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.
Know Before You Go
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.
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.
For more options, view our full list of Yosemite hotels and lodging.
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.
Reservations will no longer be needed to visit Yosemite National Park starting November 1, 2020. However, due to COVID-19 some sections and campgrounds may still be closed. For the most up-to-date information, check the national park website.
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.
Monica Prelle and Jessie Beck