In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and Naturalist John Muir set up camp at Glacier Point for three days. For three days, Muir urged Roosevelt to preserve and protect what is now considered California’s most incredible natural wonder, Yosemite National Park.
“Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things,” penned Muir as he sat awe-struck, admiring the mammoth granite rock formations and cascading waterfalls within the Sierra Nevada Wilderness.
Theodore Roosevelt with John Muir. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Today, Yosemite National Park draws more than 3 million visitors a year and encompasses 700,000 acres of pristine wilderness to explore. But we don’t want you to take our, or even Muir’s, word for it. Yosemite is truly a place that you need to experience for yourself.
That said, we put together a comprehensive travel guide to help you plan your next adventure in Yosemite National Park.
What to see and do … If you only have a day
Is your time limited? Don’t fret! Part of Yosemite’s appeal is that you hardly have to leave the car to witness the magic of the Valley of Light. Besides, once you catch a glimpse of these incredible granite monoliths, you’ll be plotting how to come back for more.
Glacier Point. Photo by Morgan Shannon.
If you only have time for a single sunrise in the park, it should be spent at Glacier Point. Located 4,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, this 1-mile (RT) trek will take you to awe-inspiring, panoramic views of Yosemite icons like Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Nevada Fall, and Vernal Fall.
At sunrise, you’ll beat the crowds and have an opportunity to watch as the first light of the day illuminates the High Sierras.
Note: Glacier Point Road typically opens to motor vehicles in May and is accessible until October or November. Due to unpredictable weather, we recommend that you always check current conditions before traveling to the park.
Yosemite Valley. Photo by Morgan Shannon.
After spending the morning peering at the valley from above, drop down into Yosemite Valley to get acquainted with the the park’s iconic peaks and waterfalls.
Take the Cook’s Meadow Trail—a short, flat footpath with humbling views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock. Or, spend some time gazing upward at climbers tackling Yosemite’s legendary 3,000-foot sheer granite goliath, El Capitan, from El Capitan Meadows.
On your way to Lower Yosemite Falls, cross Sentinel Bridge and see Half Dome reflecting in the calm Merced River below.
A paved 1-mile path will take you to the foot of Lower Yosemite Falls, a portion of the highest waterfall in North America. At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is ten times the height of Niagara Falls and a must-see for anyone visiting the park.
For the perfect picnic in the park, stop by the Cathedral Picnic Area and sit beneath John Muir’s favorite rock formation, Three Brothers. Here, Eagle Peak, Middle, and Lower Brother shape a dramatic backdrop said to rival that of beloved El Cap.
As you exit the park along Northside Drive, take in awe-inspiring views of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls from the perspective of the Merced River at the Valley View viewpoint, before climbing to Yosemite’s most notorious vantage point, Tunnel View.
Tunnel View. Photo by Morgan Shannon.
At the east end of the Wawona Tunnel, Tunnel View has been the most photographed, painted, and appreciated viewpoint in Yosemite National Park since 1933. Picture-perfect and postcard-worthy, Tunnel View is often the first (or last) view visitors admire before entering or leaving the park.
For a peaceful sunset, consider taking a short trek up the mountainside to Inspiration Point. Not only will you escape the crowds, but you’ll also be rewarded with an unobstructed, panoramic view of the park’s most iconic landmarks as they’re painted in pink hues from the setting sun.
If you’re visiting for a weekend
A one-day trip to Yosemite gives you the cliff notes version of park, but if you have more time, consider adding one or more of these scenic areas or incredible trails to your itinerary.
Mariposa Grove. Image courtesy of NPS.
Located in the southernmost part of Yosemite, Mariposa Grove is home to hundreds of mature giant sequoias, two of which are considered to be among the largest in the world. Trails ranging from .3 miles to 7 miles allow you to get up close and personal with thousand-year-old trees, like the Grizzly Giant and a nineteenth-century tree tunnel, Wawona Tree.
The Mist Trail
A 7-mile stairmaster, the Mist Trail has a longstanding reputation as being Yosemite’s signature hiking trail.
Featuring two incredible waterfalls, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, the Mist Trail runs parallel to the Merced River, weaving through the forest, before ascending a 600-step granite stairway to the top of 317-foot Vernal Fall.
From here, you can opt to head back the way you came—a 2.5-mile round trip adventure—or continue on for another 1.5 miles to reach 594-foot Nevada Fall. For added scenery (and mileage), cross the footbridge to the John Muir Trail and take in unique views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Fall on the way back to the car.
Yosemite Falls. Image courtesy of Yosemite.com
Taft Point and the Fissures
Often referred to as Glacier Point without the guardrails, Taft Point is a 2.2-mile trail made famous for its uninhibited, dizzying views of Yosemite Valley. After a short walk through the woods, you’ll arrive at the cliff’s edge, where you can peer straight down at El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.
Although you may be tempted to step out onto the iconic overhanging rock featured on several social media platforms, you should always exercise extreme caution when approaching Taft Point’s 3,500-foot granite cliffs.
If you caught a glimpse of Yosemite Falls from the Lower Yosemite Falls trail and you’re wondering what it would feel like to stand on top of the tallest falls in the states, you’re in luck.
One of Yosemite’s most historic trails, Yosemite Falls Trail, takes you up a series of switchbacks, high above the treeline, to 2,425 feet above the valley floor.
