Things to Do in Yosemite National Park
The highest measured waterfall in North America and the sixth-highest in the world, Yosemite Falls is the superstar attraction in Yosemite National Park. With a cumulative drop of 2,425 feet (739 meters), Yosemite Falls comprises three falls and is especially stunning in late spring when the snow melts and water flow is at its peak.
Yosemite National Park’s Glacier Point affords an incomparable bird’s-eye view over Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, all with very little physical effort involved. The small Geology Hut, to the side of the paved trail leading to the main overlook, shows how the valley has changed over the course of the last 10 million years.
El Capitan is the largest exposed-granite monolith in the world and among the most popular rock-climbing destinations in the US. Rising 3,593 feet (1095 meters) above Yosemite Valley, El Capitan was once considered impossible to climb. However, since Warren Harding first conquered the "nose" in 1958, El Capitan has become the standard for big-wall climbing.
As you drive north on Highway 41 towards Yosemite Valley, you'll pass through a tunnel and, on other side, you'll be treated to an epic view: Bridalveil Fall spills over granite cliffs into a verdant valley while El Capitan and Half Dome stand sentry. Originally constructed in 1933, Tunnel View is the most famous—and visited—scenic overlook in Yosemite.
A 2008 renovation included a more accessible viewing area, improved traffic flow and educational exhibits. Every vista from Tunnel View is picture-worthy, but for frame-worthy light, try to time your stop at Tunnel View to coincide with sunset, when the light turns to shadow and sweeps across the valley.
One of the first waterfalls that you'll see as you enter Yosemite National Park, Bridalveil Fall is a towering, plunge-type waterfall measuring some 620 feet (188 meters) in height. It flows year-round and reaches its peak around May. On windy days, it sometimes almost looks like the waterfall is falling sideways.
Iconic Half Dome rises 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Perhaps one of the most famous hikes in Yosemite National Park, Half Dome was once considered impossible to climb. Now hundreds of park visitors reach this magnificent granite formation’s summit each day, and countless more gaze at its towering face from below.
Home to towering Sequoia trees, Tuolumne Grove is one of the most popular day hikes in Yosemite National Park. The hike to the grove is relatively short—only 2.5 miles (4km) round trip—and generally takes around two hours including the stops to crane your neck skyward and admire the ancient trees. One of the park’s three Sequoia groves, Tuolumne Grove is home to 25 of the massive trees, and also includes a “drive through tree,” which although it is no longer open to vehicles, makes for one of the more interesting photos you’ll take when visiting the park.
To learn more about the history of the grove, as well as the trees themselves, you can join in a guided hike to the grove when the trail is open in summer, or experience having the grove to yourself on a snowshoeing trip in winter.
Ansel Adams is known for his striking black-and-white photos, capturing and preserving the wild beauty of nature’s monuments. Through his poignant images of Half Dome and Vernal Fall, Yosemite became a symbol for the evocative drama of the American West, and the park took its place in the hearts and consciousness of the American public.
This towering flow of water is one of Yosemite’s best known waterfalls, accessible on the ground by a moderate hike. Its volume depends on the season, though it generally runs year-round.
Depending on the amount of water, there is either one massive waterfall or several smaller strands falling across the rock to the valley below. Vernal Fall flows from the Nevada Falls above before plunging over the rock. The waterfall is about 317 feet tall, so it’s impressive (and often a bit damp) standing right at its base. Aside from the water there is often lots of greenery surrounding the falls, which adds to its scenery. The falls also produce a fine mist that can create rainbows.
The steep hiking trail that leads to Vernal Fall is mostly rock steps, but the views are worth the climb. There is also plenty of natural scenery, of Merced River and Yosemite Valley, to enjoy on the way up. If you’d rather see it from a distance, Vernal Fall is also visible from the Glacier Point overlook.
Though not as well known as Yosemite’s famous Half Dome, at 4,150 feet high a climb up Sentinel Dome offers some incredible 360 degree views of the national park. The 2.6 mile hike up is well-marked with signs and is easy to follow. From the gently-rounded top you can see the whole of Yosemite Valley, including Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The trail is mostly flat, except for the granite slope to the summit.
Sentinel Dome first became known for the lone Jeffrey Pine tree that grew from its peak. The tree is no longer there, but was well-documented by photographer Ansel Adams. The dome is a sight in itself, but the real rewards are the views from atop. It’s a good alternative to the often crowded viewpoints of Glacier Point, and is particularly scenic during the sunset hours.
