Of all the things I loved about living in the Bay Area, one of my very favorites was having Yosemite National Park only a few hours away by car. Yosemite is one of the US’s most stunning National Parks, in my opinion, and it’s also huge and diverse, meaning that as a first-time visitor it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what to see. Although I didn’t get there nearly as much as I should have during my years in California, I made enough trips to develop a solid list of recommendations for someone visiting this incredible place for the first time.
When to Go: Yosemite is beautiful year-round, although it’s difficult to reach in winter and much of the park is closed off when it snows. Summer brings beautiful weather and accessible hiking trails, but it also brings the crowds. My favorite months to visit are the shoulder seasons when the crowds are somewhat reduced thanks to the fact that schools are in session, but the weather is still pretty decent for hiking. Late spring (April-May) is the best time to view Yosemite’s famous waterfalls, but the weather is iffier then and you never know when a late snowstorm will hit. Early fall (September-October) has smaller crowds and weather that is almost as reliably good as in the summer months, but the waterfalls are typically down to a trickle. Avoid the Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holiday weekends at all costs, unless you want to experience the National Park version of Disneyland.
How to Get Around: Yosemite Valley has a great – free! – shuttle bus system that’s very efficient, and there can be traffic jams, especially on summer weekends, so I recommend leaving your car at your campground or hotel as soon as you get there, and utilizing the bus as much as possible.
Where to Stay: Staying inside the park is definitely the best option for maximizing your sightseeing time. Yosemite is big and getting from one part of it to another can take quite a while (especially with traffic), so you don’t want to add to your driving time by staying outside of the park. I’m really not a fan of traditional camping, but the tent cabins at Curry Village, now (temporarily?) known as Half Dome Village because of a trademark dispute with the park’s former concessionaire, are my favorite place to stay in the park. They’re affordable, cozy and comfortable and something about having access to indoor bathrooms and showers – even shared ones – takes the experience far enough from away from true camping for me. They even have heated tent cabins, which I highly recommend if you’re visiting in the non-summer months (in Northern California, even if the high is a very comfortable 70 degrees during the day, the temperature may drop to 40 or below at night). The location of Curry Village is perfect too; it’s pretty much right in the center of the Valley, convenient to numerous hiking trails and on the shuttle bus line, and has several dining options and a small grocery store nearby.
If you want a private bathroom, you’ll want to stay at at one of the two hotels in the Valley, either the (comparatively) budget Yosemite Valley Lodge (formerly known as Yosemite Lodge at the Falls), which offers bare bones rooms starting at around $200 a night, or the famous Ahwahnee, now apparently the “Majestic Yosemite Hotel,” which typically has room rates at or near $500/night (see what I mean about Curry Village being the best option?) I haven’t stayed at the Ahwahnee, but I’ve dined there, and based on the service I experienced, I am very skeptical that a stay there is worth the price. The grounds are beautiful though, and worth a visit even if you’re not a paying guest.
What to Do:
Full day, moderate to difficult hikes:
In late summer and fall when the waterfalls are less impressive (or dried up entirely as they have been during some recent drought years), my favorite day hike is Four Mile Trail, which climbs, you guessed it, four miles (and more than 3,000 vertical feet) to the beautiful Glacier Point overlook. Although you can drive or take a free shuttle bus to Glacier Point, the climb is very worth it, with views of Half Dome and the Valley that are progressively better and better, until you are rewarded with an absolutely incredible panorama at the top. The trail is long and exhausting, but not bad under foot at all.
In spring and early summer, when the waterfalls are in peak season, hiking at least part of the Upper Yosemite Falls trail is a must. This is a 7-mile round-trip trail that takes you to the top of the incredible Yosemite Falls, the longest waterfall in the park. There are great views of Half Dome from the lower half of this trail.
About halfway up the trail, you’ll be rewarded with wonderful views of the thundering Yosemite Falls and a view of the Falls with Half Dome n the background.
The second half of the trail is tough underfoot and the views from the top aren’t as good as the ones part of the way up, so you can definitely turn around halfway and not feel too guilty. If you do go all the way to the top, you’ll get to see Yosemite Creek, which feeds the waterfall, and you can peer over the edge and watch the water cascade down the granite face.
And of course I’d be remiss if I wrote about challenging hikes in Yosemite without mentioning Half Dome, a 16-mile round-trip hike up Yosemite’s most iconic landmark that ends in a 400 foot ascent up the face of the dome using cables. I haven’t done it yet, because permits are required seven days a week and I never planned a trip sufficiently far in advance to get one (plus there’s that whole fear of heights thing). It’s on my bucket list for sure, though.
Short, easy walks:
Cook’s Meadow Loop. A flat 1 mile loop through a meadow with views of Half Dome, Sentinel Rock and the waterfalls. This is a great option if you’re looking for something scenic but don’t want to commit to a day of hiking.
Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. This is a 1 mile paved path that takes you to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls for views of both the Upper and Lower Falls. Like everything else waterfall-related, it’s best in spring and may be completely dried up by the fall.
Spots to snap a photo:
Glacier Point. Even if you don’t do the Four Mile trail, coming up here for the panoramic views of the Valley is a must.
Tunnel View. It might be the most crowded part of the park, and you’re bound to wait in a queue for a parking spot, but the view is worth fighting the crowds for.
Bridalveil Falls. This is one of Yosemite’s most reliable waterfalls and typically flows year-round, although it’s certainly most impressive in the spring. The wind hits the water and causes it to spread out across the rock as it falls, creating an effect similar to a veil blowing in the wind.
Valley View. This is one of my favorite views in Yosemite Valley. It may not have the drama of Glacier Point or Tunnel View, but it is quietly serene, with the towering El Capitan reminding you that you’re in the High Sierras.
El Capitan Meadow. This spot provides great close-up views of El Capitan, the granite monolith that you see from farther away at many of the other viewpoints. Unless you have technical skills, you can’t climb it, but El Cap’s silhouette looms large over Yosemite Valley and this is a great place from which to admire its majesty.
Outside of Yosemite Valley:
For a first time visitor with only a weekend to visit the park, it’s best to stick to the Valley. That’s where the most famous and photogenic sights are, and there’s more than enough stuff there to fill two or three days. However, if you’re a repeat visitor or have the better part of a week to spend in the park, I highly recommend a visit to the Tioga Road area (usually accessible from late May to November), which has sights like…
Olmsted Point and the glacial erratics:
and Tuolumne Meadows:
What to Bring: Hiking boots. Sunscreen. A camera with extra batteries and a blank memory card. Lots of layers of clothing for warm days and chilly evenings and nights. As much non-perishable food and water as you’re willing to carry, because food in the park is overpriced and mediocre (but note that if you’re staying in Curry Village or camping, you’ll have to leave all the food and scented items, including shampoo and sunscreen, in bear proof storage lockers and not in your car or tent).
What Not to Bring: Sadly, leave the pets at home. Yosemite, like most US national parks, doesn’t allow dogs on trails or in park accommodations (Acadia National Park is one notable exception to this general rule and allows pets just about everywhere so long as they’re on a leash). The rule is pretty understandable though, since this is bear territory (although I’ve never personally seen one here) and a bear would probably love nothing more than to have a pet dog for dinner.