As a regular member of the Top 5 Most Visited National Parks in America, Yosemite National Park is the busiest National Park within California and one of the most iconic Parks out there. Yearly, this park brings in over 4.5 million visitors to explore it’s incredible landscape. It became Americas third National Park in 1890 after John Muir helped advocate for its protection. Known for its towering granite walls, waterfalls, and wild backcountry in the High Sierras, here is what you need to know on your next visit to this famous Park.
Location: Eastern California
Getting There: Yosemite National Park is about 4-5 hours from the Bay area, traffic dependent and about 5-6 hours from Los Angeles. There are three highways you can enter Yosemite National Park from:
↟ Highway 120: This is the northern-most route and is usually the fastest and most direct from the Bay Area. This route passes through Oakdale, and up through a winding road, and comes down into the Park near the fork to Tuolumne Meadows
↟ Highway 140: This is the centermost route, and passes through Mariposa. There are a few accommodations in El Portal.
↟ Highway 41: This is the southern route that is most likely travelled to by visitors from the Los Angeles area. This route passes through Oakhurst, one of the larger towns outside of the Park, and passes right through the Wawona side of Yosemite National Park, known for its Sequoia Tree grove, Mariposa Grove.
Visitors coming from the southern route can also come around the Sierras on the eastern side through Bishop and Lone Pine. This route will likely add a few hours to your time, because the end of the route will only bring you up to Tuolumne Meadows, and will add time onto your drive if going down into the valley.
The park entrances are all about an hour outside of the Valley, and Tuolumne Meadows East is about 1.5-2 hours from the Valley. Make sure to account for this extra time! Highway 120 going through Tuolumne Meadows closes in the winter months.
Best Time To Visit Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is open year round but there are several places that are closed in the winter months like Glacier Point Road and Highway 120 to Tuolumne Meadows. The late summer and fall are beautiful to visit for wildflowers, deep fall colors, and it is great to avoid to over-packed summer tourist season. The Park will still be very full during this time, but overall it will be a bit quieter once the school season starts. If you are able to visit during the week, it will make a world of difference with crowds.
During the winter, Yosemite National Park is great for snowshoeing, cross country skiing and other winter activities! It will also be much quieter and you will likely be able to do activities without running into too many people.
Half Dome & Glacier Point- Half Dome is without a doubt the most popular and iconic feature in Yosemite National Park. It is one of those views that you see the first time and it takes your breath away. Half Dome is best viewed at Glacier Point, an overlook accessible by car that is about an hour drive from the valley floor.
El Capitan Meadows- El Cap Meadows is on the western side of the valley and offers some of the best views of El Capitan, a vertical granite wall that stands 7,569 feet (2,307 meters) above sea level and towers some 3,600 feet (1,100 meters). It is accessible from the main loop that is driven around the park. On most days and weekends during warmer months, you can see rock climbers attempting this iconic climb.
Tunnel View- Tunnel View is a beautiful overlook that gives you a sweeping panoramic view of the valley, including El Cap, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls. Its an excellent spot for sunset and sunrise, but has limited parking and tends to fill up quickly during these peak times!
Tuolumne Meadows- Tuolumne is one of the quieter areas of Yosemite National Park, compared to the bustling valley floor. Trails on this stretch of Highway 120 are a bit quieter but are just as beautiful. The drive features a beautiful view of Half Dome before winding into the High Sierra, where hiking and backpacking trails lead you to alpine lakes and pristine meadows, full of life. Hiking trails from this area can reach the northern edge of the valley, offering incredible views of the valley floor.
Yosemite Falls- Although Yosemite National Park is the home to more than 25 waterfalls, Yosemite Falls is the most iconic. Close to the famous Ahwahnee Lodge, Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in the lower 48 States at 2,425 feet and a key feature in the Park. It’s split up into three sections, the Upper Falls, Middle Cascades and Lower Falls and can be best viewed from a short walk up to Lower Falls or the Yosemite Falls Trail, a 7.2 mile, strenuous hike that goes to the very top of the Falls.
Firefall- During a short few weeks in February every year Horsetail Falls, a small waterfall that comes off the Dawn Wall side of El Cap, is illuminated by the sun is a specific direction that causes the waterfall to glow bright red. Over the past several years, Firefall has exploded with tourists and photographers wanting to see this natural phenomenon.
