You’ve probably heard of Yosemite, known for its majestic rushing waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and granite cliffs more massive than one could imagine. California is so lucky to be the home of this iconic National Park. On average, about four to five million people visit Yosemite each year, and most of them spend the majority of their time in Yosemite Valley. It’s a no-brainer why this is. Yosemite holds many natural wonders such as Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Here, you can take a hike among ancient sequoia trees, ride bikes with incredible rock formations as your backdrop, soak in the Merced River, and even catch glimpses of baby bear cubs. that have formed over countless years.
No joke, Yosemite probably has the most dramatic granite cliffs and majestic collection of waterfalls in the USA (and maybe even the world). Getting to witness them in person is unmissable and unforgettable. I’ve been to Yosemite five times now and I keep going back, so I know you’re going to have a wonderful time here. No matter what season it is, Yosemite makes for a great weekend destination. If you have only one day to spend in the park, make the stops mentioned in this post your priority. Whether you’re a first-timer or a frequent visitor looking for new ideas on things to see at Yosemite National Park, this list is for you.
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13 UNMISSABLE THINGS TO DO AT YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
SCENIC DRIVE TO GLACIER POINT
This is one of Yosemite’s best “bang for your buck” viewpoints. Why? Because you can actually drive up with easy access, no hiking or trekking required. Glacier Point offers stunning views of Half Dome’s granite cliffs, which rise almost a mile above the valley floor. Here’s you’ll also catch a bird’s eye view of the rest of Yosemite Valley. On hot days, head to the concessions building and grab a cold drink, a bar of ice cream or a cooling popsicle! The best time of the day to visit is at sunrise or sunset, when Half Dome and its neighbors domes turn pink from the sky. During the winter, head here for some snowshoeing.
Local Tip: There’s a fairly large parking lot here and a few bathrooms available. Take a short walk from Glacier Point on the Panorama Trail for less crowded, equally amazing views.
Important Note: The road to Glacier Point is only open from May to late September/October, depending on weather conditions.
Yosemite Falls is a must-see. I mean, it’s North America’s tallest waterfall, how could you miss it. Yosemite Falls is actually comprised of three separate waterfalls–Upper, Lower, and Middle Yosemite Falls—which combine together to make up the 2,425-foot fall. It’s most amazing in the springtime when you can actually hear its powerful flow thundering across the valley. In the summer, it becomes a lighter trickle. In the winter, see if you can spot the frozen snow cone forming at the base of the fall!
Getting to the base of the lower falls is easy and can be done with an easy stroll. If you want to get even more up close and personal, there is a more challenging trail you can take that takes you to the top of the falls. From April to June, consider bringing a waterproof jacket or rain gear, as the powerful spray of the falls will soak you if you get close enough. Don’t be discouraged, this is actually the best time to see it (when the melting snow creates the strongest flow).
VERNAL FALL AND NEVADA FALL
Take a hike up the iconic Mist Trail and catch a glimpse at this unmissable waterfall known as Vernal Fall. In my opinion, Vernal Fall is the best waterfall to see in the entire park. However, do note that this is no easy walk in the park. The first mile is a relatively steep paved road, so take your time heading up and be sure to have sturdy hiking shoes. As you approach the fall, the trail, which then transforms into a bumpy stone path, can be very slippery from all the spraying mist. They don’t call it Mist Trail for nothin’! It’s best to bring walking sticks for this hike, as the stone steps become quite large and can take a toll on your knees coming down.
If you’re still up for more hiking, just a bit further past Vernal Fall is Nevada Fall. To get to the top of Nevada Fall and back down, it’s approximately 7 miles round trip. Once you get to the top of Nevada Falls, you’ll be on a massively flat rock, where you can enjoy a wonderful packed picnic and soak in some sun with the sounds of the gushing waterfall in the background.
The vista from Tunnel View is one of Yosemite’s most iconic views, made famous by photographer Ansel Adams. It really is a postcard-perfect view. You can capture the beauty of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall all in one. If you’re up for a hike here, take the Pohono Trail uphill for an even grander view (and some solitude). Tunnel View is a truly spectacular sight to see, but make sure to get there early before the tour buses arrive to really soak up the beauty without distractions.
This waterfall is one of the most iconic waterfalls in the park and is just a short hike away from the main road (0.5 miles). Pets are not allowed, and strollers/wheelchairs are not recommended due to the elevation gain. It has quite the mist spray in the spring and you may get a bit wet at the end of the trail.
Fun Fact: The Ahwahneechee Native American tribe believed that inhaling the mist would improve your chances of getting married. So inhale away!
