Towering sequoias. Raging waterfalls. Soaring granite cliffs. Yosemite is one of the oldest National Parks in the country, and in our very biased opinion as Yosemite’s Bay Area-based neighbors, it’s also the best. And the most beautiful. But hey, don’t take our word for it – just ask John Muir or Ansel Adams.
In this post, we’re laying out 14 truly epic things to do in Yosemite National Park. Whether you want to summit Half Dome, hike through an ancient Giant Sequoia forest, climb up a sheer granite cliff face with absolutely no supports (lookin’ at you, Alex Honnold, who I occasionally see at my rock climbing gym but have never actually met), or maybe just spend a nice relaxing day painting and then going for a dip in a crystalline lake (I will see you there), Yosemite is a wonderland.
We tapped Suzie Dundas, a northern California-based travel writer and a frequent Yosemite visitor, to give us the scoop on the best things to do in Yosemite National Park. Take it away, Suzie!
Psst: Exploring Northern California? We have a ton of travel guides for our home! Browse them all or take a look at these:
We have also have several USA National Parks travel guides! Browse them all or take a look at these:
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Yosemite National Park FAQ’s
Here are a few things you should know before planning your trip to Yosemite National Park!
2021 Update: Note that COVID-19 health and safety regulations will impact much of the park programming and offerings in 2021. Park shuttles will not be running in 2021 and many events are canceled or operating infrequently. Check the park website in advance of your trip for the most current COVID-19 regulations. Most important to know is that reservations are required to enter the park.
How do I get to Yosemite National Park?
Yosemite isn’t hard to reach – as long as you have a car, and depending on the season (and the amount of snow in the Sierra Nevadas). Yosemite is about 3 hours east of San Francisco and about 4.5 hours north of Los Angeles by car – assuming you don’t hit any traffic.
Yosemite has four major entrances. If you’re coming from San Francisco, the Big Oak Flat entrance will be the closest. Visitors coming from Los Angeles and Southern California will enter via the Southern entrance.
If you’re coming from the east, like from Reno or Lake Tahoe, you’ll enter via the high-elevation Tioga Pass, which is about an hour above Yosemite Valley. (Note that Tioga Pass Road closes in the winter around the end of November through late May, depending on snowfall.)
If you don’t have a car, you can take the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation Shuttles (YARTS), which brings guests to the park from nearby towns like Mammoth Lakes, Fresno, and Merced. But because of Yosemite’s size and windy, scenic roads, nearly everyone who visits the park has their own car and makes use of the shuttles while in the park.
If you don’t have a car or you only have one day in the park, a fantastic option is to take a guided tour from El Portal. You can sit back and relax as you’re driven to most of the major sites in one day, including Tunnel View, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls, plus lunch and a hike.
You can also choose to visit the park on a guided tour with transportation provided from San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, or even Los Angeles (this option even includes 2 nights of camping in the park!). If you’re concerned about transportation, wanting to add Yosemite to an existing California trip, or don’t want to mess with the hassle of planning, these tours are a fantastic option.
How do I get around Yosemite National Park?
Your best bet is to drive – the park is enormous and the roads running through the park are incredibly scenic!
But if you’d rather not worry about parking or don’t have a car, Yosemite NP does have a few free shuttles. Which to take depends on what part of the park you want to see. That said, moving between Yosemite’s various regions on free park transportation is difficult and slow, so plan to spend a whole day in each spot.
Within the park, you can get around using the free Yosemite Valley Shuttle, which makes 20 stops throughout the Yosemite Valley. The free shuttle runs year-round during daytime hours. The shuttle’s schedule changes throughout the year – as do the stops – depending on the weather and crowds, so be sure to look at the bus schedule every guest is given when entering the park.
There’s also a free shuttle in the Tuolumne meadows area which moves visitors between Tioga Pass and Olmsted Point, and runs from early June to mid-September.
How long should my trip to Yosemite be?
I recommend at least two nights per visit. If you’re hiking, you’ll appreciate waking up near the park to get an early start on the trails and having a short commute back to your tent or hotel at night.
What’s the best time of the year to visit Yosemite National Park?
Though most people visit during the summer months (which means crowds), Yosemite is absolutely gorgeous during all four seasons.
Most people visit in late spring and early summer, when higher-elevation trails are free of snow and it’s still warm enough at night to camp. The park’s waterfalls peak in late spring as snow melts, and summer offers the most attractive weather for backpacking (as well as the most hours of daylight). But crowds will be at an all-time high at this time.
While I’ve visited in all seasons, fall is my favorite. There’s something about the leaves erupting with shades of orange and red in the Valley, the crisp autumn air, and a roaring campfire (and maybe a small bottle of whiskey from the Yosemite Camp store) that just screams “perfect autumn weekend” to me. Just be mindful that it can dip below freezing temperatures at night and snow can fall at higher elevations as early as October.
In the winter, expect nearly everything in the park to be covered in snow, as well as smaller crowds. It’s arguably the best time for photographers, though most trails and Tioga Pass will be inaccessible. There is something magical about the stillness of the park during this season, and it almost seems like an entirely different world.
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Is Yosemite National Park crowded?
You should expect large crowds in peak season, between May to late September. During those months, campsite and hotel reservations can fill up a year in advance, so make your plans as soon as possible.
