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The Ultimate Guide to Yosemite National Park

Originally protected in 1864, Yosemite became the second official National Park in the United States on October 1, 1890. With gorgeous canyon walls, endless hiking opportunities, waterfalls straight out of fairy tales, and the most famous rock in the entire country, this California gem has something for everyone to enjoy.

Sitting in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, the Yosemite Valley is six hours from Los Angeles, four hours from San Francisco, and seven hours from Las Vegas. The ease of travel to Yosemite shows with over four million visitors since 2016 when removing the 2020 pandemic-laden year.

Overall, Yosemite is a must-visit place for any outdoors enthusiast who wants to be wowed and find inner peace. Continue to read for everything you’ll need to know when visiting.

Photo by Alec Sills-Trausch

What to Know Before You Go

The most pressing thing to know is it will be insanely crowded during the summer months — especially on the weekends. Keep this in mind when you visit. A good rule of thumb to beat the long lines into the park is to arrive before 7:30 am. This will allow you to enjoy the park free from crowds.

Additionally, the park breaks up into two parts: Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. The valley is the famous part – rightfully so – but don’t dismiss the high country where it’s less crowded, cooler, and still offers incredible views. We’ll dive into the hikes later in this guide. 

Sleeping

Lodging is plentiful inside and outside the park, so don’t fret when planning your trip. Of course, staying inside the park will cost you more money, but you won’t have to spend valuable time driving each day. 

Lodging in the park

There are two hotels in the immediate Yosemite Valley. These are famous Ahwahnee and Yosemite Valley Lodge. Both are beautiful and offer everything you’ll need for a home base. If you’re okay with a 50-minute drive, the Victorian Wawona Hotel sits in the southern part of the park near Mariposa Grove. 

For a bit cheaper and more rustic, you can stay in one of the following Curry Village (Yosemite Valley), Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, and White Wolf Lodge (30 miles from the valley floor), which offer traditional cabins and canvas sided tent cabins. If you’re looking for one step up from camping, this is for you.

Lodging outside the park

If you are okay driving into and out of the park each day, you’ll find plenty of options. The main areas to look at are Bass Lake to the south, Mariposa to the southwest, El Portal to the west, and Groveland to the northwest. 

Camping

Just like the hotels, there are plenty of camping options. This has the entire list of campgrounds inside Yosemite. 

The most popular campgrounds will be on the valley floor. These include Upper and Lower Pines, North Pines, and Camp 4. Upper Pines and Camp 4 are open year-round. In all, there are just under 300 sites. Lower and North Pines are open from mid-April until the end of October. Before planning your trip, consult with the park service, as some campgrounds have seen closures due to COVID-19 safety measures. 

Suppose you’re not sure when you will visit; getting a three-season tent, a warm sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad will provide you with the most flexibility and comfort. Additionally, with California’s drought crisis, I wouldn’t rely on campfires to cook food. Going with a great camp stove will make your trip much more manageable and rewarding.

Photo by Alec Sill-Trausch

Hiking

This is the part you’ve been waiting for. With so many beautiful destinations in Yosemite, there’s no shortage of reasons to hit the trails and get into nature. Below, I’ve broken down some easy/family hikes, medium ones, and harder ones.

Make sure to prepare before coming to Yosemite fully. While it’s a touristy location, you are still outdoors and in the elements. So having the proper hiking shoeshiking clothing, and gear is paramount. Plus, following Leave No Trace is crucial. 

Easy Hikes

Mirror Lake Loop (2 or 5 miles) – The thing about mirror lake is it’s not always a lake. If you visit in the spring or summer, you’ll have water to play in. If you hike in the fall, it’ll likely be an empty basin. 

Glacier Point Trail (1 mile)– A short stroll from the parking lot, you’ll have a stunning view of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and the entire valley below. 

Lower Yosemite Falls – A short walk under the watchful eye of Upper Yosemite Falls, this trail brings you to the base of both waterfalls. It’s a beautiful stop and a must-visit location in the valley. 

Mid-Level Hikes

Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail (7 miles) – This is one of the Yosemite classics. This seven-mile hike gets you up close and personal with two of Yosemite’s best waterfalls. Plan to spend a full day doing this and bring plenty of water and snacks.

Sentinel Dome and Taft Point Loop (5 miles) – Up near Glacier Point, this loop will take to you some of the best overlooks of the valley. Sitting over 8,000 up, you’ll have stunning views of El Cap and the Merced River. 

