Things to Do in Yosemite National Park

Man in red jacket stands looking at El Capitan from Tunnel View; things to do in Yosemite.

Where to eat, where to stay, and what to do in America's iconic park

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

Yosemite National Park is one of the oldest in America's national park system, established in 1890. It is known throughout the world as one of the most spectacular preserved areas of the western United States and perhaps North America, with a variety of natural features, including towering granite cliffs, thundering waterfalls, bubbling streams, giant sequoia trees, mountains, lakes and a vast range of plant and animal life. The park is so large and experiences such a high density of visitors from around the country and the world that you will need a few tips about the best ways to arrange your visit to make the most of your time there.

Things to do in Yosemite

Visitors to Yosemite National Park can enjoy a variety of activities, such as art related to the park, Native American cultural exhibits, films and ranger programs, along with hiking, horseback riding, bicycling and rafting. Here are more of the most notable activities you should be sure to work into your schedule during the next time you visit Yosemite:

Tunnel View

Mountains on the left, right, and background with Yosemite Valley in foreground.

The "Tunnel View" of Yosemite's most iconic natural features. The impressive vista is located on Route 41, east of the Wawona Tunnel portal and includes a view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall.

Starry night above Yosemite Valley.

Half Dome

View of handrails leading up Half Dome.

The Half Dome is an iconic granite peak in Yosemite that has one smooth face and three curved sides. The Half Dome Cable Route, with its cable handholds, allows hikers to make the long trek to the top in a day, but many stay overnight along the route.

El Capitan

A shooting star flies above El Capitan with view of Yosemite Valley below; things to do in Yosemite National Park.

This sheer granite monolith rises 3,000 feet from the valley floor and is the site of numerous climbers that come to Yosemite to scale its height. If you want to watch the climbers make their precarious way up the face of El Cap, stop at the meadow across from it on Northside Drive. Rangers often set up telescopes for better viewing, or you can bring a pair of high-powered binoculars.

Tuolumne Meadows

View of a meadow below El Capitan with two deer grazing.

At 8,000 feet, Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the country. Visitors can view the picturesque Tuolumne River, fed by snowmelt, amid mountain peaks and granite domes.

Glacier Point

Man standing on ledge looking down over cliff at Glacier Point.

Glacier Point offers a spectacular vista of several park features at 7,000 feet. You can see Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls and the park's high country.

Mariposa Grove

Tall sequoia trees with reddish bark and pine-like leaves.

The grove of giant sequoia trees is one of the most popular features of the park, and for a good reason. These big trees only grow in the California mountain areas. Additional sequoia groves are available for viewing within the park limits.

Yosemite Falls

Waterfall flowing over granite cliff with trees on left and right.

Yosemite's Upper and Lower Falls are among the most impressive waterfalls in the park. The Lower Falls trail is easy enough to suit visitors of all ages and abilities and provides a breathtaking view. You can also get a good view of the Upper Falls from the trailhead.

Ansel Adams Gallery

Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite Valey.

This famous photographer of the American West captured many of Yosemite's landscapes on film and made them the most familiar images of the nation's spectacular natural features. This gallery offers a comprehensive look at Adams work within the park.


How to Get Around

El Capitan rising from the distance with winding road in foreground.

The trip from San Francisco to Yosemite takes about 3 hours (without traffic).

Coming into the park via HWY 140 offers a number of great views of the Merced River, which you'll not want to miss.

Traffic in Yosemite National Park can be a problem, especially on weekends, so try to arrive early.

Parking areas are scattered throughout the park, with opportunities to leave your vehicle and walk to special attractions in the valley and at higher elevations.

In addition, Yosemite National Park operates a shuttle bus system that travels to various areas within the park limits. The buses can be very full on the weekends, and even on weekdays during peak season (June through August).

Bike rentals are available in Yosemite Valley, which can make getting around easier.

Otherwise, you may have to jockey for a parking spot, and larger RVs may be at a disadvantage finding a space at many desirable sites.

The Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, where you can find maps and brochures, is located in Yosemite Valley.

Where to Eat

Burger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese on brioche bun.

Visitors can enjoy a number of spots to get a bite during their visit.

