Best time to visit: Year Around
Recommended Hikes: the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls, Valley Loop Trail, Upper Yosemite Falls, Half Dome (permit required)
Ideal For: Hiking, Biking, Rock Climbing, Camping, Auto-Touring
Where to stay: in the main valley (camping and hotel)
Yosemite is one of the country’s most popular National Parks. It’s famous for towering grant walls and powerful waterfalls, most of which are found in the main valley. The waterfalls run at their peak during spring, with maximum water flow usually peaking during May. Summer is best for hiking the higher elevation trails, including Half Dome. Fall and winter bring rain and snow and tranquil scenery, along with smaller crowds.
Must See Attractions:
Yosemite Falls - You will see Yosemite's most famous waterfall from many different angles in the valley. It can be enjoyed at a distance from meadows and also up close at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls where the river roars and mist flies. The walk to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls is short, flat, and paved, and should be done by everyone who visits. Hiking to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls is awesome, read more about it in the hiking section below.
Glacier Point - Panorama vistas at Glacier Point show Yosemite Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls, Half Dome, and the mountains surrounding the valley. It is accessible via car or hike - the drive from the valley floor to Glacier Point takes about 45 minutes, one-way. Hikers can reach Glacier Point via the "four mile trail" from the valley floor. The road to Glacier Point is closed during winter months and into the spring due to snow.
Tunnel View - The most recognized viewpoint in Yosemite Valley, with El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls framing Half Dome in the center. This viewpoint is open year around and can be accessed from the main valley by driving a few miles up on Wawona Road (Highway 41)
Bridal Veil Falls - Arguably the prettiest of the major waterfalls in Yosemite but also the most fragile. Bridal Veil packs a punch, but it only runs during spring when there is heavy snowmelt. It is the first waterfall to dry out each year and is usually bone-dry during late summer. There is a paved hiking path that leads up to Bridal Veil's base and a parking area near the waterfall.
Vernal and Nevada Falls - Vernal Falls has always been my favorite waterfall in Yosemite and it's a must-see for every visitor. Nevada Falls is upstream from Vernal Falls and it's really cool as well - worth seeing if you are up for a longer hike. Both waterfalls can be seen from high above at Glacier Point, but they are better enjoyed up close via the Mist Trail. Read more about them in the hiking section below.
El Capitan Bridge - There is a huge meadow at the base of El Capitan. This is a must-see and a great place to sit down and relax and look up at El Cap. During climbing season (not winter), there are often people hanging out here with telescopes that you can look through to see climbers up on the rock. There is a foot trail that runs around the meadow and along the river.
Mirror Lake - Mirror Lake is a nice destination in the spring, but it dries out into a meadow by the end of summer. This part of the valley is right beneath Half Dome, providing a unique viewpoint of the monolith. It's about a 2 mile roundtrip hike to get here from the nearest shuttle stop. Read more about it on the park's website here.
Yosemite is one of the country's most popular national parks and it will almost always be crowded. Lines at park entrances, stores, and shuttle stops in the park can be long, especially on weekends during spring and summer. Try to get inside the gates as early as possible in the morning, lock down a parking space, and then use the shuttles to get around. Do not move your car midday when it's crowded, you will struggle to find another parking space.
Yosemite is home to black bears - proper food storage is required at all times.
There are two large general stores and food court areas in the main valley, one at the Yosemite Lodge and one in Half Dome Village (formerly known as Curry Village). They sell a wide variety of things that you might need.
During winter months, Yosemite is only accessible from the west. Highway 120 runs from the park towards Nevada on the east, but it closes for winters when there is snow. If you are planning a visit from the east, make sure Highway 120 is open. The park's western entrance on Highway 140 is open year-around.
A trip to Yosemite can be combined with a trip to nearby Sequoia National Park. Read more about Sequoia here.
Shuttles run year-around in Yosemite - use them to avoid the hassles of parking. There is no charge to use the shuttles - it is included with the park entrance fee.
Wilderness permit information for Yosemite can be found here.
Where to Stay:
If possible, try to stay in the main valley. There are 3 reservable campgrounds in the main valley - they can be reserved online in advance here, here, and here. The campsites go on sale on the 15th of each month for a booking window 5 months in the future, and they can sell out within minutes for peak season weekends. Weekdays fill up slower but still sell out well in advance - book as early as possible.
There are also primitive cabins right near Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) that can be reserved online in advance here.
There are two hotel in the main valley, called the “Yosemite Lodge” and the "Majestic Yosemite Hotel" (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel). They are expensive and the rooms are not fancy, but the location is unbeatable. This is the best option if you are unwilling to camp.
If the above options are sold out, there are a few campgrounds in the park high country along highway 120. There are also private campgrounds and cabins outside of park boundaries.
Hiking in Yosemite
The Mist Trail - One of the best hikes in the park. The first section is paved and consistently uphill for about a mile before Vernal is first visible. The trail then becomes a massive set of stone steps that ascend all the way to the top of Vernal Falls This a great endpoint for the hike, but you can also continue on to see Nevada Falls which is further upriver. Be prepared to get wet from the mist when the waterfalls are running strong. Read more about the hike here.
The Valley Loop Trail - There is a huge loop trail that goes from one end of the valley to the other with plenty of options for customization. It is usually flat and shady and wanders through forests and meadows that offer stunning views throughout. You can take this trail to see Mirror Lake, Upper Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Bridal Veil Falls. I really like the El Capitan section. It's also a good way to escape the crowds and possibly see wildlife. Read more about it here.
Upper Yosemite Falls - This is a grueling hike to the brink of Upper Yosemite Falls. At the top, there is a narrow staircase that you can walk down to a viewpoint of Yosemite Creek barreling into the valley below. Seeing the river churn over the cliff is unbelievable and it’s worth the effort you put into the hike. However, the hike probably isn’t worth doing when the falls are dry. Read more about the hike here.
Panorama Trail - There are two routes which run from the valley floor up to Glacier Point which can both be seen on a long loop hike. The Panorama Trail is the longer of the two legs, and the Four Mile trail is the shorter. During summer, you can take a one-way shuttle up to Glacier Point and hike down to the valley if you want to avoid the uphill portion. I recommend the Panorama Trail over the Four Mile Trail if you are trying to choose which route to hike down.
Half Dome - The ultimate Yosemite hike. It is a punishing 15 mile round-trip trek with a final summit up the side of Half Dome, assisted by metal cables attached to the rock. This hike is only open during summer months. PERMITS ARE REQUIRED to hike Half Dome and park rangers will check for your permit once you get near the cables. Permits are issued through an online lottery two days in advance of the hiking date. For complete information, click here. To read more about the hike, click here.
Off the Beaten Track
One cool spot to go that isn't marked on the map is the base of El Capitan. The trail head is easy to miss but there is a small parking area on the right side of the road as you drive towards the park exit.