899. If you aren't checking in to the village,  you'll need to make the left turn over the river you head back down the other side of the valley.   As you cross the river, look to your right for a wonderful view of Half Dome. As you head back down the valley, keep an eye out for the Ahwahnee Hotel, hidden behind a cluster of trees at the back of a meadow. At about the same time, you'll begin to see some more views of Yosemite Falls in front of you. Now it's really time to park, get out, and enjoy the valley up close and personal, by foot, bike, bus or tour. If you are only spending the day, follow the signs to the Day Use Lot in Yosemite Village. BTW, there is no parking lot at Yosemite Falls, so if that's your first destination (and it's a good one), you'll want to reach it by shuttle bus or by foot.

One last stop: the Valley View Turnout: When it comes time to leave the valley, enjoy the sights on your way out just as you did on the way in, only this time from the other side of the river. (The south side road is one way entering the Valley Floor while the north side road is one way exiting the valley.)  One stop will be worth your time for a last view/picture of the valley. You'll see it on the left, just before you reach the intersection with Hwy 41 as you exit the valley floor. (You'll know you're in the right spot if you can see a sign showing the high water level from the "100 Year Flood" a few years back at the far end of the parking area.)  Pull into the lot, park, and get out to take one last shot of El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and the Merced River.

Overview map of Yosemite Valley