Yosemite Valley has a store, Yosemite Village Store, that offers a comprehensive selection of food items, from fruit and vegetables to fresh meat, along with water, beverages, snacks, t-shirts, jackets and souvenir items.

The Yosemite Grill offers fast food breakfasts, lunches and dinners, which makes it easy to grab a quick bite before returning to the park.

Other great places include the Half Dome Village Pizza Patio, 1850 Restaurant and Brewery, and Erna's Elderberry House.

Where to Stay

Yellow tent with light on below night sky.

Yosemite National Park offers a number of lodgings, cabins, tent cabins and campgrounds to accommodate visitors. These can be reserved online at the Aramark website.

You should reserve your lodging well in advance as many people find that they must book their rooms up to a year ahead of their planned visit.

For lodgings in the park, we recommend The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel), Evergreen Lodge, Rush Creek Lodge, Blue Butterfly Inn, or High Sierra Bed & Breakfast.

Some of the campgrounds do not take reservations, operating on a "first-come, first-served" basis, so you should arrive early in the day to ensure getting a space.

Backcountry camping permits are required year-round for overnight stays and are available through the NPS website.

Accommodations are also available outside the park; of those, we recommend the Chateau du Sureau for high-end travel, Homestead Cottages for a more rustic feel, or the Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn for a classic stay.

Essential Tips

Starry night sky with green and blue hues over Yosemite.

As you ascend to higher elevations during your visit, you may experience a wide range of temperatures.

Layering your clothing is the best way to manage these temperature changes.

Bring sturdy, comfortable shoes - we specifically recommend trail running shoes - because you will do a lot of walking on trails to get from parking lots to activities.

In hot weather, carry water at all times to ensure you are properly hydrated.

Read the description of hiking trails carefully to choose the right ones for your level of ability.

A number of areas of Yosemite are wheelchair accessible.

 

Hiking

The John Muir Trail begins in Yosemite Valley, running through the park and down the Sierra Nevada Mountains before ending in Whitney Portal.

If you're interested in a shorter trail (the John Muir Trail is ~200 miles long), you can hike the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, which is about a 7-mile round trip hike.

There's also the Four Mile Trail from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point. The trail begins at the base of Sentinel Rock, about 0.7 miles northwest of Sentinel Dome, and offers excellent views of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. The second half of the trail offers views of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon before reaching Glacier Point.

If you want a better view of Tenaya Canyon, you can take the Olmsted Point trail just off of Tioga Road that runs through Tioga Pass. The short trail rises about 100 ft. over the course of 0.25 miles round trip.

You can hike from Tenaya Lake to Cloud Rest via the Could Rest Trail. This location features excellent views and has a razor sharp ridge near the summit, so be mentally prepared.

The Valley Loop Trail offers a chance to see Mirror Lake and Hetch Hetchy offers a number of day hikes of varying levels of difficulty.


Enjoying the beauty and serenity

View of Yosemite Valley with snow on mountains and red trees blending in the forest below.

You will need several days to enjoy all the park has to offer.

Ideally, you should plan your visit to leave plenty of time for enjoying the views or taking pictures of the magnificent scenery that you will find all around you.

Particularly on weekends, many other visitors to the park will accompany you on the hiking trails and in the park's many facilities. You may begin to feel that your visit is being spoiled by the presence of so much humanity packed into such a beautiful natural setting. However, you can always get away from the crowds by taking some of the less traveled paths and longer trails.

You don't have to follow each trail its full length or scramble over difficult terrain. You can just go far enough into the landscape to escape other park visitors and enjoy the solitude and serenity. You can then return back to the trailhead refreshed and invigorated.

A recent study found that Yosemite National Park was the third most popular national park in the United States, welcoming over 3,800,000 people each year. With these tips, you will be able to navigate the park to make your visit one of the most enjoyable vacations of your life. It's a trip you must check off your bucket list.

For more on Yosemite, check out our article on the best time to visit, this incredible guide and map for hiking Yosemite's many trails, or watch Alex Honnold try to free solo (rock climb without any ropes) El Capitan.

Looking for more on things to do in Yosemite and other national parks in the U.S.? Try these:

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

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