Towering 3,593 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, El Cap is a glorious sight to see and is the mecca for rock climbers around the world. From nearly anywhere in Yosemite Valley, you’ll be able to get a good view at some point, but some notable spots to hang out near El Capitan are at El Capitan Meadow or El Capitan picnic area. If you squint hard enough, you can actually see the rock climbers making their way up.
DINE AT THE AHWAHNEE HOTEL
Even if you’re not staying at this premier hotel, it’s still worth a visit. With its striking granite facade, log-beamed ceilings, massive fireplaces, and rich Native American artwork dotting the common areas, this hotel is a must-see. Park visitors are usually free to hang out and relax in the common areas. The Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room is equally as spectacular. They serve an amazing breakfast buffet, not to be missed if you’re in the park early and want to load up on fuel.
Note: The chefs have created a touchless buffet dining experience for both breakfast and dinner service.
Local Tip: This is also a great place to recharge, use the restrooms, get some quick wifi, or even read a book.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR WILDLIFE
Not only will you get the chance to see deer, eagles, chipmunks, bighorn sheep, and coyotes, you may even see bears! Yosemite is home to over 500 black bears, many of which actually roam around the park while we humans are out exploring as well. They’re most active in late spring to autumn, so there’s a good chance you’ll have a bear sighting! If you come into close encounters with one, be sure to make a lot of loud noises and whatever you do, do NOT approach the baby cubs (or mama bear will come to hunt you down). Always drive slowly on the roads, store food properly, and observe them from a safe distance.
AND IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME…
RIDE A BIKE THROUGH YOSEMITE VALLEY
If you’re not a fan of walking or hiking, how about biking around Yosemite Valley? This is a great way to see a lot more faster, get some fresh air, and enjoy a fun non-hiking activity outdoors. In Yosemite Valley, bike rentals are available during the warmer months of the year. There are more than 12 miles of paved, flat trails, and the loop usually takes an average of 2 hours to complete.
HALF DOME HIKE
The Half Dome hike is a beast of a challenge but a worthwhile experience for many hardcore hikers. This hike ranges from 14-18 miles, depending on where you start you hike and is not for the faint of heart. It is one of the most taxing day hikes of Yosemite and you should be in good physical shape before attempting it. Because it’s a bucket list item for many hikers, there’s an overwhelming amount of competition for the permits required to climb the cables to reach the top of Half Dome. Nevertheless, the views at the top are amazing, as are the many views you’ll be rewarded with along the way. I’ve done it twice— read up on the Half Dome hike here.
Important Note: You will need permits to fully hike Half Dome from start to finish. Read this post to learn more about the Half Dome permit process.
Tuolomne Meadows is located on Tioga Road, which is a fairly long but scenic drive away from Yosemite Valley. This beautiful meadow has easy, flat trails running along the Tuolumne River, giving you great views of the Cathedral Range, Lembert Dome, and Mount Dana. If more rugged trails to summits are more your thing, there’s plenty of that at Tuolumne Meadows too. You can hike two miles up to Lembert Dome to get a glimpse of the meadow from above. This subalpine meadow is something you cannot miss, so if you have a day or two extra to explore outside of Yosemite Valley, make your way here and camp overnight.
Local Tip: Make sure you time your trip well—Tuolumne Meadows is only accessible from June to October. Try to visit in July and August, when wildflowers are in full bloom here. And if you’re looking to get away from the summer crowds, this is the place to go as it is located farther away from the valley.
Located in the southern portion of Yosemite, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is the largest sequoia grove in Yosemite and is home to over 500 mature giant sequoias. Here, you can soak in the massiveness of the giant Sequoias and even take a few day hikes among them, ranging from 0.3 miles to 7 miles. They even have a tree that you can drive through. Though closed to cars during winter, the Mariposa Grove Road is open to hikers, snowshoers, and skiers.
Local Tip: In the busy season, head to Upper Grove to get away from the crowds.
RIVER RAFTING ON THE MERCED RIVER
Shake up your routine with an adrenaline-pumping day on the river. Or, opt for a calmer ride, where you float gently down the lazy Merced River. There are two main locations for river rafting – in Yosemite Valley where the ride is smoother, and outside the park on the Merced River where the runs can be Level 2 to 4 depending on the water conditions. For the smoother ride, you can rent equipment at Curry Village, and there is a shuttle bus that takes you back to the start so you don’t have to find your own way back. This is a seasonal activity in spring and early summer only.
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT
- Yosemite National Park is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. As of 2020, reservations are required to visit.
- Cellular service is spotty, and you will probably not have service at some point during your trip. With that said, there are a few ways you can prepare so that you’re still able to find your way around the park: (1) Grab a map at the entrance of the park or from the visitor’s center. It’s moderately easy to navigate around the valley by just identifying landmarks you drive by on your physical map. (2) Download Google Maps offline so you can use your phone to navigate even without a connection.
