Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular destinations for hiking in the world. There are trails that range from easy to difficult and offer a wide variety of scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities. Let’s go over everything you need to know to make your trip more enjoyable!
Where is Yosemite?
The park is located in California, about four hours from San Francisco and five hours from Los Angeles, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just south of Lake Tahoe. The easiest way to get there is by car, but if your transportation options are limited, you can also take a bus after taking a train. To get there by car, take Highway 120 east from Modesto or Merced, Highway 140 east from Mariposa or Fresno, or Highway 41 south from Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite is not next to any major metro – which is part of what makes it so special. It is drivable from Reno, San Francisco, and Sacramento. Sacramento is probably the closest, but it is still nearly a 3 hour drive from there.
There are currently four entrances to the park, and the most popular one is the Big Oak Flat entrance. You can also take the Tioga Pass entrance, located in the Eastern Sierra. It may be easiest to take the closest entrance from your starting point, but it’s worth checking out all of them to see what each has to offer.
Where to Stay
Yosemite has several hotels inside the park, including the Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Valley Lodge, located in Yosemite Valley. It’s on the pricey side but worth it if it’s in your budget. You can also stay at one of the many popular hotels near the park, including Yosemite Valley Lodge, Curry Village, The Redwoods in Yosemite, Yosemite View Lodge, Rush Creek Lodge, Cedar Lodge, and Red Bud Lodge. These hotels offer a wide range of amenities including swimming pools, restaurants, free parking and Wi-Fi, and shuttle service to the park.
If you’re looking for something a little more rustic, there are also cabins and campgrounds available. You can check availability and reserve a campsite at recreation.gov, used by all National Parks. Many of the campgrounds fill up quickly during peak season, so you should book in advance. At the campgrounds, you’ll typically have access to flush toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, and bear boxes. The surrounding areas are great for cycling, so you can bring your bike along.
Camp 4 is perhaps the most notable campground at Yosemite, and one of our favorite places to camp in California, in close proximity to many of the iconic rock climbing areas. It is a great and central place to base yourself out of, but you will definitely want to book ahead during peak season.
For those who are a little more adventurous and want to pack a small tent and backpack in, you can camp almost anywhere you like at Yosemite, as long as you follow the wilderness regulations. Be extremely careful about starting fires at Yosemite – it is often in a high-risk status for forest fires. The National Park Service prefers that walk-in campers do not setup ad-hoc campsites in the High Sierra Camps and and Little Yosemite areas — in those spots, you should setup inside a designated campground.
Note that you will want a campsite reservation even if you are sleeping in your vehicle or using a roof top tent. The max of 6 campers per campsite applies regardless of how many tents or sleeping units you are using. Some of the campsite only allow tents, too.
If you are an aggressive day-tripper, the other option is to stay around Sacramento and begin your day very early. A 6am departure and 9pm arrival back at your hotel would still give you nearly 9 hours at the park.
As you probably know, there are a few famous sights around Yosemite National Park that you’ll want to check out. Yosemite Valley is home to El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Let’s discuss what each of these famous sights have to offer.
El Capitan is a vertical rock formation that rises more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor. This is one of the most popular climbing destinations in Yosemite (Yosemite is one of the world’s best rock climbing areas) and has been a favorite of skilled climbers for a long time.
El Capitan is the sheer rock face that inspired the documentary Free Solo, which won an Academy Award. Not a place for beginning rock climbing — start in a tamer area.
Half Dome is another famous rock formation in Yosemite Valley, just northwest of Curry Village. It’s known for its massive, imposing face and rounded top. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike up to the top. It’s a 17-mile round trip hike that is definitely not for the faint of heart, but the views from the top are breathtaking.
You have probably seen Half Dome in thousands of pictures, but it is still worth experiencing in person.
If you’re not up for hiking all the way to Half Dome, there are other great viewpoints that offer a fantastic view of the formation. Sentinel Dome and Taft Point are two popular spots, and they’re both much easier to get to than Half Dome. You can also take a shuttle bus to the Happy Isles trailhead and hike three-quarters of a mile to the top. If you’re there in winter, you can take the Snow Creek shuttle to Glacier Point and enjoy a spectacular view of Half Dome.
