Yosemite Valley is what most visitors think of when they say "Yosemite." Seven miles long and one mile wide at its broadest, its glacier-carved granite walls are near vertical, hemming it in with mile-high cliffs.
It's the spectacular heart of Yosemite National Park and at 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) elevation, it's accessible nearly year round. To visit it, you'll need to pay the National Park entry fee.
Iconic Points of Interest
Taking up barely 7 square miles out of Yosemite National Park's 1,200-square-mile reach, this little part of the park is jam-packed with some of the park's most iconic sights, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, and El Capitan. In fact, the thing most visitors enjoy is walking or driving around gawking at the scenery and taking photographs. Those iconic sights and a few other great spots are easily reachable from the Valley, and can all be seen in one day.
Sights and Things to Do
If a day is all you have, it's better than nothing, but to get a deeper connection with Yosemite Valley's natural beauty, it's better to linger for a day or two. That will give you time to take a hike or enjoy some of the other things to do in the valley.
The Merced River flows through the middle of Yosemite Valley. When there's enough water, you can rent an inflatable raft at Curry Village (now called Half Dome Village) for a nice float downstream.
You can also take a guided horseback ride from Big Trees Stable to Mirror Lake or a half-day ride to Clark Point.
Many of the Yosemite trailheads are in the east end of the Valley, most easily reached by taking a shuttle from Yosemite Village. You don't have to be a hearty hiker capable of carrying heavy packs on long treks to enjoy a little hike in Yosemite, though. As with any state park, the trail difficulty ranges from novice to advanced, and there are many easy hiking trails at Yosemite Valley.
Food and Lodging
All of the lodging, shops, campgrounds, and places to eat are on the east end of the Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Village is the main visitor area, where you'll find the visitor center, Ansel Adams Gallery, and Yosemite Museum. You'll also find gift shops, a grocery store, places to eat, an ATM machine and a post office.
Curry Village (now called Half Dome Village) offers standard, motel-style rooms, cabins, and canvas tent cabins. You'll also find a grocery store, bike rentals, gift shop, showers, lodging and a couple of places to eat.
There are two big hotels in the Yosemite Valley. Together they have under 400 rooms, which is far less than the number of people who would really like to stay there, making advance reservations a must.
The classic Ahwahnee Hotel (now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel) offers public spaces so beautiful that it's worth a visit even if you aren't sleeping there. You can read reviews and check the price for the Ahwahnee (Majestic Yosemite) Hotel at Tripadvisor.
Yosemite Lodge (now Yosemite Valley Lodge) is also where you can catch bus tours, attend evening programs in their amphitheater - and they also have a great restaurant. You'll find more info about them, see reviews and check prices for the Yosemite (Valley) Lodge at Tripadvisor.
Getting Around the Valley
Only one loop road runs through Yosemite Valley. It's called Southside Drive on the way in and Northside Drive on the way out. It's all one-way with only two places to connect between them. If you're driving around it's well worth your time to look at a map and see where your stops are. Otherwise, you might start to feel like Chevy Chase in that classic film scene, going in endless circles.
During the busy season, it's much easier to get around the busy end of Yosemite Valley on one of the shuttle buses that loop from Yosemite Village through the campgrounds and to both of the hotels.
Outside of that area, you can enjoy looking around without worrying about traffic and get some great insight into the park at the same time by taking a guided tour. A variety of them are offered and in summer, you can travel in an open-air tram.
Get around Yosemite like a pro by downloading an app. Find out about the different Yosemite apps available here.