The Best Places for Hiking in Yosemite National Park
by Liz Thomas - Professional hiker and guidebook author
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
If visiting Yosemite isn’t on your hiking bucket list, it should be. As a professional hiker, I’ve adventured around the world and Yosemite is one of my favorite hiking destinations anywhere. Even when I lived on the edge of the park, the trails never got old. Whether you’re on a family road trip or a backpacker seeking solitude in the high country, Yosemite is a world class destination that you’ll want to revisit year-after-year.
For people coming to Yosemite for the first time, I recommend staying in Yosemite Valley and making reservations well ahead of time. Yosemite Valley is home to over a dozen trailheads. No matter where you stand, you’ll enjoy jaw-dropping views of granite cliffs and domes soaring above. The Valley has plenty of restaurants, grocery stores to create trail-side feasts, and a free and frequent shuttle bus system. Lodging offerings run from camping to luxury hotels. For rest days, you can float the Merced River, explore bike trails, or watch movies about the Park.
If you’re looking for Yosemite with more alpine views and fewer crowds, Tuolumne Meadows is my favorite place in the Park. With alpine lakes, wildflower-filled meadows, and numerous granite domes, it’s a high altitude wonderland. My sister worked in Wawona and says it’s the place in Yosemite to see the iconic Giant Sequoia redwoods that inspired the creation of Yosemite Park. Wherever you go in Yosemite, you can’t go wrong. Here are a few of my favorite must-see spots that you shouldn’t miss.
1. Half Dome via the Mist Trail
TOP CHOICE FOR ADVANCED HIKERS OR INTERMEDIATE BACKPACKERS
Pros and cons
The most iconic hiking destination in the Park, if not in the world
Passes two classic Yosemite waterfalls along the way
Climbing the cables to the top is a hiking experience you’ll never forget
Incredible views of Yosemite Valley and the Sierras
It can get crowded, especially on the weekends and on the cables
Permit required; put in for the lottery well in advance
The last part requires climbing on steep, exposed granite via cables. Can be scary for those afraid of heights and fatal in the wrong conditions
The hike has a lot of elevation gain and is long as a dayhike
If there’s one hike to do before you die, Half Dome is it. Not only is it one of the most photographed natural wonders in the world, but the journey to its summit (8,842 feet) goes by several Yosemite Top 10 destinations, too. You’ll pass waterfalls, rivers, and wildflower-filled meadows on one of the best-maintained trails in the country. This is a trail you’ll never forget and won’t regret hiking. Although you need a permit, Half Dome is worth the hassle of putting in for the lottery. Whenever you see photos of the Valley, you’ll always be able to tell others, “I was there.”
I recommend starting early as the trail is 14.5 miles round trip with almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Parking can be tricky in the Valley, so take advantage of the free shuttle bus stop at the Happy Isles trailhead. I’ve found that the trail can get warm when the sun hits the big climb up the switchbacks, so bring plenty of water and a headlamp just in case it takes longer than you planned to get down.
The views along the way always take my mind off the gradual but persistent climb. You’ll ascend high above the Merced River past two waterfalls with a backdrop of Liberty Cap (another granite dome) as a guiding beacon. The Mist Trail route up Half Dome takes you from the base of Vernal Falls to the top of Nevada Falls. Every time I do this hike, I look forward to cooling off in the mist. I advise taking special care through the wet sections because the steep rock steps can sometimes be slippery. When you reach Little Yosemite Valley, backpackers can camp for a night before tackling Half Dome (wilderness permit required).
Bring shoes with sticky rubber soles and a big dose of courage for ascending the 400 feet up the backside of Half Dome using cables as a guide. It feels like walking up a low-angle ladder. There’s dramatic (albeit, scenic) drops on either side. You’ll want a good camera (with a neck or wrist strap) because this is a hike worth documenting from beginning until end.
Applications for summer hiking permits open at the end of March. There’s also a short-term lottery for 50 spots available two days before your stated summit day. I’ve found the line for those spots to be intimidating (people line up at 4 am for the 11 am opening), so if you’re traveling from far, put in for the lottery.
