Yosemite National Park: The Complete Guide

Half Dome at sunset

TripSavvy / Vince Fergus

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Yosemite National Park

Address
California, USA
Phone +1 209-372-0200

"Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly," John Muir wrote about Yosemite. And it's hard to disagree with the father of the U.S. national park system. One of the country's oldest and most visited national parks, it stretches for nearly 1,200 square miles across the California Sierra Nevadas, but the vast majority of visitors only stay in the 7 square miles known as Yosemite Valley—less than 1 percent of the whole park.

Even in that tiny sliver of Yosemite, there's plenty to keep busy. Practically everywhere you turn there's some iconic landmark towering overhead and hiking trails to explore for all ages and skill levels. It can be overwhelming trying to choose what to see, so get your bearings before you arrive and rest assured that no matter what you decide, there are no bad options in Yosemite.

Things to Do

What to do in Yosemite really depends on what time of the year you plan your trip. The best weather for camping and the most popular time to visit is summer, but it's also the busiest. By fall, many of the famous waterfalls have dried up, but if you're looking to disconnect, the trails are practically empty. Plan a trip in winter if you want to see snow-capped trees and try cross-country skiing, or wait a couple of months to catch the spring bloom of the wildflowers and see the waterfalls at their peak. No matter the season, make sure to spend some time at night looking at the stars since you're far away from any illuminated cities.

You can't miss two of the biggest landmarks in the park: Half Dome and El Capitan, two massive granite mountains that tower over the valley. The most intrepid visitors can hike or rock climb to their summits, but there are also plenty of other stunning—and more reasonable—hiking trails to explore. Waterfalls are one of the biggest draws to the park, and even though spring and early summer are the best time to see them in full force, there are falls that you can see at any time of year.

Equally impressive are the giant sequoia trees, which are some of the tallest, biggest, and oldest living things on the planet. In Yosemite, these giants are located outside of the valley in Mariposa Grove near the South Entrance. There are about 500 mature trees in the area, but the most famous residents include the titanic Grizzly Giant and the Tunnel Tree with a carving big enough to drive a car through.

Best Hikes & Trails

You could spend years exploring the nearly 800 miles of trails within Yosemite National Park, which range from casual day hikes to overnight backpacking trips through the backcountry. The most crowded trails are the ones within Yosemite Valley, so if you're seeking some tranquility in nature, consider the less-traveled routes in other areas of the park, such as Crane Flat or Glacier Point.

If you plan on camping out in the wilderness outside of a reserved campground, you'll need to apply for a wilderness permit. Day hikes don't require a permit unless you want to climb Half Dome.

  • Mirror Lake Loop (Yosemite Valley): This easy hike brings visitors to the lake that is named for the crystal clear reflection of Half Dome that you can see on the surface (although by late summer it's more of a meadow than a lake). You can hike just a mile to the lake or complete the 5-mile loop around the shore. It's a scenic stroll without much climbing and popular with families.
  • Yosemite Falls Trail (Yosemite Valley): The Yosemite Falls Trail is a very steep trek that goes to the brink of the park's tallest and most famous waterfall. You can hike to Columbia Rock at the base of the Upper Falls where you'll feel the mist of the water or continue all the way to the top (the latter is over 7 miles round trip while the Columbia Rock hike is 2 miles). Don't get it mixed up with the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, which is completely different and just a short route around the base of the Lower Falls.
  • Half Dome Trail (Yosemite Valley): It's one thing to marvel at Half Dome from the valley floor, but it's another experience entirely to stand on top of this Yosemite icon. Preparation is crucial for this strenuous hike which takes most hikers about 10–12 hours round trip and includes climbing a cable to reach the summit (rock climbing experience isn't necessary, but you should be in good physical condition and unafraid of heights). This is the only day hike in Yosemite that requires permits, which are often reserved months in advance.
  • Four Mile Trail (Glacier Point): Glacier Point is the highest part of Yosemite accessible by car and offers sweeping views of the valley below. One of the most breathtaking hikes is to start at Glacier Point and then hike down to Yosemite Valley via switchbacks along the Four Mile Trail, which is considered a strenuous route despite being downhill. There's a hikers' bus that shuttles visitors to the top of Glacier Point so you don't need to leave your vehicle there.
  • Cathedral Lakes Trail (Tuolumne Meadows): The only way to get to Tuolumne Meadows is via Tioga Pass, which closes to traffic in the winter. You'll find several trailheads that start in this bucolic pasture, but the route to Cathedral Lakes is one of the most scenic. The 7-mile round trip route takes about four to six hours, but factor in some time to sit by the lake and enjoy the clear alpine water.

