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Yosemite National Park is the trip of a lifetime. It has literally countless iconic views and attractions, from Glacier Point to Wawona, with much to see and do in between. Knowing the ins and outs of the park can make all the difference when trying to see everything Yosemite has to offer. Optimizing a trip here requires research and planning, but if you're willing to hop into the captain's seat, you can make your unforgettable trip to Yosemite smooth sailing. That means less stress and more time to enjoy the incredible natural beauty this famously stunning park has to offer.
Northside Drive, Yosemite Valley, CA, US
Tourism came to the Yosemite area in 1855, following the California Gold Rush of 1848. When the National Park Service was founded in 1916, Yosemite was quickly added to its jurisdiction. The ancient, glacially-sculpted Yosemite Valley is the highlight of the park. Most of the famous Yosemite sights are packed into the 7 square-mile area of the Yosemite Valley, just one percent of the whole park. The Valley is dense with hikes, scenic views, and natural features, so don't feel too bad if you stick to the essential stops here... but if you're looking to get further out and discover hidden gems, it's very much possible. Plan to park at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and take advantage of the free shuttle bus system that criss-crosses the park. It'll save you time, money, and stress, and the buses go right to some of the most popular attractions.
Yosemite Valley, CA, US
Glacier Point is one of the most famous views in all of Yosemite (possibly tied with Tunnel View). You can drive most of the way to the overlook along Glacier Point Road-- it's about an hour from the Yosemite Valley. There's also a guided bus tour, or you can take Four Mile trail (which is actually 4.6 miles long) up. The viewpoint is a short walk from the parking area, so it's easy to access. You'll get a sweeping view of the U-shaped Yosemite Valley from the south, with Half Dome towering above it all. It's at an elevation of 7,214 feet, 3,200 feet above Half Dome Village. Pro tip: While you're here check out Washburn Point, which is just south of Glacier Point. It offers better views of Vernal and Nevada Falls.
9010 Curry Village Drive, Yosemite Valley, CA, US
Half Dome Village is a popular campground in the park, thanks to its great location and rich history. The Village dates back to 1899, when it was called Camp Curry. The entire complex is located on the National Register of Historic Places, and some of the buildings date to when the Curry family first developed the site. Today, the campground has a bunch of canvas tent cabins for rent, as well as some wooden cabins and a lodge with rooms. A pizza deck, tacos, ice cream, coffee, bike rentals, a pool, ranger-led programs, and a shuttle stop make this one of the more convenient and fun places to stay in Yosemite. You'll have to book these accommodations as soon as possible; even though there are nearly 500 rooms and tents, they fill up fast.
The Mist Trail is a popular hike that highlights Yosemite's two most iconic cascades: Vernal and Nevada Falls. Shorten the hike and just visit Vernal Falls for a 3-mile round trip, or add on Nevada Falls, which makes the round trip seven miles. You can hike to the trailhead from Curry Village, which is an extra 1.5 miles, or simply hop on the shuttle bus. Prepare to get sprayed by a refreshing wave of mist from both waterfalls (the name is no joke), especially if you visit in the spring, or it has just rained. The hike provides tons of great viewpoints all along the trail, so take your time and enjoy the scenery. Another advantage of this hike is that there are plenty of bathrooms along the way. Pro tip: Do this hike as early as possible to beat the crowds. Or aim for the late afternoon... just remember a flashlight!
If you want to spend a day outside Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows is a great option. It's a high elevation meadow, one of the largest in the Sierra Nevada, and it's right at the edge of the largest contiguous roadless wilderness in the continental United States. The crystal clear Tuolumne River meanders through the lush greenery, setting a peaceful scene. There are lots of hikes around the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center: the 8-mile Mono Pass Trail and 11-mile Glen Aulin Trail are two absolutely stunning day hikes. There's also a short, 1-mile hike to the Parsons Memorial Lodge, which is where John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson came up with the idea to protect Yosemite as a national park. Or, cruise Tioga Pass Road out to Mono Lake for an incredible scenic drive.