To avoid crowds in the Valley and more popular areas of the park, visit in the off-season, between October and April. During Yosemite’s fall and winter, parking is easier to find, hotels are more affordable, and you may even find space entirely to yourself – especially once you get a few miles past the trailheads.
Anything else I should know before visiting Yosemite National Park?
Here are a few key things to know before you plan your trip to Yosemite NP:
- Yosemite National Park is huge. The park covers 1,189 square miles, making it the same size as Rhode Island. The Valley alone is 8 miles long! For comparison, the park is twice as large as Zion National Park and more than 20 times the size of Manhattan. It’s big. Plan ample time to drive from section to section – expect it to take several hours to drive from one part of the park to another, and try to plan your activities within the same park areas as much as possible.
- The key to visiting Yosemite is one mantra: “leave it better than you found it.” Heavy foot traffic damages natural landscapes, so knowledgeable visitors need to do their part. Yosemite even has a volunteer park-wide clean-up day each September. If you see trash, pick it up. Don’t step on small plants off-trail. And always follow Leave No Trace principles.
- Never leave food or anything with a scent (like lip balm) in your car. Bears are smart and are more than capable of opening car doors and smashing windows. Bears that associate humans with food can become dangerous to humans, and bears that are dangerous to humans are often euthanized. It’s every visitors’ responsibility to keep wildlife wild. Every campground and parking lot will have dozens of metal bear bins – outdoor lockers where guests can safely store their food for the day instead of leaving it in their car. They’re free and unlocked, so just find one with space and toss anything with a scent inside rather than leaving it in your car.
- Re-think that selfie. Yosemite has no shortage of beautiful vistas, but there are several deaths in the park each year from people getting too close to cliffs to capture a photo. Be extremely careful, especially around popular lookout points like Taft Point and Vernal Falls.
- Slow down. Everything from bears to squirrels to deer and even the occasional mountain lion may run in front of your car without warning. Don’t let your negligence cause an animal’s death.
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Things to do in Yosemite National Park
There’s hardly a park in America’s national park system that doesn’t have a fascinating story behind its founding, but California’s Yosemite National Park may have one of the best – after all, how often has a sitting U.S. president taken four days off-the-grid to camp inside a national park?
That’s just what then-President Teddy Roosevelt did in 1903, guided by famous naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir (how cool would it be to have John Muir as your tour guide?!). It’s thanks to John Muir that what we now know as Yosemite National Park exists in its pristine wilderness state, and Roosevelt’s famous visit helped establish Yosemite as the United State’s third National Park.
However, while Miur was most concerned about the damage nearby ranchers were doing to the area, he often failed to mention in writings that the Valley was not uninhabited and hadn’t been for thousands of years. The Miwok people inhabited the Yosemite Valley – which they called Ahwahnee – for thousands of years before homesteaders moved in and encroached (often violently) on their land and resources.
Today the park has a recreated Miwok village available to visit, which is still used for occasional Native American ceremonies.
Of course, Yosemite’s history goes back much further than its human history. The park’s oldest giant sequoia tree is more than 3,000 years old and the iconic Half Dome formed more than 65 million years ago.
There’s a reason Yosemite is one of the most popular parks in the U.S. National Park system. While hiking tends to be the main draw, outdoor activities abound, ranging from guided tours to photography classes (Ansel Adams, anyone?) to fishing, cultural activities, and even skiing and ice skating in the winter.
If you can’t already tell, I love Yosemite National Park, and as a full-time outdoor and adventure writer in the Lake Tahoe area, I’m fortunate enough to be able to make several pilgrimages to the park each year. Here are the best things to do in Yosemite National Park!
Go Hiking in Yosemite Valley
If you’ve never visited Yosemite before, you’ll likely visit the Yosemite Valley first, where you’ll find famous sites like Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls towering high overhead.
Although the Yosemite Valley Shuttle is a fantastic way to get around to each of the stops, the best way to see the Valley is on its many trails. (Some of these trails are wheelchair-friendly: you can find a full Yosemite accessibility guide here, which has great info on trails and amenities for wheelchair users or people with mobility challenges.)
Here are some of the best hiking trails to explore Yosemite Valley:
- Valley Floor Loop: This relatively gentle hike gains minimal elevation and can be done as a 7.2-mile half-loop or a full loop at 11.5 miles. It passes many of the park’s highlights, like El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, the Merced River, and the Three Brothers rock formation. Take a break or turn around wherever you like; you’ll often find people with picnic chairs hanging out in the Valley meadows and using binoculars to watch rock climbers thousands of feet up on El Capitan. The trail runs more or less along the perimeter of the valley, ducking into the woods here and there and crossing a few stone bridges over streams. Along the way are several well-marked points where you can sit and picnic on the river, and you’ll often see plein air painters and photographers in the valley shooting or painting on sunny days.
- Mirror Lake Loop Trail: If you’re visiting on a busy weekend, this 2.4 or 4 mile hike is less crowded than the Valley Floor Loop. The short and mostly flat trail heads east, leading through the woods and eventually to Mirror Lake, a flat pool that perfectly reflects the image of nearby Half Dome – hence the name. The pond may be nearly dry by the end of summer, so ask a ranger before starting (and wear bug repellant). Mirror Lake is also Yosemite’s most popular swimming hole, so bring your swimsuit!
