Yosemite National Park is one of the most well-known and appreciated national parks the United States has to offer. Millions of visitors have been left in awe at the natural wonder and majesty of the sheer granite cliffs, massive stands of old-growth forest, abundant wildlife, and the pure, natural beauty that Yosemite offers.
Yosemite is a 747,000 acre park in California. The most popular features of the park are El Capitan and Half Dome, which are incredible displays of nature that are great for extreme sports enthusiasts, but there are many things to see beyond just these towering cliffs.
The best thing about Yosemite is how versatile it is for visitors. The more adventurous can go hiking and rock climbing, or snowshoeing in the winter, and the creative ones can expand their skills in photography and drawing.
There’s also camping, hiking the trails, admiring the waterfalls, and renting bikes to see the stunning landscape.
Keep in mind that reservations are required to drive into Yosemite National Park and permits are required for some hikes, like Half Dome. Limited reservations are available seven days before your arrival date. So be prepared and plan ahead.
Must-See Attractions at Yosemite National Park
While the valley is home to the most iconic, postcard-like images of Yosemite, over 95% of the park is wilderness area that almost no one ever visits.
While you’re there, you should plan to see both the top spots as well as a few of the lesser-seen sights. This post will give you a taste of what activities you should include in your plan.
For more in depth information, check out this complete guide to the park to help you plan your vacation.
Half Dome is a granite dome in Yosemite National Park, located at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. The top of the dome is 4,800 feet off of the valley floor. It’s possibly Yosemite’s most famous sight.
For experienced hikers/climbers, the Half Dome Trail is a challenge and a privilege to hike. It’s 17 miles of heavily trafficked out and back trail with the last bit being a cable-assisted route up the vertical face of Half Dome.
For those of us who are not climbers, you can admire Half Dome from the Sentinel Bridge or from Glacier Point or Washburn Point. Each of these viewpoints offer a beautiful and distinct view of Half Dome.
The park is extremely famous among mountain climbers for the 3500 foot vertical granite wall of El Capitan. Just as with Half Dome, this sheer rock face is accessible only to experienced rock climbers with a valid permit. But that doesn’t mean you can’t admire its massive presence from afar.
A great place to see the sheer face of El Capitan and to watch the climbers ascending it is at El Capitan Meadows. You get there on the Northside Drive, near the west end of Yosemite Valley.
El Capitan Meadow also provides a great view of Lower and Middle Cathedral Rock, and the Cathedral Spires. You can visit both day and night, and I recommend going at night if at all possible, to see the headlamps of the climbers and get a glimpse of the stars.
Another great but lesser known spot to view from is at Cathedral Beach located off Southside Drive. From here there’s a more slender profile of the rock that’s truly a wonder.
Indigenous Village of the Ahwahnee
While the famous naturalist John Muir is often credited for his lifelong dedication towards defending the natural beauty of Yosemite and eventually helping it be turned into a national park, long before Muir the Ahwahnee indigenous people lived and cared for the land.
For folks interested in the history of the region and how its original inhabitants carved out a way of life that revered and protected the natural wonders of the mountainous landscape, a trip to the indigenous village of the Ahwahnee is well worth your time.
One of the most appreciated panoramic views of Yosemite National Park is at Glacier Point which anyone with a car can drive up to. During weekends especially, you will usually find a host of tourists and picture takers all vying for the best spot.
If you want a little bit more seclusion and privacy to enjoy the views at Yosemite, only five miles away is Taft Point. You will have to leave the car and hike about a mile in from the road, but the view is just as impressive without all the crowds.
For people wanting a quiet place to meditate and enjoy the otherworldly views of Yosemite Valley, this is the place to head.
Go on a Photography Walk
As we’ve mentioned, millions of people over the years have come to Yosemite to enjoy the views. Ansel Adams, the famed nature photographer made Yosemite one of the center pieces of his work which is esteemed by photographers all over the world. There are so many amazing viewpoints from which to take your own Ansel-esque photos.
- Washburn Point provides a beautiful and distinct view of Half Dome
- Mirror Lake, a short hike in the Yosemite Valley with fantastic views
- Glacier point offers spectacular panoramas of the whole valley, with waterfalls and views of the dome.
- Tunnel View – see the valley with El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls in front of you and Half Dome in the back
When faced with a decision about which waterfall to see while at Yosemite, most people opt for Yosemite Falls, which is the highest waterfall in Yosemite National Park, and on the continent, dropping a total of 2,425 feet from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall.
Yosemite Falls Trail leads to the top. The trail starts near Camp 4, along the Valley Loop Trail, and immediately climbs in elevation with switchback after switchback through the forest. If you’re up for the 1 mile, 1,000 foot climb up to Columbia Rock, there are spectacular views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Sentinel Rock. Then you can hike another half mile to see the stunning views Upper Yosemite Fall.
Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall Trails
Vernal Falls is a spectacular 317-foot waterfall. The hike down and back up is steep and strenuous but the views and the mist on your face will be sure to keep you invigorated during the trek.
You can also take the John Muir Trail to the top of Vernal Fall (via the Clark Point cutoff) and the top of Nevada Fall, or combine the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail into a loop.
For more information and a complete trail guide for these hikes, see this resource.
Not everyone is up for scaling Half Dome or El Capitan, the two most famous peaks in Yosemite. However, located above the enchanting Tuolumne Meadows, Lembert Dome is another massive granite peak that is a little easier to climb than its bigger brothers.
The 2.8 mile roundtrip is doable for most hikers, and the views of the surrounding meadows are absolutely stunning. Make it a priority to be at the top near sunset for some fantastic color in the horizon.
Tours you may enjoy:
Planning a Visit to Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is located about 200 miles east of San Francisco (SFO), about 3 to 4 hours drive by road.
By Road Take the Oakland-Bay Bridge to Highway 80 East, Take Highway 580 East and follow signs for Tracy/Stockton to Highway 20, Highway 205 to Highway 120 and into Yosemite National Park. It takes about one hour from park entrance to Yosemite Valley and Village.
AMTRAK serves San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento to and from Merced/Riverbank, and connects with VIA bus lines for direct service to Yosemite Valley.
When to Go
Yosemite Valley receives most of its visitors in early spring to early summer, which is when the waterfalls are in full intensity and the weather is at its prime. From June to September the park can get very crowded, especially on weekends and while school is out for summer.
How Much Does it Cost?
The park entrance fee is $35 per car and it’s valid for 7 days. You have the option to drive around yourself around the park, but to maintain the natural beauty of the park and to keep it a pollution-free zone, there is a free shuttle buses to most of the popular spots.
High amounts of traffic is common especially at the entrance, but once you get inside, it will start to spread out and not cause as many issue. Still, I highly suggest taking the shuttle bus to the sights anyways.
Where to Stay in Yosemite
Yosemite National Park provides a variety of lodging and camping. Official discounted Yosemite National Park lodging ranges from basic tent cabins with nearby toilet facilities to the more luxurious lodging in The Ahwahnee, a distinctive hotel that is the pride of Yosemite National Park.
You can examine the variety of Yosemite National Park lodging online, and it may be possible to make reservations.
Get Off the Beaten Path
When planning your trip to Yosemite, make sure you leave enough time on the agenda to go beyond the well-known and overly visited attractions at Yosemite National Park.
While you should definitely check out Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, make sure to get to some of the smaller attractions mentioned, as well, to get a glimpse into a side of Yosemite that most visitors are never fortunate enough to see and experience.
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(This is a guest post by Scott Moses from LiveOnceLiveWild.com)