Yosemite has long been an inspiration to artists, climbers and nature lovers. Beginning in the 1920s, Anos Adams’ stunning black and white photographs of Yosemite drew attention to the park’s stunning landscapes and iconic sites like never before. After World War II, climbers descended into the park, mulling over how to scale the beautiful sheer walls. In their attempts, failures, and eventual successes, they created a cult following in Yosemite like no other climbing area in history. And campers and hikers everywhere come here to lose themselves in the park’s beautiful mountains and valleys.
The most famous and beautiful part of the park is Yosemite Valley, home to well-known tourist attractions, such as Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. Outside the valley, two main roads provide seasonal access to other parts of the park. Glacier Road provides access to beautiful views of the Yosemite Valley. Tioga Road crosses the park in an east-west direction and passes through the alpine landscape, where you can find beautiful and often less busy hiking trails. Due to the elevation, Tioga Road opens later in the spring than Glacier Road. While the most famous sites are concentrated in the Yosemite Valley, there are things to do throughout the park, from hiking, biking, and climbing, to visiting museums and galleries.
Read also: day trips from San Francisco
1 Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls tumbles over a granite wall, pounding the rocks at the base of the cliff. It is one of Yosemite Valley’s most memorable and striking features. Whenever you drive through the valley, treetops and curves repeatedly come into view. The falls look different from any angle, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off you.
You don’t have to hike or even get out of your car to appreciate the beauty of this waterfall, but the most complete view and one of the best views of the falls is from the start of the Yosemite Falls hike, along the not -handicapped route on the left side of the river. You can walk to the base of the falls with minimal effort and feel the mist sweep over you. Another excellent perspective can be found at the picnic area on the Swing Bridge.
2 Half dome
Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most famous sites and best known in the climbing world for being one of the first “big climbs.” This granite icon looks much different depending on the angle you view it from. Looking at the sheer rock face from the valley floor, the sheer size of the wall is evident and you can understand why climbers are drawn here. You can also see Half Dome in the distance from Tunnel View, but the best place to view it is from the Glacier Point lookout. From here you get a true picture of the rock, how it rises from the valley floor and how much higher it stands than the surrounding mountains. The dome shape is clearly visible and you can easily see why it is called Half Dome. For a close-up view of the rock face, the Mirror Lake hike is the best option.
3 the captain
Legendary among climbers, El Capitan is a 3,000-foot bluff on the north side of Yosemite Valley. It is 1000 feet higher than Half Dome’s face. From the tunnel view vantage point, El Capitan is the massive cliff on the left side of the valley, standing remarkably higher than anything in sight at this point.
You can see the wall as you drive through the valley, but many people stop and view or photograph it from El Capitan Meadow off the North Drive through Yosemite Valley. As this is a one way road it is best to check it out on your way out of the valley. At certain times of the day, rangers set up in the pasture and offer talks on El Capitan. If you want to get close to or even touch the wall, you can park on the right side of the same road, behind the El Capitan picnic area, and walk to the wall. The short track is marked to an open field not far from the face, and rudimentary paths lead from here through trees and boulders to the base of the wall. Climbers are almost always set up here. Not many visitors walk to the wall and this trail is not promoted by the park.
El Capitan gained renewed interest with Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent in June 2017. He became the first person to climb El Capitan without cables and completely unassisted. The climb took three hours and 56 minutes.
4 Tunnel view
The most classic view of Yosemite Valley is from Tunnel View. This vista, which will feel very familiar to most visitors, extends to El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Val on the right, Half Dome in the distance, and also takes in the lush valley below the massive granite walls. While it’s an incredible sight any time of the day, in the morning the walls are mostly in shadow. The best time to appreciate this scene is in the afternoon when the walls are bathed in sunlight. The parking lot is just past the tunnel as you enter Yosemite Valley from Wawona Road. If you are going to Glacier Point from the valley, you will pass through Tunnel View just before entering the tunnel.
5 Glacier Point
A drive through Yosemite Valley usually involves looking up to see the sites. Glacier Point, at an elevation of over 7,200 feet, gives you sweeping views of the entire valley, as well as many other sites beyond, and offers a whole new perspective. This is one of the most incredible views in Yosemite National Park and is an absolute must-see attraction.
The drive from Yosemite Village to Glacier Point takes about an hour, but you’ll also find hikes and other viewpoints in the area worth exploring. The Four Mile Trail hike runs from Glacier Point at 3,200 feet to Yosemite Valley and ends at Sentinel Rock. Despite the name, the trail is nearly five miles. It is also a steep slope and in a relatively poor condition. Washburn Point, not far from Glacier Point, is an equally spectacular lookout with fantastic views over Vernal Fall.
6 Bridal Veil Autumn
Another classic sight in Yosemite National Park is Bridalveil Fall, at the southern end of Yosemite Valley. This is an easy waterfall to reach on foot, with a short trail that takes you right to the base. From here you can feel the spray hitting you and hear the thumping water as it crashes onto the boulders. From Tunnel View you can get a good look at the falls from a higher vantage point.
It’s hard to imagine visiting Yosemite without hitting some of the hiking trails. The park offers a wide variety of hikes, from quick and easy, including some with wheelchair-accessible trails, to multi-day or multi-day hikes. The most popular routes are hiking to waterfalls or overlooks, but you can also hike to mountain lakes and meadows. The shorter and easier trails in the valley are always the busiest, but it’s possible to escape the crowds if you tackle some of the longer hikes or those with more elevation gain. Walks along the Tioga Road are also less crowded, but only accessible in the summer.