Waterfalls

Even though it's impossible to pick a top attraction in Yosemite, the waterfalls make a pretty convincing argument for the number one spot. During the spring and early summer, the sheer volume of falling water sounds like thunder through the valley floor. While many of them dry up by late summer, a few are flowing all year long and it's not uncommon for a fall rainstorm to bring back a temporary cascade.

  • Yosemite Falls: The most famous and tallest waterfall in the park is also one of the tallest in the world. The peak runoff typically occurs from May to June as the higher elevation snow is melting before it starts to shrink and eventually dries up completely, usually by August or September. In the winter, the splashes of water freeze onto the side of the mountain at night and make dramatic ice displays.
  • Bridalveil Fall: When guests enter the park, Bridalveil Fall is usually the first waterfall they see. The way the wind blows the mist of the water gives it an especially flowy appearance, which is how it got the name "Bridalveil." This fall does have water all year long, although it may be more of a spray by late summer.
  • Vernal and Nevada Falls: These two falls are connected, with Vernal Fall just downstream from Nevada Fall. The Vernal and Nevada Falls trail is one of the more popular hiking routes in the park since it brings hikers right up close to where the water hits the ground. These falls also have water throughout the year, but it can turn into a trickle in late summer.

Read more about the many waterfalls in Yosemite National Park.

Rock Climbing

It's more appropriate to say that rock climbing is Yosemite's pastime instead of just a popular activity. Avid climbers can find walls to scale, pitches, and bouldering sites all over the park, but none of them compare to El Capitan. Known as El Cap in the climbing community, this granite monolith is arguably the most famous rock climbing site in the world and the vertical wall is notoriously one of the most difficult to scale. If you aren't climbing yourself, head over to the base and see if you can spot some climbers making their way up (you may need binoculars).

The natural crags in the granite around Yosemite make it an ideal location for climbing, and there are thousands of routes with varying levels of difficulty to try out. Bouldering is also hugely popular in the park, which is when climbers stay close to the ground and don't use ropes or special equipment. Whatever form you choose, rock climbing can cause serious damage to you and the environment, so be sure to follow the safety guidelines.

Winter Sports

Yosemite Valley doesn't get enough snow for winter sports, but visitors can head to higher elevations in the park from December to March to make the most of the cold weather. Cross-country skiing and snowshoe tours are one of the best winter activities, and there are miles of trails accessible from Glacier Point or Crane Flat. You can explore the trails on your own or join a ranger-led tour if you need some guidance.

For downhill skiing or snowboarding, the Badger Pass Ski Area is the oldest skiing destination in California. It doesn't have the number of runs or advanced slopes as other ski resorts in the state, so experienced skiers may prefer to spend their time exploring other parts of the park.

As if ice skating wasn't already romantic enough, skating underneath Half Dome and the snow-covered evergreens makes it extra special. Head to the ice rink at Curry Village in Yosemite Valley, and if you're lucky, maybe you'll even get surprised by some snowfall.

Where to Camp

You may imagine camping in Yosemite to be less fussy and easier than finding a hotel, and while the experience of camping is absolutely worthwhile, the most difficult part is finding an open space to do it. There are 13 campgrounds in Yosemite National Park run by NPS with spaces available for tents and RVs, but they often fill up within minutes of being released. Keep in mind tips to get a spot or what to do if you miss out, like knowing what time to look for openings and getting notified of cancelations.

A few of the most popular grounds include:

  • The Pines (Yosemite Valley): The Pines are actually three different campgrounds split up into Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and North Pines. The three of them are all within walking distance of each other and are the most popular campgrounds in the park, with Half Dome looming over them and easy access to the entire valley. Upper Pines is open year-round while the other two only open seasonally, but any one of them would make an excellent base for your trip.
  • Camp 4 (Yosemite Valley): The only other campground in Yosemite Valley is Camp 4, which is underneath Yosemite Falls next to the Lodge. Unlike the Pines, these campsites are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis. RVs and pets are not allowed at Camp 4.
  • Wawona Campground: About 45 minutes south of Yosemite Valley, Wawona is the closest campground to the giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove. It's typically open from June to October every year.
  • Tuolumne Meadows: One of the most popular campgrounds outside of the valley, Tuolumne Meadows' high elevation means it also has the shortest season, sometimes opening as late as July and closing in September. It's about an hour and a half from Yosemite Valley, but the summer hikes, alpine lakes, and picturesque landscapes make it a perennial favorite.

