Best Things To Do in Yosemite
Yosemite is filled to the brim with natural wonders worth writing home about. Travel experts and visitors agree that your to-do list must include the following: Half Dome, Glacier Point and Mariposa Grove. Hikers, follow the masses along the John Muir Trail and the Mist Trail, but also escape and make the trek to Tuolumne Meadows, an area which features a treasure trove of under-visited trails. After a long day of hiking, climbing or skiing, adventurers can put their feet up and grab a bite in Yosemite Valley, where you'll find the bulk of the park's amenities and accommodations.
Updated January 27, 2020
- #1View all PhotosfreeYosemite Valley#1 in YosemiteHiking, Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Unless you are solely planning backcountry expeditions during your trip to Yosemite, chances are you'll end up in Yosemite Valley at one point or another. That's because Yosemite Valley features much of the park's top attractions, including Tunnel View Outlook and a handful of Yosemite's most famous waterfalls, including Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Bridalveil Fall and Yosemite Falls, to name a few. One of the world's largest granite monoliths, El Capitan, is also located here.
Yosemite Valley is an excellent place for first-time visitors to set up shop. In addition to housing many of the park's most popular points of interest, Yosemite Valley is home to Yosemite Village, where you'll find plenty of amenities and lodging options, including campsites and hotels as well as visitor centers, some dining options, including a grocery store, and a couple shops. There are also a handful of lookout points, picnic areas and light trails, perfect for those who aren't looking to do strenuous hiking in Yosemite.
- #2View all Photos#2 in YosemiteHiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDHiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
Along with Glacier Point, Tunnel View is widely considered to be the most popular outlook in all of Yosemite. From its vantage point, travelers get an eyeful of the majestic Yosemite Valley, complete with views of famous park sites, such as Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall. What's more, the outlook is pretty easy to reach. You can find Tunnel View along Wawona Road, which serves as a gateway to Yosemite Valley's many attractions, accommodations and amenities. If you're staying in Yosemite Valley, chances are you will travel along or near Wawona Road.
Recent visitors agreed Tunnel View is a truly amazing sight to behold and shouldn't be missed. Some even suggested visiting Tunnel View first, as many said it's the perfect introduction to Yosemite's incredible landscape. Keep in mind that because the outlook is popular, there probably won't ever be a time where you won't be sharing the road with numerous other travelers, especially during the summer.
- #3View all Photos
Glacier Point is considered one of the best and most comprehensive lookouts in Yosemite. Visitors regularly describe Glacier Point's sweeping, panoramic vistas as "breathtaking," calling it a truly can't-miss spot in the park. From Glacier's vantage point, visitors are treated to panoramic views of Yosemite Valley, as well as landmarks like Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Unlike many lookout points in Yosemite, Glacier Point is accessible via roadway, allowing drivers to forego a difficult climb. This is particularly fortunate if you're traveling with young children who would otherwise be unable to enjoy a scenic, high-altitude view of the Yosemite Valley.
Because this is such an accessible attraction, as well as one of Yosemite's most popular, recent travelers urge visiting during off-peak hours if you have a car. Otherwise, there's a big chance you won't find parking. If you visit during peak hours, which are between 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from mid-May to September, you may be directed by park rangers to park elsewhere and take a shuttle from Badger Pass to Glacier Point. To avoid the chaos, wake up early, or as some travelers suggest, visit in the evening for an unforgettable sunset.
- #4View all Photos
Hiking Yosemite's Half Dome Cables Route has been described as unforgettable and even life-changing by travelers. But this expedition is not for the faint of heart. The trail is about 14 to 16 miles long and features elevation gains totaling 4,800 feet (for reference, the elevation gain on the Mist Trail is between 1,000 and 2,000 feet, depending on which waterfall you visit). On this hike, the challenge begins immediately with a steep ascent up the Mist Trail, which serves as a good litmus test to see if you're in adequate condition for the remaining journey. The hike then continues to the top of Nevada Fall, followed by a long, flat section through Yosemite Valley. When you finally reach the base of the dome, a steep rocky climb finally takes you to the Half Dome Cables, a vertical, exposed rock face scalable by two steel cables.