- Sentinel Meadow & Cook’s Meadow Loop: This flat, easy 2.25 mile trail winds through two meadows past nonstop jaw-dropping views of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. The best time for this scenic hike is in spring and early summer, when the meadows are green from rainfall, wildflowers are blooming, and Yosemite Falls is roaring (be sure to take the .5 mile detour to view Lower Yosemite Falls up close). Even better, time your hike to coincide with sunset! You’ll be passing the Yosemite Chapel, the Swinging Bridge, and Sentinel Bridge on this hike. Bring your camera – you’ll want it!
- Yosemite Falls: One of the tallest waterfalls in North America, Yosemite Falls is twice as tall as the Empire State Building! During the spring and early summer the roaring water is deafening. To view the waterfall from below, the .5 mile mostly flat paved Lower Yosemite Falls trail starts just past the Yosemite Falls shuttle stop. But to view the falls from above, take the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. After about half a mile of steep switchbacks cut into the mountains, you’ll take a short path off the main trail reach a stunning viewpoint of Yosemite Falls. From here you can continue to climb the rest of the strenuous 7.6 mile trail, but in my opinion, this viewpoint is the best view of the trail!
- Mist Trail: So named for the mist that blows onto the trail from Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls, this hike features both waterfalls and endless photo opportunities – it’s the most iconic hike in the Valley, for a reason. The hike climbs to the top of both waterfalls, gaining about 2,000 feet of elevation over four miles, and includes sections of steep stone staircases cut into the cliffs. You can shorten the hike to 1.8 miles with 400 feet of elevation gain by turning around halfway at Vernal Falls, or lengthen it to a 6 mile loop by hiking back on the John Muir trail. At the top of each waterfall, you’ll find roomy rock slabs with plenty of places to hang out in the sun and take photos. The trail can be wet (hence the name) when the wind is blowing, but the mist on your skin will likely feel pretty good on a hot summer morning or afternoon (although you may want to bring a bag for your camera or phone if they’re sensitive to getting damp). That said, this trail can be dangerous. Be very careful on the slippery rock, especially when the trail is crowded – there are often steep drop-offs on one side, and there isn’t always a railing. Do NOT step over the guard rails, even for a photo. And do NOT go near the river or pools above the falls – the current is much stronger than it appears, and swimming or even wading here is deadly dangerous.
Important Hiking Tips for Yosemite: Be sure to carry out everything you carry in, including food. Never bother wildlife, and give wild animals a wide berth so they don’t have to change their natural behaviors because you’re in the woods. Don’t ever feed wildlife! Also, be aware that hiking in a higher elevation will be physically challenging; listen to your body, take it slow, and drink more water than you usually do. On crowded trails, be careful to step aside on the safest side of the trail – aka, not the side next to a perilous cliff – to allow other hikers to pass you safely. And NEVER, EVER attempt to swim in a pool above a giant, roaring waterfall.
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Hike Half Dome
Why is hiking Half Dome it’s own section, you may be wondering. Isn’t it just another hike? Oh no, my friend. Hiking Half Dome is not only a hike, but a life-changing experience.
Half Dome is arguably the park’s most challenging – and most famous – hike. Yosemite Hikes describes it as a hike “you can’t die without doing, and the one you’re most likely to die while doing.” Fun!
The hike to Half Dome continues along the same route as the Mist Trail, but instead of turning around at Nevada Falls, you’ll keep climbing, adding an additional 10.6 miles and 2,800 feet of elevation gain, totaling a daunting 14.2 miles round trip.
The hike culminates in a near-vertical final 400 feet up metal cables to reach the summit of the dome, which will take a couple of hours to crest. You will want to bring some safety gear (like this Via Ferrata lanyard paired with a climbing harness to clip into the cables and keep you safe) and make sure you read these tips before attempting to make the ascent, which if done incorrectly, can be fatal.
The adrenaline and sheer terror of several hours of scurrying up a cliff face will be rewarded as you perch 4,800 feet above Yosemite Valley, with stunning views of the park in all directions.
If the thought of this makes your body tense up, other slightly less challenging Valley hikes that don’t require permits include Four Mile Trail and Upper Yosemite Falls. If nothing else, just don’t let the Squirrels of Doubt get to you. You can do it!
- Travel Tip: The Half Dome cables are seasonal, and usually go up the Friday before Memorial Day through Indigenous Peoples Day in October. Only 300 hikers per day are allowed on the trail, and you’ll need a permit to ascend the cables and reach the summit of the dome. Permits for day hikers are distributed by lottery via Recreation.gov, with the primary lottery in March (mark your calendar) and daily lotteries during the hiking season.
Explore “Little Yosemite Valley”
Possibly the least popular part of Yosemite is Hetch Hetchy. One reason it’s less popular is because you can only get to it by exiting the park (via the Big Oak Flat entrance) and driving along some country roads until you re-enter the park near Hetch Hetchy.
But your efforts to get to this remote corner of the park will be well rewarded: picture water glittering in the sunlight between the dramatic mountain walls with numerous waterfalls. Hetch Hetchy is like California’s own fjord, and it supplies all of the drinking water of the San Francisco Bay Area to boot!
Naturalist and conservationist John Muir once described Hetch Hetchy as being a mini-Yosemite Valley, complete with impressive peaks and dramatic terrain. However, 1906 brought a severe earthquake to San Francisco, causing a myriad of fires which sparked the city to look for a better source of water, which was found by damming the Tuolumne River and flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1919.
