Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles of a beautiful valley just outside of San Francisco.
The park is one of the most scenic in the world and it is also one of the busiest national parks in the US system. There are plenty of amazing things to do at Yosemite, whether you’re there on a day trip or camping for three days, as we did.
You’ll find iconic scenes of sliced granite cliffs, evidence of glaciers, greenery and the tranquility of the High Sierra at Yosemite National Park.
First protected in 1864, the site of Yosemite offers deep valleys, waterfalls, idyllic camping spots, meadows and vast hiking trails that are famous around the world.
Enjoy the well-structured roads through the park and an efficient parking system besides all of the attractions. Remember, Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular parks in the system and it can get very busy in the summer months.
If you wish not to drive around the park, the NPS service has provided a free Yosemite Shuttle bus that takes you straight to the main sites.
Click here for a map of the Yosemite Shuttle.
Things to do at Yosemite National Park
Here’s a list of the top things to do at Yosemite if you’re short on time and are looking for inspiration.
See the Half Dome
The Half Dome cliff is probably the most famous feature of Yosemite National Park, California. The cliff peaks at almost 5,000 feet above the Valley floor, and some braver hikers and climbers take the challenge of hiking and climbing to the top (you will need a permit to do so)!
The Half Dome can be seen almost everywhere in the eastern part of the Yosemite Valley, the best view being from Mirror Lake. Via a two-mile round-trip walk on a paved trail with a 6.6% to 10.6% grade.
Picnic at the base of El Capitan
El Capitan is another beastly cliff and one of the most famous peaks of Yosemite National Park. At over 3,000 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, the mountain is a favorite for experienced rock climbers.
Pull up your vehicle by the Bridalveil Fall area or most turnouts in the western part of the Yosemite Valley and enjoy a picnic with a view.
The best viewpoints, as well as the Bridalveil Fall area, are from Tunnel View and El Capitan Meadow. There are plenty of fallen trees and stumps to sit on while you enjoy a picnic with a view.
Hike Part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)
The Pacific Crest Trail is a long-distance hiking route running from Mexico to the US/Canada border.
The trail closely aligned with the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.
The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,659 mi (4,279 km) long and ranges in elevation from just above sea level at the Oregon–Washington border to 13,153 feet (4,009 m) at Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada.
The trail passes through 25 national forests and 7 national parks, including Yosemite.
Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the PCT alone following her mother’s death in 1995, had her autobiographical account and book made into a blockbuster movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
Her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was a number 1 bestselling book in 2012 and the released movie was titled ‘Wild’.
Part of the Pacific Crest Trail passes through Yosemite National Park and we were so excited to hike it.
Enjoy the breath taking views far and wide from the trail.
One of the highlights of this section of the PCT is the Soda Springs cabin. Carbonated mineral water bubbles up from the depths of the earth below.
It’s almost silent, a delicate fizz allows you to stand in awe and confusion as to why it is happening.
Step into the Soda Springs wooden log cabin and watch the phenomena of the small natural spring that forms a cluster of mineral-crusted, rust-red puddles.
We did drink the water at Soda Springs in Yosemite but afterward, we heard that there’s a possible surface contamintaion risk and the park rangers advise visitors not to drink it as a result.
Soda Springs can be found a mere 0.75 miles into the PCT from Yosemite National Park and the ground to get there is pretty flat.
We loved the diversity of this section of the Pacific Crest Trail and as a result recommend it as one of the top things to do at Yosemite, if not, California.
Find Cheryl Strayed’s Wild on Amazon.
See the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy
Not a lot of people know about the hidden Hetch Hetchy Valley which sits on the North-Western part of Yosemite.
Entrance into Yosemite covers the entrance to Hetch Hetchy and it is worth the 1.5-hour detour for incredible unspoiled views.
Hetch Hetchy is a reservoir held together by the O’Shaughnessy Dam, something that has to be seen to be believed and you can walk right over it!
We spent a couple of hours here, admiring viewpoints and the story of how the dam was built back in 1931. It is interesting to learn how the Hetch Hetchy Project supplies a big part of San Francisco and other Californian towns (approximately 2.6million people) with water.
Enjoy some of the best viewpoints we have ever seen in the world here as well as the lack of tourists.
Wander the Tuolumne Meadow
The Tuolumne Meadow is a large, open subalpine set with a backdrop of wonderfully bold cliffs and peaks.
Yosemite National Park has set out a couple of lay-by areas where you can pull over on the famous Tioga Road and enjoy a wander on the meadow.
The Tioga Road offers a 47-mile scenic drive, passing forests and lakes, vistas, and granite cliffs.
The Tioga Road which slices through the meadow is open from late May/June through October or November. Always check the Yosemite website for accurate information.
Smell the flora and enjoy the freedom and space at the Tuolumne Meadow.
Climb the Pothole Dome
If the thought of climbing the Half Dome in Yosemite is a little daunting, try the Pot Hole Dome instead.
The Pothole Dome is a granite rock on the West side of the Tuolumne Meadows and the summit is quite easily reached by foot from a parking area on the Tioga Road.
It’s also a great spot to picnic and to soak up the Californian sun, e sure to keep an eye on young children at all times.
The views from the top of the Pot Hole Dome are spectacular, be sure to carry water and snacks particularly on a hot day.
The total elevation gain of the Pot Hole Dome is 250 feet (75 meters) so take your time and rest as you climb.
