When taking one of our many road trips through California, one of our favourite stops was Yosemite National Park. We had heard so much about it for years and couldn’t wait to see the Half Dome and El Capitan with our own eyes. Located in the Central Sierra Nevada of California Yosemite is known for its mountain peaks, waterfalls, and hiking trails. There are so many things to do in Yosemite, it requires a few days to really take it in.
We have rounded up some of the best hikes trails and view points to help you plan your vacation to this bucket list destination. So break out the camping gear, stock up on supplies, and let’s visit Yosemite National Park.
- Note: The COVID-19 pandemic is still a factor when visiting National Parks and, reservations will be temporarily required to enter Yosemite every day beginning Friday, May 21, 2021, throughout the 2021 season or until conditions change. Keep up to date with openings and restrictions on the national parks website.
Things to do in Yosemite National Park
Best Way to See Yosemite
We toured Yosemite National Park with a car rental but be warned, you need to get out early to see the sights. Parking lots fill up quickly so you will want to make your way to the hiking trails or lookouts early in the morning. Get car rental prices at CarRentals.com
Yosemite National Park is huge at 1200 square miles (3,027 km²). However, most of the top things to do in Yosemite are situated around the Yosemite Valley. Yosemite has a good shuttle service to take you to the top attractions.
You can park at Yosemite Village you can take the shuttle from the visitors center to see a lot of the top attractions. The YARTS public transit system offers shuttles.
You can also book this highly rated tour of Yosemite. It includes a stop at Tunnel View to see the Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and El Capitan, plus Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls. Enjoy a boxed lunch included at Cathedral Beach before setting off on the hiking trail at Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias.
And there are ride-share bikes set up around the park as well.
The Yosemite Valley is the main area of the national park where you will most likely spend most of your time. It contains the top tourist attractions including El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.
The best place to see a good overview of the park including the Yosemite valley the and half dome standing tall over the other mountain peaks, Glacier point is an excellent stop. It is worth the hour drive up Wawona Road from Yosemite Valley for this incredible view.
One of the most famous attractions in Yosemite national Park has to be the Half Dome.
Avid rock climbers put this at the top of their list as one of the great climbs on earth and park visitors can watch them tackle their routes from the safety of its lookouts. Glacier Point offers the best view of the Half Dome but there are plenty of chances to see it as well as climb it yourself.
Half Dome Hike
The Half Dome Hike is a 14 mile round trip hike that takes you 5000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor.
It takes 10 – 12 hours so make sure to leave before dawn. Be prepared for a challenging hike with the last 400 feet requires the use of the half dome cables to allow hikers to summit without climbing equipment.
One of our favourite stops in Yosemite was Mariposa Grove. We took a guided tour to see the forest of 500 Giant Sequoias.
Mariposa Grove is the birthplace of the National Park’s system. In 1864 President Lincoln set aside this natural area to be preserved for future generations. Now that is some kind of foresight.
There is parking available at the Mariposa Grove welcome plaza and then it requires a two-mile hike (each way) on the Washburn Trail or the Mariposa Grove Road. (currently, the tours are not operating due to COVID, but stay up to date at the Yosemite website for updates and openings.)
Ansel Adams Gallery
One of our main reasons for visiting Yosemite National Park is because of seeing the photography of Ansel Adams.
Having the chance to see his iconic images in person was at the top of our bucket list. The Ansel Adams Gallery is located in the heart of Yosemite between the Visitor Center and Post Office.
It’s in a prime location with views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point. It showcases the photography of Ansel Adams and the people who work in the gallery love Yosemite. Their staff includes climbers, photographers, and hikers.
You can book camera walks, photography classes and workshops at the gallery.
Dominating the view of the west end of Yosemite Valley is the mammoth El Capitan.
Climbers come from around the world to climb the Nose of El Capitan. It’s a huge undertaking climbing 3000 feet up its sheer wall, but superstars Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell set a record climbing to its peak in under 2 hours.
Another crazy fact is that Alex Honnold was the first person to climb El Capitan without rope inspiring the documentary Free Solo.
Tunnel View offers great views of El Capitan but our favourite spot was at El Cap Meadow located directly in front of El Capitan.
- You can take rock climbing courses in Yosemite.
Tunnel view is most certainly the most recognizable scene of Yosemite National Park.