One of the park’s most famous hikes is the hike to Half Dome; a huge day hike with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and an open cable section. Easier, more family-friendly walks include Mirror Lakes, the walk to the Vernal Fall Footbridge, and beyond the footbridge to the Mist Trail. In the summer, when the Tioga Road is open, you can walk through beautiful alpine scenery. Also seasonal, but usually with a longer season, the Sentinel Dome and Taft Point hikes along the Glacier Road are popular sunset trails.
For a fuller look at the options, check out our article on the best hikes in Yosemite National park. If you don’t want to hike alone or prefer to go with a guide, you can sign up for a Yosemite Hiking excursion designed to suit your ability.
Yosemite is the most famous rock climbing destination in the United States, and for many climbers it is the pinnacle of their climbing careers. Half Dome and El Capitan have been luring climbers for decades. Climbing legends and leaders in the sport such as Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Jim Bridwell and Alex Honnold all put names on the walls of Yosemite. Camping Camp 4, the place where climbers have pitched their tents since the 1950s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in climbing. It’s hard to imagine another location so closely associated with the sport of climbing.
Rock climbing in the park is still as popular as ever in Yosemite. On any given day, you can see climbers clinging to El Capitan’s face or lining up at its base. In June 2017, Alex Honnold made history by completing the first solo free ascent of El Capitan.
9 Tioga Road
The breathtaking mountain scenery along Tioga Road, Highway 120, runs east-west through Yosemite and is a wonderful place for summer hiking and camping. Wild flowers bloom in the open meadows and pristine lakes reflect the mountain peaks. Due to its elevation, this road is only open in the summer and opens later than Glacier Point Road. At the park’s eastern entrance is Tioga Pass, which has an elevation of 9,945 feet.
Highlights here include the views from Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake and the surrounding hiking trails. Near Tuolumne Meadows, you can hike to the Lembert Dome and reach the winding back of the dome.
10 Yosemite Museum en Indian Village
While most people only think of Yosemite’s natural wonders, the Sierra Nevada region in and around Yosemite has been inhabited for over 3,000 years. You can learn all about the valley’s first people at the Yosemite Museum and Indian Village. The museum displays artifacts and educators are on hand to give demonstrations and answer questions. Behind the building are some bark-covered residences built in the traditional style used by the Miwok people, who once lived in the area, as well as their later Euro-American style buildings. The museum is free and conveniently located in Yosemite Village.
Families, especially those camping in the park, can enjoy some easy cycling. In addition to cycling on the roads, the park offers 12 miles of covered trails. One of the most popular areas for casual biking is along the paved road on the north side of the river, which leads to Mirror Lake. Many people walk this stretch, but you can easily cycle to the start of the lake and walk the last short stretch to the upper part of the lake. Another loop, east of Half Dome Village, passes the Upper Pines Campground and runs along the trail to Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, and the John Muir Trail. This road is only accessible to bicycles, pedestrians, shuttle buses, and wheelchair transport vehicles. Bicycle rental is available at Half Dome Village.
12 Ansel Adams Gallery
Although Ansel Adams’ photography went far beyond Yosemite, his name and works are closely associated with this park, where he shot many famous images. His powerful black and white images of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley and Jeffrey Pine are some of his most well-known works.
This little gallery makes an interesting stop if you’re in Yosemite Village. Even if you’re not looking for a piece of art, you can be inspired to create your own masterpieces after seeing some of the artwork on display in this shop. The shop sells original photographs, reproductions, posters, books and more by Ansel Adams.
Where to stay near Yosemite National Park
The best place to stay, if it’s within your budget, is right in the park. It allows you to bypass traffic coming in and out of the park, eliminates the hassle of finding parking, and takes the stress out of almost every aspect of a visit to Yosemite. If staying in the park doesn’t fit into your spending plan, you’ll have to commute. Hotel options near Yosemite are surprisingly limited, but you can find a few good hotels in the nearby small towns.
- In the Park: For a combination of luxury, convenience, and history, you can’t beat The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, classified by the National Parks system as a Premier Lodge. Built in 1927, this remarkable hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also a National Historic Landmark, it is located in the heart of the Yosemite Valley, surrounded by the park’s iconic sites. The stone façade and open-beamed ceilings blend in with the landscape, while the rooms offer modern comfort and elegance.
- El Portal : One of the best options for day trips to Yosemite is the Cedar Lodge in the small town of El Portal, just 30 minutes from Yosemite Village, off Highway 140. This is a mid-range motel with a pool. The rooms are large and some have a full kitchen and a separate bedroom.
- Highway 120 and Groveland: Rush Creek Lodge is located on Highway 120, about 50 minutes west of Yosemite Valley. The hotel offers rooms and suites with balconies, a large outdoor pool, a games room and a restaurant. Further up in Groveland, The Groveland Hotel is unassuming but cute.
- Oakhurst: While commuting makes for a long day trip so far, you can find some decent hotels in Oakhurst, about a 1.5-hour drive from the main area of the park. Two good options here are the Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn and the Yosemite Southgate Hotel & Suites.
More ideas for planning your California adventures
Looking for inspiring travel ideas to add to your bucket list? How about hiking under the tallest trees on the planet in Redwood National and State Parks or camping with the tallest trees on Earth in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park? Hike Lake Tahoe’s hiking trails along the shores of the deepest alpine lake in the United States. To discover the wonders of the desert, head to the fascinating landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, where you can do all sorts of things, then spend the night camping under the stars. And when you’re ready for a break, find a romantic getaway in California and relax a bit.