What was once what John Muir described as “a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples” now looks today to modern-day guests like a mountain fjord. Sure, today’s Hetch Hetchy looks incredible, but looking at a photo of the original valley does make one wish to see the verdant valley as well.
The best way to see Hetch Hetchy is on the main trail, the five-mile hike to Wapama Falls, a nice half-day out-and-back trek along the shoreline that crosses the O’Shaughnessy Dam and passes by two waterfalls that spill from 1,400 feet above (after all, it wouldn’t be a Yosemite hike without some epic waterfalls).
You’ll cross several footbridges with the blue water of the reservoir on one side and the steep mountains that form the valley rising on the other side, sandwiching you between the impressive elements of Yosemite, and gaining about 300 feet in the process.
Most of the trail is exposed to the sun, which is great for wildflower sightings in the spring, but you may be better off doing this trail on a cool day. Note that if you visit in early spring the water flowing from the falls may make the bridges impassible or at the very least a very wet experience.
- Travel Tip: Though this is usually the least crowded section of the park, parking is limited to around 50 cars, so arrive as early as possible.
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Take a Scenic Drive
It almost seems unnecessary to mention “scenic drives” in Yosemite because you literally can’t avoid them. Seriously, every drive in and around Yosemite is a scenic journey through the heart of the Sierra Nevada, and majestic mountain scenery greets you every which way you look.
Remember that Yosemite National Park is HUGE, so to see as much as you can, take a day to explore some of the park’s gorgeous roads. Even though you can occupy yourself with countless trails and sites in the valley, it’s worth getting to see more of where your feet can’t take you. Plus, all of these drives pass by trailheads, scenic turnouts, and classic Yosemite sights that you won’t want to miss.
- Yosemite Valley Loop: On this loop around the Valley floor you’ll see many of Yosemite’s iconic sites looming above you, including El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, and Yosemite Falls. When people think of Yosemite, this is what they’re picturing. One mile wide by seven miles long, this narrow valley houses a lot of Yosemite’s amenities – and therefore crowds. In the busy season, be prepared for major traffic along this loop. Plan to make a bunch of stops at popular turnouts, picnic spots, and trailheads. If the car traffic is just too much but you’d still like to see the valley, rent a bike for a gentle but beautiful ride. You can also take a guided, park-run bus tour: the open-air vehicles are slow-moving so you have plenty of time to take photos, and since they can take advantage of the park’s bus-only lanes, you won’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic like you would if you drove yourself. A live guide will fill you in on the history of the park, including Indigenous peoples, the first non-Indigenous settlers, and the flora and fauna of the park along the way.
- Tioga Road: This high-elevation pass takes you through the park’s high country of Tuolumne Meadows, winding from the eastern entrance of the park all the way to the Valley floor. It’s a bit quieter than the Valley, but not for lack of scenery. This road is seasonal due to snowy conditions, and can only be accessed during the summer and fall (usually from late May to November). When it’s open, Tioga Road passes by wildflower-dotted meadows, sparkling blue lakes, trails to Giant Sequoias, and of course, Tioga Pass. This mountain pass leads into Yosemite from the eastern side of the Sierra and Mono Lake. Plenty of hikes begin along Tioga Road, though this 59-mile drive is an adventure in itself.
- Glacier Point Road spans 16 miles from its intersection with Wawona Road to its end at Glacier Point. Like Tioga Road, Glacier Point Road is only open from around late May to November, but along it you’ll find some of the most iconic views in Yosemite. Its highlight is Glacier Point, with sweeping, postcard-perfect views of Yosemite Falls, Cloud’s Rest, and Half Dome. Along Glacier Point Road, there are numerous trails, and you can hike all the way down to Yosemite Valley. Along the road you’ll also notice Badger Pass Ski Area, Yosemite’s hub for winter mountain sports. This road and its overlooks are especially jaw-dropping at sunset, so plan to hit this spot at the end of your day.
- Hetch Hetchy Road: This scenic drive will take you away from the crowds. In the park’s quiet northwest corner, Hetch Hetchy Valley is much less traveled, but still boasts majestic Yosemite scenery. From Evergreen Road (outside of the Big Oak Flat entrance station), Hetch Hetchy Road travels 16 miles before ending at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. With its lower elevation, this area of the park has a long hiking season, so break up your drive with some adventures on foot. There are several waterfalls, canyons, and lakes that add to the allure of this scenic drive. Note that Hetch Hetchy Road is open year-round, but sometimes closes due to snow.
Don’t want to drive on your own? There are several bus tours run by the park which will take you to Glacier Point, Tuolumne Meadows, Tunnel View, or across the entire park on a full-day, 8-hour “Grand Tour”. The bus tours subject to change at any time based on weather, road closures and traffic, so inquire at the park about the most current schedule and route.
If you’re staying outside of the park, another fantastic option is to take a guided tour from El Portal. You can sit back and relax as you’re driven to most of the major sites in one day, including Tunnel View, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Falls, plus lunch and a hike.
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Go Horseback Riding on An Old Wagon Road
If you like to take in some scenery in a slow and relaxing way, that isn’t a tram, take a horse or mule ride through Yosemite’s historic trails at the park’s Wawona Stables.
You’ll start the ride at Wawona Stables, which is where the park’s horses live. The approximately two-hour trek travels along a wagon road once used by early settlers and loggers well before the advent of cars.