The elevation at the peak of the Pothole Dome is 8,760 feet (2,670 meters). The elevation at the base is 8,500 feet (2,550 meters).
Stand in awe at Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley is the ultimate base for many of the famous cliffs and waterfalls that make Yosemite National Park so idyllic and scenic.
The Yosemite National Park have built wonderfully efficient roads and turnouts so its visitors can enjoy the valley at every angle.
The combination of pine trees, lakes, granite slices give the valley a unique and distinctive landscape that isn’t found anywhere else in the word.
Pop by a Visitor’s Center for information boards and interactive learning experiences of visit the Yosemite Museum to learn more about one of California’s most visited valleys.
You may also see some parts of the valley that have recently been charred by some of the many Californian wild fires.
A lot of the high elevation fires start by lightning strikes and it really is breath taking to see the damage left behind.
One of our favorite things to do at Yosemite, and any other national park, is to camp. Spending time in the surrounding wilderness overnight gives a whole new perspective. We spent 3 days camping at the Porcupine Flat campground in Yosemite which turned out to be one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.
There are 13 popular campgrounds in Yosemite National Park, seven of which are on a reservation system. From April through September, reservations are essential and even the first-come, first-served campgrounds usually fill by noon (often earlier) from April through September.
Camping at Yosemite allows you to enjoy the park over a couple of days without leaving and re-entering, it really gives you time to feel the wilderness as well as hit the sights before and after the flocks of daily tourists visit the park.
The campsites have great facilities, a fire ring, food storage, picnic table and plenty of space to pitch.
Check the Park’s official website for up to date information on camping at Yosemite.
Read more about our experience in our Camping at Yosemite blog.
Yosemite Falls is one of the world’s tallest waterfalls and it is made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet).
The water flows at Yosemite Falls from November through July, with the peak flow in May.
There is an easy one-mile loop trail that ends at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, it can get busy but it will give you one of the best views of the waterfall.
In 1869, innkeeper James Hutchings hired a young John Muir to rebuild his sawmill at the heart of the Yosemite Valley. Muir milled trees that were blown down in storms to build improvements Hutchings’ Yosemite Valley hotel. During his years in the Yosemite Valley, John Muir became an outspoken wildlife activist and pioneer.
A lot of hiking trails and national park attractions are named after Muir and you can see informative boards scattered around the park about the work he did to keep national parks protected.
See one of a kind tree and rock formations on the trail to Yosemite Falls.
Tioga and Teneya Lakes
Tioga Lake is a glacial lake around two miles (3 km) north of the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite National Park.
Tioga lake offers a peaceful spot by the water to enjoy the incredible view before you.
See photographers align their tripods in front of a painting-esque backdrop.
Sitting by the lake and soaking in the scenery is one of the top things to do at Yosemite National Park.
The calm waters allow you to cool off and dip your feet in on a hot day. Enjoy the picnic area, and a 13-site managed campground if you choose to stay the night.
Birds and marmots are known to approach humans in the area and some visitors have seen bobcats and the rare bighorn sheep at Tioga Lake.
Tenaya Lake is an alpine lake located between Yosemite Valley and the Tuolumne Meadows.
The basin of Tenaya lake was formed by glacial movement leaving a beautiful backdrop of light granite rocks.
The lake is unique in its scenic disposition and it is a popular spot for water activities.
Swim in Mirror Lake and admire Tenaya Canyon
If you’re wondering if you can go swimming in Yosemite National Park, the answer is yes!
We recommend a cool refreshing dip in Mirror Lake, at the west of the park on the beautiful backdrop of Tenaya Canyon.
Mirror Lake is a popular spot for tourists so it may be busy but the area provides a unique opportunity to safely dip into the fresh glacial waters of Yosemite.
Mirror Lake is more like a big pool in Tenaya Creek and it is about as close as you can get to the base of the famous Half Dome.
Enjoy the unique opportunity of capturing a wonderful photo of the crown of the Half Dome reflecting in the blissful water.
There’s a beautiful woodland area nearby allowing you to enjoy the diverse terrain of the park in one idyllic spot.
Look for wildlife
There are around 00 different species of animal you may see in Yosemite, some big, some small, some dangerous and all should be left alone with plenty of space. Of course, we all know the American Black Bear lives among the lush landscape of Yosemite, there are around 300 to 500 in fact. The Sierra Nevada Big Horn Sheep is a rare sighting as they tend to stick to high elevation areas.
The most common sighting of wildlife in the park is the Mule Dear.
Mule deer are the only type of deer that live in Yosemite. They can be found at a lot of the tourist attractions of the park because, unfortunately, people think is it ok to feed them.
They come right up to you expecting a feed sometimes. Yosemite park rangers discourage people from feeding the deer as they may become agitated and dependant on the human hand for survival. Human food can also be harmful to them to digest.
Coyotes and Bobcats can also be seen in Yosemite, though sightings are rare.
Bird Watching is one of the top things to do at Yosemite. The park offers habitat for over 165 species of migrating, wintering, and breeding birds, in addition to nearly 100 species recorded as transient or vagrant. The most common sightyings are Steller’s jay, American robin, acorn woodpecker, common raven, and mountain chickadee.
Other mammals to look out for are the Mountain Beavers, Marmots, flying Squirrels, Pocket Gophers and the standing Belding Ground Squirrel.
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