Yosemite has put several regulations in place for Firefall, including the closing of Sentinel and Cathedral Beaches, and the closing of parking on specific areas of the road going around the valley. You’ll need to park and walk toward El Cap to get a good view. It will be absolutely packed, but the falls are incredible.
Yosemite National Park is an iconic location for all kinds of photography from landscape, to wildlife and astrophotography. The tall granite walls of the valley floor make it a bit challenging to capture Yosemite considering they cast dark shadows and tower over much of the valley.
For the valley floor, sunrise and sunset are great times to capture a soft light that doesn’t have harsh shadows. The western side of the valley, like Tunnel View and Valley View are great places to capture the entire valley and Glacier Point has the best views of Half Dome.
Cathedral Beach, Sentinel Beach and El Cap Meadows offer great views of El Capitan during sunrise and sunset hours and the famous Taft Point overlooks the valley floor with El Capitan in the background.
In my opinion, the best thing to do would just be drive around before peak times and try something new! I could photograph the Valley for an entire week and likely still be able to come up with photographs for future trips.
Fun Facts about Yosemite National Park
➣ John Muir was a huge advocate for the Yosemite area and helped tremendously in getting the park protected by bringing awareness to its beauty. Before Yosemite was established as a National Park in 1890, it was being threatened by thousands (as many as 15,000) of grazing sheep to its meadow areas. John Muir wrote that they were “hoofed locusts” as they trampled and decimated the subalpine meadows and brought diseases to the natural wildlife.
➣ When Yosemite National Park was established, it was not until 16 years later in 1906 that the park was expanded to include Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt visited the park with John Muir and after spending several days camping and exploring, he decided to expand the park.
➣ The hats currently worn by the Park Service Rangers were modeled after the Buffalo Soldiers, who patrolled the park before it became a National Park.
➣ Yosemite National Park is revered as one of the birth places for rock climbing. The towering granite walls have drawn the attention of world famous climbers and athletes. In 2017, Alex Honnold free solo’ed (climb without a rope or assistance) El Capitan. So far he is the only person to have completed a free solo climb on El Cap. The climb was a 2,900-foot route called Freerider (5.12d VI) and Alex completed it in 3 hours and 56 minutes. You can watch his journey in the documentary film Free Solo (2018).
➣ Yosemite National Park is home to over 400 species of animals including Black Bears, Bighorn Sheep, Marmots, Red Foxes and Mountain Lions are just some of the larger mammals that reside in the park. Three species are thought to have been eradicated in Yosemite, including the California Red-Legged Frog, Foothill Yellow-Legged Frog, and Grizzly Bear.
Camping In Yosemite National Park
Nabbing a campsite in Yosemite National Park can be really tricky during peak seasons of the year, so it is important to stay on top of date releases if you are looking for a site.
Yosemite National Park has 13 popular campgrounds, of which up to seven are on a reservation system. From April through September, reservations are essential and first come, first serve campground will usually be full. During 2021, campground reservations are working a bit different but for 2022 expect the campground to be released on a rolling basis:
For January 15th to February 14th : Book on September 15th
For February 15th to March 14th: Book on October 15th
For March 15th to April 14th: Book on November 15th
For April 15th to May 14th: Book on December 15th
For May 15th to June 14th: Book on January 15th
For June 15th to July 14th: Book on February 15th
For July 15th to August 14th: Book on March 15th
For August 15th to September 14th: Book on April 15th
For September 15th to October 14th: Book on May 15th
For October 15th to November 14th: Book on June 15th
For November 15th to December 14th: Book on July 15th
For December 15th to January 14th: Book on August 15th
The easiest way to do this, is to set a reminder on your phone for the day before the sites are set to open. Set your alarm to be ready to book at 7am PST sharp. Sites fill up within the minute on dates from May to September. It is useful to be pre-logged into your recreation.gov account and have a friend or two, also try for the same permit. You will not have a higher chance if multiple people are logged into the same account. For example, your phone and computer wont be able to apply for the permit at the same time if you are logged in.
There are also several options for dispersed camping outside of Yosemite National Park. You can use freecampsites.net to find spots near your entrance route or search for first-come first-served campground outside of the park.