The trails meander through forests and past the wildflower-heavy Wawona Meadow. The horses are used to carrying guests and move slowly along the trails, so you’ll have plenty of time to take photos.
The tours will usually stop in the meadow a few times to allow you to take photos on horseback together. (You can also hike this trail if the tours are full.)
While most trips are well-suited to beginners, multi-day pack trips are available for more experienced riders (though you’ll need to win a lottery to secure your spot.)
Take a Class with the Yosemite Nature Conservancy
Yosemite is so rich in history and scope that taking a class will only add to your understanding and enjoyment of the park. Luckily the Nature Conservancy is the park’s resident non-profit fundraising arm and has an extensive menu of classes offered throughout the year.
Options range from birding and botany classes to guided hikes and overnight camping trips. There are nearly 100 different classes available throughout the year that change based on seasons, weather, conditions, and crowds, so it’s best to check the website just before you leave or ask for a brochure when you arrive in the park.
Some of the classes offered include:
- Yosemite Naturalist Walks: Take a stroll with a Yosemite Conservancy naturalist and explore things like the night sky, Yosemite at sunset, Yosemite in the morning, or “a stroll through time” where you learn about the park’s history.
- Overnight Under the Stars: Spend the night in Yosemite learning all about the stars in the sky! You’ll hike a mile and a half into the park, set up camp, and as the sun sets, your guide will point out constellations and the glow of the milky way, as well as planets and meteors, all from the comfort of your sleeping bag. Sounds like the best sleepover ever! This is a fantastic choice for first-time backpackers.
- Intro Backpack: May Lake Story Stroll: If you ever wanted to learn to backpack, an intro to backpacking is the way to do it! This trip will take you on a low-key weekend backpacking trip with a renowned Yosemite storyteller, where you will learn the basics of backpacking and hear all about Yosemite’s history.
- Take an Art Class: Wish you could capture the beauty of Yosemite? You can learn how during a a hands-on, four-hour long outdoor art workshop in Yosemite Valley, offered daily. These art classes are led by experts in everything from watercolor to field sketching to mosaics via the conservancy’s Happy Isles Art and Nature Center. You’ll learn to identify flora and fauna all while honing your art skills! If you want to get even more immersed, they also offer art retreats, which are overnight workshops that will give you ample time to make your masterpiece.
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Learn About the Park’s Indigenous Community
The Miwok Tribe inhabited the Yosemite Valley – called Ahwahnee – and low-lying ridgelines in the area for thousands of years before homesteaders moved in and encroached (often violently) on their land and resources during the white encroachment in the 1850s.
For the next 100 years, the Miwok People took a stand for their native lands. They inhabited the park until the 1960s, but were ultimately entirely pushed out by the mid-20th century. While Yosemite’s Indigenous community no longer lives on their original land, there are still about 3,500 people around the western U.S. from various tribes who are descendants of the Miwok people.
The Yosemite Museum, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2022, is the cultural gateway to the park and the best place to learn about Yosemite’s original residents. The museum has a rotating collection of exhibits, but there’s always a large section dedicated to the crafts, language, arts, and traditions of the Miwok Tribe.
Just behind the museum is an easy walking path through the recreated Miwok Village of Ahwahnee, which has interpretive signage along the way about life for the tribe in the 1870s. The Miwok Village has several buildings, a few of which are still occasionally used by Native Americans.
The largest building is the meeting house, which was used as a ceremony site. Other buildings include kitchens, homes, recreated examples of summer and winter homes, and native gardens. Inside the museum, there will sometimes be descendants of the Yosemite Miwok making and displaying traditional crafts and skills like beadwork or basket-making.
See Yosemite’s Famous Waterfalls
Yosemite’s glacially-carved cliffs and abundant Sierra snowmelt means one thing: waterfalls. Like, hella waterfalls. From the 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls to the smaller 317-foot Vernal Falls, there are enough waterfalls to satisfy many days’ worth of adventure.
The best time to see Yosemite’s waterfalls is in the spring, when the snowmelt peaks and the falls are gushing. If you visit in the fall, it’s possible that some waterfalls may be running dry.
In the late fall, storms can bring some of the falls back to life. And in the winter, the accumulated frost along falls’ edges creates a frozen landscape from your wildest winter wonderland dreams.
- Yosemite’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls, has a height of 2,425 feet. The Upper Fall, Middle Cascades, and Lower Fall combine to form one of the tallest falls on the continent, which, in the spring, thunders into Yosemite Valley. You can view Yosemite Falls from different spots around the valley, including Yosemite Village. Or you can take a very strenuous hike to the brink of the Upper Falls.
- Horsetail Fall drops about 1,000 feet over the sheer edge of El Capitan, and usually only flows from December to April. On rare occasions during mid- to late February you may have the chance to see Yosemite’s famous “firefall“, in which the sunset backlights the water of Horsetail Falls making it look like magma pouring from the cliff! Due to the fickle conditions necessary to create this “firefall” effect, it’s tough to plan into your itinerary – but if you are lucky enough to catch this phenomenon, it’s really something special. You can see Horsetail Fall from the El Capitan picnic area or from one of the adjacent turnouts.
- Ribbon Falls is the tallest single-drop waterfall in North America. This fall cascades about 1,600 feet over the westside of El Capitan, where it plummets into the valley. When flowing (usually from March through June), you can see this fall while driving into Yosemite Valley along Southside Drive.