More Things to Do in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley is the heart of Yosemite National Park and the place to see all of the iconic sights, from El Capitan and Half Dome to Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls. The valley is also a paradise for outdoorsy travelers; visit for endless opportunities to enjoy hiking, climbing, photography, and other types of adventures.
One of the most iconic hikes in Yosemite, the Mist Trail leads hikers to not one, but two of Yosemite's standout waterfalls: Vernal and Nevada Falls. You can reach the Vernal Fall footbridge (the best view of Vernal Fall) in about 1.5 mile (2.6 km) round-trip; be prepared for a three mile (4.8 km) to reach Vernal Fall. The hike isn't difficult if you stop at the footbridge, but if you continue up to Vernal Fall, be prepared for steps cut into the cliff side.
Pushing on to Nevada Fall will take your total up to a seven mile (11 km) round trip, but it's worth it for some of the finest views in all of Yosemite, encompassing Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the back side of Half Dome. You'll get close enough to the falls that you’ll feel the spray kiss your face and clothes, so wear proper clothing and exercise caution when hiking on the slick rocks.
Of all Yosemite’s lodging options, the Ahwahnee Hotel (formerly the Majestic Yosemite Hotel) stands out not only for its location—you can see Yosemite Falls from the legendary dining room—but also for its interior, redolent of Yosemite’s early years. And you don’t need to book a room to enjoy this National Historic Landmark.
Tioga Pass is the only entrance on the eastern side of Yosemite National Park. At 9,941 feet high, it is the highest point on the mountain drive and one of the most scenic in the park. Views of the surrounding forests and mountains are worth the drive alone, but if you’re after one of the park’s many hiking trails the trailheads for Gaylor Peak, Tioga Peak, and the Twenty Lake Loop are all nearby. For a less active experience, Tioga Lake offers picnic facilities and trout fishing close by.
Driving to and through the Tioga Pass is an adventure: full of tight curves and steep drop-offs. But you’ll be rewarded with some of the most beautiful views in Yosemite Valley, and once you reach the pass you’ll be in the park itself. The road through the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the highest highway pass in California.
Located in the eastern section of Yosemite National Park, Toulumne Meadows provides an alternate view from the popular Yosemite Valley section of the park. A gently rolling, sub-alpine area near the Tuolumne River, the Meadows is home to a wide variety of wildlife, several alpine lakes, hiking trails and plenty of rock climbing.
Try the easy hike to Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge or trek up to Gaylor Lake for spectacular high-country views. Less crowded than the Valley, Toulumne is worth the approximately two-hour drive from the Yosemite Valley to experience this idyllic setting.
The trail to Taft Point offers some of the best views in Yosemite National Park. The viewpoint is an excellent overlook of El Capitan mountain and the valley’s golden meadows.
The 2.2 mile, moderate roundtrip hike to Taft Point is well-shaded by tall trees. Winding through an open meadow area, you can see white quartz and granite hills surrounded by dark green pine forest. The hike is relatively easy given the payoff of the dramatic views once you reach the point.
Most of the trail is flat. There are also vertical cracks visible in the granite cliffs — these are known as The Fissures. The rocky cracks drop all the way down to the valley floor at points and are an impressive natural sight. You can also see Yosemite Falls from the point at the canyon’s edge (not recommended for those with a fear of heights!)
Before there were tourists, photographers, rock climbers, campers, backpackers, and hikers, Yosemite was a place where hardy pioneers would live off the land and brave harsh winters in a daily struggle to survive. Though the park’s facilities are more modern today, you can step back in time to those early days on a visit to Pioneer Yosemite History Center, located in the town of Wawona.
The center is comprised of historical buildings that were built throughout Yosemite Valley but relocated here to Wawona in the 1950s and 60s. See the barn where stagecoaches were prepped for the 8-hour ride to the valley, and homesteader cabins where families would live while ranching and raising their cattle. You can watch a blacksmith work in the shop or learn about cavalry who patrolled the park’s boundary from high atop the saddle. Rather than depicting an historical village, the Pioneer Yosemite History Center is a collection of different eras in the Yosemite Valley’s development, and makes for an informative and educational stop on any Yosemite National Park day tour.
Originating in the southeastern corner of Yosemite National Park, the Merced River flows 145 miles (233 kilometers) westward and through Yosemite Valley. The river and its tributaries are home to some of the most popular recreational activities in the park, including boating, fishing, whitewater rafting, and swimming off of its sandy beaches.
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is home to more than 500 mature giant sequoias, the world’s largest tree species. Nestled within Yosemite National Park, this spot is easy to access from the road and contains 1,900-year-old trees up to 210 feet (64 meters) tall.
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