Yosemite National Park

In California’s Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park encompasses some of the country’s most spectacular outdoor wonders: the tallest waterfall in North America (Yosemite Falls), some of the largest trees on Earth (sequoias), and granite monoliths like Sentinel Dome, to name a few highlights. No surprise that it’s one of the most popular national parks in the United States, attracting millions of visitors annually. (Yosemite is also particularly attractive to rock climbers.) It would take a lifetime to explore the entire park, but for a week or weekend-long trip, our travel guide to Yosemite is a great place to start.

View from far away of a waterfall on a cliff above a forest at sunset in Yosemite National Park

Casey Horner/Unsplash

Overview

When’s the best time to go to Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite is open year-round but the best time to go is in May and September/October. You avoid the summer crowds; waterfalls are at their peak in the spring; and fall delivers spectacular colors as the leaves of black oaks, dogwoods, quaking aspen, and other trees start to change in late October. The park gets quiet (and cold) in the winter but many locals still go skiing and snowshoeing. The rare “Firefall” event—a trick of sunlight that makes Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall look like it’s on fire—also happens in the winter, usually around February 14–28. Some roads and entrance gates may be closed seasonally because of snow; check before you plan your route.

Try to spend at least three nights and two full days in Yosemite. However, if you want to challenge yourself to a backcountry hike or explore beyond the highlights, plan to stay for an entire week.

Can’t miss things to do in Yosemite National Park

There are endless opportunities for outdoor adventure in Yosemite. Here are several can’t-miss things to do:

  • View (or climb) El Capitan. This 3,000-foot granite wall is famous for its multi-pitch climbing routes. If you’d rather enjoy it from terra firma, it’s best viewed from Valley Loop Drive or El Capitan Meadow.
  • Hike Half Dome. Perhaps the most recognized landmark in Yosemite, you can see it from almost anywhere in the park. For a real adventure, obtain a permit and hike to the top of Half Dome, a challenging 17-mile trek.
  • Visit Yosemite Falls. At 2,425 feet, it’s the tallest waterfall in North America. You can see it from Yosemite Village or go on a 7.2-mile round-trip hike to the top of the falls.
  • Mist Trail. Yosemite’s signature hike, the Mist Trail will take you past one of the park’s waterfalls, Vernal Falls, on a three-mile round-trip hike. Extend it to seven miles to visit a second fall, Nevada Falls.
  • Tenaya Lake. At 8,150 feet, this high alpine lake is popular for kayaking, boating, and swimming.Tuolumne Meadows. A favorite among hikers, campers, and stargazers, this high alpine meadow features plenty of scenic views.

For more ideas, view our full list of what to do in Yosemite.

Culture in Yosemite National Park

The Ahwahnechee are the American Indian people who lived in the Yosemite Valley when the first settlers made contact in the early 1800s. After conflict with the settlers, Chief Tenaya led his people to eastern California, although the Valley is still called Ahwahnee by the Ahwahnechee. Some settlers became leaders in the conservation movement and integral to the federal protection lobby. Later, in the 1960s, the area became a destination for rock climbing. Notable climbers like Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and Ron Kauk designated routes that remain classics today.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant to protect the wild lands of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. Yosemite became a federally designated national park in 1890 with the National Park Act. Yosemite’s iconic polished granite domes, walls, and valleys—the result of glaciation—are the basis for the park’s preservation. John Muir and Ansel Adams are credited for conservation efforts through their respective writing and photography.

Camping

At 761,266 acres, Yosemite is a huge park; it’s a good idea to plan your lodging based on which attractions you want to see.

The main hub of the park, Yosemite Valley, is a popular place for visitors to stay. Accommodations (which include camping and hotel options) include Curry Village, the Ahwahnee, and Yosemite Valley Lodge. For a vacation rental, Yosemite West and Wawona to the southwest of the Valley are your best options.

North of Yosemite Valley, where you’ll find spots like the lesser-visited Hetch Hetchy Valley—a glacial valley known for waterfalls and wildflowers—there are several campgrounds. Tuolumne Meadows is one of the most scenic and an ideal place to stay if you want to escape the crowds of Yosemite Valley.

How to get around Yosemite National Park

First off: Where is Yosemite National Park? It is about 200 miles east of San Francisco in central California and close to the border of Nevada. It has an elevation range of approximately 3,000 to 13,000 feet and is home to diverse ecosystems and microclimates.

It is best reached by car although Amtrak offers bus service to the park during the summer months. A free shuttle is available within some areas of the park and visitors can access most of the attractions in Yosemite Valley by shuttle.

Practical Information

Reservations will no longer be needed to visit Yosemite National Park starting November 1, 2020.

Be sure to keep the following Yosemite travel tips in mind while planning your trip to the expansive parklands:

  • Yosemite Village is the hub of amenities, including restaurants and hotels, and the location of the main visitor center.
  • Black bears live in Yosemite—proper food storage is required by law.
  • Plan your activities in advance and check to see if you need reservations. Yosemite is increasingly popular and some hikes and attractions (such as Half Dome or a visit to Horsetail Fall to view the Firefall) require advance reservations and permits.
Read Before You Go
Hotels
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Resources to help plan your trip
The grove of roughly 500 trees—some of the oldest in the world—was largely unscathed by the Washburn Fire.
Travelers may be wondering if visiting the California national park is possible amid a wildfire burning at the southern edge of the park.
Leave the crowded roads and seek out the best of Yosemite, from the challenging hikes and iconic views to the sequoias, valleys, mountaintop lookouts, and evening light catching the cascade of the great falls. This land is your land.
Even if you’re camping or just passing through on a day trip to the park, be sure to take in the views from one of these restaurants, whether in the formal dining room of a lodge or at a picnic table out on a deck.
Whether you want to stay somewhere historic or new, close to Yosemite National Park or far from the crowds in Mariposa Grove, there are several options for couples, families, and even groups, complete with everything from gourmet restaurants to awe-inspiring views of Glacier Point, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite’s spectacular beauty can be appreciated by day-trippers and intrepid adventurers alike: Hike to the top of Half Dome, or take a shuttle up to Glacier Point; take the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls, or take an easy stroll along its base. Or expore outside the valley with a drive to Tuolumne Meadows or Wawona.
You’ll find more options for casual fare – breakfast and lunch – on the south side of Yosemite Valley, at Half Dome Village. After a day of exploring Yosemite, treat yourself to dinner with a view at either Majestic Yosemite Dining Room, or Yosemite Valley Lodge.
About 170 visitors and employees at Yosemite have contracted gastrointestinal illness since early January. Officials have launched an investigation and cleanup but still haven’t identified the outbreak’s origin.
Popular park attractions can now once again be called by their original names.
Yosemite National Park ensures that the call of the wild is heard by all thanks to its varied services and amenities for the deaf and hard of hearing visitors.
Between the return of red-legged frogs and a particularly good waterfall season, this spring is the time to go to the fan-favorite national park.
It’s just like the Oregon Trail, but with air-conditioning.
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