- Bridalveil Fall is one of the few falls in the park that flows all year round. Aside from peak runoff during May, the characteristic wispy, light flow this fall gives it its name. At 620 feet, this is one of the first waterfalls that people see as they’re driving into the Valley. Aside from the tunnels on Wawona Road and Big Oak Flat Road, you can see the fall from a viewing area on your way into the valley. You can also take a short but steep paved trail to the base of the falls, but prepare to get wet!
- Wapama Falls, at about 1,400 feet, is found in the Hetch Hetchy area. Compared to the crowds in the Valley, this waterfall receives few visitors even though it flows all year long. In May, when the falls hits peak runoff, the flow can flood footbridges near its base. You can see this waterfall from the O’Shaughnessy Dam, or continue on a trail to the falls for a 5.5-mile round trip hike.
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Join a Free Photography Walk
It’s relatively difficult to take a downright bad photo of Yosemite, but if you want to step up your photography game, join in on a free camera walk with the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village.
During the summer months, expert photographers will guide you to some of Yosemite’s best sights, offering tips and tricks and assistance with your camera settings along the way. And the best part? Camera Walks are completely free, though more extensive paid photography classes are also available.
Where your guide goes and what sites you’ll shoot are up to the instructor and based on the time of day, weather conditions, and desire of the class. Trust your guide to know what areas of the valley are going to photograph best during your class.
For inspiration, be sure to stop and explore the Ansel Adams Gallery. Ansel Adams was a famed nature photographer, whose black-and-white photos of Yosemite were some of the first published in national newspapers and magazines. He first fully realized work is his photograph “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome” which he took in 1927 at just 25 years old. (At age 25 I actually took a very similar photo called “Selfie, the face of me in front of Half Dome” but somehow it did not catch on.)
Ansel Adams is best remembered for giving Yosemite a face and helping to conserve the beauty of Yosemite. The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village has a wide range of Adams’ most famous Yosemite photographs.
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See the Giant Sequoias
If your plans in California won’t take you to the coast, where the country’s largest trees – redwoods – are found, you have a nice consolation prize in Yosemite: sequoias.
These trees are also among the world’s oldest and largest, and while redwoods have the potential to grow the tallest, the sequoias are nothing to sneeze at. Some are over 150 feet tall with trunks wide enough to drive a car through. In fact, that’s the story behind the park’s “Walk-through Sequoia,” which early tourists used to drive through as they entered the park. Some of the oldest trees in the park are upwards of 3,000 years old.
In Yosemite, you have not one, not two, but three choices of where to walk through giant sequoia groves.
- The largest and most popular is the Mariposa Grove, near the south entrance, with more than 500 sequoias. You’ll need to take the free shuttle from the parking area, which is about 1.5 miles from the trailhead.
- Near Crane Flat is the Tuolumne Grove, which only has about 25 sequoias but has the benefit of being far less crowded. You’ll lose 400 feet of elevation as you walk from the parking area to the grove, so be prepared for a steep hike up an old wagon road to return to the parking area. This is where you’ll find the famous walk-through tree.
- The smallest grove is the Merced Grove, with only about 20 trees, and which also has a gain/loss of 600 feet but is a slightly more gradual hike back out. This is the least crowded grove, so plenty of room to get up close and personal with these majestic giants.
All groves have restrooms and running water at the trailheads. While walking through the grove, think about what it would have been like to stroll in this same spot before Yosemite was a park. Though it would have been more than 100 years ago, the trees would still have been massive.
Some of the trees you’ll see in the groves were already growing before the birth of Cleopatra and before the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And these trees will probably outlive you, too, barring climate-change-induced wildfires, that is. Don’t climb on the trees, though guests are more than welcome to touch and hug the rough, dark trunks.
All three groves are fairly easy hikes compared to others in the park, so no matter your hiking level it’s easy to feel small among the towering sequoias, and breathe in their woody, evergreen mist while connecting with nature.
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Walk Through the Historic Ahwahnee Hotel
The Ahwahnee Hotel is the epitome of a historic national park hotel. It first opened in 1927 and was designed to be the American equivalent of Europe’s grand summer lodges. Arriving at the park was quite the journey in the early 20th century, requiring a long train ride followed by a prolonged (and very bumpy) carriage ride from Merced. Guests would stay for weeks at a time since the journey was so long, and the Ahwahnee was designed to be their luxurious home in the Sierra Nevada.
Today, the Ahwahnee is open to the public, so you can enjoy the majesty (and eerie vibes) at your own leisure. You can take a free self-guided hotel tour, which is available at the concierge desk, so you can learn about the history and construction of the hotel.
On your self-guided tour, you’ll see various sitting and “card rooms,” once divided for men and women to socialize but now open to the public. Two stone fireplaces large enough to walk into serve as bookends to the main salon, and historical photos and artifacts line the walls.
You’ll also notice that the Ahwahnee doesn’t fit into any one particular architectural style (unless “fabulous” and “for rich people” counts as an architectural style, and if you’ve ever visited Hearst Castle on Highway One, you know what I mean). Rather, it’s an amalgamation of several concepts: stone columns to support the massive fireplaces, large windows and picturesque shutters as a nod to its European inspirations, and sharp roofs and turret-type features to keep heavy winter snow from weighing down the roof.
Over the years the Ahwahnee has had its fair share of famous guests, from Walt Disney to Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Queen Elizabeth II, and most recently President Barack Obama.