Four Mile Trail (8-miles) – Starting from the valley floor, you’ll snake your way up the granite walls, eventually making your way to Glacier Point. It’s a challenging hike but plenty doable for most active people. 

Cathedral Lakes (7 miles) – In Tuolumne Meadows, Cathedral Lakes is a peaceful and surreal location. Away from the crowds of the valley, you’ll find it slows down up here and gives you the ability to enjoy nature. 

Hard Hikes

Half Dome (17 miles) – It’s the crown jewel of Yosemite National Park. Hiking Half Dome requires a permit which is one of the harder ones to acquire in the country. However, it’s a life-changing trek that will test you physically and mentally. 

Clouds Rest (14 miles) – Unbeknownst to many, Clouds Rest offers a better view of the valley because you get to look down upon Half Dome. 

Upper Yosemite Falls (7.5 miles) – This is favorite hike in the valley. Starting from the floor by Camp 4, you’ll wind your way up the side of the canyon, briefly passing by the Yosemite Falls before switchbacks land you at the top. Aim to do this in the morning as the hot sun will bake you during the middle of the day.

Other Activities

The most prominent activity outside of hiking is rock climbing. The granite rocks are home to some of the best climbing in the U.S. and have produced countless legends. If you look closely, you might get lucky to see climbers attempting El Capitan or Half Dome. 

Additionally, renting some tubes and floating the Merced River gives you a chance to slow down and soak in the beauty of Yosemite. The water is always a bit chilly, but on a warm summer day, it can’t be beaten! 

Other things to do in Yosemite including:

  • Photography
  • Star Gaze
  • Biking
  • Cross country ski in the Yosemite high-country
  • Hang gliding (need to be experienced to join the club)
Photo by Alec Sill-Trausch

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Yosemite is whenever you want! I know this is a bit of a cop-out, but considering how the seasons change, the park is beautiful at all times. With that said, spring and summer are going to be when you want to visit. First, the days will be longer, meaning you get to enjoy more of the park each day. Second, if you visit in the spring, the park’s waterfalls will be flowing — which is always a treat — and the temperatures will be perfect. 

The snow will have melted from both the valley and high country in the summer, allowing you complete hiking access throughout the park. 

For those looking for cooler temperatures, you’ll fall in love with autumn and winter. Just be prepared for early sunsets and keep an eye on road closures. Once the snow starts falling, they begin to close the Tioga Pass and Glacier Point roads.  

Wildlife

There’s plenty to keep an eye out for when it comes to wildlife in Yosemite National Park. With deer, bears, coyotes, and much more, you’ll want to keep that camera close by. However, the animal to watch out for are bears. Over the last few decades, they have become incredibly comfortable with humans and will wreak havoc if you don’t store your food correctly.

Park staff will remind you when you arrive to put your food into the bear boxes at most trailheads, yet visitors often don’t listen and find a window smashed — or worse, a bear in the backseat.

Photo by Alec Sills-Trausch

Photography Hotspots

Yosemite offers endless opportunities for stunning photos. With killer light, huge rocks, and dark skies, you can pretty much create anything you want. Below are my five favorite places to shoot from.

Tunnel View – This isn’t a secret place, but how can you not love Tunnel View? Even after a dozen or more times visiting, I always stop.

Eagle Rock – This hike requires lacing up the boots and getting after it. However, the view from Eagle Rock near El Cap) provides some insane views of the valley and Half Dome. It’s a 14-mile day but very worth it.

Taft Point – One of the iconic photos you’ll see of the park, standing on Taft Point, can be a bit unsettling. Although, the dramatic effects and stunning sunsets mean you can’t pass it up.

Glacier Point – This is one of those low-effort, high-reward locations. It’s an excellent spot for either sunrise or sunset as Half Dome will light up. Plus, this is the best spot for milky way or deep space as you’re above the bustling valley.

Reflections in the Valley – Spend some time walking along the river. You’ll be sure to find calm waters that offer beautiful reflections of Half Dome, El Cap, and so much more!

Article and Photos by Alec Sills-Trausch

Alec is a photographer, writer, and avid hiker who enjoys pushing the limits to find incredible destinations. He hopes through his work to inspire others to get outside and to respect planet earth so future generations can enjoy it just the same. He’s also a cancer survivor. And, he hopes to use his voice to show that you can have a wonderful life after the treatment.