Gazing up at granite peaks, camping in glacial valleys, and hiking to plummeting waterfalls are just a few of the favorite activities at Yosemite National Park. Regularly touted as one of the most beautiful national parks, Yosemite is most famous for the iconic Half Dome, the sheer-walled El Capitan, and pristine Yosemite Valley. Receiving over 4 million annual visitors, pre-pandemic, it’s one of America’s most popular national parks. Located in Northern California, and spread across 1,187 square miles, almost 95% is designated as wilderness, with 800 miles of trails to explore. Elsewhere, visitors will find amazing camping opportunities, stunning scenic drives, towering groves of Sequoias, and much more.
Most people visit from roughly April through October, when the weather is mild to warm and perfect for hiking. But offseason and winter visits are also possible for those willing to brave the mountain elements. In fact, one of the most stunning visuals happens during February, when lucky visitors have a chance to see fire waterfalls in Yosemite! Long gone are the days when burning embers were pushed by rangers over the edge of Glacier Point. Today, the firefall of Yosemite is entirely natural. During mid to late February each year, when the setting sun strikes just right, Horsetail Falls on El Capitan glows bright orange.
With such a wide range of activities available throughout this vast park, planning your trip can be challenging. Here we’ve put together a post about some of the best options for hiking, camping, and exploring Yosemite.
ENTRY RESERVATION: To reduce over-crowding, for 2022, NPS has instituted a peak-hours reservation system to drive into the park between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. from May 20 through September 30. The reservations are valid for three consecutive days of entry into the park, and they can be obtained online or by phone. Seventy percent of reservations were made available on March 23, while the remaining thirty percent will be available seven days before the arrival date. Visit the reservation webpage for more information.
Scenic Drives and Exploring Yosemite
Throughout this large park, there are about 350 miles of roads and a variety of areas to consider exploring. Most visitors will want to see the dramatic Yosemite Valley, with its classic U-shape carved into granite mountains by ancient glaciers. Not only does Yosemite Valley offer some of the best scenery, it is also the hub of park activity. Most of the campsites, lodgings, and services are found here. Traffic is common and parking is often challenging—thus, riding the free shuttle buses can be a very helpful option. Some of the top hikes and waterfalls are accessed from valley trailheads.
Another popular area is Glacier Point, a stunning viewpoint overlooking Yosemite Valley. Reached via Glacier Point Road, this area also offers a few excellent hikes. A third area to consider is Tuolumne Meadows, still quite popular but less so than the valley. Located at a high elevation in the northern half of the park, this area offers pristine alpine meadows, crystal clear glacial lakes, and access to some excellent hikes through the mountainous Yosemite backcountry. The fourth and least visited area is Hetch Hetchy Valley, today flooded by a controversial reservoir that supplies the city of San Francisco. There are several worthy long-distance hikes here that are particularly popular with backpackers.
What’s the Best Hike in Yosemite?
Many visitors to the park have limited time, so they often wonder what’s the single best trail to hike in Yosemite. In reality, the park probably has twenty top trails, each of which will leave adventurous people happily wanting more.
That said, the busiest area for hiking is Yosemite Valley, where the most popular choice is probably the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls. There are several options for this strenuous and steep hike, both starting from Happy Isles. Vernal Falls is 2.4 miles, round-trip, with 1000 feet of elevation gain. You can add 2 miles more, round-trip, with another 1000 feet of elevation gain to reach Nevada Falls. The reward is spectacular views of two waterfalls on the upper Merced River, tumbling through a jaw-dropping canyon.
Within Yosemite Valley, there are several other great trails to consider. If you want one or more easy walks, consider the short, flat trails on the valley floor. These include the 0.5-mile paved Bridalveil Fall Trail to the base of this 620-foot waterfall. Lower Yosemite Fall Trail is a 1-mile paved loop to the base of the lower part of North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls. And Mirror Lake Loop Trail is a 2-mile partially paved loop, with about 100 feet of elevation gain, that follows a creek and circles a lake.
Many people want to hike Yosemite Half Dome, a strenuous full-day hike that requires winning a permit lottery held every March for the upcoming season. The route involves a 14-mile round-trip hike from Happy Isles, with a burly 4,800 feet of elevation gain. The final 400 feet to reach the summit requires ascending the famous cables section.
If you’re heading to Glacier Point in Yosemite, in addition to the easy 0.25-mile hike to the overlook, there are several nearby trails. One of the best options is hiking to either Sentinel Dome or Taft Point, both of which are 2.5 miles roundtrip and offer amazing Yosemite Valley views from high above. Most hikers start from the Sentinel Dome/Taft Point Trailhead on Glacier Point Road.
Outside the valley, another highlight is walking through groves of massive Sequoias, found mostly in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. One option is the Yosemite Grove Nature Trail, a 2.5-mile loop with about 500 feet of elevation gain. Nearby, the Merced Grove is an out-and-back trail, 3 miles round trip, with 500 feet of elevation gain.
If you’re heading to Tuolumne Meadows, keep in mind that trailhead elevations are around 8,600 feet, meaning you’ll want to pace yourself or pre-acclimate accordingly. One favorite trail is the 7-mile round-trip hike to Upper Cathedral Lake, with 1000 feet of elevation gain, plus an optional 1-mile spur to Lower Cathedral Lake. With the spires of Cathedral Peak looming over the lakes, the scenery in this alpine area is breathtaking.
Camping in Yosemite Valley and Elsewhere
With skyrocketing visitation in recent years, and resulting regulations, it has become increasingly challenging to solve the camping Yosemite National Park puzzle. There are thirteen campgrounds throughout the park, though some are typically closed for renovation each year. Starting in 2022, a reservation is required for all campsites during peak season, roughly from mid-April through mid-October, with exact dates differing at some campgrounds.
By far, most campers hope to stay at one of the four campgrounds in Yosemite Valley: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, and Camp 4. The Pines campgrounds are clustered together on the eastern side of the valley, while Camp 4 is a tent-only site in a forest near the base of Yosemite Falls.
If you’re looking for a less crowded experience, the park has some more remote and primitive campgrounds along Tioga Road that open at different times of the year: Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, and Porcupine Flat. Competition is still high for reservations, but the lack of services and amenities somewhat decreases interest. A fifth and more developed campground, Tuolumne Meadows, is undergoing restoration until 2024 or 2025.
For more adventurous visitors, one of the best ways to camp in Yosemite is during a backpacking trip. But keep in mind that backcountry camping requires a wilderness permit, advance planning, and an understanding of related skills—a topic we hope to cover in a future post.
In addition to Yosemite, California is home to some of America’s best national parks. In the far north, there’s Redwood NSP and Lassen Volcanic NP. Clustered around the San Francisco Bay Area, you’ll find Point Reyes NS, Muir Woods NM, and Golden Gate NRA. South of Yosemite there are Kings Canyon NP and Sequoia NP, while located in deserts to the east is Death Valley NP. In Southern California, don’t forget the amazing Joshua Tree NP. Plus, there’s even more—too many to list here!
Cover photo: Yosemite Valley. JFL Photography/Adobe