The hotel also has a guest that may have never checked out. The ghost of Mary Curry Tressider, who grew up in Yosemite Valley and lived there until her death in 1970, purportedly still lives on the 6th floor, where her apartment was located. Shortly after her death sightings of her apparition became a normal occurrence, and people see strange things on that floor until this day. (Learn more about Mary Curry and her family, who founded Camp Curry.)
The Ahwahnee’s interior, with its Native American patterns and red elevator doors, served as the inspiration for the interior of The Stanley Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. While the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado was the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, and the exteriors of the film were shot at the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon, the red and lush, slightly sinister-feeling exteriors were pulled straight from the Ahwahnee. Eerie, no?
When you’re done exploring, grab a local beer at the Ahwahnee Bar, or have dinner in the opulent mountain view Dining Room, with massive log beams running the length of the enormous room. The menu offers American dishes with an international twist; think garlic-crusted lamb with mint yogurt sauce and fresh fish with a miso glaze.
During the winter, the Dining Room is transformed into an 18th century English manor for the annual Bracebridge Dinner, a fabulous and fun 7-course meal and costumed Christmas pagaent by candlelight complete with holiday splendor and live theatre. The dinner has been running since 1927, when Ansel Adams played the part of the pageant jester (and I assume El Capitan appeared as itself).
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If you are visiting Yosemite on a warm summer day, chances are those clear, natural springs and lakes are going to be calling your name, if not screaming it. While you can’t swim in all of Yosemite’s waters, there are certainly plenty of places to cool you down.
Here are some of the best places to get refreshed:
- Mirror Lake: Mirror Lake is Yosemite’s most popular swimming hole, and while it’s not especially big or deep, it’s definitely one of the most beautiful places you can cool off: you’ll be surrounded by dramatic peaks, towering green trees, and a crystalline blue sky, and swimming at the foot of Half Dome and with its peak mirrored in the water. To get there, you’ll take a short and mostly flat trail for about 1.2 miles. Note that the pond may be nearly dry by the end of summer, so ask a ranger before starting (and wear bug repellant).
- Tenaya Lake: Located high above Yosemite Valley off of Tioga Pass on the eastern side of the park, Tenaya Lake is a mile long and surrounded by granite peaks. The cool alpine water is clear and sandy beaches surround the lake, so this is the perfect place to bring a picnic and catch some rays! There are parking lots on either end of the lake and a wide shoulder you can park on Tioga Pass Road directly next to the lake. You can also hike a 2.5 mile loop around the lake.
- The Merced River below the Wawona Swinging Bridge: First off, who doesn’t love a swinging bridge, especially when it’s above a turquoise, clear river that is just calling to be jumped in? That’s exactly what you’ll find at the Wawona Swinging Bridge. It’s a simple hike to the bridge, only about .75 miles round trip, and then you can wade in the beautiful waters of the Merced on a warm summer evening while listening to the water gently streaming over the big rocks that line the river. You’ll want to avoid swimming here earlier than summer, as the water can be quite swift and high and there are no lifeguards on duty.
- Carlon Falls: This swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall is best enjoyed in the summer once the waters have calmed down a bit. After your 2-mile hike in, you will be greeted by a 20-30 feet tall waterfall. Here, you can wade around in the cool pool at the base, surrounded by Indian Rhubarb and ferns.
During the summer there are also 2 outdoor pools in the park, at Curry Village and The Yosemite Valley Lodge. Both are open to the public.
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Go White-Water Rafting
The Merced River, fed by the powerful Nevada and Vernal Falls, offers seasonal white-water rafting along its granite-carved path.
In the spring, you’ll paddle your way through hillsides dotted with California poppies and purple lupine on Class IV rapids churned from fresh snowmelt. But in the late summer, the waters calm down and you can rent a raft and a lifejacket to take a gentle float trip down the river.
The Yosemite rafting season varies from year to year and depends on factors such as the depth of the rivers, the temperature of the water and the seasonal snowmelt.
You can typically go rafting on the Merced between April and August, but each year will vary. To book a white-water rafting trip, check with a local outfitter to see when they’re offering tours.
Catch a Sunset at Glacier Point
Glacier Point is one of the highest accessible points in the park, sitting 3,214 feet above Yosemite Valley. Glacier Point truly has the most majestic view across the Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome rising on the other side and miles of rugged wilderness in every direction.
Watching sunset from this point is the perfect way to cap off a day in the park: the light reflecting off Half Dome turns the rock slab fabulous shades of orange, rose and gold, and once the sun actually sets, lights coming on in the valley look like twinkling stars.
Oh, and there are the actual stars, of course – Glacier Point is one of the park’s top stargazing destinations, especially during a new or crescent moon as stars are more visible when the moon is dark.
Getting to Glacier Point is easy. From the Valley, drive to Glacier Point Road (9 miles away.) After 16 miles, Glacier Point Road dead-ends at the aptly named Glacier Point. The route is very clearly marked on the Yosemite map given to all guests when entering the park.
The lookout point is a flat, easy half-mile hike from your car, and it’s the perfect place to bring a blanket and some snacks and drinks (tip: the gift shop by Curry Village sells beer and spirits) to celebrate the end of a great trip in Yosemite with a sunset picnic.
