Yosemite National Park has a little bit of everything for outdoor enthusiasts and avid sightseers. Stark mountains, striking meadows, forests with some of the nation's largest trees, and waterfalls with some of its most well-known drops attract thousands of visitors every year. Both a UNESCO Heritage Site and a U.S. National Park designated as the nation's first public preserve by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, the park is a bucket list destination for many travelers. From epic sights to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, Yosemite National Park invites you to check these items off your list.
Hiking Half Dome
Thanks to beautiful photos taken by nature photographer Ansel Adams, images of Half Dome reside on the desktop computers of many Americans. The iconic peak is a can't-miss part of the Yosemite experience, but you shouldn't just experience the granite monolith from the valley floor. If you're up to the challenge of a serious hike, pack your gear and climb to the top of the 8,842-foot mountain (4,733-foot climb from the base). The panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding Sierra Nevada are worth every step.
The trek is challenging, even for experienced hikers, and includes via ferrata (iron rope ladder) at the top of the ascent. Depending on the route, the day hike runs 14 to 16.4 miles and takes most hikers between 10 and 12 hours, according to the National Park Service. A lottery system issues 300 permits per day, beginning in March, to ensure safety and minimal crowding on the hike.
The Roar of the Wild
Due to lingering snow that can keep some parts of the park closed to visitors, spring is a challenging time to take in all of Yosemite's attractions, but it's the only time to see one of the park's most unique sights — explosive waterfalls that thunder down cliff faces in May and June from winter’s runoff but are all but extinct by peak tourist season in August.
One of the tallest falls in the world, the 2,425-foot-high Yosemite Falls is one of the park's best known and most visited spring falls. The falls are actually composed of three separate drops that are visible from the floor of Yosemite Valley, and the base is reachable via a flat, wheelchair-accessible one-mile loop path. If you're up for a steep ascent, climb to the top of summit on an all-day hike.
Many of Yosemite's other major falls, including 2,000-foot Sentinel Falls and 1,612-foot Ribbon Fall, are visible from the valley floor. Horsetail Fall, one of the park's most unusual falls, is worth the hike from the trailhead at the El Capitan picnic area. When seen at sunset, particularly in February, it glows bright red as if it's on fire.
Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada, coming in at 8,600 feet. During the winter this area is inaccessible, but the warmer weather makes Tuolumne the perfect spring or summertime trip. Pack up the family, grab your camera, and prepare to be astounded by the views of Tuolumne’s high alpine meadows, streams and some of Yosemite’s highest peaks.
There are many ways to venture into the area of Tuolumne Meadows. Whether you’re interested in hiking along the Tuolumne River, photographing the stunning night sky or daytime wildflowers, taking a trail ride on the back of a mule guide, or camping (in a tent or cabin) to get the full wilderness experience, Tuolumne Meadows has something for everyone.
If you fancy yourself a novice hiker and are looking for a hike in Yosemite that won’t take an entire day, venture to the stunning Lembert Dome. Known for its short distance, minimal elevation gain, and fantastic views, Lembert Dome is one of the shortest hikes from the east Yosemite entrance. Another bonus is that this dome is pretty close to Tuolumne Village, and despite its scenic appeal and accessibility, still has a reputation for being less crowded than many other hiking areas.
This hike is a total of 2.8 miles in length and ranges in times from 1.5-3hrs depending on hiking experience and fitness levels. According to Yosemite’s website, there is a parking lot at the trailhead, and the trail ends near the gift shop at Mono Lake—giving you the opportunity to purchase a classic Yosemite post-hike souvenir.
Ranger & Interpretative Programs
Whether you’re visiting Yosemite for the first time or you’re a seasoned camper there, be sure to take advantage of the unique tours, programs, and walks offered through the park. If you’re hiking with children, enjoy a 45-minute program for kids, known as “Wild Wee Ones.” This program offers stories, crafts, and activities geared to explore wildlife, geology and cultural history for children ages 10 and under.
For fun for the whole family, take a walk with a real Yosemite Ranger. Yosemite offers free “Yosemite Ranger Walk & Talks,” guided walks that range from 1 to 1.5 hours, and include ranger-only known pieces of wisdom such as stories about the park’s geology, the culture of the area’s first native people, wildlife, and so on. These walks are offered in all areas of the park, depending on the weather. For more examples of programs and classes available in the park, be sure to explore the full list on their website.
Hetch Hetchy is an area of Yosemite that is available to explore year-round, and the stunning views make it a must-see. Located in Yosemite’s peaceful northwest corner, Hetch Hetchy proudly claims one of the longest hiking seasons the park has to offer. This area will have you awe-inspired with its many large waterfalls, wildflowers, remote lakes, hidden canyons, and high peaks.
You won’t be able to miss the view of the 117-billion-gallon reservoir enclosed by the O’Shaughnessy Dam, built in 1938. From there, take on the five-mile round-trip hike along the shore of the reservoir to get to beautiful Tueeulala and Wapama Falls. And for a view from the highest point in the area, take a long hike (13-16 miles from the entrance station) to get to Smith Peak.
In the summer when the park overflows with visitors in every bed and camper spot, it's challenging to experience the stillness and connection with wilderness that led famed naturalist John Muir to say of Yosemite in 1868, "It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of nature I was ever permitted to enter." Even in the midst of a holiday weekend, it's possible to enjoy a more solitary experience by taking advantage of the backcountry camping program and hut-to-hut hiking route.
Like the Half Dome hike, spots in the backcountry huts are available via a lottery system. If you win a spot, you can either create your own route for hiking independently or in your own group between your choice of huts. You can also opt for ranger-led five-day or seven-day pre-selected routes. As for the perks, hiking hut-to-hut in Yosemite means you can lighten the load by leaving tents and camper stoves at home and experience mountain-top fine dining by reserving onsite meals at the huts consisting of fresh, local, four-course meals every evening as a reward for a good day of hiking.
Are there more national parks sitting on your bucket list? Be sure to explore our other guides to national parks across the country, from Kenai Fjords to Pacific Rim, White Mountain, and the Grand Canyon.