San Francisco to Yosemite Road Trip (Key Sights and Info)

Image of a road in Yosemite with a Yosemite National Park sign on the right side to illustrate San Francisco to Yosemite road trip.

Yosemite National Park contains some of the world’s most beautiful scenes of natural beauty. If you are traveling anywhere in the region of Northern or Central California, you’ll absolutely want to take the opportunity to pay Yosemite a visit.  A San Francisco to Yosemite road trip is actually an ideal distance because the drive can comfortably be done in one day. 

Going on a road trip to Yosemite can sometimes seem intimidating at first. There are so many sights and activities both within the park and in surrounding cities. In my own experience, I’ve found that it’s better to just choose a few key things you’d like to see and do and avoid focusing on the endless other possibilities. 

In this post, I’m going to try to keep things simple. A road trip to Yosemite shouldn’t be about rushing from one site to another. Rather, it’s an opportunity to take in the amazing beauty which you won’t miss, no matter what route or itinerary you choose. 

Best Route from San Francisco to Yosemite

There are actually several routes you could theoretically take between San Francisco and Yosemite, and they all have something to offer. I will stick to the two best (and simplest) routes. 

I’ll start off with the quickest way to get from San Francisco to Yosemite, and then I’ll talk a bit about a slightly longer route which also has some key advantages.

Quickest San Francisco to Yosemite Driving Route

The fastest route is very simple and means taking I-580 E and CA-120 E. The distance is about 167 miles, and it takes just over 3 hours (though traffic can make this longer). This is a great way to go if your main goal is just to get to Yosemite as quickly as possible, and you’re not particularly interested in making many sightseeing stops along the way.

If you take this route, you’ll enter Yosemite National Park using the Big Oak Flat Entrance. Here you’ll go through the entrance station and pay a fee of $35 per car. 

With this route, you’ll start off the same, taking I-580 E and ending up on CA-120 E for a bit. Instead of staying on CA-120 E, however, you’ll change highways and head toward Mariposa, eventually entering Yosemite National Park via I-140 E. 

If you aren’t in a rush to reach Yosemite as quickly as possible, this is the route I would really recommend. It’s a bit longer but offers some great stops along the way. This drive is about 200 miles and takes a little over 3 ½ hours without traffic.

If you plan to spend the night in or near Yosemite and don’t need to complete your trip within one day, this route is an excellent option.

Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend trying to see Yosemite and head back home (or on the next leg of your road trip) the same day anyway. It simply isn’t enough time. You’ll likely feel rushed and miss the opportunity to truly enjoy the trip. 

With this route, I-140 E will turn into El Portal Road, and you’ll enter Yosemite National Park through the Arch Rock Entrance. 

Even with taking this slightly more roundabout route to Yosemite, the drive is still under four hours. This means there’s no need for a lot of stops along the way, especially since Yosemite itself has so much to offer. 

There are a few fun options to consider though, and I’ll go over them now.

Merced’s Applegate Park Zoo

Once you hit the city of Merced, you’ll have just over an hour and a half of driving time before reaching Yosemite. Merced is a steadily growing city largely based on agriculture. It has plenty of open spaces and opportunities to relax and enjoy some time in nature.

A view from above looking down at downtown Merced, California. There are cars driving on the street in the center and trees and buildings on either side.

Known as the “Gateway to Yosemite” based on its location, Merced is also a college town. It is now home to the University of California, Merced which is the newest of the University of California campuses.

Visiting the Applegate Park Zoo in Merced is a fun and inexpensive stop on the way to Yosemite. It’s particularly nice if you’re traveling with kids.

The Applegate Park Zoo houses rescued animals, all of which are native to this region of California. These animals are no longer able to survive in the wild (many were injured, etc.), and they are cared for at the zoo. 

In addition to seeing the animals, there’s a fun playground area for kids as well as a nice trail for walking and bike riding. 

There are also some nice picnic tables in the shade, so this can be a great place to eat a picnic lunch on the way to Yosemite. If you haven’t packed anything, there are grocery stores nearby where you can grab something simple to bring along.

When the petting zoo features are open, there are opportunities to buy little cups of food and feed the goats and llamas. 

Entrance fees are very reasonable, ranging from free for children under 5 to $3 for ages 16-61, and $1.50 for those over the age of 62. Hours of operation tend to change from time to time. For the most current info, check out the zoo’s page on the City of Merced website

Stop in the Charming Gold Rush Town of Mariposa, California

Once a gold rush town, today Mariposa combines the comforts of a small town with the beauty of its natural surroundings. While there are plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy nature in Mariposa, you’ll probably be eager to move on to Yosemite for much of that. 

Mariposa, on the other hand, is a great place to learn more about the California Gold Rush and enjoy the picturesque beauty of this historic small town. 

The California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa is a must-see if you have the time. The museum itself was established in 1999, but its collections were moved from San Francisco, where they had been kept for over a hundred years.

In addition to viewing the amazing specimens of gold and gemstones contained in the museum, you can also learn more about the history of California, both the people who already inhabited the state and those who came in search of treasure and riches. 

Downtown Mariposa, CA is also a fun place to spend an hour or so. There are a lot of unique little independent shops and restaurants. It provides a nice opportunity to stretch and walk around a bit while window shopping and taking in the beauty of some of the Old West historic buildings.

Horsetail Fall–In Yosemite Park on the Mariposa Border

Image of Horsetail Fall falls in Mariposa County at Yosemite National Park. At sunset the waterfall looks like a firefall or fire pouring down like lava from the mountain.

If you happen to be taking your road trip to Yosemite in mid-to-late-February, be sure to visit Horsetail Fall. It is located in Mariposa County and easily accessible if you’re traveling this route (though you can still drive a bit and visit it regardless of how you enter the park). 

Horsetail Fall is an amazing sight if you happen to be there at the right time. This is the famous waterfall that people sometimes refer to as a “firefall”. 

When viewed at the perfect moment, this waterfall appears red and orange, as though it were fire, or volcanic lava, gushing down. This particular fall only flows in the winter and this fire effect only occurs in the last two weeks of February.

The reason for the rarity is that the sun needs to hit the water at a precise angle. This occurs during sunset only at this very particular time of the year. It also requires sunny and clear weather to be viewed properly, so even in those two weeks of February there are no guarantees in terms of actually witnessing the effect.

If you are fortunate enough to be there when everything aligns perfectly though, this is a sight you are unlikely to forget. So, if you happen to be going on your road trip in February, I would absolutely recommend trying to visit this waterfall near sunset. 

Final Destination: Yosemite National Park

Entrance gate to Yosemite National Park. Some cars are driving through, and on the side you can see the entrance station building. There's also a US flag and a stop sign with some orange cones on the ground.

The road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite isn’t particularly long, so you’ll likely reach your destination fairly quickly, depending on how many stops you make along the way. 

If at all possible, try to spend at least a couple of days within Yosemite Valley. This won’t be long enough to see and do everything, of course, but you’ll be able to take in a lot of the natural beauty.

Try not to feel rushed, hurrying from one famous site to another. Depending on your own tastes and interests, it works well to choose several key points to visit and then allow yourself time to relax and take in the beauty that lies virtually everywhere within the park.

You’ll likely want to visit some of the most famous places such as Half Dome (which you don’t actually have to hike up in order to enjoy) and Yosemite Falls, which is viewable from various locations throughout the park.

In addition to these key sites, there are hundreds of miles of hiking trails throughout Yosemite. These range from simple paths suitable for families with children to those requiring a great deal of climbing expertise. 

Hiking can be a great way to enjoy the park while taking time to appreciate the wonder of its beauty. John Muir famously said of Yosemite: “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

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