- If you’re looking to stay in a hotel or lodge in the park, make reservations one year in advance. Yes, you read that right— one year! Yosemite is a super popular park and hotel rooms sell out quickly. If you don’t mind a bit of a drive, there are lots of options nearby the park entrances as well.
- There are 13 different campgrounds at Yosemite. If you’re looking to camp, you’ll also need to plan far in advance. Competition for campground reservations are high too. If you’re looking at campgrounds for a weekend trip in 2-3 months, chances are you are already too late.
- Because Yosemite is located in the mountains, there are frequent road closures during the winter that may not open back up until May. Make sure you check the official NPS website for the latest on road closures, current conditions, and opening dates.
- Special Natural Phenomenon Events: The Moonbow (a rainbow that appears at night – April through June). The Firefall (the waning light of winter days hits at just the right angle to create a streak of orange on the fall, resembling a lava flow – late February).
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK PACKING LIST
America the Beautiful National Parks Pass | Yosemite National Park costs $35 for a 7-day pass. However, the national parks annual pass is a great way to save on entrance fees. If you intend to visit three or more NPS parks or sites in a year, the American the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself. This pass can be purchased at the park entrances or online here. [Example: 3 National Parks x $30 parking each = $90. Savings with the annual pass = $10.]
Water Bottle | No matter what you decide to do in Yosemite, every trip into the park warrants that you bring water. If you plan on being in the park for an entire day, you should plan on bringing a few liters of water per person. This is especially true in the summer when temperatures rise to the 90’s and even the 100’s. For shorter hikes, packing a lightweight 1L water bottle such as the Nalgene water bottle will suffice. On hotter days, consider bringing an insulated Hydro Flask packed with ice and water so that your water stays cold all day. For longer hikes, I recommend a 3-liter hydration reservoir.
Daypack | Bring a daypack to carry your camera/phone, snacks, water, and other gear while exploring the park. For a more traditional style daypack with more room, the Osprey Daylite is sturdy, comfortable, and has never let me down on long day hikes. For shorter hikes on hotter days, I like bringing my Camelbak Rogue 2.5L since the shape of the backpack minimizes sweaty back issues and doubles as a water reservoir.
Snacks | Carrying snacks with you is a must for replenishing your energy while day hiking or in case you’re not close to a lodge restaurant or a cafeteria.
- If you plan on bringing fruits/vegetables, pick harder options such as apples, pears, cucumbers, and carrots since these do better in heat and backpacks compared to more delicate produce.
- Go for energy bars that don’t contain chocolate to avoid the melted chocolate messes. Stinger Waffles are loved by outdoor enthusiasts and are delicious and easy to eat. Shot Bloks Energy Chews are also a great source of quick energy and super easy to pop in your mouth on those shorter breaks. Other snacks to consider include dried fruit, nuts, and trail mix.
- Lunchables: super easy to pack and always a great option regardless of how old you are.
Cooler | If you don’t enjoy warm beverages/snacks, you’ll want to bring a heavy-duty portable cooler with you. Cracking open a cold drink is such a luxury after a walk or hike out in the blazing sun!
Sunscreen | Even though there are plenty of trees in Yosemite, there are many areas or parts of hikes that are exposed and shadeless. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen. Make sure you have a face sunscreen or a hat as well. Protect yourself!
Hat | A wide-brimmed sun hat can double as sun protection to your face and neck. Here are a few stylish yet effective options for men and women. For added protection, I’d recommend a sun hat with a neck cape.
Sunglasses | Similar to sunscreen, you should bring a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun.
Hiking Boots | Hiking boots are the way to go with Yosemite hikes. Instead of simply wearing sneakers, consider hiking boots. They not only provide better protection for stepping on all of the rocks at Yosemite, but you’ll find yourself slipping a lot less on waterfall mist, dirt, and loose gravel. Trust me, it’s easier to hop around and walk on rocks with the extra traction provided by hiking boots as opposed to running shoes. Lowa Renegades are my go-to pair for life, I highly recommend them to everyone.
Sandals | Birkenstocks make for the best sandals for the car ride home. It’ll be great to have these in the car after a long day of exploring.
First Aid Kit | A compact first aid kit is essential for any national park trip. You can pack it with you in your daypack and it won’t take up too much space. It’s better to be prepared in case you have any mishaps on your adventures. This one is as compact as it gets and is super easy to carry.
Portable Battery Charger | You’ll be in and out of the car all day, but mostly out of the car. If you’re using your phone to take photos or navigate around the park, be sure to bring a compact portable charger with you. This foldable portable solar charger is another option. It’s such a powerhouse of a tool to have with you.
Flashlight | Pack a flashlight or headlamp in case you decide to embark on a sunrise or sunset hike. Check out my favorite tried and trusted all-weather flashlight.
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