If you only do one hike or backpacking trip in your life, Half Dome should be on your list.
by Liz Thomas
Hiking Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, USA
Hiking Half Dome, Yosemite Nati...
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1. Half Dome via the Mist Trail - Good to Know
Advanced (day-hike), Intermediate-Advanced (as a two-day backpacking trip)
14.5 miles round trip via the Mist Trail; alternates via the John Muir Trail can make it longer
4,800 feet of climbing
Enter a lottery at the end of March or take your chance at 50 spots available two days before your trip. If you’re backpacking and plan to camp at Little Yosemite Valley, you’ll also need a wilderness permit
8 to 13 hours; can be done as an overnighter
Best time to Hike:
Late June, July
If you camp in Yosemite Valley, you can get to the top of Half Dome before day hikers have reached the trailhead
Most people rent a car and drive into Yosemite Valley from Highway 120 via the Big Oak Flat Entrance to Yosemite National Park (entrance fee is $35 per vehicle). You can also enter via the El Portal station via Highway 140. The National Park Service has a helpful guide on taking public transit to Yosemite from various airports. Amtrak and Yosemite Area Regional Transit System (YARTS) buses run daily summer service, too. Tuolumne Meadows can be reached via CA-120 Tioga Pass from US-395. Wawona can be reached by vehicle via CA-41.
2. Bridalveil Falls
TOP CHOICE FOR FAMILIES
Pros and cons
A prominent Yosemite Valley waterfall reached by a short, family-friendly hike
Mist from the falls makes it a cool option on a warm day
Leashed pets are allowed on this trail
A free shuttle bus leads to the trailhead
Can get crowded, especially on weekends and in summer
If you choose to step off the paved path at the base of the falls, rocks may be slippery and the river treacherous. Watch your kids
Bridalveil Falls is one of the most prominent waterfalls in Yosemite Valley and (bonus!) also one of the easiest to access. At 620 feet tall, Bridalveil is different than most other Yosemite waterfalls because it doesn’t have a direct drop from a glacier-carved hanging valley. Instead, Bridalveil drops at a curve, looking like a streaming veil (hence the name). It’s often the first waterfall you see as you drive into Yosemite Valley. Unlike many waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, it runs year-round.
On a windy day, the water on Bridalveil appears to not even hit the ground, moving almost horizontally at times. For that reason, the Native American Ahwahneechee who lived in the Valley called it “Pohono,” meaning “Sprit of the Puffing Wind.” This is a neat natural phenomenon, so if it’s windy, it’s well worth seeing.
Bridalveil Falls is one of the few falls in Yosemite Valley that reliably runs year-round, seen here in fall.
It’s a short quarter mile from the parking area to the base of Bridalveil Falls. I like to visit these falls on a hot day because it’s a short walk and the mist of the hike is refreshing. Kids may enjoy playing at the rocks at the bottom and observing pools of water (I certainly did as a youngster). Watch them, though, as the river can be swift and the rocks slippery. This hike can get crowded. Early morning and evening see the fewest visitors.
This was one of the first Yosemite hikes I did as a kid. That experience planted a seed to love hiking for the rest of my life
by Liz Thomas
Bridalveil Falls - Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Falls - Yosemite Nat...
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2. Bridalveil Falls - Good to Know
Paved, but not wheelchair accessible due to grade
Distance and elevation:
0.5 mile round trip; 80 feet elevation gain
30 minutes to 2 hours
Year-round, but the waterfall is best in early summer
Park east of the main trailhead along the road to snag a parking spot and forgo the traffic jam at the main lot. You’ll add 0.25 mile to your hike, but you’ll gain some great views crossing Bridalveil Creek. Time your hike for less popular times, like early morning or late evening
The Bridalveil Fall trailhead is just east of Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately, the free shuttle bus doesn’t go to the trailhead. From Yosemite Valley, drive east on Wawona Road (Highway 141) or Southside Drive to the trailhead. There may be traffic jams around the main parking area (to the west), though turnover for spots moves quickly. You can park along the road about 100 yards east of the main parking area (closer to the Valley) and take a trail to the main trailhead (adding about 0.25 mile to your trip). Follow signs and the paved trail to the base of the falls.
3. Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls
TOP CHOICE FOR EPIC WATERFALL VIEWS
Pros and cons
Climb the largest waterfall in North America from its base to the top
Options for beginner hikers (view from the base of Lower Falls) all the way to advanced hikers (climb to the top of the Upper Falls)
Views of Yosemite Valley as you ascend (with options for viewing from protected fenced platforms)
Advanced hikers will be rewarded with challenging uphill sections
Lots of elevation gain. Expect continuous climbing
While switchbacks make the ascent relatively gradual, the climb is unrelenting. The destinations along this hike are not for every hiker. Much like the hike up Half Dome, plan to make this your only strenuous physical activity for the day
Falls may not flow in late summer or early fall
At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America. Yosemite Valley wouldn’t look like it does without these monster falls in the backdrop. On this classic Yosemite hike, you’ll walk from the base of Yosemite Falls to above the Upper Falls. It’s one of two places where you can see all the Valley waterfalls from one viewpoint. It also has some of the best views of Half Dome anywhere. This is my go-to hike for a good workout and to feel like I earned that trip to the Curry Village buffet.
From the top, you can watch Yosemite Creek drop thousands of feet from a hanging valley in Eagle Creek Meadows. In the spring or early summer, the roaring flow is deafening and I’ll feel cooling mist as I climb the lower switchbacks. But when I’ve been back in the autumn, the flow isn’t as intense and the spray doesn’t reach the trail. In drought years, it can dry up.
When I first got into hiking as a kid, I found the Yosemite Falls climb challenging. For 10-year me, the scenic guardrail-protected view of the Lower Falls from Columbia Rock (a little more than a mile and 1000 feet of gain from the Yosemite Falls trailhead) was a fine end destination. As I became an intermediate hiker in my twenties, I was thrilled to make it higher to the guardrail-protected Lower Yosemite Falls Overlook. It’s possibly the only safe spot to get the rare view of the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls. Now, as an advanced hiker, I enjoy the challenging climb to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. I can’t help but feel alive looking at the point where the falls drop thousands of feet off a cliff.
Tailor your hike to Yosemite Falls based on your party’s energy level. Whether you visit Columbia Rock or the tippy top, it’s an experience you won’t forget. Humans are so small next to that much flowing water. There are plenty of fenced viewpoints along the way, but take care near the water’s edge and near steep drops.
To avoid the parking hassle and Yosemite Valley traffic (yeah, it’s a thing), I always take the free shuttle bus to the trailhead (either Lower Yosemite Falls or Yosemite Falls Trailhead stops). If you rent or have a bicycle, the Yosemite Valley paved bike trail goes to both trailheads, too. There are even racks to lock up.
Yosemite Falls is a butt kicker, but it’s really rewarding to get that view of the Valley knowing I got there by my own two legs. I know I earned my trip to the buffet, too.
by Liz Thomas
Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, USA
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3. Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls - Good to Know
Advanced to hike the whole thing. Intermediate for viewpoints along the way
7.2 miles out-and-back to top of Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Falls Trailhead
None required for a day hike
6 to 10 hours
If you’re feeling strong, continue for another 0.9 mile to Yosemite Point for a view of the falls and the Valley from above. Starting at Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead makes your hike 0.4 mile longer, but it’s neat to start at the base of the Lower Falls.
Late spring or early summer, when waterflow is bolstered by snowmelt. Check the Yosemite Falls webcam for conditions
From Yosemite Valley, take the free shuttle bus to Camp 4 (Stop #7) or El Capitan (Stop #2). There’s a Yosemite Falls parking area across the street from Camp 4. To access the Lower Yosemite Falls, get off the bus at the Lower Falls Trailhead (#6). The hike from the Lower Falls Trailhead adds 0.4 mile to your trip.
