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Cheap, free, and local-endorsed things to do in beautiful places

Yosemite National Park

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  • An incredible land of giant waterfalls, alpine lakes, and beautifully shaped mountains
  • Centered around the majestic Yosemite Valley
  • Home to famous climbing destinations El Capitan and Half Dome

When To Visit: Year-round, but expect road closures and fewer activity options in winter. Spring is ideal as the waterfalls are more full and there are fewer crowds.

Climate: Very varied, generally warm in summer, cool in spring & fall, and cold with lots of snow in winter.

Location: Central California 2 hours east of Merced

This famous national park has some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world and its namesake waterfall is the tallest in the country. The one-of-a-kind Yosemite Valley packs an unspeakable amount of scenery into a few squares miles and the outer parts of the park in the Hetch Hetchy Valley and Tuolumne Meadows offer quieter pockets of beauty to the visitor.

Photo: Nevada Falls from John Muir Trail

What To See & Do in Yosemite

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Yosemite Valley from Tunnel Overlook

With limited time, a drive through the Yosemite Valley, including plenty of walks, hikes, and moments to pause and appreciate its splendor, is a must. The valley has an excellent free shuttle system which you should use to reduce your impact on this special place (and avoid parking struggles).

Additional days should be spent exploring the alpine lakes in the Tuolumne Meadows on the east side of the park and the historically significant Hetch Hetchy Valley to the north.

Below are my top picks for Yosemite walks and hikes ranked in order of scenery:

Yosemite Short Walks

  1. Lower Yosemite Fall Trail

    • 1 mile round trip, out & back, 20-30 minutes, easy
    • Spectacular views of the country’s tallest waterfall
    • You’ll get up close and personal with the lower portion of the falls, expect some refreshing mist
  2. Glacier Point

    • 0.3 miles round trip, out & back, 10-20 mins, easy
    • This epic viewpoint is a half-hour drive from the valley but provides the most amazing view of the valley and Half Dome
    • Make sure to stop at Washburn Point a mile before Glacier Point to get more panoramic mountain views and a birds-eye view of Vernal and Nevada Falls
  3. Bridalveil Fall Trail

    • 0.5 miles round trip, out & back, 10-30 mins, easy
    • Very little effort required to see this beautiful waterfall
    • The end of the hike has some rocks you can climb around and relax upon – use caution

Yosemite Hikes

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Vernal Falls
  1. Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls

    • 5.4 miles round trip, out & back, 3-5 hours, strenuous
    • My favorite hike in the world – the mountain views the entire way are incredible, both waterfalls are huge, and walking through the mist alongside Vernal Falls is an epic experience
    • You’ll pass the Vernal Falls Footbridge, go to the top of Vernal Falls, continue onward to the top of Nevada Falls, and then connect back to the footbridge via the John Muir Trail
    • If short on time, you can just do a 2.5 mile round trip hike to the top of Vernal Falls and return the same way
  2. Wapama Falls at Hetch Hetchy

    • 5 miles round trip, out & back, 1.5-2 hours, easy
    • An easy walk along most of the length of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that ends at a beautiful rocky waterfall
    • A much less crowded waterfall hike than any you’ll find in the Yosemite Valley due to its more remote location
  3. Glen Aulin Trail at Tuolumne Meadows

    • 11 miles round trip, out & back, 5-6 hours, moderately strenuous
    • This hike takes you along a beautiful portion of the Tuolumne River with waterfalls and rapids along the way
    • Epic mountain panoramas
    • The trail ends at the Glen Aulin backcountry camp which has a waterfall and swimming hole
  4. Cathedral Lakes at Tuolumne Meadows

    • 7 miles round trip, out & back, 3-6 hours, moderately strenuous
    • The trail takes you to Upper Cathedral Lake; take a 0.5 mile spur trail near the end to see Lower Cathedral Lake
    • The lakes sit below majestic Cathedral Peak, the spot at which John Muir famously said, “This I may say is the first time I have been to church in California.”
  5.  Mariposa Grove
    • 2.2 mile loop, 1-1.5 hours, easy
    • Walk through Yosemite’s only easily accessible grove of sequoias – they’re as huge and stunning as you would expect
    • This hike is an hour south of the Yosemite Valley in the Wawona area
  6. Mirror Lake
    • 5 mile loop, 1.5-2.5 hours, easy
    • This quiet lake provides a stunning reflection of Half Dome
    • There’s also a large rock cairn to explore
  7. Gaylor Lakes at Tuolumne Meadows
    • 2 miles round trip, out & back, 1-2 hours, moderately strenuous
    • Great views of two remote alpine lakes
  8. Elizabeth Lake at Tuolumne Meadows
    • 4.8 miles round trip, out & back, 3-5 hours, moderately strenuous
    • A tranquil alpine lake that sits beneath the dramatic and cutely named Unicorn Peak
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Sunset at Cathedral Lakes

BONUS – if you’re really looking for an epic challenge…

Half Dome

  • 22.4 miles round trip, out & back, 10-12 hours, very strenuous
  • You’ll vertically climb cables up the side of the dome for the last portion of the hike – a thrilling and potentially terrifying experience
  • Be sure to start around sunrise or earlier and do not continue if you see storm clouds or if the dome is slippery or slick
  • A truly unique and epic hike that requires serious preparation

 

Click here for an awesome blog on what to do in 3 days in Yosemite.

Where To Stay & Eat in Yosemite

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The view from Glacier Point

The park has a variety of lodging options, most of which are conveniently located in the Yosemite Valley. The most popular choices are the simple tent cabins at Curry Village and the exquisite rooms at the iconic Ahwahnee Hotel. Book early as they are typically reserved far in advance.

If you are unable to get a spot in the parks, the town of El Portal (3o minutes west of Yosemite Valley) has the closest lodging options and there are a variety of hotels in the towns of Mariposa (1 hour west of the valley) and Oakhurst (1.5 hours south from the valley).

The park has several picnic areas and grocery stores throughout the park.

There are several campgrounds in the parks – about half of which are reservable and usually booked far in advance, but the rest of which are first-come, first-served. Click here for more information.

Nearby Side Trips from Yosemite

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Kearsage Pass Trail in the Eastern Sierras

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks – 3 hours south of Yosemite, these sister parks preserve some of the largest trees in the country and some of the most beautiful spots in the Sierra Nevadas. Read more.

Eastern Sierras – The east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains has some of the most beautiful views of the peaks and access to an abundance of lakes, rivers, and outdoor adventures. Read more.

Devil’s Postpile National Monument: 2 hours east of Yosemite Valley, this unique structure is located just outside the resort area of Mammoth Lakes and contains beautiful rivers, waterfalls, and lakes. Read more.

 

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