Yosimite National Park, Wawona, CA, US
Another gem outside the Valley is Mariposa Grove. It's home to a stand of about 500 mature giant sequoia trees. You can't visit the Sierra Nevada without admiring these massive ancient giants, some of which could be as old as 3,000 years. Many of the older or larger trees here are named. The California Tree and the Grizzly Giant are the two most famous, but there's also the Fallen Monarch, the Telescope Tree, the Clothespin Tree, the Faithful Couple, the fallen Wawona Tree Tunnel, and tons more. The 2-mile Grizzly Giant Loop is the fastest way to see the major attractions, but the more strenuous Guardians Loop,6.5 miles long, offers even more forest grove beauty, as well as a stop at the Mariposa Grove Cabin, where Galen Clark, the first "Guardian" of Yosemite, lived.
8308 Wawona Road, Wawona, CA, US
Formerly known as the Wawona Hotel, Big Trees Lodge is a group of six Victorian-era buildings that makes up one of the park's most picture-perfect resorts. The first buildings were built in 1876, with more added in 1916 as tourism increased. The rooms are furnished with period antiques and most feature verandas with Adirondack chairs. There's a pool and a sunroom, along with the lobby, which has a fireplace and live piano music to set the scene. One thing you won't find? TVs... with so much natural beauty around, they're not needed.
Wawona Rd., CA, US
One of the park's most famous views, Tunnel View, is actually an overlook right off the road, no hiking required. It's extra striking since it's right at the end of the long, dark Wawona Tunnel. You'll be able to see the southwest face of El Capitan on the left, the side of Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls. It's also where you'll find the trailhead for the hike to Inspiration Point, a 2.3-mile out-and-back trail that ends at yet another stellar viewpoint.
To get up close and personal with Bridalveil Falls, there's a 1/2-mile hike called the Bridalveil Falls Trail. It takes hikers right up to the base. The 620-foot waterfall is a year-round cascade, but it is at its most powerful in the spring. When the flow is light and the wind is strong, the falling water can be blown sideways, sometimes so much that the water doesn't reach the ground. This phenomenon is why the Ahwahneechee natives referred to Bridalveil Falls as "Pohono," which means "Spirit of the Puffing Wind."
Northside Drive, Yosemite Valley, CA, US
Horsetail Fall is probably one of Yosemite's most famous waterfalls, thanks to the fact that, if there's enough water flowing over the side in February, the setting sun hits it at an angle that makes it appear a bright, glowing shade of orange. This is often referred to as a "Firefall," a reference to a nightly summer performance that used to be put on by the staff at Camp Curry. They would dump white-hot embers off Glacier point, creating a glowing, waterfall-like effect. The firefalls went on between 1872 and 1968, until the NPS put a stop to them, since they weren’t natural events. There are actually two side-by-side fully airborne waterfalls that make up Horsetail, and two sets of cascades. In total, the falls are an impressive 2,030 and 2,070 feet tall.
9005 Ahwahnee Drive, Yosemite Valley, CA, US
The final vintage hotel option in the park is the Majestic Yosemite (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel.) The rustic, stone-and-timber hotel, located on the floor of the Valley, opened in 1927. It's got a bit more flair than your usual "parkitecture" building: The interior features an almost Mayan-esque revival motif, with touches of Art Deco, Native American, and Arts and Crafts styles as well. The interior inspired scenes of The Shining. If you stay here, take advantage of the pool, hot tub, bar, and the renowned Majestic Yosemite Hotel Dining Room. You can eat here even if you aren't staying in the hotel, which is a great way to treat yourself to a good meal and experience the unique building at the same time.
Famed photographer Ansel Adams is as closely tied to Yosemite as John Muir. The Ansel Adams Gallery actually predates Adams. He married into the family that ran Yosemite's photography studio at the time, and eventually took it over, with his wife, as his career flourished. Today, the Gallery is a staple in the Valley. Stop in to admire the exhibits on display, or take advantage of gallery programming. The staff offer film screenings, camera walks, tours that highlight locations of famous photographs, workshops, and tons more. They are extremely friendly and passionate about Yosemite, and love advising visitors on how to best experience the park.
At the end of the day, there's no wrong way to do Yosemite. You can stick to the famous sights or go off the grid, camp out or relax in a charming vintage resort, hike all day or enjoy the sights on a scenic drive... no matter what you choose, you're sure to fall in love with the park.