4. Tuolumne Meadows – Cathedral Lakes
TOP CHOICE FOR ALPINE LOVERS
Pros and cons
Cathedral Peak is one of the most beautiful and iconic rock formations in Yosemite
Hike to high alpine lakes and pass through wildflower-filled alpine meadows and sub-alpine forests
If you time it right, you may be able to see the reflection of Cathedral Peak in the Lakes below or pink alpenglow on the peak
The hike starts at 8,600 feet, so altitude may slow you down
Depending on the week you’re visiting, you’ll need bug spray and the lake area may be swampy or the trail covered in snow
Although Tuolumne Meadows sees a fraction of the crowds of the Valley, this is one of the most popular hikes there
Cathedral Peak and Cathedral Lakes is a place for alpine lovers with views you just can’t get in the Valley. In addition to Glen Aulin, Cathedral Lakes was one of my go-to spots for taking out-of-town guests when I lived just outside the Park. You’ll cruise through alpine meadows to alpine lakes at almost 10,000 feet of elevation. Summer wildflowers are at their prime in wet meadows and the forest floor from late June to late August.
Cathedral Peak gets its name because it looks like a Gothic place of worship, with Eichorn Pinnacle towering over it like a belfry. Cathedral Basin was carved by glaciers, but the towers remain because they rose above the ice. Cathedral Peak remains jagged along with Echo and Tesidder Peaks, which also dominate the upper lake’s south shore.
John Muir has the first documented ascent of Cathedral Peak in 1869. He did it in heavy, leather boots without a rope. I’ve climbed the peak several times and think of him often. The hike to Cathedral Lake is mostly on a trail named after him, the John Muir Trail. It’s a famous distance trail I’ve hiked several times that runs from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney. Cathedral Lakes is one of my favorite spots along the whole 214-mile hike.
You have the option to go to the Upper Lake or the busier Lower Cathedral Lake (0.5 mile off the main trail, but shorter in distance and less climbing). I’ve noticed my body feels the altitude on this hike. After all, it begins at 8,500 feet. The first mile has the bulk of the ascent and feels strenuous. You can decide which lake to visit based on how you feel when you reach the signed intersection for the Lower Lake. Whichever lake you visit, I suggest taking the climb slowly, staying well hydrated, and readjusting expectations about your speed. Either lake has flat, granite spots for picnicking and jaw-dropping views.
This hike takes you to the base of Cathedral Peak, which is visible throughout Tuolumne Meadows and is one of the most beautiful rock formations in Yosemite.
by Liz Thomas
Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lakes
Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral L...
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4. Tuolumne Meadows – Cathedral Lakes - Good to Know
7 miles roundtrip
1,000 feet elevation gain
None for day hiking. Wilderness permit required for overnight backpacking trips.
4 to 6 hours
July to September. Enjoyment of this hike depends on whether snow obscures the trail or the bugs are out.
Visit in autumn. The wildflowers may not be out and the meadows may not be verdant, but you won’t have to worry about snow, swamps, mosquitoes, or crowds.
Tuolumne Meadows is easiest to reach by driving the US-395 corridor along the Eastern Sierra; this is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the country. From the town of Lee Vining, it’s about 12 miles to Tioga Pass into the Park. You can fly into Reno, Nevada, and rent a car for a 2.5 hour drive to the Park. Otherwise, Tuolumne Meadows is accessible from Yosemite Valley after about an hour of scenic driving. For public transit, the Yosemite Area Regional Transit bus runs during the summer from Reno to Lone Pine and into Yosemite Valley.
5. Wawona – Mariposa Grove
BEST SPOT FOR VIEWING GIANT SEQUOIA REDWOODS
Pros and cons
Ancient Giant Sequoia trees viewable from a family-friendly, short and relatively flat trail. There are longer options for more advanced hikers
Fewer crowds than Yosemite Valley
Plenty of places for kids to play and explore
It’s the first federally protected natural area
Tailor the length of your trip for the energy of your hiking party: 0.3 miles to 7.6 miles
Parking fills up by mid-morning, but there’s a free shuttle bus from the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza
Can be crowded, especially on weekends
Mariposa Grove is home to Yosemite’s most famous living attraction: 1,000-year old Giant Sequoias, the largest living things in the world. This grove of Sequoiadendron giganteum is the place that inspired Abraham Lincoln’s protection of Yosemite National Park. Even if you aren’t a tree nerd, after visiting, you’ll feel inspired, too.