It is the top spot for photographers and a must-stop for anyone visiting Yosemite. Make your way to the Tunnel View parking lots located at the Wawona Tunnel on State Highway 41 for this iconic valley view features El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Go here for sunrise to beat the crowds.
Now that you have seen Bridalveil Fall, take a hike to the waterfall.
It is the first waterfall you’ll see when entering the Yosemite Valley. Bridalveil Fall plunges 620 feet (189 meters) into the valley and the hike to the waterfall is an easy 0.5 mi (0.8 km) round trip with only an 80 ft (24 m) elevation gain.
You could spend an entire summer exploring the hiking trails of Yosemite National Park.
In fact, hiking is one of the best things to do in Yosemite, so make sure you get out on at least one hiking trail. While the Half Dome Hike is the bucket list hike of Yosemite, there are several other hikes to explore.
- Lower Yosemite Falls – You can take a 1-mile loop trail to see the lower Yosemite Falls. You can hike here from Yosemite Village.
- The Sentinal Dome Trail – This 2-mile hike takes you above the Yosemite Valle and the Merced River Canyon. It is also an easy way to see views of the Sierra Nevada Peaks, the Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls. But it is the Jeffrey Pine made famous by Ansel Adams that is the real attraction.
Another must-see waterfall in Yosemite is Yosemite Falls. There are great views of Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Village.
But being one of the highest waterfalls in the world, you can see them from several places throughout the Yosemite Valley. The waterfall is actually made up of three different waterfalls creating a total cascade of 2425 feet.
Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet). Hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls is 7.2 miles round trip, but be prepared, there is a 2,700-foot elevation gain.
The mist trail is considered the Yosemite national park signature hike.
There are two waterfalls to hike to along the Mist Trail, Vernal Falls is a 3 mile (4.8 km) round trip or Nevada Falls is a 7 miles (11 km) round trip. Going to Nevada Falls is worth it. The first part of the Mist Trail takes you to the Vernal Fall Footbridge to see the falls and then you can continue on to the top of Vernal Falls to a lookout above the waterfall.
The Mist trail then continues on to the John Muir Trail as you make your way to Nevada Falls for one of the best views in Yosemite National Park.
- Make sure to arrive early to beat the crowds and find a spot in the parking lot.
- See our complete guide to hiking the John Muir Trail.
Mirror Lake Trail
Another popular hike in Yosemite NP is to Mirror Lake. It is an easy hike to mirror lake and it is known for its reflections of the Yosemite valley. Mirror Lake will also take you right to the base of Half Dome for a close up view.
If you have a car, make sure to take a drive on Tioga Road (Highway 120).
It is only open from late May to November as it sites in Sierra Nevada high country. Up here you’ll see meadows, lakes, and a great view of Half Dome from Olmsted Point.
There is a short hiking trail at Olmsted Point offering views of Tenaya Peak, Tenaya Lake, and Mount Conness.
While driving on Tioga Road, an easy lake to access from the road is Tenaya Lake.
Tenaya Lake is the largest lake in Yosemite and makes for a great place to go kayaking or canoeing. You can also make a base here for a picnic.
This interesting stop is one of the highest elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
There are a few different easy hikes such as Lyell Canyon from the John Muir Trail, Soda Springs, and Parsons Lodge, Gaylor Lake, and Elizabeth Lake. You can get to the Tuolumne Meadows by taking Tioga Road (opens late May to November) and there are shuttles.
A popular day hike is Cathedral Lakes which takes 4 to 6 hours to complete the 7 mile round trip. (11.3 km) 1,000-foot elevation gain.
If you are into cycling, Yosemite not only allows cyclists on the roads, but there are paved paths as well.
The Yosemite Valley Bike Share program was launched in 2018. This is a great idea to help ease traffic congestions. The bikes are set up near Valley campgrounds to allow people to bike to nearby attractions rather than driving.
For a little break from the outdoors, be sure to stop into the Yosemite Museum to learn of the indigenous people who first settled in Yosemite Valley and of the national parks’ history.
Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park
Curry Village has a range of canvas tents and wooden cabins plus hotel rooms. Accommodation range from basic tents with shared bathrooms to private hotel rooms with bathrooms. Check out TripAdvisor for prices.
Yosemite Valley Lodge is a great location to make a base in Yosemite. There’s free parking, free Internet and a pool.
And these are some of the best things to do in Yosemite National Park. You could spend an entire summer here and never see it all, but it’s fund to try!
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