If you're afraid of heights or are not in excellent physical condition, don't ascend the cables. You can still enjoy many of the dome's tamer sections, such as the trip to Nevada Fall. If you are going to try the entire hike, you'll need to allot at least 12 hours. The National Park Service recommends you leave just before or at dawn, and advises you to bring all necessary hiking equipment, including durable hiking boots, a flashlight and good grip gloves for the cables. You'll also need at least a gallon of water, and don't rely on park facilities for hydration or a bathroom break (the NPS suggests bringing your own toilet paper).
- #5View all Photos
In the east section of the park you'll find Tuolumne Meadows, known for being one of the Sierra Nevada's largest high-elevation meadows at 8,600 feet. Here, you'll find plenty of scenery to write home about, including the peaceful grasslands, lush forests, windy, bubbling rivers and creeks and scenic mountainscapes. You can experience the scenery from the comfort of your own car, thanks to the vista points posted along Tioga Road (Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake), or take advantage of the many trails available within the vicinity.
Luckily for hikers, there are a plethora of trails available. The least time-consuming trail is the flat, 1½-mile hike to Soda Springs, which goes right through the meadows. Continue farther along the trail and you'll hit the Glen Aulin trailhead. Glen Aulin is a much longer hike (11 miles) but offers more variety in terms of landscape, including closer dome views, waterfalls and a much more active section of the Tuolumne River, such as whitewater rapids. If that's too long of a trek, consider a more moderate hike to one of the region's many alpine lakes, including the Gaylor Lakes hike, a 2-mile trail that takes visitors to a stunning collection of small, alpine lakes about 500 feet above Tioga Pass. There's also Cathedral Lakes, one of the area's most popular trails (7 miles) and Mono Pass (8 miles), the latter of which goes straight into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For more information about hiking in Tuolumne Meadows, visit Yosemite National Park's website.
- #6View all PhotosfreeMist Trail#6 in YosemiteHiking, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHiking, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The Mist Trail is one of the park's most popular trails. What makes The Mist Trail so unique is not its sites – Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall – but how you get there. To get to the top of the falls, hikers must climb a 600-step granite staircase that snakes right up alongside the hundreds-foot-tall plunge, taking visitors close enough to where mist from the falls sprays out onto the trail. Hence the name, the Mist Trail. The falls reach their peak from late spring to early summer, so if you want the traditional Mist Trail experience, with a light, natural shower while hiking, come during that time.
Because the hike is predominately uphill, many hikers tend to take the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall and back down – a nearly 2½-mile hike roundtrip, which is estimated by the NPS to take about three hours. For a greater challenge, you can continue your hike farther upward to Nevada Fall, which takes about five to six hours to complete and features an elevation gain of an additional 1,000 feet (to Vernal Fall, the elevation gain is 1,000 feet from sea level). If you don't want to hike up the often slippery Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada falls, you can always take the John Muir Trail, which features vantage points of the falls as well as fantastic views of the surrounding forest and valley.
- #7View all Photos
"Giant" seems to be an understatement for this expansive grove of Sequoia trees in the southernmost section of Yosemite. Mariposa is one of three groves in the park where visitors can view sequoia trees. The distinction between Mariposa Grove and the others is that Mariposa is the largest, housing about 500 mature giant sequoia trees that are thousands of years old. Featured sights include the Fallen Monarch (a giant tree that fell hundreds of years ago) and the Grizzly Giant, which is estimated to be around 1,800 years old and is about 90 feet in circumference. There's also the fun California Tunnel Tree, which is the only sequoia in Yosemite that features a manmade tunnel carved out the middle of the trunk. Admire the towering trees on one of the area's many hiking trails. Trails range from easy to strenuous, with the Big Trees Loop Trail being the easiest. This 30- to 45-minute hike (which is paved) takes travelers past a variety of giant sequoias, including the Fallen Monarch, with interpretive panels explaining the life of sequoias stationed along the route.
Previous travelers highly recommend a visit, even though it is a bit of a drive from Yosemite Valley (about an hour).
Explore More of Yosemite
If you make a purchase from our site, we may earn a commission. This does not affect the quality or independence of our editorial content.