Your Guide to Yosemite National Park

From Half Dome to El Capitan, Yosemite National Park’s iconic granite monoliths are not only a sight to see, but also a rock playground for climbers. The park is home to some of the tallest waterfalls in North America, the largest trees on earth, miles of hiking trails, and an abundance of wildlife. Yosemite spans 1,000 square miles over a range of elevations from 3,000 feet to 13,000 feet. It is home to diverse ecosystems and a habitat to more than 400 animal species including the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

Yosemite National Park’s eastern entrance at Tioga Pass is just a 45-minute drive from Mammoth Lakes making it a great day trip destination or stopping point on a longer California road trip. With three to four million visitors annually, Yosemite is one of the most popular national parks in America. From sightseeing to outdoor adventures there’s something for everyone to do in Yosemite National Park.

History

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864 protecting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of the Giant Sequoias and designating the area for the enjoyment of the people. Later in 1890, it became a federally designated national park when President Benjamin Harrison signed the legislation creating the nation’s third national park. The national park encompassed additional land including Tuolumne Meadows and the Hetch Hetchy valley. It wasn’t until 1916 that the National Park Service was established to manage the national parks, monuments and other federal historical and conservation areas.

Sightseeing

It’s tough to see it all in Yosemite, but with a number of scenic overlooks a casual drive through the park is great for sightseeing. You can take your own car, hop on the park shuttle, or join a sightseeing tour. From a number of vantage points, the majesty of the valley is striking.

From Olmstead Point on Tioga Road, you will have a high vantage point from the east looking down into Yosemite Valley. Half Dome can be seen at a distance.

Glacier Point is consider one of the best viewpoints in the park and is located at the end of Glacier Point Road. You will see unparalleled views of Half Dome and the high country peaks as well as Vernal and Nevada Falls. Washburn Point, which is just south of Glacier Point on the same road, has even better views of the waterfalls.

From the east end of Wawona Tunnel on Highway 41 (Wawona road), the Tunnel View offers the classic Yosemite viewpoint. From here you will see El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls with Half Dome in the distance.

Head to El Capitan Meadow in Yosemite Valley a straight up look at the iconic climbing wall. From here you’ll also have a great view of Cathedral Rocks and see an abundance of wildflowers in season.

Also in the valley, the Sentinel Bridge is a favorite viewing platform of Half Dome and its reflection in the calm waters of the Merced River.

Located at the west end of Hetch Hetchy Valley, the O’Shaugnessy Dam, is a fantastic viewpoint of the valley’s waterfalls and reservoir.

For an up-close look at more than 500 giant sequoias head to the Mariposa Grove near the park’s southern entrance. Although the region will be partially closed in 2015 and 2016 for restoration projects, you can still see the world’s largest trees on the outer loop foot trail.

Hiking

There are more than 800-miles of trails in Yosemite National Park with various lengths and level of difficulty. With the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trails passing through the park, there are plenty of options for longer days and overnight trips as well as easy hikes to great viewpoints.

For a short and easy hike take the Mirror Lake Trail to a large shallow pool in Tenaya Creek that offers a stunning reflection of Half Dome. It’s an easy 2-mile round trip hike, or you can continue on the trail and loop around crossing the creek at a footbridge and returning to the trail in five miles.

The point-to-point Panorama Trail is a favorite for scenic views. The trail departs from Glacier Point and descends more than 8 miles to Happy Isles, offering unobstructed views of the valley’s iconic sights along the way.

The out-and-back hike to May Lake might be short in distance, but it’s fantastic for scenery. The May Lake Trail climbs gradually for one mile to the south shore of the lake. More adventurous hikers will climb two more miles on a use trail to the summit of Mount Hoffman.

The 14-mile Cloud’s Rest Trail is one of the best long routes in the park. The trail climbs steadily from the trailhead at Tenaya Lake past Sunrise Lakes toward the ridge. You’ll walk up pancake-like stacked granite rocks to the summit to one of the best the overlooks of Half Dome, Tenaya Canyon, and Yosemite Valley. The Glen Aulin Trail is arguably the most popular in the Tuolumne high country, and for good reason. The 12-mile hike is moderate in distance and follows the Pacific Crest Trail north to Glen Aulin, a High Sierra Camp situated at the base of White Cascade and Tuolumne Falls.

Waterfalls

Yosemite National Park is famous for its abundance of tall and spectacular waterfalls. The spring and early summer are the best times to see the waterfalls when snowmelt is at its peak.

At 2,425-feet tall, Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America. A short footpath leads to a viewpoint at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, but more adventurous hikers will want to climb the trail to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. From the trailhead at Camp 4 the trail climbs straight up. If you can’t make the entire trek there is a great viewpoint at 1.2 miles.

Popular for its views, The Mist Trail is the quintessential waterfall hike in Yosemite. In less than one mile you will reach a footbridge that is a great viewing platform at the base of Vernal and Nevada Falls. Many casual walkers will turn around here. For more up-close views, continue up the granite staircase to the top of the falls.

Bridalveil Falls resembles a bridal veil when the wind picks up and sprays the mist. It’s not the tallest waterfall in the park, but it flows year-round because its source is a spring creek. The trail to the base of the falls is wide, flat, and paved, which makes it easy and accessible for everyone.

Located on the south side of Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Falls is a cascading waterfall that is 2,000 feet tall. You can see this waterfall from the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area and from across Yosemite Valley near Leidig Meadow, or from the Upper Yosemite Fall trail.

Horsetail Fall is known for its glowing colors when it reflects the sunset in February, but the waterfall is beautiful year-round. It can be seen from El Capitan picnic area.

Art and Photography

Just about anywhere you look in Yosemite National Park is sure to inspire your natural creativity. Yosemite National Park has a storied history with art and photography from Ansel Adams black and white images to Native American art.

The Ansel Adams Gallery shows the work of Ansel Adams as well contemporary photographers and artists. The gallery also offers classes throughout the year.

If you just want to see some of the lesser-known local and Native American artists, visit the Yosemite Museum in Yosemite Valley.

To join a guided photography walk, check with the visitor’s center for a schedule. You can also channel your inner artist in a class at the Yosemite Art Center.

Monica Prelle

Monica Prelle is an outdoors, wine, and travel writer who would rather be running, climbing, or mountain biking. See more of Monica's posts here, read more of her work at monicaprelle.com and connect on twitter @monicaprelle

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