Clocking in at 7.2-miles (9.9 miles if you continue to Yosemite Point) and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, this trail is not for the faint of heart. But if you put your best boot forward and make the climb, you’ll be rewarded with unobstructed, panoramic views of Yosemite Falls, Columbia Rock, Half Dome, and the valley below.
Cathedral Lakes. Image courtesy of The American Southwest.
Surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks, Cathedral Lake is one of the most impressive High Sierra lakes in Yosemite. Although a popular hike in the Tuolumne Meadows area, Cathedral Lakes doesn’t receive the same foot traffic as popular trails in the valley, so you can expect to share the trail with mostly long-distance backpackers undertaking the John Muir Trail.
The trail to Upper or Lower Cathedral lakes is a moderate 7-mile roundtrip hike, or you can see both lakes by adding a mile to your trek. Cathedral Peak, Echo Peak, and Tresidder Peak dominate the landscape, making this trip to the ‘high country’ worth adding to your Yosemite bucket list.
If you have more time
Anyone that spends a considerable amount of time in Yosemite will tell you that the best views are often earned. While several dramatic vistas and viewpoints are accessible by car, if you have more than a few days in the park, we recommend you strap on your hiking boots and hit a few of these long-distance trails.
Half Dome. Photo by Morgan Shannon.
Towering nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, Half Dome proves to be the ultimate challenge for adventure-seekers and adrenaline junkies visiting Yosemite.
The strenuous 17-mile round-trip trek to the top of Half Dome requires hikers to climb nearly 4,800-feet and ascend two metal cables for the last 400 feet to the summit. Along the way, you can expect awe-inspiring views of the surrounding High Sierra, including iconic Yosemite landmarks like Liberty Cap, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall.
The hike can take anywhere from 10 to 12 hours to complete and requires a permit, so pre-planning is a key part of ascending Half Dome. The Half Dome cables are usually up by the Friday before Memorial Day, depending on weather conditions, and are taken down the day after Columbus Day.
El Capitan. Photo by Morgan Shannon.
If you’re looking for a full day of action-packed hiking, the lesser known 8.5-mile Panorama Trail eloquently pieces together several of the aforementioned iconic park treasures and trails.
Start by either taking the Glacier Point tour bus to the top of Glacier Point or plan to park a car at Glacier Point and have a second car parked at the end of the trail.
Take the Panorama Trail along the eastern slope of Illilouette Ridge, to take in views of Half Dome, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall. You’ll cross Illilouette Creek and immediately be greeted with sweeping views of Yosemite Valley. Eventually, the trail will meet up with the famed John Muir Trail or Mist Trail before heading back down to the valley floor.
Clouds Rest. Image courtesy of The American Southwest.
Did you miss your chance to land a permit to climb Half Dome? Don’t fret—the Clouds Rest trail not only takes you 1,000 feet above Half Dome, but it also happens to receive a lot less foot traffic.
Clouds Rest is a 12.5-mile strenuous trail that climbs 2,700 feet of elevation to the summit of a peak whose views are equally as spectacular as Half Dome. The difference? You probably won’t be sharing the view with 300 people.
The trail begins at Tenaya Lake, a pristine subalpine lake, before quickly climbing to scenic vistas overlooking northern and eastern Yosemite Wilderness. The ascent to the top of Clouds Rest is bordered by a 4,000-foot drop-off into Tenaya Canyon on the right and a 2,000-foot sheer cliff into Sunrise Creek Canyon to the left, so tread lightly. At the top, you’ll be greeted by 360-degree panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness.
Know before you go Permits and fees
Merced River in Yosemite Valley. Photo by Morgan Shannon.
A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed each day on the Half Dome Trail, so obtaining a permit can be a highly competitive process. Only 75 permits are available for day hikers; 50 permits are made available via reservation and 25 are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Permits are required 7 days a week, cost $10 per person, and are not refundable.
When you enter the park, you will be asked to purchase a park pass that is valid for 7 days. This pass is $35 per vehicle for non-commercial vehicles, $30 per motorcycle, or $20 per person if you’re entering by foot or bicycle.
Yosemite is accessible year-round and there really isn’t a bad time to visit the park. However, there are a few things to consider when you’re picking the perfect season for your trip.
Summer (June through August)
Yosemite sees the most visitors in the summer months. While the summer offers near-perfect weather, longer days for exploring the park, and less road or trail closures, you should also expect crowded trails, campsites, and traffic. Most of the waterfalls flowing in Yosemite come from snowmelt in the high country, so waterfalls may be dry or hardly running by August.
Fall (September through November)
In the Fall, crowds begin to thin and temperatures begin to cool down significantly. Although the waterfalls have usually slowed to a trickle by late September and some road closures may occur, big leaf maples, black oaks, and other deciduous trees begin to change colors, creating an incredibly vibrant landscape.
Winter (December through February)
Winter may be Yosemite’s best kept secret. In winter months, several road closures to higher elevation destinations result in less visitation to the park. However, in the winter, Yosemite Valley is transformed into a beautiful winter wonderland. The Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is also plowed to the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, making it accessible for winter recreation opportunities.
Spring (March through May)
If you’re looking to chase waterfalls, Spring is your season. As the weather warms, snowmelt from higher elevations cause Yosemite’s waterfalls, streams, and river to come to life. Spring is also a great time to see California wildflowers like poppies and baby blue-eyes, which put on a colorful display along park highways and along the foothills of the Merced River.