Backpackers can also pitch their own tent and camp out in the backcountry, but a wilderness permit is necessary if you plan on sleeping outside of a reserved campground or hotel. If you want a backcountry experience without lugging all of the camping equipment along, the High Sierra Camps provide canvas tent structures so you can spend more time exploring. Even though the tent and bed are provided, don't expect to be "glamping" in luxury; the accommodations are still very much camping style.

Where to Stay Nearby

Camping isn't for everyone, but thankfully there are lodging options that are a step up—or in some cases several steps up—from sleeping on the ground.

  • The Ahwahnee (Yosemite Valley): The only luxury hotel in Yosemite, the Ahwahnee is for visitors who want to sleep in the park with five-star accommodations. In the winter you can retreat to a roaring fireplace in the lobby or spend hot summer days splashing around the pool after a hike. And, of course, the meal options at the dining room are a lot better than whatever a camper can fit in a cooler.
  • Yosemite Valley Lodge (Yosemite Valley): This hotel doesn't offer all of the bells and whistles of the Ahwahnee, but you have a heated room, comfy bed, wireless internet, and en-suite bathroom. Plus, all of the guestrooms have a balcony so you can step outside and feel like you're camping.
  • Curry Village & Housekeeping Camp (Yosemite Valley): These two areas are next to the Pines campgrounds and are essentially camping without having to bring a tent or RV. The accommodations range from small heated cabins with a private bathroom to canvas tents with cots, but they're an ideal compromise for people who aren't sure about camping but don't want to stay in a hotel.
  • Wawona Hotel: This Victorian-style building is located about 45 minutes outside of Yosemite Valley near Mariposa Grove and the sequoia trees. Room rates are cheaper since it's farther out and it's far less crowded than the busy valley.

For more ideas of where to spend the night, check out a roundup of the best hotels in and around Yosemite National Park.

How to Get There

There are a few different options for entering the park depending on where you're coming from.

  • From San Francisco: If you're coming from the Bay Area or Northern California, then the fastest route is to take Highway 120 to the Big Oak Flat Entrance into the park. From San Francisco, the drive takes about four to five hours.
  • From Los Angeles: If you're starting in LA, San Diego, or anywhere down south, then you'll likely use the South Entrance on Highway 41. Starting in Los Angeles, expect to be on the road for six to seven hours. This route takes you by Mariposa Grove and also the famous "Tunnel View" overlook, which is a landscape you've probably seen on postcards.
  • From the East: If you're coming from Las Vegas or another city east of Yosemite—perhaps during a scenic road trip on Highway 395—you'll enter through Tioga Pass. However, this road is closed all winter long and typically opens from May or June through November.

Most people fly into one of the airports around San Franciso or Los Angeles, but if your vacation is focused on Yosemite you can also book a flight to Fresno Yosemite International Airport. The airport feels more regional than international, but Fresno is the closest big city to Yosemite. It's about an hour by car to the South Entrance and one more hour to the valley floor.

Accessibility

Several trails and scenic viewpoints around the park are wheelchair accessible, including the Yosemite Valley Floor trail, the Lower Yosemite Falls trail, parts of Mariposa Grove, and the Glacier Point overlooks. There are also accessible accommodations at most of the lodging options including the Pines campgrounds, Curry Village, and the Ahwahnee (the Wawona Hotel and Camp 4 do not have accessible rooms or campsites).

Yosemite also offers services for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing at no cost, such as programming in ASL or assisted hearing devices.

Visitors with permanent disabilities can also apply for an Access Pass which is a free lifetime pass for recreation sites across the U.S., including all national parks.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Purchase your entry pass online before arriving to get into the park quicker and not spend time waiting at the entrance gate.
  • Certain holidays throughout the year are celebrated with free entry into Yosemite, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Veterans Day, and throughout National Park Week in April.
  • The only gas stations inside the national park are at Crane Flat and Wawona (there is no station in Yosemite Valley). You'll save money by filling up in one of the towns outside of the park before entering.
  • The weather in Yosemite Valley can be significantly different from higher elevations and often changes drastically throughout the day. Be sure to pack extra layers in case it gets chilly, especially if you're camping or sleeping outside.
  • Drive slowly and respect the speed limit in the park, especially when driving through the valley. Wild animals (and hikers) are unpredictable and can appear on the road in the blink of an eye.
  • If you're camping anywhere in the Yosemite, make sure to store all of your food and toiletries in one of the bear lockers so you don't have any nighttime visitors.
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Yosemite National Park: The Complete Guide