What to Do In and Near Yosemite National 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.

Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389, USA
No other landmark in Yosemite is as well recognized and beloved as Half Dome, the steely granite monolith towering 4,347 feet above Yosemite Valley. Geologist Josiah Whitney declared it “inaccessible” in 1870 but was proven wrong only five years later when a climber succeeded in scaling the back of the dome to the summit. Since then, the route has become so popular—and crowded—that the National Park Service was forced to establish a permit lottery in 2011 to keep numbers at a manageable 50,000 or so per year. Though many want to try it, the steep 16-mile hike—including the last 400 feet via cables—is for neither the faint of heart nor weak of limb. If that sounds too challenging, know that there are several spectacular views of Half Dome that require only short hikes or no walking at all. Hike a short distance to Cook’s Meadow in the valley, take a bus to Glacier Point, or drive to Olmsted Lookout or the Tunnel View overlook on Highway 41.
Northside Dr, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389, USA
There’s no underestimating the role that El Capitan has played in the development of modern rock climbing—the 3,000-foot granite face is where the sport transformed from technical mountaineering to athletic art form. In good weather, bring a pair of binoculars and set up a camp chair in El Capitan Valley to watch the brave make their ascent; as dusk falls, you’ll see the tiny lights of their headlamps as they tuck into their bivvys for the night. Alternatively, you can unleash your inner Royal Robbins with beginner through advanced climbing classes from Yosemite Mountaineer School, the only outfitter permitted to teach climbing in the park.
Glacier Point Rd, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389, USA
Located 3,200 feet above Half Dome Village, Glacier Point offers some of the best views in the park to the high country beyond. The View Terrace looks out to Half Dome, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall as well as Liberty Cap to the east, while the Upper Terrace features views to the west, including Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Village. Glacier Point is only open to vehicles from late May to October or November and parking is very limited, so the best way to get there is either via park shuttle bus from Badger Pass or the private guided bus tour that departs from Yosemite Valley. For some of the best, relatively uncrowded hikes in the park, consider taking the bus one way to Glacier Point and then hiking nearly straight down to the valley floor via the Four Mile Trail or 8.5-mile Panorama Trail, both of which offer stunning views.
6107 Big Oak Flat Rd, Groveland, CA 95321, USA
According to John Muir, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was once every bit as beautiful as neighboring Yosemite Valley to the southeast. However, the renowned conservationist ultimately lost his struggle to save the slightly smaller Hetch Hetchy Valley from development and, in 1923, the O’Shaughnessy Dam began diverting water to a thirsty San Francisco, nearly 170 miles away. The controversy continues to this day, with environmentalists calling for demolition of the aging concrete structure every few years—to no avail. Still, if you’re craving some solitude, Hetch Hetchy is a worthwhile detour while inside the park. Just below the dam, you can take a short but steep hike down to the Tuolumne River, which runs through the lovely Poopenaut Valley. If time and budget allow, treat yourself to a night at the nearby Evergreen Lodge.
Despite being steep, often wet, and sometimes dangerous, the Mist Trail is Yosemite’s hallmark hike, with breathtaking views of the valley and two waterfalls. Be warned, though, that it’s called the Mist Trail for a reason: Much of the thigh-burning hike is cut into stone alongside Vernal Fall and, depending on how much water is flowing (especially in the spring), the steps will be very slippery and you’ll get soaked. Bring rain gear and climb carefully. At the top of Vernal Fall (about 1.5 miles from the valley floor), you’ll find the Emerald Pool, which can look very inviting for a dip but, in fact, has extremely cold water and lethally strong currents—obey the signs and do not swim. Above the pool, a bridge will take you up to the other side and, eventually, to Nevada Fall. You can return the same way or, better yet, connect at Nevada Fall to the John Muir Trail, which is slightly longer but much gentler on the knees coming down. It also offers an incredible look back at Nevada Fall and the back side of Half Dome.
Above Yosemite Valley at 8,600 feet lies Tuolumne Meadows, a pristine sub-alpine landscape of mountain cirques and domes, lodgepole pines, and grassy expanses flanking the Tuolumne River. It’s the most photographed area in the park outside of Yosemite Valley for good reason. From here, a number of trails—including Pacific Crest and John Muir—lead into the backcountry to landmarks like Clouds Rest, Lembert Dome, and Cathedral Lakes. There are more than 300 tent and RV sites in the meadow, but this jewel of the Sierra is also easily done as a day trip by car from the valley. Before starting your exploration, stop in at the historic visitor center to learn more about the flora, fauna, and geology of the area, then grab some ice cream at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill.
Tenaya Lake, California, USA
Tenaya is not only one of the most beautiful lakes in Yosemite, it’s one of the most accessible—when Tioga Road (the only road in the high country) is open, usually May through October. The fact that it’s easy to get to makes it one of the most popular sites in Yosemite, but because it’s located 8,150 feet about the valley floor, it’s still a lot less crowded than other attractions. The sandy swimming beach on the east end of the clear alpine lake is a favorite spot for sunbathing, with granite domes surrounding three sides. There’s also a smaller, typically less busy beach on the west end, but you’ll have to do a little wading to get there. For landlubbers, there’s an easy 2.5-mile hike around the lake.
California, USA
When it was completed in 1925, the rustic, stone-and-timber Yosemite Museum was the first structure built in the National Park System to be used specifically as a museum. Today, it works to keep alive the culture, history, and artistry of the valley’s Miwok and Paiute peoples—in the very same spot they lived more than 150 years ago. Descendants of the tribes are on hand to give demonstrations in basket-weaving and beadwork, and to answer any questions about the museum’s large collection of artifacts, which range from clothing and tools to religious items. Just outside, a trail leads to a series of Miwok structures, including a bark home, a chief’s cabin, and a sweat lodge.
Northside Dr, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389, USA
It’s not much to look at—a dusty, walk-in campground beneath the pines, littered here and there with boulders—but this patch of dirt at the base of El Capitan is on the National Registry of Historic Places for being the birthplace of both modern rock climbing and a counterculture phenomenon. It was here, for example, in between ascents in the 1960s, that a young blacksmith and Yosemite “dirtbagger” named Yvon Chouinard developed climbing hardware that launched the outdoor-gear empire Patagonia. You don’t even need to be an aspiring Alex Honnold (who, in 2017, became the first person to climb El Cap solo without a rope) to spend time at the campground—sites are first come, first served, for just six dollars a night.
NATIONAL PARK, 9031 Village Dr, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389, USA
No artist is more closely associated with Yosemite than Ansel Adams, who first set foot in the park in 1916 while still pursuing his fledgling career as a concert pianist. His love of nature and the High Sierra brought him back regularly to Yosemite, where he eventually married Virginia Best, whose parents owned and ran a photography studio nearby. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, the Ansel Adams Gallery—open every day except Christmas—showcases rotating exhibits of contemporary artists. Also on offer are free camera walks and lessons with staff photographers, as well as Yosemite Special Edition Photographs, printed by Adams’s longtime photo assistant using his negatives and available for purchase in the gift shop.
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