Once the sun is down and you’ve had your fill of the Milky Way, be sure to be careful on the drive back down as the road is windy and dark, and animals ranging from small chipmunks to large black bears may cross the road at any time.
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Explore the Park After Dark
Yosemite is known for hiking, but that doesn’t mean you should head out when the sun sets. The park has a vast variety of evening programming and much of it is low-cost (if not free) and open to everyone. Consider signing up for a “Night Prowl” walk in which a park ranger will guide you along trails in search of nocturnal animals.
If you’d rather turn your attention upward, sign up for stargazing and astronomy classes in Yosemite Valley or at Glacier Point. What you’ll see in the sky of course varies with the seasons, but your guides will likely help you find constellations like Orion’s Belt and Ursa Major and Minor, as well as navigational stars like Sirius.
Various presentations are held most evenings in the summer at the campground amphitheaters on everything from history to hands-on science, and the Ahwahnee, Yosemite’s crown jewel lodge, hosts fireside storytelling most evenings through the fall and winter. You can always bring your own headlamp and telescope and explore on your own, too.
Though Yosemite isn’t an official Dark Sky Park, it has some of the best stargazing in California as it has such little light pollution. The further you go away from hotel and parking lot lights, the better the stargazing will be.
The valleys across the street from the Camp Curry parking lot and across from the Little Yosemite Chapel are two popular spots, but anywhere in the park will do as long as you’re a few hundred feet or so from a light source. Guests are allowed to walk wherever they want in the park day or night. You can also find some of the best stargazing spots here.
Tips for Stargazing in Yosemite National Park
- Don’t stop or stand in the road: All of the lights in Yosemite are shut off during the night, which means that the park is pitch black and oncoming cars won’t be able to see you.
- Bring a headlamp or a red flashlight: A headlamp is one of my personal favorite camping essentials, but it’s crucial if you’re stargazing away from your car. Headlamps are the best because they’re hands-free and you can point the light downward to avoid more light pollution, which also helps you avoid shining light in your eyes (it can take 20 minutes for your eyes to readapt to the dark – not ideal for stargazing!). A red flashlight also works extremely well and will take less time for your eyes to re-adjust to the dark.
- Download a stargazing app or bring a chart: Bring a star chart or app to help you find constellations and maybe even planets! Apps like Sky Guide and Night Sky are super helpful in that you can face your phone towards a particular star or constellation and it will tell you what it is, and will also have tons of information built in about what you are looking at. Just make sure to turn your screen brightness way down.
- Photographers will want to bring along a camera tripod (and a phone mount to use your phone). To take starry night photos, you need to keep your phone extremely still and take a very long exposure, which lets in a ton of light – and ideally, there’s no other light but the stars, so you’ll get that perfect starry night shot!
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Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite has plenty of lodging options, though they all tend to fill up quickly. Make your reservations as early as you can – you can always cancel them later if your plans change. Expect to pay at least $200 a night for basic lodging near the park during the summer.
- Glamping or Camping: Yosemite National Park has 13 maintained campgrounds with modern bathrooms, potable water, fire pits, and designated sites – take a look. Some campsites, like Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp, offer comfortable canvas tent glamping. These sites book out months in advance, so book early. You can also opt for permitted backcountry camping anywhere in the park (recommended for expert hikers). Note that RVs are allowed in all drive-in campgrounds, but you’ll need to make sure the site you’ve reserved will fit your vehicle. Curious to try RV camping? You can rent an RV on RVShare.
- Stay in the Park: The Ahwahnee is the park’s grandest hotel, on the western side of the Valley. The Yosemite Valley Lodge is the closest to Yosemite Falls and is clean and comfortable but not as fancy as the Ahwahnee. The Wawona Hotel near the South Entrance is a historic hotel dating to the 1850s, with lovely Victorian furnishings and decor throughout. There are also vacation rentals located INSIDE Yosemite National Park near the South Entrance in the small community of Yosemite West.
- Stay Near the Park: Our personal pick for the best place to stay near Yosemite is Rush Creek Lodge near the Big Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite National Park, on the west side. We love its nightly free s’mores and spacious pools, guided hikes and activities, and amazing spa & massages. Plus, the lodge is a Social Enterprise and certified B-Corporation with a social mission and a program that provides jobs to urban youth! We’ve got a full review (and a LOT more tips) in our complete guide to where to stay near Yosemite. Other options are AutoCamp and Yosemite View Lodge near the El Portal entrance, or the Lake View Lodge near the Tioga Pass entrance.
For more tips and a complete guide to where to stay in Yosemite by park entrance, head over to our Where to Stay Near Yosemite guide.
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Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park (by Park Entrance)
About Our Guest Poster: Suzie Dundas is a freelance writer and editor with bylines in Forbes, the SF Chronicle, Outside, TripSavvy, Playboy, Lonely Planet, Insider, Frommers, and many more. Based in northern California, she’s a huge fan of the outdoor lifestyle and is the author of a history and trail guide to the Sierra Nevada, due out August 2021. You can follow her on Instagram at @hikeupyourskirt or learn more at SuzieDundas.com.
What are you most looking forward to seeing in Yosemite? Tell us in the comments below!
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One more tip before we leave you: if you’re planning to visit multiple parks this year, we recommend picking up an America is Beautiful National Parks Pass. The pass is valid at over 2,000 National Parks and 10% of the sale proceeds are donated to the National Park Foundation, helping to keep our parks beautiful!
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