This famous hike requires climbing cables that are set up along the way. It’s not recommended unless you’re experienced, but if you want to give it a shot, go early in the morning. You’ll need climbing equipment and a permit to hike up, but it’s definitely worth the effort and experience.
Bridalveil Fall is a 620-foot waterfall located in Yosemite Valley. It’s one of the most popular waterfalls in the park and you’ll notice it right away when driving into the area. It’s known for its constant spray, especially in the spring and early summer months. Nearby is Bridalveil Creek which flows down from the mountains to meet up with Tenaya Canyon Creek (also worth checking out).
You can see this beautiful waterfall while walking along either path of the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail. The Upper Yosemite Fall Trail also offers a great view of Half Dome and other landmarks in Yosemite Valley. Overall, the fall is a must-see if you’re in the area. It flows all year round and is especially beautiful in the winter when it’s covered in snow.
Best Hikes in Yosemite
Yosemite National Park offers a wide range of hiking trails, from easy to difficult. We recommend that you take your time when hiking any of these trails, regardless of the difficulty level. The views are absolutely incredible, so you don’t want to rush through them. Here are the best hikes you’ll want to check out:
For an easier hike that still provides great views, Glacier Point is a superb option. It’s a short, 1.6-mile hike that takes you to the edge of Glacier Point where you can see Yosemite Valley and the high country. For such a short and easy hike, you’re rewarded with some of the best views in the park. Near the top, you’ll get a 270-degree panorama view of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Mist Trail’s waterfalls, and several peaks of the eastern Sierra range.
Glacier Point is considered one of the easiest hikes in Yosemite as you can finish the hike in 20 minutes. And although the elevation gain is 7,200 feet at the trailhead, you won’t notice it as you start hiking. In fact, the hike’s even wheelchair accessible! The trailhead is located at the Glacier Point parking area. It’s a very popular trail so try to arrive as early as possible for shorter lines. The crowds are usually shorter from November to May.
Another easy hike to consider is the one to Tuolumne Meadows. It’s a relatively short hike being only 2 miles round trip, but it offers wonderful views of the meadow and surrounding mountains. It’s a great hike if you have kids or want to take it easy. The trailhead is just off Tioga Road. Along Tioga Road are other great hikes including Tenaya Lake, Saddlebag Lake, and Olmsted Point.
It’s best to head to Tuolumne Meadows when the meadow is green and the wildflowers are in bloom. This tends to be from late May to early July. However, the hike is beautiful year-round, so don’t let the green meadows deter you from going during another time of year. This hike is popular for its granite peaks and surrounding domes, and of course, the lush green forests that make you feel like you’re in a fairytale.
Yosemite Valley Loop Trail
If you’re looking for a slightly harder hike, Yosemite Valley Loop Trail is a great option to consider. It’s about a 13-mile loop that takes you to all the major landmarks in Yosemite Valley. The trail starts at Yosemite Valley Lodge and takes you to some of the most popular sites including Lower Yosemite Fall, Mirror Lake, Vernal Fall, and Upper Yosemite Fall. Along the way, you’ll see giant sequoias and a lot of wildlife.
You will cover lots of varying terrain, so wear some quality hiking boots to be sure you are ready for a little of anything. This is not a place to wear loafers or flip flops.
Most people are able to finish this hike in about five to six hours. It is a great trail for anyone able-bodied enough to do it, as you can see most of the major sites in the park. And if you’re short on time, you can take a shuttle to hike the section of trail that interests you most. The best time of year for this hike is from June to October when the weather is warm and there’s less chance of snow. But be aware that this trail can get very crowded during peak season.
Other Yosemite Activities
Yosemite is obviously known for its climbing, and it a legitimate world-class destination for climbers. If you climb, stay within your skill limits and consider hiring a guide to ensure you are safe. There is some VERY advanced climbing at Yosemite.
Paddling in Yosemite can be a great experience too, mainly on the Merced River or on Tenaya Lake. Like with the climbing, you will want to be safe. If you are a beginner paddler, consider finding a group to join. Unfortunately, there are not places to rent kayaks or canoes within Yosemite so you need to haul your own in.
Finally, because Yosemite is large (over 1,100 square miles!), It can be conducive to driving trips to explore as well. The Tioga Road is probably the most famous scenic drive in all of Yosemite. It is about 45 miles long and takes you through the park East-West. It is closed during winter but a great drive in late spring, summer, and fall.