Backpacking & Hiking In Yosemite National Park
There are an incredible amount of hiking and backpacking trails in Yosemite National Park. Backpacking permits are needed for all backcountry overnight stays, and information can be found here on the National Park Website. Here are a few you should check out on your trip:
↟ Upper Yosemite Falls: This is a 7.6mi out and back trail to the highest point of Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in the lower 48. The elevation gain is a difficult 3,218ft and is considered strenuous. You can also hike to Lower Yosemite Falls and that trip is a cool 1.2mi with minimal elevation gain.
↟ Cathedral Lakes: These lakes are a beautiful sight to see in the Tuolumne Meadows area. The trail is an 8.6mi out and back trail with a 1,551ft elevation gain, that happens in the first few miles. There are beautiful views of Cathedral Peak from these lakes and if you bring your binoculars, you might be able to see some rock climbers on top of the peak.
↟ The Pohono Trail : This trail is normally hiked as a thru-hike from Glacier Point to Inspiration Point. It is 12 miles and gains roughly 2,020ft along the route. We completed The Pohono Trail in May of 2021, you can read my guide for this trail and details about our trip on my blog post Backpacking The Pohono Trail in Yosemite Naitonal Park.
↟ Sentinel Dome: This trail can be hiked from Glacier Point or the parking to Taft Point. From Taft Point, this trail is a bit easier on elevation and is a 2.1mi out and back trail with 456 elevation gain. You can also make this a loop by going to Taft Point. This loop is 5.1 miles and has 1,122ft of elevation gain.
↟ Vernal & Nevada Falls: You can see these two waterfalls via the Mist Trail loop that is 7.2 miles. This trail has 2,217ft of elevation gain.
↟ Half Dome: The mother of all day-hiking trails within Yosemite National Park. It’s the trail that everyone wants to do, only some can complete, and it will leave you exhausted and potentially shaking in your boots. This trail is a 16.3 out and back trail with a staggering 5,318 feet of elevation gain. This route is famous for its chains going up the backside of Half Dome to climb to the top and the incredible views from the summit. PERMITS ARE REQUIRED for this hike when the cables are up and it is not for beginners. You can find more information about it here.
Don’t Forget To Pack…
Depending on the season, you’ll want to make sure you pack accordingly for a visit to Yosemite National Park. Temperatures can vary dramatically between summer and winter, and frequently reach below freezing temperatures in December and January and in the 90s in July and August.
During A Summer or Fall Visit To Yosemite:
It’s really important to come prepared for fluctuating temperatures and sun/bug protection during these months. I always opt for a wide brim sun hat, like the Northface Brimmer Hat, to better shield my face and neck. Make sure to stock up on your SPF before your trip too. I really like the Sunbum and Badger brands of sunscreen because they are reef-safe and more natural than some of the other name brands out there.
Summer also means bugs! Mosquitos can get pretty bad in some areas of the park, so make sure you are prepared. I carry a bug net and repellent, like this Head Net from Ben’s and the Ben’s 30% DEET Wipes, with me at the very least.
During hot days over 90 degrees, it can be hard to find the motivation or energy to hike if you have missed the morning cool temperatures, and I love to use this time to hang out by the Merced River. There are areas where you can float the river, so bring a durable river floaty like the Intex River Run Connect Lounge. You can also find a nice shady spot in some trees to hang a hammock, I use a Eno Doublenest Hammock ( I have the PCT edition hammock) , to take a nap or read!
During A Winter or Cold Visit To Yosemite:
When the days are cold, the nights will be even colder to make sure to pack extra layers. The Patagonia Nano Air Pants are great pants for camping or outdoor activities that you can use all year long. They are lightweight and I will be adding them to my backpacking gear by the end of this year!
A good pair of warm, wool gloves, like these Smartwool Liner Tech-Compatible Gloves, is a great addition to winter gear, or during the nights when its chillier. Don’t forget about a good pair of thick socks. Darn Tough makes some of the best wool socks out there (and you can get a new pair if they get a hole in them) and I love these Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks. In the winter, I like to opt for hiking boots rather than my lighter trailrunners and I think these Danner Mountain 600 Hiking Boots are a great boot and they’re waterproof!
For a bonus warmer on hiking trails or walks around Yosemite National Park, check out a rechargeable hand warmer like these OCOOPA Hand Warmers. They last about 8-15 hours, are heat adjustable, and use a USB-C to charge your phone with it!
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Have you been to Yosemite National Park or are planning a trip soon? What is your favorite experience or thing you did on your visit? Let me know in the comments below!