On this hike, you’ll walk through groves of trees that tower above like characters out of Tolkein. If you see no other Giant Sequoia, make sure you see the 1,800 year-old Grizzly Tree, the oldest tree in the Park (that we know of). You can literally walk through the California Tunnel Tree, a living tree whose center has been bored out. My family has a photo there and yours will want one, too. The Bachelor & Three Graces are four giant trees who are so close to one another, their roots are twisted together. The Fallen Monarch is a downed sequoia trunk that ecologists suspect has been there for centuries.
Depending on the energy of your party, you can visit the Mariposa Grove as a 0.3 mile loop, a 2 mile loop, or a 7.6 mile hike. The elevation change on the 0.3 is negligible, but the 2 mile hike to the Grizzly Giant has 300 feet of gain. As a more advanced hiker, I enjoyed the 1,200 feet of climbing on the longer out-and-back to Wawona Point. It has killer views of Wawona Valley. My sister lived and worked as an ecologist in Wawona and says long Guardians Loop or Mariposa Grove Trail are the place to go to get away from the crowds in the rest of the grove.
The Mariposa Grove area was recently renovated to better protect the trees and manage visitors, so expect shiny, new amenities. I think the best option for parking is just inside the Southern Entrance of the Park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza. The reason is that the gate to Mariposa Grove Road is closed at 7:30am and most of the other parking areas are limited to cars with disability placards. If you visit in the winter, the road to the grove is closed, but you can snowshoe there (it’s fun).
Wawona feels more like a community than other built-up areas in the park. There’s permanent residents, a school, and even live music and barn dances during the summer. Come for the trees, stay to experience a less hectic Yosemite than what you’ll find in the Valley.
The outer loop trail and making your way to the upper grove is the Must See of Wawona...You can appreciate how a forest changes over a short distance.
by Kat Thomas, former Wawona resident and ecologist
Yosemite's Mariposa Grove with giant sequoia trees reopens to public
Yosemite's Mariposa Grove with ...
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5. Wawona – Mariposa Grove - Good to Know
Beginner for the Big Trees Loop; beginner to Intermediate for Grizzly Giant Loop; intermediate for Guardians Loop or Mariposa Grove Trail
0.3 miles for the Big Trees Loop to the Fallen Monarch; 2 miles for the Grizzly Giant Loop to the Fallen Monarch, Bachelor & Three Graces, Grizzly Giant, and California Tunnel Tree; 6.5 to the Guardians Loop, which views an additional grove; 7.0 miles for the Mariposa Grove Trail which includes Wawona Point
Negligible for Big Trees Loop; 300 feet gain for Grizzly Giant Loop; 1,200 feet for Guardians Loop and Mariposa Grove Trail
None required for day hiking
1-2 hour for Big Trees Loop and Grizzly Giant Loop; 3-5 hours for Guardians Loop or Mariposa Grove Trail
Fewer crowds in spring and autumn
If you’ve got the energy, the upper grove, Wawona Point, and the Outer Loop Trail have fewer visitors than the lower groves
From Fresno, take Highway 41 to the Southern Yosemite Park Entrance. Just after the entrance station, park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and take the free shuttle to the trailhead. From Yosemite Valley, take Wawona Road. The National Park Service has a helpful guide on taking public transit to Yosemite from airports. Yosemite Area Regional Transit System (YARTS) buses run limited summer service from Yosemite Valley.
About the author
Professional hiker and guidebook author
Liz Thomas is thru-hiker and guidebook author best known for breaking the women’s self-supported record on the Appalachian Trail. She’s the author of the National Outdoor Book Award winning Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-hike , which won the National Outdoor Book Award in 2017. When she’s not backpacking, Liz is Editor-in-Chief at Treeline Review, an obsessively researched outdoor gear review website. You can find her at www.eathomas.com or @lizthomashiking and Facebook.